At the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham last year, PV Sindhu won the gold with ease, despite sustaining an injury on her left foot during the quarterfinal. A little over a year later, she heads into another major multi-sport event but, for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, she is not among the gold medal favourites.
It's in keeping with the terrible year she's has had so far, one of her worst seasons on the BWF World Tour. That injury, a stress fracture, forced her to miss the World Championships and end her quite successful 2022 season early. She was out of action for almost five months and returned to the court only in January, but has been unable to even get close to her pre-injury level of form and performance.
Since her return, she has played 18 tournaments (15 on the BWF Tour) and been defeated in the first round 8 times. Her ranking has fallen outside the top 10, which means she is no longer seeded in competitions and faces tough draws from the start. She has reached two semis and one final - at a Super 300, losing in a lopsided manner to a player she had a 0-8 record against.
In any other year, there would not have been much to read into this. Sindhu, a former world champion who has all the big medals including two at the Olympics, is not a serial trophy winner on the BWF World Tour through the year. Her biggest win of note in the past - other than the big World Championship and BWF World Tour Finals of course - was the Singapore Open Super 500 last year.
What Sindhu is instead is a big-match, bigger-moment player. She has an ability to raise her level at the biggest stages when playing for India, and does this consistently. That explains her five World Championship medals.
So why is Sindhu's current form such a concern?
Simply put, since her return from injury, the basics building blocks of her game seem to be malfunctioning all at once.
Fitness and physicality have been the main tenets of Sindhu's badminton. She is taller than the average women's singles players and has a wider reach, but she also moves exceptionally well. Her strength has been a distinctive blend of agility and endurance. It's not limited to focussing on attack or retrieving, it's a combination of both, using her prowess to force points and win them.
Think back to many of her epic performances and you'll remember the marathon matches and lengthy rallies and persistent points. And then recovering well enough to do it all over again. An athlete at her peak physical game, with an arsenal of speed, power, momentum, stamina and a whole lot of confidence.
This injury to her foot seems to have compromised her movement, which was understandable initially because it was a long layoff. She looked rusty in the beginning and it felt like it was a matter of game time.
Yet, that struggle has continued for the next nine months. And that one issue has a domino effect on the rest of her game: She isn't moving as well, which means she is not reaching the shots she normally would. She isn't making her shot easily, which means she is not able to dictate points. She can't direct the play, which leads to more unforced errors than acceptable. The greater number of cheap points she concedes, the lower her confidence dips.
So far this year, she has lost to players she would normally cruise past just based on her superior strength alone. She has not been able to force deciders when she has gone down a game.
There have been some truly brutal moments where Sindhu has looked lost:
In April, she reached the Madrid final - her first in her comeback trail from injury - and was up against Gregoria Mariska Tunjung, a young Indonesian the Indian had a 8-0 record against. She lost 21-8 21-8 in just 28 minutes. She played Tunjung again in May in semifinal of the Malaysia Masters; another good run for first Super 500 semifinal of 2023. The result was a straight-games loss again.
In August, at the less competitive US Open, she lost the quarterfinal to Gao Fang Jie, who she had beaten a week before in Canada. Her social media post after that said: "This loss has left a significant emotional impact on me, especially considering the challenging and demanding year I've had.'
My US Open journey came to an end in the quarterfinals, where I faced the talented Gao Fang Jie. Despite having previously defeated her in Canada, she outplayed me in straight sets this time, making effective use of my weaknesses. I must commend her for being fully prepared and... pic.twitter.com/VzCqIX9OAr
- Pvsindhu (@Pvsindhu1) July 16, 2023
The World Championship at the end of August was perhaps the toughest blow. She is the most successful Indian ever and was playing Nozomi Okuhara, another former world champion making the long journey back from injury. The two played the epic 2017 Worlds final and here there were meeting in the first round, with Sindhu losing in straight games.
She hasn't played since, pulling out of the China Open - the season's final Super 1000 tournament and then the Hong Kong Open.
Off court too, there has been some upheaval. In February, she parted ways with coach Park Tae-sang, who was part of her bronze medal campaign at the Tokyo Olympics. The reason, he shared, was that she looking for a change after a disappointing outing in her recent tournaments.
She then intermittently worked with SAI coach Vidhi Chaudhary and in July named former all England champion Muhammad Hafiz Hashim of Malaysia as her new coach. The partnership is still new for any substantial results. Recently, she also conducted a special training camp with Prakash Padukone in Bangalore. She doesn't train with national coach P Gopichand, who was part of her early journey, anymore.
All this to say that Sindhu is doing her best to regain her level.
The BWF Tour can be a gruelling experience with big tournaments in back-to-back weeks with miles of travel in involved.
Consider this: From July to August in a span of a few weeks, Sindhu competed in tournaments across four continents - Asia, North America, Australia and the Europe. From playing big tournaments to the smaller, far-flung ones, she has done it all.
The Tour is not exactly a place an injured player can ease in to. Plenty of high-profile players have had to trudge the long road back to the top after a significant injury. Some, like Carolina Marin, have managed to slowly build up twice. Some, like Kento Momota, are still trying.
Which way Sindhu goes is too early to tell.
She is only 27 years old, which is easy to forget given her big results for a decade now. She is still, even in athlete terms, on the younger side.
At a crossroads now, the Asian Games could well be the catalyst she needs in a crucial period in her career with the Olympic qualification period for the 2024 Games underway.
Her campaign begins with the team event from September 28, where a largely inexperienced Indian women's team will be heavily dependent on her. But that could be a good thing, a lower-pressure outing to get some games in Hangzhou, and find her rhythm after a break away from tour before the individual events begin from October.
Sindhu, the big-match player for India, can still very much make a comeback with the India jersey on her back.
Whether the time away, coaching changes and a refreshed mindset helps her remains to be seen. Sindhu may not be a strong medal contender this time around, but given her track record and ability, she will be a medal hope for India every time she takes the court.