It's hard to rouse yourself for a bronze after you've lost a shot at gold.
We've seen what it can do to the best athletes. In his bronze medal singles loss in Tokyo, Novak Djokovic flung his racket into the stands. He then withdrew from the third-place playoff doubles match citing a shoulder injury. PV Sindhu had just 24 hours to pick herself up from a missed chance at a finals spot. She'd won silver at the Rio Games and was fighting for a bronze five years later. It can be soul-crushing.
On Sunday, Sindhu walked onto the court, wearing the perfectly round bruise of cupping behind her right shoulder. It's been visible through the Games, but you want to believe it carries an extra layer of significance on the day of wearing a bruise as a badge. She lets out her first full-throated scream early in the first game at 7-6, after her Chinese opponent He Bingjiao sends a flat push down the line, long. It's a scream of bloody intent. She's here for the medal.
Sindhu's barrier-breaking, glass-ceiling-crashing moment arrived three years after Rio. It was around the time she had silver prefixed to her name and her frequent endorsement and social appearances were being probed by fans for their impact on her performance. She was shuttling 60 kilometres every day for strength and conditioning sessions then and on one such trip back home would explain how 'she sees all that's written' about her.
"I just read and leave them there, I don't let them reach my mind. No matter what people say about me, I still have to play, I still have to try to win," she would say then. Two months later, she became a World Champion. The first Indian player to crack that summit. The manner of her win, all belligerence and almighty scorn for a second place, had familiar Japanese opponent Nozomi Okuhara wilting and withering in a little over half an hour.
Soon after the World Championships, Sindhu's then coach Kim Ji Hyun quit and the Indian was then paired with another Korean, Park Tae Sang, who had been training the men's singles players in Hyderabad until then. Park, a men's singles quarterfinalist at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and Sindhu shifted training to the Gachibowli Stadium last year.
The scaffolding was off in Tokyo and the completed work was there for all to lay eyes on.
Sindhu's defense has new shiny shields. Against Akane Yamaguchi in the quarterfinals, she was unfazed at being drawn into net dribbles. Her use of the front court has gone from tentative to a willing launch pad for attacks. Although Tai Tzu Ying did suck some life out of it and tested her low defense in the semifinals. The Indian's brief refuge in her power game only ended in a heap of errors. When you're up against that kind of wizardry of wrists, nothing in the playbook works. Sindhu's crosscourt smashes and drops seemed to rattle He and her steep smashes and drives from the backhand had the Chinese wiping beads of sweat.
Rarely are Indian athletes the most physically imposing in their respective sports. Sindhu is one such anomaly. Her height, sheer brute physical strength and wingspan are at odds with the rest of the women's singles field. She's almost a foot taller than some of the others. Blessed be the genes, but it's also a byproduct of discipline. When her current strength and conditioning coach Srikanth was asked to work on Sindhu in 2017, he was caught in a bit of a daze.
"I thought of what help can I be to someone who's already an Olympic medallist?" he says. "Once we began working together, I learnt she really didn't care about who she was or what she had won. She was just hungry to work as hard and be on the Tokyo podium."
During tournaments, once she reached her hotel, the first thing Sindhu would do was push her bed against the wall, rearrange the furniture in the room and create space for her physical workout routines. During the Asia leg of events in Thailand in January this year, played under punishing Covid restrictions, Sindhu got Srikanth booked in the room opposite hers at the hotel. During workouts, they would keep the doors of their rooms open so she was within sight and use video calls to relay instructions and feedback. Srikanth was supposed to travel with Sindhu to Tokyo but had to drop out at the last minute since Covid protocols provisioned only for tiny entourages.
The Sindhu of today is also five years older than in Rio, and at 26, she has a mind of her own. She's changed coaches, lived away from home in a foreign land for months, returned from a gut-wrenching defeat in the Olympic semifinals, and is dogged enough to not settle for anything less than a medal. After she flung a crosscourt to He's deep backhand corner, Sindhu looked skywards and raised her index finger, telling herself it's just one more point. Soon, her yells and Park's roars melted into a symphony. They hugged each other in a tight embrace.
Park hasn't been home to Busan in over a year. He chose to stay back to be with Sindhu through the pandemic and in an earlier chat with ESPN, talked of how much he looks forward to the day he can go home and tell his wife and young daughter that he had coached his player to an Olympic medal. That day is finally here.
After her match on Sunday, Sindhu rushed to have a few quick bites off a banana and Park cupped her face in his hands and rested his forehead against hers. It was an intimate moment. You could feel your skin grow hot, your insides twist and a massive lump rising in your throat.
We're hungry for these moments. Indian sport has so few of them. Sindhu has two Olympic medals in five years. She's only the second Indian sportsperson to win two individual Olympic medals. The other one being wrestler Sushil Kumar. We'd have to exhaust all hyperboles to put down its significance in words. For the ecosystem, the funding and the corporate interest to be fed, fueled and functioning, there's no greater push than a medal. At the victory podium, while fellow medalists Chen Yufei and Tai held their medals by the ribbons, their masks turning their emotions inscrutable, Sindhu planted a long kiss on hers, a smile breaking across her face.
It didn't matter that the colour was bronze.