Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, 24, made history on August 25 when she became the first Indian shuttler to clinch the coveted World Championships crown. The 2016 Olympic silver medallist had bagged the World Championships bronze in 2013 and 2014, silver in 2017 and 2018, and topped it with gold by routing Nozomi Okuhara of Japan 21-7, 21-7 in a lopsided final at St Jakobshalle in Basel, Switzerland. Sindhu spoke to Qaiser Mohammad Ali in an exclusive interview. Excerpts:
Your third consecutive World Championships final would have been a bigger mental challenge as the pressure of losing two straight finals would have been at the back of your mind. How did you overcome your two opponents—Nozomi Okuhara and the pressure of avoiding a third consecutive defeat?
Well, I never felt that [pressure] in my mind when I was playing the final. This time, I thought, I will give my best and play my [natural] game. Winning and losing is secondary. And I played the same way and won. I am very happy.
What all did you do to overcome the situation you were in? You had stopped using the mobile phone...
Yeah, I was not using the mobile. But I was obviously using social media, to reply to a lot of people who were congratulating me. You obviously have to make sacrifices. I really prepared for this tournament and I really worked hard and that showed. I am very happy about it because after two bronze and two silver, I would say it was a much-awaited win. And at the same time, Kim [Ji Hyun, a renowned Korean coach with the Indian team] and [Pullela] Gopichand sir had a few things in their minds that we worked out and everything turned out well.
Did you sleep comfortably the night before the final? Were you nervous before the final? You actually said you were ‘nervous’ after winning the final.
I had a good sleep, and I was keen to give my best. I didn’t have any pressure. I mentioned the word ‘nervous’ because I was leading Nozomi so much and I was making a few silly mistakes, giving away easy points. I shouldn’t have made those silly mistakes and should have played my strokes.
You demolished Okuhara in just 38 minutes. Was it a strategy to not let her settle down?
Yeaaah...every point was important, so I played the same way and I dominated from the start. I thought it wouldn’t be a long match, but then dominating every point and playing aggressively really worked out well. I think I am an aggressive player.
You now have a 9-7 record against Okuhara. In July, you had beaten her in the Indonesia Open quarterfinals. Did that victory give you a psychological advantage in Basel?
Every time we play, it is a new game, I must say. I don’t think about other matches and just play each match like a fresh game. A little bit [of advantage was there], yes, but I really didn’t think about that match.
In a very unusual event, the women’s draw was redone after someone was added by mistake. Did that make any difference to you?
Actually, I think, they shouldn’t have changed the draw. They said that somebody had to go out and it was changed. Anyway, we have to play with everybody, so it doesn’t make any difference. At the end of the day, when you come to the finals you have to beat everyone to get there.
If the draw wasn’t changed, you were lined up to meet Okuhara in the semi-finals and either Chen Yu Fei of China or Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand in the final.
After the China Open, you had said that post-2016 Olympics bronze everyone asked you ‘what’s next?’ I now ask ‘what’s next’ for you as you have reached the badminton peak. How do you plan to remain at the top?
Well, it’s tough. I need to work harder and the future tournaments will be a lot tougher. My next goal is Tokyo (2020 Olympics), but before that it is step by step for me. I hope I do well in the upcoming tournaments since there is also Olympic qualification [to be achieved].
Explain the role of Gopichand in the overall development of your game so far, and particularly his inputs for the World Championships.
I am very thankful to him because since I was an under-10 player, I have been training under him and improving step by step and here I am today. So, a coach’s role is definitely important.
How much has coach Kim Ji Hyun helped you?
I’ve been training under her for a couple of months. She had made some changes [to my game] and we have worked out under the guidance of Gopi sir. She supports me; she motivates me. It’s good. She has been there for a couple of months now and I am really very happy about it.
Kim Ji Hyun, in an interview just before the World Championships, said that Sindhu “needs to develop more skills...especially net skills and deception”. She also said that both she and you were working on these aspects, “step by step”. Do you agree that since the game of all top players is so much exposed, top players have to continuously change their game to be competitive?
We’ve been working on the strokes and it will definitely take time. It’s working out well, but at the same time we need to improve a lot more new strokes and do a lot more new things because every time we go to a tournament everybody comes up with new things. It is important to keep learning new things all the time.
The big target is obviously the 2020 Tokyo Olympics next year. What are your plans?
There is still time. For me, it’s step by step. Right now, I am focussing on China Open [Sept 17-22] and Korea Open [Sept 24-29]. I hope I do well in those tournaments.
Having won the 2016 Olympics silver, and the gold in Basel, do you feel more motivated for a top-of-the-podium finish at Tokyo Olympics?
Definitely, yes, these medals will motivate me. Of course, the World Championships gold will particularly motivate me and will give a lot of confidence and I hope I do well in the upcoming matches.
How do you tackle on-court and off-court pressure? And do you feel you are now more comfortable in handling pressure than before?
Yeah, definitely. Pressure and responsibility are always high. It’s just that I need to give my best rather than think about others. You should play well and win—and it’s good for everyone.
And how do you handle criticism? Do you get upset by criticism?
I don’t really take criticism to the heart. I just let it go.
What are the sacrifices that you have made vis-a-vis food, education, social life, and family etc, to remain fighting fit and focussed on the game.
I have finished my MBA from St Anne’s College, Hyderabad, this year. Studies are also important. At the same time, yes, sacrifices, too. I thank my parents and a lot of credit goes to them because they have sacrificed a lot of things. So far as I am concerned, when you want to achieve some goals, you will have to make sacrifices and you shouldn’t think about it.