PV SINDHU became India’s first woman to win an Olympics silver medal on Friday, creating history and pulling an entire country out of its Games gloom with a stunning display of talent, power and grace.
A nation watched, its billion hearts beating, as the 21-year-old pushed world champion Spain’s Carolina Marin to the edge after building anticipation for Indians across the globe ahead of the biggest showpiece final of the quadrennial for women’s badminton.
It’s been 12 years since the flag on the podium — used to both flaunt talent and wipe tears — has been something other than that of China. And the Olympics summit clash couldn’t have managed two better women in the ring.
In the end, Marin left the pavilion dazed with her 19-21, 21-12, 21-15 victory over the Indian in 83 minutes.
Sindhu stayed in the game without rolling over, as Marin’s opponents have tended to, under her blistering attack of strokes and screams. Then, she stood on the podium, smiling politely, calm and poised. It was here that coach Gopichand, who joined the celebrations from the back of the crowd, standing on a chair, gestured the last of his instructions for the day — bite into the medal, as is tradition. This was a medal that meant as much to him as it did to the shuttler.
The Hyderabad champion had taken Indian badminton, the country’s high-performing sport for a while now, a notch higher. And, it was her manner of playing that got adrenaline soaring even as Marin, a considerably better player on this day, attempted and failed to walk all over her.
The hard-hitting shuttler from India would pounce on the openings she saw, and push the final into a decider after winning the first set from 16-19 down. It was an error-prone match, but there were some stunning rallies, including a 52-shot stretch at 16-17 in the opener. The red-hot pace of the match was illustrated in the fact that 52 exchanges lasted over 49 seconds — more than a stroke per second.
Diminutive Australian Kelly Hoare sat like a matron superior on the chair umpire’s perch and had a tough time keeping the two combustible players in line. If it wasn’t Marin’s yelps and fist pumps, it was Sindhu’s insistence on changing shuttles and grabbing breathers. At one point, Hoare would scold Marin for not having her kitbag strap hidden inside the ground tray, and the Spanish crowd didn’t quite like the telling-off.
The podium was a fascinating sight for watchers around the world with not a single Chinese atop — Li Xuerui had conceded the bronze playoff to Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara. It was a colossal shake-up in the world order of a sport that has seen China dominate for so long that it had been unthinkable that a Japanese, an Indian and a Spaniard would make the Rio medals list.
It was the best ever result for South America’s first Olympics that a Spaniard won gold, and Marin entertained and enchanted in equal measure. She had that deceptive drop that stopped time in the middle of the whirl that she created by screaming and winning points hurriedly and rushing everyone around.
But it was at the end of the match that Sindhu, till now India’s second-most well-known singles player after Saina Nehwal, came into her own. Marin had sprawled on the court, ecstatic after winning the gold medal she desired desperately. Sindhu, having shaken hands with the chair umpire and the judges, crossed over to the other side of the net and walked up to Marin’s prone figure.
She gently tapped her on the shoulder and then the two women — the most aggressive pair on the circuit — warmly hugged each other. Sure, losing the gold might have hurt, but silver had been proudly won for India. It made an ecstatic stadium emotional and earned the graceful Sindhu whatever fans she hadn’t already won.
By the time Gopichand started urging her to sink her teeth into the medal; Sindhu was the darling of the crowd. She kissed the hard-earned medal and stepped down from the podium to allow Marin her moment. She knew her time for gold would come.