For P.V. Sindhu, vindication comes through this time around

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For P.V. Sindhu, vindication comes through this time around

After a wonderful year in 2016 where she won her first Superseries title, PV Sindhu's has established herself as the star of Indian badminton in the minds of the followers in the country. But the crowning glory of the year was when the 21-year-old won the silver at the 2016 Rio Games.

When P.V. Sindhu and Saina Nehwal moved towards the net at the conclusion of their match in the 2017 Premier Badminton League, there wasn't so much as a handshake, rather just a cursory slapping of wrists with a perfunctory glance and the two players hardly even made eye contact. For the record, Sindhu had won this encounter in straight games, 11-7 11-8 in 27 minutes, after having been second best in all of their previous meetings.

While the two players might have a lot of respect towards each other, it does look like they certainly aren't really each other's favorite. The reasons could be myriad. They are both products of the same plant - the Gopichand Academy. However, about three years ago, Nehwal decided to break away from the academy to go train at the Prakash Padukone Academy in Bangalore. Some say she was threatened by the emergence of Sindhu while others claim her move stemmed from dissatisfaction with Pullela Gopichand spending considerately more time with Sindhu than her. All of these are of course just unverified rumours. Whatever the reason, there is much frostiness between the pair. 

 © Getty Images

This clash between the two players, as part of the semifinal tie between the Chennai Smashers and the Awadhe Warriors had so much more riding on it. For one, the clash between the two in the league phase was put off when Nehwal decided to pull out against Sindhu citing recovery as her team had already qualified for the semi-final. But the encounter between India's two top players did eventually materialize in the semis when their two teams locked horns once again.

2016 was a memorable year for Sindhu, who captured the silver medal at the Olympics in Rio, bettering Nehwal's bronze in London four years ago, another likely reason for the latter's frostiness. That silver medal did catapult her to the forefront of sports stardom in India and made her a constant feature on television as well as in print media, but besides that medal, there was even more, success for Sindhu on other fronts as well. She captured two titles on tour - the Gold Series title in Malaysia and the China Open, her first ever BWF Super Series event.

She also finished runner-up at another Super Series event, the Hong Kong Open. The results though were a result of a game that we had never seen before from Sindhu. The jump in her performances from previous years was huge - her mobility around the court, her temperament, and her shot-making had all improved significantly - contributing to her career-best year so far.

Despite all of that success, though, there was one thing missing - she was yet to better her compatriot. Nehwal has been the undisputed top badminton player in the country ever since she made her foray into the senior circuit and any talk of badminton in India would begin and end with her. And we had been here before.

 © Getty Images

In 2013, when Sindhu achieved her first major breakthrough, the bronze at the World Championships that year, her stock suddenly gained momentum. However, that high was to be short-lived as the results that followed remained inconsistent and in the very first avatar of the Premier Badminton League in 2014, she was defeated easily by Nehwal in a match that was hyped up quite a bit back then.

This was still a 17-year-old Sindhu who was just getting started and was faced with equalling and maybe even eclipsing Nehwal, who was five years her senior with that much more experience. The same she came face-to-face with Nehwal once more in the final of the Syed Modi International Gold series event and once again lost. 

Those results established what most of India perceived (whether rightly or wrongly) - that Nehwal was the clear top dog while Sindhu was just a young pretender who had miles to go to catch up with her. 

A hat-trick of Macau Open titles between 2013-2015 along with another bronze at the World Championships in 2014 showcased Sindhu for what she was - a talented, but still erratic player. 

However, That all was to change. As has been well documented since her silver medal at Rio last year, Sindhu's strenuous fitness and training regime had helped power her new-found form. While Sindhu got better, Nehwal's returns started to dwindle. Nehwal has 22 career titles to her name; only six of those had come after 2013. Still, be it in the world rankings or overall performances at tournaments, Nehwal maintained her edge.

With the year that Sindhu had last year, she was coming into this year's Premier Badminton League with a whole lot of momentum. Now 21, much fitter and smarter and a game boasting multiple strong points, the 2017 PBL was going to be the proving ground for her. Domestically, at least to the casual fans, this was her chance to cement her arrival.

 © PBL

She did exactly that and with some style. Her only loss of the tournament came in the opening tie when she lost to Carolina Marin. She won every other match and impressively at that. She defeated South Korean, World No. 3, Sung Ji Hyun, in both of their clashes displaying a confidence and intensity that was simply irresistible.

What it all eventually led to was that match with Saina in the semi-final of the tournament. Nehwal mounted a bit of a challenge in the first game, but Sindhu, in the end, was too strong for her. After the match, Nehwal alluded to her recent injuries and lack of fitness with a smile, an approach that has become all too familiar in recent years. It is in no way a slight on Nehwal, but it is merely a trend that has come to reflect itself in the last couple of years. One could wonder how the match between India's two leading women might have panned out with Nehwal fully fit, but it would still be hard to not put money on Sindhu even in such a circumstance. 

For that is how much the 21-year-old from Hyderabad has progressed and truly bridged the chasm between her and Nehwal as far as their games are concerned. Nehwal still has quite the accomplishments list which Sindhu will slowly start chipping away at. For now, however, she has firmly entrenched herself in the same bracket as her more illustrious senior, maybe even notched herself a bit higher. A loss at PBL 2017 might have left a few doubts, but she took no time in smashing them away with a firm hand just like her shots. 

That's why this PBL was special in so many ways. While some were quick to dismiss it as an exercise in pizazz and an opportunity at good money, there were some mini-battles encamped within that were a source of much intrigue. Sindhu, in the end, won all of those mini-battles to bring herself something that eluded her the last time she made such a major breakthrough - vindication that she's here to stay.

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