P.V. Sindhu brings charm and grace to the badminton court

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TOKYO — She walked into the arena, a big presence without trying to be a big presence, and the Olympics had done again what the Olympics can do: given the eyes the first personal look at an athlete, who was famous on another side of the planet, and they had delighted the brain with a new kind of fascination.

So there she is and since the neurons were already awake and running around the head, next she went ahead and did something even more exciting. She started playing, and my goodness. PV Sindhu, the Hyderabad-based Indian sensation who won a budding silver medal in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 at the age of 21 and soon rose to the top of Forbes global athlete rankings, plays badminton with so many appealing elements it’s hard to enclose them all in mind.

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She plays with geometry, creativity, power, touch, diversity, cleverness and sovereignty. It’s like going to a sporting event and going to an art exhibition at the same time. People tend to describe her as “lanky” given her 5ft 11 height, but here’s a reminder of just how lanky there can be without being awkward. Thank god for that weediness, the eyes might say, because that certainly helps here, as in their 21-9, 21-6 win over Hong Kong’s NY Cheung on Wednesday.

Even if your radar doesn’t make many trips into the realm of badminton, you may have heard little, or less than little, of Sindhu. You may have seen her name as a far-off mystery at number 7 on the 2017 Forbes list of female athletes and their endorsements, tucked between Venus Williams and Simona Halep. You may have seen her endorsements from a bouquet of sponsors described as at the top of the cricketers, which in India means at the top of the rupee heavenly realm.

But even with that. . . and won with their 2019 World Championship in Basel, Switzerland. . . and with their world rankings of No. 7 and once as high as No. 2. . . and with her rousing split-set final in Rio de Janeiro against gold medalist Carolina Marin of Spain. . . and with the Hindustan Times reporting that during their games back then, “all work came to a halt as eyes remained glued to the televisions [India]’ as if the nation ‘believed it was on trial with Sindhu’. . . and with that obvious and amusing quarrel between two Indian states about which she hails. . . there is something more to do with the simple act of sitting and observing. That’s mostly because it’s hard to know what might come out of the racket next, and whether it’ll sing or sing.

It looked in the stillness of the pandemic such a calm, athletic beauty, so different from the noise of Rio de Janeiro, which judging from videos counted among the memories that if you refer to a place and say to an Indian man: “There’s a lot of Indians there,” you might hear in return: “There’s a lot of Indians everywhere.”

Another Olympic bus ride? In these games, each one is a wondrous journey.

That’s how she got to the round of 16, and then she got into the interview zone, the mixed zone. Perhaps she was one of those who strolled by and took two or three questions like a passing annoyance and then walked on. Maybe she’d be one of those people who didn’t stop by at all, maybe even pretended not to notice. Maybe her fame would have made her act like some kind of cricket diva.

But no! With about eight Indian reporters and a straggler here and there, in English and that wonderful Hinglish, she went on minutes and minutes and minutes with that best of charm, the effortless kind. She expressed sincere gratitude that people care about their bottom line. She answered questions on everything from issues with female athletes’ clothing (thankfully there’s no such pressure in her sport) to Simone Biles (with empathy) to the coronavirus pandemic (which gave her time to learn more skills).

She once said of her upcoming match with Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt, “I’m definitely going to miss the crowd.”

The reporters chimed in: “We were in!” — and they were among the limited voices who cheered, with one guy even pulling out a flag of durable fabric as things drew to a close.

She laughed. “Yes, you were there!”

She later said: “Definitely I miss the crowd but I get it [the pandemic]. I’m sure I have billions of Indians supporting and cheering for me,” and then she paused and smiled behind her Team India mask and said, “And thanks for the support!”

She spoke of that hard line in the sport that’s drawn between a 21-year-old greenhorn flitting around carefree with no expectations and a 26-year-old veteran flitting around with expectations. “Well, it’s very different, I think, for me personally”, from Rio de Janeiro to Tokyo: “It’s very different in terms of experience, expectations and responsibility.” She said: “Technically, a lot has changed in terms of the game. My confidence level. A lot has changed.”

As she put it, she can’t walk around and say, “Okay, I have a silver medal,” now what? She called it “very important for me to be there,” and by “there” she meant “there” in the matter at hand, not in the meaning of the thing at issue.

She has a question about the “spiral of negativity” that can welcome a loss of someone like herself, a negativity that breathes part of fans around the world but more in India because India has bigger shares and more fans . And she sounded positively breezy as she said, “For me, I guess, from that perspective, I think some people think it’s easy,” and “Sometimes it might not be our time.”

And now the mind had completely wandered in a rare venture into the confines of badminton, with fresh interest in what might happen to this master of the quirky but ancient craft. The Olympics had shown it to the daughter of two accomplished volleyball players from India’s fourth-largest city (meaning a metropolis), a woman who used to be a girl who had walked to the volleyball court with her father and wandered over to the badminton court, someone who he would never have met in life.

There they were again, those damn Olympics. They always get you in ways you didn’t know you could get.

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