Why PV Sindhu failed to clinch gold medal at Olympics
Our players have yet to master the X factor called the killer-instinct.
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After the drum-beats have gone silent over PV Sindhu's performance at the Olympic Games; after me-too state administrations and corporate moneybags have pledged their crores to her bank account when at least some of it might be better spent on improving our basic sporting infrastructure; and after social media messages of adulation - and consolation - have had their run, an important question still hangs in the air: why did India's most promising shuttler stumble at her final hurdle?
Any sports enthusiast watching the live telecast would testify that Sindhu was not noticeably inferior to her rival in deceptive court craft and smashing prowess.
Sindhu's natural height-and-reach advantage over Marin was another given. In fact, the final score-line (21-19, 21-12, 21-15) is evidence enough that the Spaniard didn't have it easy.
She was visibly stunned out of her wits by Sindhu's late burst in the first game to clinch five straight points - and the game.
That out-of-this-world backhand retrieval which wrong-footed Marin and all but sealed the game for Sindhu was a shot a badminton aficionado would readily walk miles to see.
Then what went wrong? First and foremost, Sindhu was a victim of her own low expectations.PV Sindhu fell short in terms of experience and preparation.
An affliction as dangerous as overconfidence, it showed in her body language particularly at the start of the second game when Sindhu was expected to carry over her surge from the closing moments of the first.
Instead she became inexplicably tentative in her approach and this proved fatally debilitating in the decider after Sindhu had clawed back to a 10-all score.
The unseen but prescient television commentator picked it up early in the match when she pointed out that the difference between the players was that while one player came to Rio looking for a gold medal, the other came hoping for just a medal.
Even after returning home, the young lady continues being touchingly wide-eyed and "thrilled about getting used to 'Olympic medallist' next to my name."
Tennis legend Billie Jean King once said a champion is afraid of losing, while everyone else is afraid of winning.
Sindhu's diminished ambitions seemed to have transferred to the media reporters as well - and much before the finals.
How else can one explain a leading Indian newspaper's front-page kiss-of-death description of Sindhu's quarter-final win over China's Yihan Wang as "the match of her life"?
Was that really the pinnacle she was expected to reach?
Second, Sindhu fell short in terms of experience and preparation. Big-match experience is something no amount of coaching can substitute, but a coach can - and should - cop the blame for an unprepared player.
Analysing his ward's defeat, Pullela Gopichand blamed the changed speed of the shuttle caused by the atmospherics of the indoor stadium at Rio as a factor in Sindhu's loss.
It's true that the air at a densely packed venue can alter shuttle speeds, but it's also a truism that court conditions apply equally to both rivals.
Moreover, couldn't a "supercoach" like Gopichand anticipate this eventuality and prepare/train Sindhu accordingly?
Her mental conditioning coach Vaibhav Agashe has gone on record to emphasise the need for Sindhu to maintain her mental agility - implying that there's still a question mark over the 21-year-old's ability to adjust quickly to changing playing conditions.
In her final match, Sindhu also failed to keep up her previous momentum. Palpably missing was the unusual zest with which she had trounced Okuhara in the semis.
But it would be unfair to attribute this entirely to her lack of experience. The curse of a hard-won semi-final often results in the winner being left spent and exhausted for the final test.
Witness how the high-ranked Malaysian shuttler Lee Chong Wei wilted in the gold-medal match at Rio against Chen Long of China after he had played out of his skin in the semis to beat his life-long nemesis, the all-time Chinese great Lin Dan.
No one - not Sindhu, not the Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian girls - can match Carolina Marin in playing mind games.
Marin is not only the current Olympic gold-medalist and reigning world number one in badminton, she's also an acknowledged champion in gamesmanship.
At the Rio final, Marin fully controlled the proceedings between points if not during play. She slowed the momentum when Sindhu was on a roll, sometimes strolling away to a corner of the court much to the consternation of her rival as well as the helpless chair-umpire.
At other times, especially when she herself won a point, Marin would let go a string of yelping war-cries - at least once staring across the length of the court straight at her opponent while doing so.
Even though she may have been forewarned, the blatant audacity of the act left poor Sindhu unnerved, if not intimidated.
It's indeed a sad commentary on the current rules of badminton that such atrocious on-court behaviour can go unpenalised.
Finally, we must admit that despite all our admirable strides in world sports, our players have yet to master the X factor called the killer-instinct.
It's an age-old lament, but particularly glaring and painful in recent times when voraciously talented Indian sportsmen after turning professional and training at world-class facilities, continue to choke during crucial matches.
Whether it's the perennial gentleman Vijay Amritraj who failed to press home in the second round of the 1979 Wimbledon against the defending champion Bjorn Borg after being up two sets to one and leading 4-1 in the fourth set; whether it's the otherwise bubbly Leander Paes who lost his nerve after stretching the ultimate gold-medalist Andre Agassi to a tie-break at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; whether it's Sindhu's colleague Kidambi Srikanth who floundered after drawing level with Lin Dan at Rio; whether it's Sindhu herself and her friend Saina Nehwal who have lost to bad girl Marin in all-important finals: nice guys and girls who, as the saying goes, finish last - or, at best, second.
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)