How does it feel to be awarded India’s most prestigious sports award on a momentous day?
It’s been a great day for me – National Sports Day, receiving the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna+ . I’m really happy about it.
How’s it been after coming back from Rio? You were in Hyderabad in the morning, then Delhi in the evening…
Yes, it’s been hectic but then I’m really enjoying my victory, enjoying celebrating it. After landing in Hyderabad, the state governments of Andhra Pradesh and Telengana and the people gave me a grand welcome. I never thought there would be so much crowd showering so much love and affection, holding banners with my name and standing on the roads. It was very hot; I can tell you. I am very thankful to everybody because they all were so lovingly standing there, waving at me, shouting my name. In Rio, I had no idea that so much was happening. Since my return, many of them have been telling me ‘you don’t know how happy we are.’Is this the reason you started playing badminton?
(Laughing out loud) No. When I started, I didn’t think I would become a great player. It was my passion, I had interest. My parents supported me. In that way I continued.
How does it help to be in a sporting family?
Yes, it has been very helpful. My parents have been volleyball players and my dad is an Arjuna awardee in volleyball. Whenever and wherever I wanted to go, they always accompanied me. I think they have really worked hard and made huge sacrifices. Anytime I lose matches, they tell me ‘it’s okay, never mind’. It really helps.
How much has life changed for you? How difficult will it be now to go back to training?
Life has really changed after Rio. It was my dream (to win an Olympic medal) and it has come true. So from now on I think responsibilities are more. It’s going to get tougher. I need to stay focused and get back to training.
Even after winning silver, Gopi still maintains that you are an unfinished product. Does that irritate you?
(Smiling): It doesn’t irritate me. One tournament win doesn’t make you perfect. I have learnt many things, but there’s more to learn. Every day is a new start. I know I won an Olympic (medal), but I feel there’s more to learn, lot more.
During your day, is there any time you set aside to just watch your rivals play and try to identify their strengths and weakness?
Yes. Gopi sir and I see some of the matches or we discuss what’s happening, what’s going on, what mistakes I made. So accordingly we make a plan and sort it out.
Have you had a chance to look at that final again and say what you could have done?
I have not watched any of my matches in Rio because after coming back, I didn’t get any time. But definitely I will, because even I want to watch like how did I play and all that.
Can you take us through your thoughts on that day, the final?
In the final I was confident and even Gopi sir believed that I could do it. The match started off well. Even though I was trailing, I came back and won the first game. Recently I had won against Carolina (Marin) in Denmark, but then I lost to her recently in another tournament. Overall it was three games but then tough games. After winning the first game, I knew that she would come back hard. After all, it’s the Olympic final. In the third game, I was trailing but then I made it 10-all, and after that I just gave away 3-4 points in a row. She maintained that lead and finished it off. Had I won those three points… well who knows, the result might have been different.
Can you take us through the morning of your final when you woke up and how did you prepare?
My match was in the afternoon. Normally we have a little bit of warm-up session and then breakfast. Then I was left with one hour. My match was the second match, so I had to leave at 1pm and go to the training centre and do some stretching exercises and start my warm-up.
By that time, you were already assured of a medal…
But I didn’t want to settle for a silver; I always wanted the gold. I tried my best, I had given my best. I feel it was her (Carolina’s) day. So I must congratulate her because she also fought hard.We read somewhere that you had said in Rio that Sakshi winning the medal some hours before you took some pressure off you because India had opened its account.
Before my semi-final, there was another match going on (at the badminton court). So we were sitting and watching (Sakshi’s match) on TV. It was really tough for her because she was trailing and then came back. It was really a great moment when she won because she was the first Indian (medal winner in Rio). If in case she were to lose, then again everybody’s hopes would have been like ‘okay, what will Sindhu do?’
Do you have any superstition? What have you done to your racquet?
I am not very superstitious, but I am very thankful to God for all that has happened. I have kept my racquet safely (smiling).
Your coach (Gopichand) has some superstitions. Does he insist that you should also follow them? Was that why you repeated the same yellow dress in the semi-final and final?
No. Gopi sir never insists on such things. The rule is that the two players cannot wear the same colour. I wanted to wear red but then she (Carolina) wore that.
11 points at a stretch in the semi-final. Tell us something about that.
Going into the match, I told myself, I don’t want the bronze. I have to win the semi-final and I gave my best. We prepared very well for every match and not just the semi-final. We had planned how to tackle each player because each of them has a different style. Before the semi-final, we were discussing because I had lost to her (Nozomi Okuhara) recently. I saw those matches, like what went wrong the last time.
You didn’t have your mobile phone for three months. How good or bad was that?
(Laughing out loud) It was not really bad and I was not really missing it. If you need something, then you have to sacrifice something. Finally, I got home a silver medal. I am really very happy.
Are you sure that you will win gold one day?
Yes, definitely, but it’s not so easy. Definitely I will try my level best to get the gold in Tokyo.
Was Saina’s loss a disappointment for the badminton team?
Yes. We thought she would play well and come on the top of the league. But she lost in the league. Winning and losing is part of life. There are ups and down. When she lost, we all felt very bad. We had thought she would win and go further.
Did the disappointment of Saina’s loss spur you on?
It’s an individual sport. I didn’t meet her actually because the timings were really different. We were watching her live. Her loss was shocking.
Now can we call you the No. 1 player in India and not Saina (Nehwal)?
(Smiling). Well that’s up to you to decide. For me, it’s only the start. I will definitely work harder and get many more laurels. Comparison will always be there between us. When it’s off court, we are normal friends. On court, when we are competitors, we just play to win. It’s not that you play with some grudge. You just play thinking ‘I should win’. Even she would play thinking the same way.
Since last year in Delhi to Rio Olympics, you have added a lot of aggressive strokes to your repertoire. Did you spend the whole year preparing shots like backhand flicks and smashes?
Yes. I have been practising each and every stroke, not one particular stroke. Every year, step by step, I have been improving. Each stroke is totally different and needs to be prepared differently. Definitely I have improved a lot since last year. I think it’s very important that you learn strokes. But once you get a stroke, it’s not like ‘okay I have got that stroke’. You have to still make it perfect.
How different are the Olympics compared to other tournaments?
It’s very different. The whole world looks forward to it every four years. Many people ask me this question: ‘Do you feel any pressure or do you think about what’s going to happen?’ There’s not much pressure because you have to play the same way. But still, it’s Olympics, the greatest sporting event. It has its charm and appeal.
Your coach is very strict. Does it cause any inconvenience to you?
I think that it is very important to be a strict coach. He has to be strict. For a player it’s very important to understand that if a coach says something or when he is teaching you something, it is his duty to be strict, it is his duty to be disciplined. Away from the court, Gopi sir is very friendly.
Carolina spoke about the mind games. She said she played some mind games. How fair was it?
Carolina is a very aggressive player. She is left-handed. The gamesmanship is always there. So I was prepared for that. I didn’t get irritated or annoyed thinking that she’s changing shuttles too often.
Of the two medals we have got and also Dipa Karmakar’s performance, all are individual efforts. So how do you look at it from the aspect of government facilities?
From my point of view, the government has really supported us. I would like to thank Narendra Modi+ ji and also others as well. Before we were going to the Olympics, the PM wished us all the very best. Like yesterday, when we all went there, he congratulated each and every awardee there. He said ‘if you have anything, any suggestion, please do let me know’. The government has been really very supportive.
Beyond Gopi’s academy, there’s not much around as far as facilities are concerned. What do you have to say?
Beyond the Gopichand Academy, I don’t really know what’s going on but being part of the Gopichand Academy, I can tell you the infrastructure and everything has been perfect and we have been getting all the facilities. Whatever we have wanted, has been there.
You have been training as early as 4:30 a.m. at the Gopichand Academy. Will you still continue doing that?
I will be there at the same time, because I am used to that time. We will stick to the same schedule. I play the first session, followed by (Kidambi) Srikanth and many other players. He (Gopi) trains us one by one. Hats off to his patience that he looks after each and every player so diligently.
People keep talking about your height and its advantages. But surely there must be some downside to it also?
There are advantages and disadvantages. I think the bending part is a disadvantage. Reach is always good but they (opponents) make you bend, they play drop shots and then you have to bend more.
In sports, there is a lot of focus on how you look and we saw a different avatar of you during an event in Hyderabad. Will we see more of that?
(Smiling) Maybe yes. It is also important to look good, you know.
Recently, I have been working with Shravya Varma, who is also from Hyderabad.
Will you be doing many brand endorsements now?
What’s the Chinese way of preparing a badminton player? Why are they so good?
It’s not that the Chinese are unbeatable, it’s just that on that day who plays well and gives the best is the winner. As I told you, strategy also is very important because on that day you need to change according to the situation.
Until the last Olympics, they (China) won 5 on 5 (gold medals) in badminton, but this time they have two gold.
I feel things have changed. Others have also started playing really well. Spain’s Carolina and Thailand’s Ratchanok (Intanon) and Tai Tzu-ying, they have also been performing very well. I feel other countries are also coming up in the top ten. The Japanese also are really doing well.
There is talk that your second bronze at the World championships prompted Saina to leave Gopi. What do you think?
I don’t think it’s about what I did. It’s about what she wants. She felt that she wanted to go somewhere else, so she left.
Do you think you gained from her leaving, in the sense that Gopichand could give you more attention?
Nothing like that but he (Gopi) has always been very supportive to all the players he looks after. Even at that time (when Saina left), I was much junior. He used to train her first thing in the morning. Gopi sir gives equal share of attention to each and every player.
There will be someone else coming through the ranks. So how much will you assert yourself at the academy?
There are many more players coming up. There is a good, healthy competition. In the women’s, many players like Ruthvika (Shivani) and Rituparna Das are playing well. (Her father added: ‘If she has to be No. 1 she has to work very hard.’)
Rajinikanth+ has said he is your fan…
When he said that… I really felt so happy and it made my day because he telling me that he was my fan, I am very thankful to him. Even Amitabh Bachchan+ tweeted to congratulate me. Because of their blessings and love I have done it.
Do you like watching films?
Yes, I do.
Who is your favourite actor?
Ranbir Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan, in Bollywood.
So are we going to see you doing an endorsement with Ranbir Kapoor soon?
I really don’t know about it because I haven’t really thought about endorsements.
Apart from the phone, were you also keeping away from the newspapers and news channels during the Olympics?
We didn’t have anything actually, newspapers or anything. Yes, we knew about the Narsingh Yadav issue because he was there in the Olympic Village. But other than that nothing else.
How does it feel to be a woman achiever?
It’s really a great feeling. As you know in this Olympics, women have really performed well. I’m not saying that men have not (laughs). I feel that everybody really played their hearts out. Some of them just missed by a point or so – Dipa (Karmakar) missed it and Jitu Rai and others too. I feel they all have also performed well because coming to the Olympics itself is a very big achievement.
How important are mind coaches?
Nor mally, discussing the matches, strategy-wise, we have been doing that during training. Sometimes I meditate. Even Gopi sir tells me about the importance of it… he explains it all. So we discuss accordingly. I don’t do pranayam, but sometimes I just close my eyes and think about the match. I think that is very important. In the match I think it is very important to be focused. Once you go out of your mind, you tend to lose points and you really don’t know… you get blank at times. So sometimes I just close my eyes and concentrate.Is it more difficult to play aggressively against people you are friendly with?
No, I don’t think so. I have very good friends on the circuit, especially the Chinese, like Wang Yihan. So I think when it comes to the game, it’s just that you want to win. It doesn’t matter even if she is your friend. When it comes to the game, it’s only you.
During an interview in Rio, a Chinese family came to meet you. There was a young girl who desperately wanted an autograph and a picture with you. Has it ever happened with you before that a Chinese family has wanted an autograph from you?Yes. In fact, (it was) when I won my first (World Championships) bronze medal beating two Chinese players. It was held in Guangzhou, China. I think many of them came to take a picture because they all said that they like my game. They said, ‘Oh great, you beat the Chinese players’. So I was really very happy.Do you consider yourself from Telangana or Andhra?