MUMBAI (Reuters) - Pusarla Sindhu will be a strong contender for the women’s gold medal at next year’s Tokyo Olympics but the 24-year-old’s recent World Championship triumph will also make her a target, India’s national coach Pullela Gopichand said.
Sindhu won India’s first-ever title at the world badminton championships when she defeated Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara 21-7 21-7 to win the women’s singles in Basel last month.
It was also an end to Sindhu’s frustrating near-misses, having finished runner-up at the 2016 Olympics, last year’s Commonwealth Games and Asian Games and the previous two world championships finals.
With her silver from Rio, Sindhu is already India’s most successful female Olympian but the latest triumph also boosted the nation’s hopes of a medal in Tokyo next year.
“I think it would be fair to say that she would be one of the big contenders for the gold medal,” Gopichand told Reuters in an interview.
“But having said that, there is competition, and it just gets more for Sindhu because she will be the target, people have a year to plan against her.
“So, of course she needs to train, she needs to evolve, she needs to add new thinking to the armoury and that’s very important.”
While India’s field hockey team have won eight Olympic titles, shooter Abhinav Bindra remains the only individual gold medallist for the country of 1.3 billion, who are starved of top sporting success outside cricket.
In the world championships semi-finals, an aggressive Sindhu dismantled China’s Chen Yufei 21-7 21-14 while it took her just 38 minutes in the final to see off Okuhara with the Japanese player wilting under a barrage of smashes from her opponent.
Gopichand was delighted with Sindhu’s aggression and termed the manner of her championship win as “very special”. He, however, warned her ward to continue to evolve ahead of Tokyo.
“It will not be fair to say that there is no competition,” Gopichand said.
“I think players like (current Olympic champion) Carolina Marin, Tai Tzu-Ying, Ratchanok (Intanon), the Chinese girls, I think there are a lot of players who will be competition and it’ll be disrespectful to write off competition.
“Having said that, I think Sindhu has a good chance and hopefully will come with the better medal than last time.”
Badminton’s popularity has grown by leaps and bounds in the country with Saina Nehwal’s bronze in women’s singles in the London Olympics setting a success path.
While the country was toasting the success of Sindhu, the men’s sport also got a significant boost when B. Sai Praneeth won bronze in Basel.
It was the first world championship medal for a male shuttler since Prakash Padukone won a bronze medal in 1983.
The likes of Nehwal, Sindhu and Sai Praneeth are all products of the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad where they have prospered under the watchful eyes of the former All England champion.
“Sai Praneeth did a very important thing. Sai’s performance was something I am really happy with,” Gopichand said. “Sai’s medal got eclipsed by Sindhu’s phenomenal performance.
“I think what Sai has achieved for men’s badminton and the men to actually win a world championship bronze medal is a good starting point to do even better in the future.”
Gopichand, however, does not agree that India was badminton’s new China, which has been the dominant force in the sport for decades.
“I don’t think we can say that unless we win team events, unless we have depth in all our events and a good bench strength.”
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman