PV Sindhu's Madrid final loss has a bright silver lining

PV Sindhu in action during the 2023 Madrid Spain Masters. EPA/SERGIO PEREZ

A lopsided loss in the final of a Super 300 tournament against a player you've beaten seven straight times before is not exactly an encouraging sign. But for PV Sindhu, there are positives to take home from this result.

She lost to Indonesia's Gregoria Mariska Tunjung 8-21, 8-21 at the Madrid Masters on Sunday, after reaching the final without dropping a single game. The 23-year-old beat Sindhu for the first time in eight meetings to win her first title on the BWF World Tour.

However, for Sindhu, there's enough to celebrate as well. She reached her first final of the year, indeed the first time she has crossed the second round of a BWF Tour in 2023.

The 27-year-old has struggled for form since the start of 2023, when she made her comeback after a five-month long injury layoff after suffering a stress fracture on her ankle en route her Commonwealth Games gold in August. In 2023 so far, she lost in the first round at the Malaysia Masters, India Open and the All England Championship.

Last week, she fell out of the Top 10 of the BWF ranking for the first time since 2016, after failing to defend her Swiss Open title, exiting in the second round.

There was the positive of the Badminton Asian Mixed Team Championship in February where she won three out of four matches as India finished with a bronze medal. But soon after came more upheaval as she parted ways with her coach, Park Taesang, citing a need for change. Currently, she is travelling with SAI coach Vidhi Chaudhary but the partnership didn't look as promising in Spain.

For a player of Sindhu's stature, all this is troubling in a crucial year which marks the start of the Olympic qualifying cycle and the Asian Games. In this backdrop, reaching the final of a Super 300 event is an important learning curve.

To make a successful comeback after a long injury layoff is tough even for the best of players. Take the case Carolina Marin and Kento Momota, two of the best players in the world, whose career paths were altered by their time away.

For Sindhu then, the recovery process is still on. She is still making incremental progress, even if it feels slow.

At the Swiss Open, she lost to unseeded Putri Kusuma Wardani 15-21 21-12 18-21 in the second round. At the Madrid Masters a week later, she beat the Indonesian 21-16 21-14 to reach her first quarterfinal in 2023. They may be Super 300 events but it's still important progress, especially when it comes to her movement, which has not been quite the same since her return, as well as her morale.

Physically, Sindhu seems to be getting better as she spends more time on court. Of course, her confidence would have taken another hit after the 28-minute final rout when she seemed to be caught in two minds about her approach.

Sindhu assessed her loss in Spain saying she was not in a positive state of mind and felt that her strategy was wrong. "It was not my day. My game was not up to the mark. I made too many unforced errors... Overall my strategy was wrong... it happens at times but it's important to go back and prepare and come back stronger," she was quoted as saying by BWF.

"On a positive note, I'm coming into a final after a long time and I need to be happy about that. There are a lot of things to learn from this match because I made errors and I gave her a lead from the start. I felt nothing was going well for me, so I was in a negative state of mind," she added.

Moreover, Tunjung is no longer the junior who had lost to Sindhu seven times before. She has improved tremendously in the last year and has wins over Olympic champion Chen Yu Fei and world champion Akane Yamaguchi to her name in this period. In the semifinal at Madrid, she beat home favorite Marin after winning 12 straight points in the decider. There's no shame and much to learn in such a loss, then and Sindhu seems to have internalised that.

In fact, this is perhaps the best time to go through this two-steps-forward-one-step-back routine because there is now a brief break in the badminton calendar. There are no major tournaments scheduled in April before the Olympic cycle begins in May with the important Sudirman Cup (World mixed team championships). This is the best time in the season to assess her strategy, work with her support staff on what changes she want and build for the crucial months ahead.

Already Lakshya Sen, who is going through a sophomore slump season so far, has announced that he is taking a short break to recharge. Sindhu is sure to benefit from the respite of competitions too.

Sindhu is a player who has always risen to the occasion when it comes to big events and it's certainly too early to count her out. The hope then is that even a runner up finish gives her what she needs to get her season back on track.