India has a singles world champion. Bloody fabulous. Whoever thought we could be saying that at some point in life. If she hears this response, PV Sindhu would be entitled a glacial eye-roll and a contemptuous 'oh ye of little faith'. A three-time World Championships finalist, who else would know how it was to be done?
At the ESPN India office, my more objective and generationally-confident younger colleagues predicted Sindhu would win the title on Friday itself, after she beat Tai Tzu Ting in the quarters. It was her longest match at the World Championships, an hour and 11 minutes, from a game down, after which Sindhu extracted the victory, it appeared, out of the sheer intensity of her want.
Before the Sunday final though, amongst the doomsday merchant community, anguished memories of the 2017 and 2018 finals returned. This year it was going to be Sindhu vs Nozomi Okuhara again. Okuhara, that shapeshifting ninja from 2017 who had risen from pocket-sized retriever into uncrushable titan before our very eyes, during the second-longest match in women's badminton. One hundred and ten minutes of twisting, turning, nerve-shredding, gut-wrenching, high-octane badminton which ended with Sindhu vanquished. Not defeated, vanquished. Such was the medieval blood-and-guts nature of that particular encounter.
Now post-2017, we knew that Sindhu had won five of her last seven matches over Okuhara, but if you'd hoped, prayed, believed and felt totally wretched after 2017, could you could bear to watch again?
In Sunday's final however, Sindhu's response was emphatic. Stop fretting, you Nervous Nellies, I've got this. In her third shot at a World Championships title, there was to be no more of that Winning Hearts BS© that headline writers churn out when a tight match is lost. Sindhu owned her game, the show court at St Jakobshalle in Basel and whatever there was of Okuhara's challenge on the day. The 38-minute final which dismantled Okuhara had taken 10 minutes less than the third game of the 2017 final.
Sindhu in full flight, at her most commanding like she was on Sunday, cuts an imposing figure. Nearly six feet, she is range, touch and power compressed into a moving picture of dominance and authority, the perfect storm which could not be stopped. Her racket scythed through the air, smashes, slices, drops, tearing to shreds the lingering reminders around the St Jakobshalle arena of two defeats from two finals.
At this point though, where does she stand in Indian badminton? With her world title, on the same stage no doubt as Padukone and Gopichand. You could argue a notch ahead. She is history-maker, top-flight competitor with an uncanny appetite for the Big Event. Not in terms of prize money or titles won, but in Events of pure resonance. Be it the World Championships, the Superseries finals or the mega games triptych -- Olympics, Asian Games, CWG (which to our countrymen still means much). Sindhu is not a month-in, month-out winner but, in her career, has picked the months well. The World Championships was only Sindhu's second final in the 11 events she has played this year, having lost the Indonesia Open last month. If she is to win only one event in 2019, better this one than that, what say?
The one Big Event where she's never had a shot at the title is the All England, her best performance there a 2018 semi-final defeat to world No. 1 Akane Yamaguchi in a bruising 80 minutes. On the bucket list now, Tokyo 2020 is priority and Sindhu will go into it with the confidence of a world title behind her and the best help at hand.
World champion at 24, Sindhu is a year or so out from when her body will begin protesting at the load it has taken over the last nine years but her mind is expected to get clearer about the player she needs to be. In her corner this week, along with the familiar figure of the stoic P Gopichand, was the woman Sindhu politely referred to as "Miss Kim", whom she thanked moments after the final.
South Korean Kim Ji Hyun, a former Asian Games gold medallist, has begun working with Sindhu a few months ago, with the intention of strengthening her game with Tokyo in mind. Kim told the BWF website last week that she thought of herself as a 'doctor' for players and believed Sindhu's 'smarts', skills and tactical range needed new medicine. Badminton smarts to Kim were "a combination, like your technique, and hitting and mentality," she said, "as you can't use the same tactics over and over again. If you play the same kind of game, you won't have a chance."
Sindhu's breakthrough at the World Championships quarterfinals had her mowing through her last two rounds and scoring the biggest win of her career. Who knows what the belief from this breakthrough title will do for these next few vital years. Who knows what the two women will do with it in the months ahead. By this time in 2020, remember, the Olympics will have ended.
In Indian women's badminton, Saina Nehwal will always be remembered as the 21st century ceiling-breaker. PV Sindhu then muscled her way through the gap, pushed the ceiling higher and showed every Indian girl how careers can be built by inhaling rare air and working at high altitude. At every landmark event in her sport (the Olympics, the Asian Games and World Championships), Sindhu continues to show and tell them -- this far, no less. This much at the very least. And from there, much more. This is how world champions are made.