I am really looking forward to the Tokyo Olympics. It’s not going to be easy, but it’ll definitely be very different from the 2016 Rio Games.
We are all excited. We need to play and give our best. There is pressure and there are responsibilities as well. Even though there are many factors that will be in play, I have to go with the flow and give my best — that is important — and not bother about what others are thinking, or else you will invite extra pressure. I need to be focused and composed.
`Frankly, I am mentally and physically much stronger compared to, say, two years ago. I have been working a lot on my physical fitness and the mental aspect of my game. Now that I am a little more experienced, I have got that maturity level.
My first objective in Tokyo will be to cut down on unforced errors. If they creep in, however well you play, they are going to affect your game. Consistency is very important.
On my game and approach at the Tokyo Olympics, I can say you will be watching new weapons for sure. I have improved a few techniques and skills. Training at Gachibowli Indoor Stadium has definitely helped me a lot. When we have the opportunity to train at an international-standard facility, we have to use it, and moreover, it is similar to the Tokyo Games competition venue.
It is important to make sure you get used to it here. Learn here and understand the court and shuttle control to be ready for the Olympics instead of taking time to do that there in Tokyo. We have to be prepared much before.
On my coach Park Tae-sang, I can say he has been really good. I have been training with him since the last 18 months, and I am happy with his coaching. He is supportive and motivating, teaching me a lot of techniques. Moreover, what I like is that he makes sure that I think on my own on the court. You need to think and change immediately during a match. So, overall, Park has been good.
I think every coach has a different mindset. I have worked with Mulyo Handoyo, Kim Ji Hyun and now with Park. For any coach, it is important to have a communication channel. There is a need for the coach and the player to understand each other. The coach has to hide the emotions and make sure the player gets support and motivation. From my perspective as an athlete, it is very important to display the game and focus even as the coach gives those important inputs while watching the opponent during the match.
I would say the biggest challenge is we have to be very careful and take care of our health. We are travelling to a different country. I would say the challenges are getting tested every day, not meeting anyone, though we are permitted to train even during isolation seven days prior to the Games.
We have to get used to the new normal. This is how it is going to be. I don’t think it is hard or tough. They have different rules and regulations; it is important to follow them and ensure we are all safe.
It is sad that Carolina Marin [who is injured] will not be playing in Tokyo. Every athlete knows how it is when he or she is injured. It is sad the way she has been forced to miss defending her Olympic gold medal. No doubt it is upsetting before the Games, but I hope she will come back stronger. Even though Marin won’t be there in Tokyo, it isn’t going to be easy; there are quite a few others who are equally good.
I don’t look at myself as the strongest contender for a gold medal, but I am definitely hoping for the best. Every player is going to be in top form. Since we have not played any event after the All England Championships this March, every player will be even better prepared. In fact, every athlete will be back with new skills and techniques, and we should be prepared for this.
I cannot say if this is the best chance for me to win a gold medal or not; I am just hoping for the best. I have improved my skills and technique thanks to the pandemic, which forced the cancellation of many tournaments and changed my training schedule. I have never got so much time before. This was the first time that we spent a lot of time in training and improving my strokes, which was not the case during the pandemic last year.
Here, I must thank the Union Sports Ministry, the Sports Authority of India, the Badminton Association of India and the Telangana state government for ensuring that all the facilities are available with the COVID-19 protocols in place.
Coming back to training, I don’t think I miss the big names in sparring. I have been very happy with the players from the Suchitra Academy. There is a set of 10 different players who have been sparring with me. For instance, to counter someone like Tai Tzu-ying, I train with a player who has a similar style and technique. It is very important to have different players every day so we don’t get used to the same types.
Let me make it clear that training at Gachibowli Indoor Stadium will be a regular feature with players from the Suchitra Academy even after the Olympics. I think they are more than enough.
Finally, I must say that I will miss the fans as the conditions are going to be different in Tokyo because of the pandemic restrictions. The buzz that was there in Rio will be missed badly. But I hope the fans continue to support me and show their love for me virtually. All I can say is that I will give my best and hope to be back with gold!
As told to V. V. Subrahmanyam