RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - When Pusarla Sindhu won a gold medal at the 2012 Asian junior badminton championships, her cricketing hero Sachin Tendulkar presented her with a car.
One can only guess at the reception the 21-year-old player will receive when she returns into the arms of 1.3 billion Indians after becoming the country’s most successful female Olympian with her silver-medal performance in Rio.
The fact that she had been beaten 19-21 21-12 21-15 by Spanish world number one Carolina Marin in the final mattered little for a country that until Friday had won a solitary bronze at these Games.
The Hyderabadi got a taste of what her life will be from now on when she was pulled and prodded as she made her way through a throng of reporters desperate to hang on to every word coming out of her mouth.
“I’m really, really happy because my ultimate goal was to get a medal at the Olympics,” she said as she clung on to the silver medal around her neck.
“I thought it would be a gold but never mind, it’s still a silver. I never thought I would make it to here... overall I am happy.”
For most of her career Sindhu has largely remained in the shadow of fellow Indian and former world number one Saina Nehwal.
In fact Sindhu was lost in the crowd as India sent a record 120-odd athletes to Rio with high expectations of topping their haul of six medals at the 2012 London Games.
Along with Nehwal, who won a bronze four years ago, medals were expected from 2008 shooting gold medalist Abhinav Bindra, mixed doubles tennis pair Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna, pistol shooter Jitu Rai, boxer Vikash Krishan and shooter and 2012 silver medalist Gagan Narang to name just a few.
With five days to go till the closing ceremony, however, that goal seemed way off target as all those tipped for success had departed empty handed.
It prompted Indian novelist Shobhaa De to tweet: “Goal of Team India at the Olympics: Go to Rio. Take selfies. Come back empty handed. What a waste of money and opportunity.”
Freestyle wrestler Sakshi Malik finally ended the barren run on Wednesday with her bronze before Sindhu, who is mentored by 2001 All England Badminton champion Pullela Gopichand, doubled the medals tally on Friday.
With no Indian woman ever having won an Olympic gold, Sindhu was now hot property and it seemed everyone, from reporters to Indian businesswoman and socialite Nita Ambani, wanted to hug her or take a selfie with the daughter of former volleyball players.
“I am the first Indian to get a silver medal at these Olympics so that’s great to hear and I’m really very proud of my country,” she added.
“This medal was important to inspire Indians as there are many players coming up who in the future will succeed.”
Editing by Clare Fallon