Men play their part as Indian badminton touches new high
Silence was descending upon the Emirates Arena in Glasgow. P.V. Sindhu and Naomi Okuhara were pinging the shuttle back and forth, as if they were drawing each other on a string across the length and breadth of the badminton court.
Lunging ahead, arching back, hitting the shuttle deep, nudging it across the net…. As the rally went to 40, 50, 60 shots, the crowd held its breath in collective wonder, delighted in the knowledge that it was witnessing an epic tale of athletic narration. It finally ended when Okuhara’s reply to Sindhu’s drop shot struck the net. The Japanese woman fell in a heap; Sindhu stood, bent forward, gasping for air.
The 73-shot rally was the glistening peak of the attritional women’s finals at the Badminton World Championships. Okuhara finally prevailed, 21-19, 20-22, 22-20, in what became the second longest women’s match in the format, at 110 minutes. If Sindhu’s effort wasn’t heroic enough, India reached a new high when Saina Nehwal stepped up with her on the podium to receive her bronze medal. It was the first time two Indians had won medals at a world championship.
In many ways, that picture summed up India’s badminton journey in the past decade. Nehwal, 27, had set alight the dream with her stomping, pioneering run through the women’s field and won the country its first Olympic medal with a bronze at the 2012 London Olympics. The 5ft, 11 inches Sindhu, five years junior, took off from there, winning silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics and the World Championships in 2017.
Sindhu, who got her career-best ranking of No.2 in September, and Nehwal are the leading lights of Indian badminton, but 2017 was the year when the Indian men finally came of age. Leading the pack was Kidambi Srikanth, who won four Superseries titles in the year and climbed to No.2 in the world rankings. Currently, he tops the race for Destination Dubai (badminton’s season-ending finale from 13-17 December), with the highest ranking points in the calendar year: 59,500.
“Srikanth has been fantastic this year. His performance has stood out in a year of so many successes,” said national coach Pullela Gopichand, who continues to anchor India’s success in the sport, on the sidelines of a sports award night in Mumbai in November.
Men’s badminton jumped into sharp focus as three Indians—Ajay Jayaram, Srikanth and B. Sai Praneeth—made their way into the top 15. In September, India had five players in the top 20, with H.S. Prannoy and Sameer Verma pushing into the upper echelons of the game.
This streak possibly started at the Singapore Open final in April, when Sai Praneeth and Srikanth crossed swords, making it the first all-India Superseries title clash. Sai Praneeth defeated his more accomplished countryman 17-21, 21-17, 21-12 to win his first Superseries title. In the women’s field, Sindhu is currently ranked third and Nehwal climbed back to world No.10 this week.
“The internal competition is very healthy,” says former India player Arvind Bhat. “These players are pushing each other. They train with each other, and because they are so good, they know where they stand on the world stage as well.”
Though Prannoy didn’t have big titles to show, he drew attention by upsetting two of the biggest names in the game in the space of two days. At the Indonesian Open in June, he motored past Rio Olympics silver medallist Lee Chong Wei 21-10, 21-18 in just 40 minutes in the second round. A day later, he stunned the reigning Olympic champion, China’s Chen Long, 21-18, 16-21, 21-19, in a draining quarter-final that lasted 1 hour, 15 minutes.
Prannoy’s giant-killing run ended in the semi-final, but Srikanth claimed the title. The 24-year-old, who has the best fast court game according to Gopichand, has long been India’s premier men’s player. But he showed he has lasting power with back-to-back wins in Indonesia and at the Australian Open in June. With a runner-up finish in Singapore, he made the finals of three Superseries tournaments in a row for the first time.
“It was a matter of time for Srikanth,” adds Bhat. “He has been really working hard and now he’s showing the maturity. He is only 24; it’s a wonderful time to get results. Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan had been ruling the game for the past 10 years or so, like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in tennis. But it is a more open field now; Srikanth has beaten the world No.1 (Viktor) Axelsen; a lot of the players have.”
Axelsen had been difficult to beat. The big-built Dane had dashed Srikanth’s hopes at home, beating him 21-7, 21-12 in 25 minutes in the second round of the India Open. Another defeat to Axelsen at the Japan Open meant Srikanth had lost three matches, and six games, in a row to him (including the 2015 defeat at the Dubai World Superseries Finals).
But in the next tournament—the Denmark Open Superseries Premier—Srikanth turned the tables in front of Axelsen’s home crowd in Odense. In the fast-paced quarter-final that tested their wit and will, Srikanth defeated the world No.1, 14-21, 22-20, 21-7. After winning the Denmark Open, Srikanth followed it up with the French Open Superseries title.
In March, Taufik Hidayat’s former coach, Mulyo Handoyo, was brought in to look after the elite group of singles players. It has eased the pressure on Gopichand and the focused attention seems to have helped players take a step up.
“The men’s players have been there and thereabouts for the past few years,” says former top player Chetan Anand. “Now they have got the maturity and exposure. Handoyo’s appointment has helped somewhat. He has worked with Hidayat and psychologically, Indian players feel like they are already there (at the top).”
While the men were gaining momentum, the player who got the Indian juggernaut rolling, Nehwal, ploughed on gamely. Having recovered from the injury that derailed her Rio Olympics campaign, she played the full season and added the Malaysia Open Grand Prix gold to her title tally. At the World Championships, she made a record seventh consecutive quarter-final.
Though Nehwal was stopped in the semi-final by Okuhara, she finished with her second bronze at the Championships. After the world event in Glasgow, she shifted base again to the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad, giving a new lease of life to one of the most famous player-coach combinations.
“There are so many reasons for it to be a good year for Indian badminton,” says Prannoy. “We were more consistent. Saina, Sindhu and Srikanth have been doing well; it has been a great motivation for the entire batch. It has been a team effort. We (men) are still catching up to Saina and Sindhu, but maybe now we are not that far behind.”