Sindhu’s crowning glory, Saina’s slow slide
Indian badminton came of age in 2016 with a second strong woman player and a deep talent pool among men
The shuttle slumped on to the net to end P.V. Sindhu’s 2016 on court. That was all the strength she could muster as she tapered to a 15-21, 21-18, 15-21 loss to South Korea’s Sung Ji-hyun in the semi-final of the World Super Series Finals—the badminton season finale featuring the world’s top eight players—in Dubai on Saturday. But by then those long legs had already taken Indian badminton to a bold new world.
At the London Olympics in 2012, Saina Nehwal had reaped the rewards of graft by winning a bronze medal—the first by any Indian badminton player. Four years later, in Rio, with Nehwal’s Olympic hopes dampened by a knee injury, Sindhu proved she was more than ready to blaze a trail of her own. She matched the best in the world, punch for punch, to make it to the final against Spain’s left-handed firebrand Carolina Marin. It was a pulsating, high-octane match and though the Indian won the first game, she eventually went down 21-19, 12-21, 15-21 after an hour and 23 minutes. But it was a weighty silver for an Indian contingent starved of medals in the 2016 Games.
Emboldened by her Olympic success, rather than distracted by it, Sindhu lunged to a few more firsts. She won her maiden Super Series Premier title when she claimed the Thaihot China Open title in November. Sindhu, who towers over her opponents at 5ft, 11 inches, then made it to the final of the Yonex-Sunrise Hong Kong Open. A runner-up finish was enough to ensure her an entry into the elite field of the World Super Series Finals for the first time. While capable of bursts of brilliance, Sindhu had till then struggled for consistency. A spot in the season finale meant she had the staying power, physically and emotionally, to sustain at the top level.
Even as Sindhu avenged her Rio loss, by beating Marin in the group stage in Dubai and eliminating her from the tournament, Nehwal was left to plot her comeback into the ranks of the world’s elite. The 26-year-old, who sustained a knee injury on the eve of her second Olympic Games, was sent packing after two painful rounds. She underwent surgery immediately on her return to India and was out of action for three months. “I felt that before the Olympics it was all coming together,” Nehwal said during a media interaction in Mumbai recently. “I had just won the Australian Open (in June) and was really looking forward to the Olympics. But that’s when I had the injury. I was devastated for some time, but I knew I had the mental strength to come back. Surgeries are no longer career-ending for athletes, and I had a strong team to get me back on my feet.”
Nehwal admitted some level of boredom and frustration played a part in her returning to the courts earlier than expected.
A knee surgery can keep players out for four-six months, but she went through her rehab with discipline and pressed her team to let her play the China Open, in only the second week of November. Still far from world-beating form, Nehwal reset her goals for the year, and made it to the quarter-finals in successive tournaments in Hong Kong and Macau.
While Indian badminton seems preoccupied by its two female stars, 2016 was also the year that it emerged as the prime Olympic sport in the country. India sent its largest Olympic contingent in badminton to Rio, with seven shuttlers making the mark.
In men’s singles, it was Kidambi Srikanth who equalled India’s Olympic benchmark by making it to the quarter-finals. Srikanth fell to the two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan in the last eight (6–21, 21–11, 18–21). But not before he had enhanced his reputation as a big-stage player with an upset 21-19, 21-19 win over then world No.5 Jan Ø. Jørgensen.
“Women’s badminton in India looks much better because Saina and Sindhu are at the helm,” Vimal Kumar, Nehwal’s coach, said in Mumbai during the Tata Open India International Challenge this month. “They are great individual talents, but the fact is, there is more depth in the men’s field. They haven’t yet quite been able to do very well at the big stage, they lack consistency.”
Kumar’s analysis is reflected in the world rankings. Sindhu and Nehwal are the only two Indians to be ranked in the women’s top 50—Nehwal at 9 and Sindhu at 10. But there are six Indian men in the top 50, though none in the top 10. At No.13, Srikanth is the leader of the pack. On the men’s side, the next generation gave a glimpse of its potential towards the close of the season. Sameer Verma became only the third Indian men’s player to make a Super Series final (after Srikanth and Ajay Jayaram) at the Hong Kong Open. The 22-year-old scored a coming-of-age victory over third-seed Jørgensen in the semi-final to earn that distinction. In doubles, Chirag Shetty and Satwik Sai Raj Rankireddy claimed a hat-trick of titles by winning the Sats India International Series in Hyderabad, the Tata Open India International Challenge in Mumbai and the Yonex-Sunrise Bangladesh International Challenge in Dhaka.
Not surprisingly, most of them (barring Shetty) learnt the ropes at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. The former All-England champion, who no longer trains Nehwal, is an inspiring leader and master tactician who has ensured that top-level badminton is no longer a lonely pursuit for Indians. First Nehwal and now Sindhu, Gopi Chand has guided India to two Olympic medals already and is in charge of the futures of a few more. With him at the helm, the conveyor belt of Indian badminton talent is showing no signs of slowing down.