For a sport with such a recent history at the Olympics (since 1992), it’s interesting that London 2012 might well mark badminton’s biggest break from its past. There are unmistakable signs that a new world order will set in once the Olympics are over. India, among other resurgent nations, promises to occupy a leading role in this new order.
World badminton today feels like a long-running show, one that has become increasingly popular but whose star cast is waning. For what seemed an eternity, the show was dominated by a few big stars. The rest of the cast held fond hopes of a more equal order, but kept falling short. Now, fuelled by a decline of the traditional superpowers and altered socio-economic scenarios, there seems to be a change in the script. The major players are fading, and the side actors are preparing for their place in the spotlight.
On the cusp: P. Kashyap, world No. 24, recently qualified to play men’s singles for India in the London Olympics. By Saurabh Das/AP
Ever since World War II, when badminton went truly international, a few countries took to the game so well that they never relinquished control—Malaysia, Indonesia, Denmark, and later, China and Korea. The top rung was unchallenged by the ones below it.
India seemed to occupy a different world. In the 65 editions of the All England Championships since 1947, Indonesia has won 40 titles in all five categories; India, two. In 26 Thomas Cup (men’s team) events, India has not reached the final once, while Indonesia has won it 13 times and China, eight.
But that’s bound to change now: A decimation of hierarchies is on, and nobody is clear on what lies ahead. Indonesia is in a shambles; so is Malaysia. Denmark and Korea have problems that defy easy solutions.
Close call: Ajay Jayaram is ranked world No. 26, up from No. 38 in May 2011. By Manvender Vashist/PTI
The Indonesian team is led by a couple of veterans (Taufik Hidayat and Sony Dwi Kuncoro) who will not last beyond the Olympics; the Malaysians are excessively dependent on their talisman, the world No. 1 Lee Chong Wei, who has spoken of retirement after the London Olympics. Neither country has a replacement for its stalwarts. Denmark’s iconic player, Peter Gade, will retire soon, while its women’s singles has nobody to turn to after the veteran Tine Baun (32). Korea seems excessively fond of its doubles, to the detriment of its singles talent. In other words, with the exception of China, the other powers are either in decline or faced with chronic problems.
In the meantime, countries such as Thailand, India, Chinese Taipei and Germany have grown steadily in strength. At the Thomas Cup preliminary rounds in February, India lost narrowly to Indonesia by 2-3—a margin that would’ve been unthinkable just five years ago. Meanwhile, at the European Team Championships (14-19 February in Amsterdam), Germany beat Denmark for the European Women’s Team Championships crown.
Promising: P.V. Sindhu, just 16, is already ranked 26th in the world. By Mint
With Saina Nehwal leading the challenge, and the arrival of P.V. Sindhu, the women’s game suddenly looks healthy. The top two Indian men—P. Kashyap and Ajay Jayaram—are ranked in the 20s and have scored wins against higher-ranked players, but neither has been consistent.
What is encouraging for India is that there is a clutch of younger players close on their heels. Of this young bunch, 19-year-old Sai Praneeth is reckoned to be the most naturally gifted.
National coach P. Gopi Chand is optimistic: “What is exciting is that we have a good bunch of young players in Sai Praneeth, H.S. Prannoy, K. Srikant, Sourabh and Sameer Verma. Along with Kashyap and Jayaram, this means a bunch of eight-10 prospects that no other country has. P.V. Sindhu is coming up, and she’s just 16. If you look around, you’ll see that other countries are struggling to produce players. Even Denmark doesn’t have a prospect in the women’s singles after Tine Baun. We already have two good players in Saina and Sindhu. And Saina is just 22.”
Gopi Chand is unsure yet if any of the men can make the top 10, but states that India now stand as good a chance as any other team. “There’s a huge scope for India to do well, but there should also be willingness from the players. These are exciting times, it’s a great challenge,” says Gopi Chand.
Doubles player Rupesh Kumar, a vital part of the team over the last decade, believes India can be No. 2, after China, in a few years. “No other country has a bunch of promising singles players as India does,” Kumar says. “After Chong Wei, Taufik and Peter Gade retire, and apart from the Chinese, there is no extraordinary player, no player who cannot be beaten. With our strength in singles, we can aspire for the No. 2 position in around three-four years.”
The turnaround hasn’t come about suddenly. Part of the reason is the increased exposure of Indian players to the international circuit since 2006, as preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. While earlier generations of players were awestruck by the power of opponents from China, Indonesia and the like, the current generation, exposed to international badminton before its teens, talks almost dismissively about them.
“They don’t hit all that hard,” says Ashwini Ponnappa, bronze medallist at the 2011 BWF World Championships, who will play the doubles with Jwala Gutta at the Olympics. “It’s not difficult to handle them. It’s just a matter of being consistent at the crucial moments in the game.”
Another factor that has aided the Indian upsurge is expertise in training on and off court. Indonesian coaches such as Hadi Sugianto, Atik Jauhari, Hadi Idris and Edwin Iriwan have brought their techniques of training to Indian camps, and players have benefited as well from professional physical trainers. The Indian team’s travelling physio, Kiran Challagundla, offers expertise earlier teams had to do without.
Meanwhile, as India sees increased government and private money coming to badminton, the socio-economic situation has changed in Indonesia and Malaysia. Badminton is not the sport of choice it used to be. “When I was growing up, I was forced to play badminton because that was the only way I could make some money,” former Indonesian chief coach Lius Pongoh told this writer recently. “But nowadays, youngsters have other means, so they don’t need to work hard at badminton.”
The new world order will see China maintain its position on top, but No. 2 to No. 10 (depending on what measure you choose) will be a scramble between nations that will be harder to predict than before. The difference between countries has lessened.
“I’m excited,” is a simple statement from Gopi Chand, who was asked recently by the England coach Kenneth Jonassen: “What have you done? We don’t even have one singles player, and you already have Sindhu following behind Saina. What’s the story in India?”
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