Improbable victories make for great underdog sporting stories, and when these are achieved on successive days, as was the case with Indian badminton player H.S. Prannoy at the Indonesia Open Super Series last week, it gets attention.
Prannoy marked his return to the top 25 in men’s singles world rankings by stunning the Olympic silver medallist Lee Chong Wei and the reigning Olympic champion Chen Long before going down to Japanese qualifier Kazumasa Sakai in the semi-finals.
Returning to competitive action after a three-month injury break, Prannoy, 24, dismantled former Malaysian world No.1 and Rio runner-up Lee in straight games and did one better by powering past China’s Chen Long in the quarter-finals.
Indian world No.22 Kidambi Srikanth won the premier event on Sunday in what was his second straight Super Series final appearance, following the Singapore Open, which was won by compatriot B. Sai Praneeth.
Srikanth, 24, eliminated a series of higher-ranked players, including Danish world No.9 Jan Ø. Jørgensen in the pre-quarter-finals and Korean world No.1 Son Wan Ho in the semi-finals, in his spectacular run to his third Super Series title.
In 2014, Srikanth had created a major upset when he shocked Chinese legend Lin Dan in the final of the China Open in straight games for his first Super Series crown.
The string of successes in recent times is seen as a sign of revival of the Indian men’s game on the global stage.
The past few years had been dominated by the exploits of the women players. For although the likes of Parupalli Kashyap, a quarter-finalist at the 2012 London Games, and Ajay Jayaram, among others, courted success on the global stage, they weren’t consistent, and men’s badminton was soon overshadowed by the rise of Olympic medallist and former world No.1 Saina Nehwal and Rio Games silver medallist P.V. Sindhu.
Four Indians are currently in the top 25 in men’s singles, with Jayaram at No.13, Sai Praneeth at 14, Srikanth at 22 and Prannoy at 25. With the young Verma siblings, Sameer and Sourabh, at 31 and 33, respectively, six Indians are in the top 50, and this certainly augurs well for the sport.
Three Indian pairs figure in the top 50 in men’s doubles, with Manu Attri/B. Sumeeth Reddy at No.29, followed by Satwiksairaj Rankireddy/Chirag Shetty at 40 and M.R. Arjun/Ramchandran Shlok at 45.
Such was Prannoy’s play from the back of the court that the local media compared him to former Indonesian world and Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat, a protégé of Mulyo Handoyo, the Indonesian who was recently appointed India’s singles coach to ease the workload on chief national coach Pullela Gopi Chand.
“I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a revival of Indian men’s badminton, but yes, their performances have got a lot more consistent on the global stage, both in singles and doubles," says former world junior and Commonwealth Games medallist Aparna Popat.
“The players have adapted quickly to the rapidly changing modern game. Their fitness levels are definitely of global standards, as is seen in their scoring patterns. Unlike in the past, there are no more defensive and offensive players now, and if it’s not an all-out offensive, the players are cutting out the angles."
Popat gives credits to the improved coaching system in the country. “Especially the use of information, an aspect which was absent for earlier generations of players. These days, one gets to study an opposition before playing them," she says.
Prannoy, Srikanth and Kashyap all train at the academy in Hyderabad that is run by Gopi Chand, a former All England champion.
“I’d say all the pieces are falling in place. It’s a good feeling when all the players are doing well; although we are still a long way from being a top badminton nation, I think we are moving in the right direction," says Gopi Chand.
“In the past, success came sporadically but now the efforts are more concerted and that’s a good sign for Indian badminton on the whole," he adds.
Sanjay Rajan has written on sport for over two decades. He tweets at @SeamUp.