P.V. Sindhu. Photo: AP
P.V. Sindhu. Photo: AP

Letter from a badminton courtside

Indian shuttlers are in the zone, as coach P. Gopi Chand would say, at the end of what has been one of Indian badminton's best years

Even if you set aside the results from the ongoing Dubai World Superseries Finals (13-17 December), 2017 has been a success for badminton in India. Despite inevitable comparisons to 2016—when the country won its first Olympic medal with P.V. Sindhu’s silver at Rio de Janeiro—this has been as good if not a better year. 

By the first week of December, India had 13 players in the top 100 rankings of men’s singles. Kidambi Srikanth is the highest at No. 4, having slipped and risen a bit in the topsy-turvy world of professional sports rankings. 

Nine women are in the top 100, with Sindhu at No. 3 and Saina Nehwal, returning to the sport strongly after an extended injury break, edging into the top 10. 

In the year’s last major tournament in Dubai, in which the top eight players in the world (from their categories) compete, including Sindhu and Srikanth, the latter lost early but that could be the result of a return from an injury break. As I write this, Sindhu is in the semifinals in Dubai after winning all her group matches while Srikanth lost all three group matches to be eliminated from the tournament. 

This year was one of the best for Indian badminton, particularly for the men, who came out of the shadows of Nehwal and Sindhu—the country’s flagbearers in the sport for the last many years. It’s because they are all at that age (Srikanth is 24, Sindhu 22, H.S. Prannoy is 25 and Sai Praneeth is 25) when they are starting to do well—the golden period of their careers, explained Pullela Gopi Chand, India’s national coach and guru to most of the country’s top players at his eponymous academy in Hyderabad. 

“2015 was a bad year," said Gopi Chand on the sidelines of an event last week. “In some ways, all (players) tried to qualify for the Olympics (in Rio in 2016) and messed up their calendar big time. They started carrying injuries and playing tournaments just to qualify. When you have a little time—like this year—and you start training better, then results are bound to happen." 

The other reason Gopi Chand gave to this continued improvement in Indian badminton is the competition within—it’s particularly true at his academy. For example, Sai Praneeth (ranked No. 17) beat Srikanth at the Singapore Open in April but lost to him at the Australian Open in June. Pronnoy, who was No. 28 at this time last year and is now No. 10, defeated one of the game’s best players, the now No. 2 Lee Chong Wei, twice this year—in Indonesia and Denmark. 

It helps having so many players at the top of their games because one, the other players are not relaxing. Even if you are on top, there is someone behind (in rankings) capable of doing better, said Gopi Chand. 

“Two, it serves as inspiration. Everybody starts progressing. Suddenly, a place in the quarterfinals of a major tournament doesn’t seem good enough; neither does a semifinal." 

Gopi Chand was in Mumbai earlier last week to launch a collaborative programme with IDBI Federal Life Insurance called Quest for Excellence. The initiative encourages players under the age of 10 to send a two-minute video of their game and possibly get selected to train at his academy after undergoing a selection process. 

For Srikanth to win four Superseries titles (and runner-up in one), reach No. 2 in ranking (in early November)—“only the people we now call legends in the sport have achieved that," said the 2001 All England champion, who has the best of Indian talent in his academy—including Sindhu, Nehwal, Parupalli Kashyap, Praneeth and Srikanth. 

Srikanth’s success has also been lucrative—he is already the year’s leading earner. With over $230,000 earned in prize money by November, he has over three times more than the next highest-earning men’s singles player, according to data from the Badminton World Federation (BWF). He is also one of the four contenders for BWF’s male player of the year. 

On 9 December, at the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai, Srikanth was given an honorary membership by the club and a guard of honour by the club’s children. The 24-year-old was returning from an injury that forced him to miss two major tournaments and started training just two weeks prior. 

Though Srikanth said winning the title was a priority rather than getting the ranking, a title in Dubai could have pushed him to the No. 1 slot. 

Despite Srikanth’s titles and Sindhu’s Rio silver, Indian players continue to miss out on the big title—an Olympic gold or a world title or an All England crown. The last person to win that was Gopi Chand himself in 2001. 

This year, in what was widely hailed as one of badminton’s best matches, Sindhu lost to Nozomi Okuhara in the World Championships final 19-21, 22-20, 20-22 after battling for an hour and 50 minutes. Nehwal got the third place—the first time two Indian players made it to the podium of the tournament. 

But Gopi Chand remains unperturbed at missing the big titles so far because of the consistent performances over the last few years and many of them—whether Thomas/Uber Cup, Asian Games or Commonwealth medal or Olympic silver, world No. 2 and world silver—have been “never-before events". 

“If you are consistently in that space and knocking that door, it will break. I am not worried about that one title as such but happy till they are in the ‘zone’, playing semifinals and finals." 

Letter From... is Mint on Sunday’s antidote to boring editor’s columns. Each week, one of our editors—Sidin Vadukut in London and Arun Janardhan in Mumbai—will send dispatches on places, people and institutions that are worth ruminating about on the weekend. 

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