The first two days of the ongoing badminton World Championships in Basel provided a window to what Indian badminton, in its decade of resurgence, has come to expect from its ever-growing crop of male players. Promise shown. Some realised, some belied. In early-round matches, HS Prannoy, who is in Basel due to late withdrawals, upset Lin Dan, a legend of the sport but now in the tail end of his career. Elsewhere, Sameer Verma, seeded 10th, lost in the first round, still leaving three Indians in the fray.

Will one of them make a championship run? Likewise, the two leading Indian women, PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal? For Indian singles badminton, the story of 2019 has been one of diminishing returns as one moves up the draw. There are ample appearances of promise, but no silverware.

The Indian resurgence is now taken for granted. As is India’s place in the top echelons of badminton. As a badminton power, India’s attempted shift for some years now has been about trying for greater stickiness at the very top of rankings and returns that come with more silverware. Instead, however, India has slipped from the highs of 2017.

That was the year when the pool of Indian singles players, both women and men, featuring in the tournaments that matter in the context of world rankings hit the highest in the last decade. In badminton singles, the top tournaments tend to feature a draw of 64 players. That year, the singles draws of these prime tournaments featured an average of 7.3 Indian men and 4.2 Indian women. In 2019, those figures read 4.9 and 2.8, respectively.

For Indian players, in this decade of resurgence, men and women singles have operated on different levels. The women game has been characterised by impact at the very top. Both Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have had long stints where they have been top draws, winning or contending for titles. For example, Nehwal was in the top 10 between 2009 and 2016, and has returned there again this year. Similarly, Sindhu has been a fixture in the top 10 since late-2016.

The men’s side, on the other hand, has not seen a similar impact. What it has seen in greater measure is depth. In the last 10 years, the number of Indian male players who broke into the top 50—at any point during the year and for any duration—exceeded the number of Indian women players that did so in each year except 2012. But the men’s side still waits for its Nehwal or Sindhu—a player who is there at the business end on many occasions.

Meanwhile, the grip of Indian women appears to be loosening. Indian women are still maintaining their singles record of making it to the quarter-finals of tournaments. In 2019, for example, Indian women have converted 29% of their singles appearances into a quarter-final spot, which is similar to the best years in the preceding nine years.

But compared to previous years, a drop off is happening at the quarter-finals stage. Of the occasions when they have reached the quarter-finals, they have progressed further—to semi-finals, finals or titles—only 44% of the time. In the nine years before that, they averaged 56%. This best return was 75% in 2010. In other words, an Indian woman won her quarter-final match three out of four times. There was also 69% in 2010 and 60% in 2015.

It’s the same story on the men’s side. As a collective, Indian male shuttlers have maintained their strike rate of reaching the quarter-finals, but their return beyond has halved from the good years that were 2014 and 2015.

This can impact rankings. A player’s ranking is computed using their 10 best point-scores over a 52-week period. For top Indian singles players, a sub-par 2019 has meant their current ranking is back-loaded, notably Kidambi Srikanth and Sameer Verma among the men (world number 10 and 14, respectively), and Sindhu and Nehwal among the women. Without deep runs in the next few tournaments, their ranking will slip.

Deep runs means running into seeded players. That’s been a stumbling block for Indian players in 2019: the winning percentage of Indian women against seeded opponents this year has been the lowest in the last decade and second-lowest for Indian men.

For every 10 matches played against seeded players, on average, Indian women won just 1.6. That’s a far cry from 2010, when this figure was 5. Or even 2015, when this figure was 4. Similarly, the men are averaging 1.7 in 2019, against 4.3 as recently as 2017. That’s the hump Indian badminton is hitting. How it tackles this will define if it can transit to the next level.

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