Saina and Sindhu’s Olympic medals and Gopichand’s champion-producing academy have all contributed in their own ways to help badminton get necessary spotlight in India. Karthik Ramananalysis how the sport has managed to win the hearts of millions of Indians
India’s upward surge in badminton has been evident for a while now. From being mere pretenders, several names have emerged from the country to be regarded as serious contenders at the world stage.
The present BWF rankings speak for itself. In both men and women, India has two players in Top 10 — Kidambi Srikanth (4), HH Prannoy (9); PV Sindhu (3) and Saina Nehwal (10).
The likes of Parupalli Kashyap, Sai Praneeth, Ajay Jayaram, Sameer Verma, Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa have also been doing their part to keep the country’s flag flying high.
It’s not like this is the first time the country has produced top shuttlers.
Dinesh Khanna became the first Indian to win an Asian badminton title in 1965, while Prakash Padukone was the first Indian to win the All England Open Badminton Championships back in 1980. He also topped the rankings chart that year.
Not least of all, the present chief coach of the country, Pullela Gopichand became the only second Indian to win the All England Open Badminton Championships in 2001.
India is used to having quality shuttlers, but this might very well be the first time, the country possesses so many worldclass shuttlers at the same time fighting for top honours around the world.
Undoubtedly, this is the golden generation of badminton in India. India’s Rio Olympic Silver medallist PV Sindhu believes the reason is due to the rise in the number of players performing well for the country.
“Before only one or two were doing well, but now 10-15 are doing really well and definitely India is doing really well and in coming years they will get more medals as well,” the confident 22-year-old player tells you.
HS Prannoy concurred with her and said that is the reason why badminton is garnering more attention in the country lately. “In the last couple of years Saina, Sindhu and Srikanth have been winning tournaments and winning is what that matters. People will only know once you win. I think the performance from each of them has gained big medals at bigger events in World Championships and Olympics. All these kind of medals we bring aboard says that Indian badminton is doing really well in the world level and through that, the popularity has also gone up,” Prannoy explains.
Of the many glorious trophies India won, the one medal which proved pivotal in badminton’s rise was the Bronze medal Saina won in the 2012 London Olympics.
Luck may have favoured her in the Bronze medal match, when China’s Wang Xin retired from the match after an injury with the match at 18–21, 0–1, but, there was nothing lucky about the path she endured to achieve it.
She became the first Indian woman to reach the quarterfinals at the Olympics, when she achieved the feat in 2008 Beijing Games. Then, she won the Gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and entered the 2012 London Games as a medal hopeful and lived up to the billing, bagging the Bronze. Thus, she became the first Indian to win a medal in Badminton at the Olympics.
Since then the country has been virtually unstoppable in this discipline. Saina bagged the Bronze in the 2017 World Championship and Silver in 2015 Championship. Sindhu had bagged the Bronze in the 2013 and 2014 editions and Silver in the 2017 edition of this event. Nehwal bagged the Bronze three times in the Asian Championship, while Sindhu managed it once. They both have also won several Super Series since then.
Then came the 2016 Rio Olympics. Saina went out in the second round, leaving India’s hopes of a medal in that discipline in tantrums, but Sindhu stepped in and ensured that Indian flag in badminton will keep on rising.
The Hyderabadi shuttler might have lost to Spaniard Carolina Marin to settle for Silver. Nonetheless, she won everyone’s hearts with her exquisite performance.
Those two medals were considered by many as the turning point of the sport in the country. “Saina has started the trend of performing at the big stage and Sindhu has followed it up with great wins. Saina’s Olympic medal and Sindhu’s Olympic medal and lot many things that came together which made everyone think about the sport. Plus the government is supporting all of us and giving us such great infrastructure. So a lot many things came together,” men’s badminton sensation Kidambi Srikanth told The Pioneer on the sidelines of a recent felicitation ceremony organised by Badminton Association of India.
Gopichand’s academy coach Mohammed Siyadath Ullah Siddiqui believes the performances by both of them played a huge role in the sport gaining popularity in the country.
“After getting the Olympic medal from Saina and after that Sindhu, now the parents are supporting the sport. Before, all the parents used to tell studies are more important. Now they can see that future is going better so they are encouraging to play sports and especially in badminton, we are getting results in it so a lot of parents are encouraging them. So now many are trying to take the sport as a profession,” Siddiqui explains.
It didn’t stop with the women as the men have also joined the pack in the last few years and have asserted their domination at the world stage. Last year, Srikanth became the first Indian and only the fourth player in the history to lift four Super Series titles in a calendar year.
The four titles were the French Open Super Series, the Denmark Open Super Series Premier, the Indonesia Super Series Premier and Australian Open Super Series.
Prannoy also showed his ability at the top level, regularly beating top players last year.
Before these two, Kashyap created history by reaching the men’s singles quarterfinals at 2012 London Olympics, becoming the only male player from India to achieve the feat at that time. At the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, he won Gold in singles event.
Prannoy is of the opinion that Srikanth’s outstanding performances have given the necessary belief to all the male players. “It’s a good transition from over the years of training and credit goes to Srikanth for the way he has played last season. A lot of positive energy from his performance is felt in the entire camp. It is one big spark that has given a lot of good performances,” he says.
“The belief of saying that we are in the world rankings up there and we are beating the world’s top players every now and then and now we have the belief that we can be up for it,” he says.
Gopichand is happy to see that Kidambi is doing his part to keep the spotlight on men’s shuttlers. “Women have done well over the years and have won some serious big events and won medals for us at the biggest of the events like the Olympics so I think the women have definitely done well. But it’s great to see Srikanth push the flag up of the men’s shuttler,” he says and adds that Srikanth, Prannoy and Kashyap’s contribution will be an inspiration for the younger lot.
Can Srikanth and Prannoy emulate Saina and Sindhu in the country? “Well, I think both of them are young and both of them have a very solid game and both of them are aggressive and have what it takes to be at the top for many years. So with that perspective, I think they definitely can do very well,” Gopichand tells you.
Srikanth carried on his superb form from last season to bag the Gold in the mixed-team event and Silver in the men’s singles event in the recently concluded Commonwealth Games, which ensured him secure the World No. 1 spot. However, he couldn’t hang on to that spot for long. And currently, he is placed at the fourth position.
Gopichand explained what Srikanth has to do in the future to sustain the No. 1 ranking.
“Every area of his game needs to be worked because the moment you are a marked player, people will prepare for you and you cannot afford to have any faults or weaknesses in your game. Srikanth will have to work with his by nature strength, which is to be attacking. But, he will have to control and curb his attack and save his energy in the big matches, in the big stadiums and slow courts against defensive players. Srikanth will also need to ensure that he cuts down on his unforced errors during matches,” Pullela explains.
However, for the player, ranking is not a priority right now. Kidambi believes that if he does well in tournaments, the rankings will automatically follow him.
“Rankings are not the priority for me. To do well in the tournaments that I’m playing is important. If I can do really well in tournaments, I can reach that. So I’m working really hard to play well in the tournaments,” he says.
Following his terrific run of late, Kidambi is being compared with several prominent players of the past and is expected to break the records of those former players. Notably, when asked if he could be the next Gopichand of India, the 25-yearold shuttler gave a modest reply.
“I just want to remain as Srikanth and not the next anyone. I’m not challenging any player. Each player has their own achievement. It is great what Gopichand achieved, winning All England in 2001 without much support. Now with the kind of support we are having, many players are doing well. I really want to do well in every tournament,” he says.
Prannoy too had a brilliant end to last year. In Indonesian Open, he defeated Olympic Silver medalist Lee Chong Wei and reigning Olympic Champion Chen Long in successive matches. Then, he beat Srikanth to win the national championship title.
The 25-year-old believes there were lots of reasons for his improvement. “There were a lot of things in the training schedule and probably a lot of things when you work mentally and personally. There were a lot of support from each and every corner and the things which you try differently will work differently,” he explains.
When taking into account the improvement the country has shown in the sport of late, can India be regarded as a powerhouse in the sport now? Sindhu believes so.
“This is because earlier, only one or two were doing well. Now 10-15 are doing well. India is doing really well and in coming years we will get more medals as well,” she opines and tells you what needs to be done to reach the level of the sport’s heavyweights.
“We are not less. We are beating the Chinese, Japanese and Malaysians. So it’s not that we are unable to compete with them but I feel that on a given day whoever plays well and gives their best is the winner,” Sindhu says. Gopichand reckons that there should be a system to identify and nurture youngsters so that India can also be a badminton powerhouse.
“We have made a significant improvement in our strength over the years. If we are able to focus and get our attention to ensure that there is a system built around identifying the talent and nurturing it well, I think we can be one of the powerhouses of the world badminton,” he explains.
Gopichand also believes that for a player to be successful and maintain that level mental aspect is equally important.
“If you look at any player at the top, the mental aspect is a very significant one and very rarely you will see people without mental strength and quality gets to the top. I think physical is there but your perseverance, you are fighting against odds, your will and attitude towards change are very important aspects which differentiate players from winners. Of course, physical element is very important but mental is a very significant one,” said the 44-year-old former player.
It took years of hard work for India to reach this level and now comes the most difficult part – sustaining the success.
“Now we are performing really well and I think we are all really proud of what we are doing but we have a lot of work to do and we have a lot of teams to catch up and to stay at the top level is not easy, getting over there is easier than staying at the top,” concluded Prannoy.
Writer: Karthik Raman
Courtesy: The Pioneer