If Saina Nehwal‘s hat-trick of titles in 2010 was the catalyst which propelled Indian badminton to a different plane, 2017 has proved to be a watershed year for the sport as Kidambi Srikanth led the boys’ victory parade with four Super Series titles in a calendar year. Since 2010, the sport has witnessed a spiralling success rate every year. The Olympic medal came in 2012 with Saina’s bronze and a podium finish at the World Championships became a regular feature thereafter. Sindhu’s Olympic silver at the 2016 Olympic Games catapulted the game to new heights of popularity.
Losing close finals hurt, but I gave my best, says Sindhu
However, 2017 has seen greater performances from the Indian shuttlers as 13 major titles have been won by seven different players, apart from PV Sindhu‘s silver and Saina’s bronze at the World Championships. Sindhu’s one hour 50-minute marathon against Nozomi Okuhara of Japan in the Worlds final will go down in history as an epic encounter.
Sindhu, Srikanth weave a fairytale year for Indian badminton
Never in the past had so many Indian players figured among the winners’ circle. Until 2017, the success stories have been confined to Saina, Sindhu and Srikanth but this year ‘so-called fringe players’ like SAI Praneeth, Sameer Verma, HS Prannoy and even doubles pair of Pranaav Chopra and Sikki Reddy have ensured that the Indian flag flutters with pride at various international events. For a change the boys have leapt past the girls and cornered more glory this year. Sindhu won two Super Series titles -India Open and Korea Open – and capped the year with a silver at the year-end Finals in Dubai.
But the year belonged to Srikanth and Co, who have virtually dominated the men’s singles with elan. The Indian boys were everywhere in 2017, winning titles, stunning champions and dominating the men’s singles category. Sameer Verma started it by trumping SAI Praneeth at the Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold final in January. Thereafter, SAI Praneeth took charge by pocketing his first Super Series at the Singapore Open in April. Interestingly, here too, Praneeth’s opponent was none other than Srikanth.
Praneeth also clinched the Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold in June. A fortnight later Srikanth triumphed in the Indonesia Open, the richest Premier event of the year. The 24-year-old went on to clinch back-to-back titles, a first in his career, by emerging victorious at the Australian Open Super Series the very next week.
While Indian fans were busy celebrating the unexpected success of their boys, experts have observed a fascinating trend behind these stupendous performances. The Hyderabad boys have been assisting each other in the victories as if they have learnt the art of ‘hunting in packs’.
At the Indonesian Open, HS Prannoy had stunned Malaysian legend Lee Chong Wei and Olympic champion Chen Long to clear the path for his training partner Srikanth. Later, Prannoy said that he took tips from seasoned campaigner Parupalli Kashyap on how to beat the Chinese superstar. Prannoy lost to Kazumasa Sakai in the semifinals but passed on some key information to Srikanth, who defeated the Japanese shuttler in the final.
Even at the Denmark Open in October, Prannoy helped Srikanth by ousting Lee Chong Wei in the second round itself. With easier opponents to negotiate at the latter stages, Srikanth claimed his third Super Series title by defeating Korean veteran Lee Hyun Il in the final. The next week at the French Open, Prannoy ousted Lee Hyun in the first round before going down to Srikanth in a keenly-contested semifinal. By claiming top honours in Paris, Srikanth became the fifth shuttler in badminton history to win four Super Series titles in a calendar year. Incidentally, these were also Srikanth’s second back-to-back titles.
It is no secret that the dexterous efforts of Pullela Gopichand is behind their success and the newfound vigour. All these players hail from his academy and have been with him since their childhood.
About five years back, when Saina and Sindhu were making all the headlines, Gopichand had predicted that the boys too will replicate the girls’ success stories soon. But very few took him seriously at that time. However, once Srikanth burst on the scene with a sensational mauling of Lin Dan in the China Open finals in 2014, people began to notice that the boys were coming to the party.
The coach, who is building Indian badminton brick-by-brick, has immense faith in the abilities of his players and is always confident about breaching the difficult barriers. “In my playing days many used to tell us that we can never reach the level of the Chinese. But I always believed that if we have the facilities in place we can achieve a lot. I am only putting a system in place and I am not surprised with these results,” Gopichand said.
Gopichand changed the landscape of badminton but the Dronacharya awardee is yearning for more. He has a few budding shuttlers who are aspiring to follow the footsteps of their illustrious seniors.
But despite these fabulous feats, the bigger trophies like Olympic gold, World Championships crown and All England are missing from the cupboard. The only way the forthcoming years can beat the success of 2017 is if the shuttlers bring these elusive trophies home.