This article is part of our 2017: A Year In Review series
1980 was the year that Indian badminton first turned the corner. That year Prakash Padukone won the All England Badminton singles title which many, at that time, believed was the equivalent of the Wimbledon Championship in tennis.
India, of course, had some great players before Prakash made the national singles title his personal property in the 1970s. Nandu Natekar, Prakash Nath, Devinder Mohan, Suresh Goel and a few others showed flashes of brilliance during their careers but never really broke the barrier of international excellence.
Prakash did. The Indonesians, the Chinese, the Danes and the Englishmen feared and respected him. The crowds in Europe flocked to his matches, in large numbers, just to see the Indian conjurer weave his spell of magic on court.
Besides winning the All England title, Prakash also won the Alba World Cup, having won the Commonwealth Games gold at Edmonton earlier, and then went on to bag a few prestigious titles on the Asian and European circuits.
The ace shuttler confesses to have turned the corner when he watched his idol, Rudy Hartono – six-time All England champ – train during an event at Jabalpur.
Pulela Gopichand – who also won the All England title once – and Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo are now bringing about Indian badminton’s second renaissance.
As of December 2017, Pusarla V Sindhu is ranked 3rd while Kidambi Srikanth is 4th in the women’s and men’s singles respectively, in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) list. Saina Nehwal and Prannoy HS both hold the 10th position in their respective sections, and Sai Praneeth B is ranked 17th in the men’s singles.
This is, perhaps, India’s best ever representation in the list of 25 top players of the world – in the men and women’s sections.
However Gopichand, who now coaches most of India’s top badminton players at his academy in Hyderabad, feels that Indian badminton’s renaissance will take a long time to come. He told reporters a while ago that India could only be called a world force in badminton when consistency is achieved. “Winning a few events here and there can’t really be called domination,” he averred.
Prakash, who now coaches at his academy in Bengaluru and is involved in quite a few sporting initiatives, believes that India can’t become a dominant force in world badminton unless the entire country has access to good coaching. He therefore advocates engaging foreign coaches to train coaches in India.
Both Gopichand and Prakash believe that it should be the system that generates good players, rather than the efforts of individual coaches or academies.
Saina once said that badminton wasn’t a popular sport in India and that she never believed that an Indian could win a badminton medal at the Olympics. Saina, herself, won a bronze at the London Games and then Pusarla V Sindhu won silver at Rio!
The performances of Srikanth, Sindhu, Saina, Prannoy, and Sai Praneeth have created an interest in the game all over the country, over the last few years. India has made a place for itself on the world badminton map. At the moment, however, there are only a handful of good coaches. Prakash, Gopichand and Vimal Kumar are a few of them.
Srikanth, 24, was the most successful of the lot in 2017. He started off by losing to Sai Praneeth in the Singapore Super Series final. Following that reverse, however, he won the Indonesian Open, the Australian Open, the Denmark Open and the French Open in a fine run of consistency to claim the second spot in world rankings. Srikanth then strained a thigh muscle during the nationals at Nagpur, and had to miss the China Open and the Hong Kong Open. Back to full fitness now, he is aiming for a podium finish in the World Super Series finals, in Dubai, in the week before Christmas.
Sindhu won the Syed Modi International, the India Open and Korea Open titles in 2017. Losing to Tai Tzu-ying in the Hong Kong Open, she narrowly missed winning the World Championship title, losing to Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in three hard-fought sets.
Despite a debilitating knee injury which she carried into the Rio Games, former world number one Saina is ranked 10th on the BWF list. She had won the Australian Open before the Olympics and then recovered quickly to win the Malaysian Open title and to pick up a bronze at the World Championships in Glasgow.
What was more heartening was the fact that Saina, who is already a veteran at 27, was back to her best in the 82nd National Badminton Championships. There she out-lasted her in-form junior, Sindhu, beating her 21-17 27-25 in the final.
Prannoy won a solitary US Open title in 2017 beating compatriot Parupalli Kashyap in the final. Sai Praneeth, on the other hand, won the Singapore Open in the Super Series and won the BWF Thailand Open during the year. He was also runner up at the Syed Modi International.
There is a host of other Indians vying for a place in the top 25, in the men’s section, including Sameer Varma, Ajay Jayaram, Parupalli Kashyap and Sourabh Verma. Young Rituparna Das too, promises to make it big soon in the women’s section.
Cricket is the most popular sport in India by a mile. If media pundits are to be believed, however, badminton is the fastest rising game in the country, in terms of popularity. This, despite the fact that India’s football team is doing well, the FIFA Under-17 World Cup was played in India during the year and the sporadic brilliance of the Indian hockey team in international tournaments.
To gain more popularity, the Premier Badminton League – which brings the world’s best players to India – has to cater to badminton fans pan India. It needs to be marketed more aggressively. Moreover, India has to show its strength in the Thomas and Uber Cup events.
American country musician Tom T Hall once said, “I love winners when they cry; losers when they try.” Here’s hoping we see many of our badminton stars crying in the coming years and a lot many trying!
A parting shot: India’s stock is growing at the international level, in my opinion, because of individual effort and the sweat, blood and tears of some dedicated coaches. Wish the Badminton Association could put in a little more effort too!
The author is a sportswriter and caricaturist. A former fast bowler and coach, he is now a mental toughness trainer.