Badminton in 2019, Part 1: Lakshya Sen’s rise in rankings coincides with steep drop in form of India’s elite shuttlers

The only titles that Indian men’s singles players bagged in 2019 were two World Tour Super 100 category events by Sourabh Verma, and five crowns in a short span of three months towards the end of the year by teenager Lakshya Sen, although they were mostly at the relatively lower-category Super 100 and Challenger tournaments that the top-15 players consider it beneath their dignity to participate in.

Shirish Nadkarni December 27, 2019 16:44:56 IST
Badminton in 2019, Part 1: Lakshya Sen’s rise in rankings coincides with steep drop in form of India’s elite shuttlers
  • The only titles that Indian men’s singles players bagged in 2019 were two World Tour Super 100 category events by Sourabh Verma, and five crowns in a short span of three months towards the end of the year by teenager Lakshya Sen.

  • Sen thus enters 2020 with the right to enter every one of the World Tour tournaments in the top Super 750-1000 and upwards range, and to pit his talent against the very best in the sport.

  • It was the first time since mid-June 2017 that India’s top player, Srikanth, was unable to find a berth in the BWF top ten.

A bronze medal for Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth at the World Championships apart, 2019 must go down as one of the most disappointing and unproductive years in the annals of Indian badminton, considering the fact that the country has been boasting a place amongst the elite nations vying for honours in the shuttle sport.

The only titles that Indian men’s singles players bagged in 2019 were two World Tour Super 100 category events by Sourabh Verma, and five crowns in a short span of three months towards the end of the year by teenager Lakshya Sen, although they were mostly at the relatively lower-category Super 100 and Challenger tournaments that the top-15 players consider it beneath their dignity to participate in.

Badminton in 2019 Part 1 Lakshya Sens rise in rankings coincides with steep drop in form of Indias elite shuttlers

Lakshya Sen enters 2020 with the right to enter every one of the World Tour tournaments in the top Super 750-1000 and upwards range. Image: Twitter @BAI_Media

Nevertheless, the 37,420 points that the 18-year-old Almora youngster gathered from his participation in 17 tournaments (with title wins at the Belgian International, Dutch Open, SaarLorLux Open, Scottish Open and Bangladesh International Challenge) propelled him from a Badminton World Federation (BWF) ranking outside the top-100 at the start of the year (No 108, to be precise) to the 32nd spot on the ladder.

Sen thus enters 2020 with the right to enter every one of the World Tour tournaments in the top Super 750-1000 and upwards range, and to pit his talent against the very best in the sport. Ironically, the big move up the rankings of the youthful Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) shuttler has coincided with a woeful drop in form and performances of the country’s leading men’s singles exponents, right through the course of 2019.

It has been a year in which Japan’s two-time reigning world champion Kento Momota put in a devastating gallop that took him so far ahead of his contemporaries that the tussle for the No 1 spot in the BWF rankings became a strictly one-horse race. The Japanese left-hander won every worthwhile title on the international circuit, including the World Championships, the World Tour grand finals, the All-England and the two elite China Opens.

Momota ended the year with an unprecedented dozen titles and one runner-up finish from participation in 17 tournaments and a humongous 111,918 points. His tally was more than 30,000 points ahead of the second-placed Chinese Taipei player, Chou Tien Chen, who garnered 80,548 points from 20 tournaments. In the process, the 25 year old Japanese southpaw smashed every BWF circuit record, including that of the since-retired Malaysian, Lee Chong Wei, for most titles in a single season.

The hardworking Chou had four titles and two second-place finishes to show for his persistent efforts in the top badminton arenas around the world, and narrowly managed to edge out the 2016 Olympic gold medallist and two-time (2014, 2015) former world champion, Chen Long of China, whose aggregate of 79,640 points was just 908 points short of the Taiwanese shuttler’s tally. The lanky Chinese star had two titles and three runner-up finishes to his credit.

The top three were followed by two Danes – the Basel World Championships runner-up, Anders Antonsen (77,600 points from 18 tournaments), and the 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen (75,788 points from 16 tournaments) – and a couple of Indonesians, the 2018 Asian champion Jonatan Christie (73,640 points from 20 tournaments) and Anthony Sinisuka Ginting (72,562 points from 20 events).

The eighth spot in the BWF year-end rankings went to China’s Shi Yuqi, whose 13 tournaments yielded 64,521 points, including two titles and two second-place finishes, though the latter half of his year was marred by a leg injury that kept him off the courts for nearly four months, and adversely affected his speed on the court. Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus (62,602 points) and Japan’s Kanta Tsuneyama (57,098 points) accounted for the final two spots in the top-ten.

India continue to have half-a-dozen players in the top-32 – Sai Praneeth (in the 11th spot), Kidambi Srikanth (12th), Parupalli Kashyap (23rd), HS Prannoy (26th), Sourabh Verma (28th) and Lakshya Sen (32nd) – with Sameer Verma (33rd) knocking on the doors of the elite list that guarantees the shuttlers a spot in the main draw of every World Tour tournament. The sad part is that, barring Praneeth and Kashyap, all the established stars have taken a snake down the rankings.

It was the first time since mid-June 2017 that India’s top player, Srikanth, was unable to find a berth in the BWF top ten. The four titles and one runner-up finish that he had managed in 2017 seemed a distant memory, as the 26 year old from Guntur finished without a single title in 2019, and ended 12th in the BWF rankings, one spot below his Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) batch-mate and regular sparring partner, Praneeth.

The 55,840 points that Srikanth gathered from participation in 16 tournaments fell marginally short of the 11th placed Praneeth’s tally of 55,970 points from 18 outings. It was an indication of his steep drop in form that he made only one final during the course of the year – at his home India Open Super 500 event in the last week of March, when he was beaten by Axelsen by a 21-7, 22-20 scoreline. It is ironic that Srikanth had knocked over the Dane in the final of the 2015 edition of the India Open.

In the remaining 15 tournaments in which he took part, Srikanth managed to reach just one semi-final – at the Hong Kong Open in November, when he squandered a string of game-points in the second stanza of his clash against Lee Cheuk Yiu of the host nation, and bowed out. He had missed a gilt-edged opportunity of entering his first final of the year after gaining a fortuitous walkover from Momota in his opening round, and having Chen Long retire at the end of the first game of their quarter-final.

There were five losses at the quarter-final stage to show for Srikanth’s efforts during a year when he appeared a half-step slower than he had been in 2017. His erstwhile quicksilver court movements were missing, and he was unable to get in position for the dreaded overhead sideline smash that had been a major weapon in his armoury.

It forces the conclusion that Srikanth has not really recovered from the knee injury he had suffered during the final stages of the 2017 French Open, and which had got aggravated when he had been forced to play in the 2017 Indian Nationals at Nagpur.

India’s most successful men’s singles player for the year just about to end was the talented Praneeth, who ended just outside the top ten. Blessed with a rich repertoire of strokes and a strong temperament, the 27 year old Andhra player reached just one final – at the Swiss Open Super 300 championships in March, losing to Shi Yuqi only because of inferior staying power.

Praneeth also made two semi-finals – at the Japan Open, and the Basel World Championships, where he was contemptuously swept aside at 13-21, 8-21 by the rampaging Momota, who was as much in the “zone” as India’s PV Sindhu was in the women’s singles event. Sai could take consolation from the fact that he actually fared better in his penultimate round clash with Momota than did Denmark’s Anders Antonsen in the final, which proved to be a 9-21, 3-21 decimation of the innocent!

It was a memorable year for veteran Parupalli Kashyap, the 2014 Commonwealth Games champion, who ended runner-up to China’s Li Shifeng in the Canada Open Super 100, and was a losing semi-finalist at the India and Korea Opens. After struggling through the previous two seasons, Kashyap seemed to have gained fresh wind in the wake of his marriage to Saina Nehwal, and worked his way back into the top 25, collecting 43,790 points from 20 tournaments.

It was sad to see the noticeable dip in the form of Prannoy and Sameer Verma. The former started the year well, helping India to the title of the Badminton Asia Mixed Team Championship, also known as the Tong Yun Kai Cup. But there was little joy for the 27 year old Kerala-born shuttler in the individual events, and the best he could achieve were three quarter-final spots – at the India, New Zealand and US Opens.

Sameer, who had been a semi-finalist at the 2018 World Tour grand finals, and had reached a career-high 12th rank last year, had a ragged 2019, and plummeted from the 16th spot in November to drop outside the top-30 by year-end. The 25 year old Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) native ended the year with 37,379 points, being able to make a solitary quarter-final during the year – at the Singapore Open, but had the ignominy of suffering ten first-round losses in the 19 tournaments he played.

Sameer’s elder brother Sourabh had a relatively better year, ending the year with 39,669 points from participation in 18 tournaments. The three-time Indian national champion was Numero Uno at two Super 100 tournaments – the Hyderabad Open and Vietnam Open, won the Slovenia Open Challenger, and also ended runner-up to Chinese Taipei’s Wang Tzu-wei at the Syed Modi Super 300 championships. He looks set to make his way further up the ladder in the forthcoming year.

The visible decline in India’s men’s singles fortunes in the international arena is a sorry portent for the country’s chances at the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics. Considering the manner in which Japan, China and Indonesia have been planning their respective Olympic campaigns, India’s prospects could hardly look gloomier.

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