Badminton in 2019, Part 2: PV Sindhu’s World Championship triumph sole redeeming feature of forgettable year for India
Sindhu ended 2019 at the sixth spot in the Badminton World Federation rankings, with 72,914 points from participation in 18 World Tour tournaments, with her sole title coming at the World Championships
Pushed to the limit by South Korean coach Kim Ji Hyun, who had taken over the reins of her training from February, Sindhu rose to dizzy heights at the World Championships
India’s ageing shuttle queen, Saina Nehwal, finished the year ranked 11th with one title, the Indonesia Masters in late-January
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty broke into the top ten with their Thailand Open triumph but had to settle for 12th spot in the BWF rankings
Finally, after a long and agonising wait, India have a world badminton champion to boast of. But PV Sindhu’s women’s singles gold medal at Basel in August 2019 remained the sole redeeming feature of an otherwise forgettable year for Indian badminton.
Pushed to the limit by South Korean coach Kim Ji Hyun, who had taken over the reins of her training and practice from February this year, Sindhu rose to dizzy heights at the World Championships in Switzerland, scoring wins in quick succession over Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying in the quarter-finals, China’s Chen Yufei in the semi-finals, and Japan’s 2017 world champion Nozomi Okuhara in the summit clash.
In what was only her fifth win in 15 meetings at the time over the Taiwanese ace, Sindhu stormed back after a meek surrender in the opening game, to pip Tai 12-21, 23-21, 21-19. This was the match that tested not only her aggressive game but also her mental toughness, for Tai was strongly favoured to win her first world title.
Sindhu then hit the kind of form she has never been seen in, moving with alacrity on the court, and raining down smashes from all angles, to simply overpower her final two opponents. Her defence was barely tested as her attacking strokes tore deep rents in her rivals’ defence. So dominant was the lanky Indian against Yufei in the semi-finals that she disposed of the Chinese girl’s challenge in quick time by a 21-7, 21-14 scoreline.
The Hyderabadi was literally “in the zone” in the final as well, playing with the confidence and authority that comes to a player just once or twice in a lifetime, to gain sweet revenge for her loss to Okuhara by a 19-21, 22-20, 20-22 scoreline in the 2017 world final. This time, the scoreboard read 21-7, 21-7 – a result that would have been inconceivable against the supremely fit Japanese stonewaller.
But that was the dominant Sindhu’s swansong for the year. In half a dozen tournaments following the Basel competition and the subsequent break-up with her charismatic coach, the freshly installed world champion netted two first-round defeats, two second-round losses, a quarter-final defeat, and early elimination from the World Tour grand finals in Guangzhou, where she had been the defending champion.
Sindhu ended 2019 at the sixth spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, with 72,914 points from participation in 18 World Tour tournaments. There was no other title in her satchel, and the closest she came to winning one was when she ended runner-up to Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi at the Indonesia Open in July. Otherwise, she had just two semi-finals to show for her efforts during the year – at the India and Singapore Opens.
It must be conceded that the women’s singles witnessed far keener competition than the men’s singles, which was comprehensively dominated by Japanese world champion Kento Momota, with a record 12 titles in the year. Every one of the top five women spent some time on the sidelines during the year with injuries to knees, ankles, shoulder and back.
The women’s titles were distributed evenly among the topnotchers, with the eventual World no 1, Chen Yufei (96,765 points from 17 tournaments) winning seven crowns; and last year’s world No 1, Tai (95,675 points from just 14 tournaments) bagging three crowns and as many runner-up spots. It is interesting to note that the World no 1 spot was decided in the very last match of the year – the title clash of the World Tour grand finals, wherein Yufei scored over Tai in three tough games.
Yamaguchi (88,650 points from 20 tournaments) placed third on the table, was crowned queen on three occasions, and was runner-up once – all in the first half of the year. The chunky Japanese appeared to fall away somewhat in the second half of the year. Okuhara, in fourth place with 87,186 points from 19 tournaments, failed to win a single title but was on the victory rostrum in the runners-up spot six times.
Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, who had won the 2013 World Championship at the tender age of 18, finished the year one spot above Sindhu with 78,485 points from 20 tournaments. She claimed two winner’s cheques – at the Malaysia Masters and the India Open – and four runner-up spots, showing better fitness and a welcome return to form after a lengthy barren period.
China’s He Bingjiao (69,770 points from 18 tournaments) and Canada’s Michelle Li (61,405 points from 22 competitions) finished seventh and eighth, respectively, while the ninth spot was claimed by the exciting 17 years old South Korean, An Se Young (60,750 points from 20 tournaments), who made a storming entry into top-flight badminton by bagging five titles – New Zealand Open, Canada Open, Akita Masters, French Open and Gwangju Korea Masters.
India’s ageing shuttle queen, Saina Nehwal, finished the year ranked 11th with 56,937 points from 16 tournaments, and one title – the Indonesia Masters in late-January. The crown came in somewhat fortuitous circumstances, as her opponent in the summit clash, Spain’s three-time former world champion and Olympic gold medallist, Carolina Marin, wrenched her right knee midway through the opening game, and was forced to throw in the towel.
Marin was forced to have knee surgery, and to spend nearly eight months in rehab, but came roaring back to bag three titles at the Victor China Open, Syed Modi International and Italian International, and was also runner-up at the French Open to Korean prodigy Se Young. The Spanish left-hander ended tenth in the rankings, one spot above Nehwal, with 59,600 points from just nine tournaments.
A review of shuttlers’ performances in 2019 would be incomplete without dwelling on the exploits of India’s top men’s doubles pair, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who broke into the world’s top ten for the first time in India’s badminton history but had to settle for 12th spot in the BWF year-end rankings, with 57,500 points from 14 tournaments.
Rankireddy and Shetty’s best performance came at the Thailand Open in the first week of August when they pocketed the crown – the first World Tour doubles title for India – by edging out the then reigning world champion combination of Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen of China. They won the final with brilliant tactics, actually taking advantage of a shoulder injury to the then 18-year-old Satwik, to throw the pace-loving world champions off their stride, by slowing down the pace of the game and employing what would be referred to as “soft-balling” in tennis terminology.
What made the Indians’ Thailand Open win all the more satisfying was the fact that they took the title from a glittering field that featured every one of the world’s top four doubles combinations, viz. Indonesia’s Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo (ranked No 1), Japan’s Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda (no 2), Li and Liu (No 3), plus Indonesia’s Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan (No 4).
The injury to Rankireddy prevented the pair’s participation in the Basel World Championships, but they recovered sufficiently to make the French Open final, where, unfortunately, they proved no match to the world’s best men’s doubles combination – Gideon and Sukamuljo of Indonesia.
The latter (known in their country as ‘Minions’) proved the runaway No 1 pair yet again, finishing the year with 105,803 points from 18 tournaments, compared to their second-placed compatriots, Ahsan and Setiawan (celebrated as the ‘Daddies’), who notched 99,500 points from 20 competitions. Japan’s Kamura-Sonoda (82,103 points from 21 tournaments) were third, and China’s Li-Liu (81,550 from 19) fourth in the year-end rankings.
There was nothing much to write about India’s results in the women’s and mixed doubles. Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy were a distant 30th on the table, collecting 38,709 points from participation in 21 tournaments, while Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Sikki Reddy were 28th on the mixed doubles charts, 38,301 points from 19 tournaments.
Rankireddy and Ponnappa finished further down, in the 35th spot, garnering 33,647 points from a mere seven tournaments. They skipped several competitions due to the former’s shoulder injury; and many students of the game feel that it would be in India’s best interests if Rankireddy were to quit playing the mixed event and concentrate all his energies on the men’s doubles, where the Indians have the potential to be among the top five duos in the world in the Olympic year.
Chief national coach Pullela Gopichand is hopeful that the country's male shuttlers will be able to reclaim the gold in men's singles and better their record in doubles event at the upcoming Commonwealth Games following India's epic Thomas Cup win.
Allu Arjun was seen in an engagement ceremony of Industrialist Nimmagadda Prasad’s son, Nikhil in Hyderabad, where he was captured with P. V. Sindhu.
The tournament marked the first time Momota has played in Malaysia since he was involved in a car crash there two years ago, which sent his career into free fall.