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Commonwealth Games 2018: Indian badminton's journey from being underdogs to best team at Gold Coast

Aparna Popat ruffles through the pages of her memory until she settles on the chapter where she is a 20-year-old competing at her first Commonwealth Games.

The year is 1998 — much before Saina Nehwal's Olympic bronze or PV Sindhu's silver four years later. The Indians are yet to make acquaintance with terms like heavyweights or favourites, which currently accompany them to badminton arenas around the world. Simply put, the sight of the Indian contingent didn't quite make their opponents quake when they walked onto the court. Not then.

 Commonwealth Games 2018: Indian badmintons journey from being underdogs to best team at Gold Coast

India won their first-ever mixed team gold at Commonwealth Games. AP

Popat, at 40 years of age, recollects her 20-year-old self-staring at the scoreboard at the arena in Kuala Lumpur. The score shows that she’s trailing 1-9 in the third game with a spot in the women’s singles final on the line.

Popat remembers saying a line over and over in her mind. Almost like a chant. "If you lose this match, you'll regret it for the rest of your life." The words have their effect. Popat mounts a seemingly improbable comeback and wins. She goes on to lose in the final, but silver as a colour is more reassuring than bronze.

"I was probably the junior-most player on that Indian team, but there were expectations of me. Were there nerves? Definitely! Pressure? Definitely!

"To go there and get a silver medal, I probably played out of my skin. For me, it was the best way to kick-start my career. Until that point, I had done well at the junior level, winning a World Junior silver medal just two years earlier," Popat said a few days before the start of the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.

Popat's silver didn't just symbolise the coming-of-age of a single shuttler. That edition, Kuala Lumpur 1998, saw something else click in the Indian badminton contingent.

Coached by the trailblazing Prakash Padukone, the Indian badminton contingent returned with four medals, with the men's team claiming silver and the women's team winning bronze. A male singles shuttler, who goes by the name of Pullela Gopichand, too claimed a bronze.

"At such events, at the back of your mind, there's always that thought that this is a once-in-four-years opportunity. If I lose this chance now, the next time comes four years later. That's too long a time for an athlete. You never know what's going to happen, in terms of form or fitness. The World Championships will come back. The All England will come next year itself. Whatever you have to do, you have to do it now, now, now!" says Popat.

A lot of things have changed in these 20 years for Indian badminton.

"Now, things are much more organised. Youngsters like Satwik or Chirag can even think as far as an Olympics. They have the luxury of thinking that no matter what happens today, they will be supported till the next Olympics. In our time, it didn't work like that. If you didn't perform today, tomorrow you'd be out of the team only.

"Look at how we played the Nationals. If I didn't win the Nationals, I wouldn't be part of the Indian team for the entire year. That's how the consistency I had in my career happened. These kids don't have that pressure. It's a different kind of pressure. The current generation of Indian badminton players is aiming only in the top 15 ranks in the world. It's not like us, our targets were to qualify for the main draw of the All England. All England main draw ho gaya? Achievement! Olympics qualification ho gaya? Achievement!

"Now when we go into tournaments, we only think quarter-finals onwards. Do we even look at the first or second round?"

As Popat puts it, "When I was competing for India in 1998, we went in as underdogs. This time around, we were favourites."

India lived up to that tag, returning with six medals. While Saina and Sindhu played a sensational women's singles final to lay claim to two of those medals, Kidambi Srikanth brought back a silver. Team India won the gold, while in men's doubles, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty won silver. Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy won the sixth medal for the Indian contingent.

Picture-perfect moments

The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games have left behind a hail of feel-good imagery.

Be it wrestler Vinesh Phogat scooping up her Canadian opponent Jessica MacDonald — a three-time World Championship medallist, no less — on her back before body-slamming her to win gold and exorcise the ghosts of ending the Rio Olympics due a career-threatening injury.

Or weightlifter Mirabai Chanu's earrings moulded like the five Olympic rings as she moved past the disappointment of five no-lifts at Rio 2016 with six CWG record-shattering lifts.

Teenager Mehuli Ghosh finding perfection with a 10.9 shot in her last attempt in the 10m air rifle event. Or another teenager Manu Bhaker's stroll to the gold medal in the 10m air pistol after also shattering the CWG qualifying mark set when she was four years of age. Manika Batra's four medals. Or young Neeraj Chopra's one.
It was a turn-of-the-page event for Indian badminton too in many ways.

Before this, no Indian men's doubles pair had medalled at the CWG. In young Satwiksairaj and Chirag, India found an end to that hoodoo. Before this, the Indian team had never won the mixed team gold. Indians did it this time, without even needing the services of PV Sindhu.

The mixed team gold, in particular, was momentous, a victory brought about by the calm-headedness of experienced hands and the exuberance of youth.

Just like Popat did 20 years ago, Satwiksairaj found himself, and partner Ponnappa, staring at certain defeat in the opening match of the final against Malaysia, trailing 7-11 in the deciding game. Just like Popat, Satwiksairaj and Ponnappa emerged victorious over the Rio Olympics silver medallists Peng Soon Chan and Liu Yong Goh, despite conventional wisdom suggesting it was a lost cause.

With the surefootedness of Ponnappa guiding him, Satwiksairaj pumps a hail of smashes at their rivals, until they have lost, first, the will to return the shuttle, and second, the match.

If Satwiksairaj was the star of the mixed doubles event, Chirag held sway in the men's doubles encounter against Rio Olympics silver medallists Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong.

Having lost the first game, Satwiksairaj and Chirag respond by rattling off the 1st three points in the second game before surging to a 14-9 lead. They eventually allow the Malaysians to catch up at 17-17. In a see-saw match they then find themselves saving two match points at 18-20, which they do. They eventually lose, but by this point, they've shown more pluck than the 21-15, 22-20 scoreline suggests.

In between the two doubles encounters, Kidambi Srikanth shrugs off the weight of his own past to defeat Lee Chong Wei in straight games for the first time ever. Fittingly, it is Saina who comes and wraps up a victory, and the gold.

A fortnight which began with India winning mixed team gold at the Gold Coast, ends with the sight of Satwiksairaj and Chirag winning silver. For good measure, somewhere in between those six medals, Srikanth rises to the World No 1 spot.

A real measure of just how good the badminton team has become will come at this year's Asian Games, with the likes of China and Japan also in the mix. Until then, the Indians will have the satisfaction of winning six CWG medals.

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Updated Date: Apr 16, 2018 17:10:38 IST