For the first time in history, two Indians contested the men’s singles final of a Superseries tournament, the Singapore Open, one of the elite competitions in the annual badminton calendar. Last Sunday, which featured the summit clash between Kidambi Srikanth and B Sai Praneeth, could hence be considered as a red-letter day in the annals of Indian badminton.
Only on 19 occasions in the past had a Superseries men’s singles final been fought between two players from the same country; and only three nations had featured on that list. Chinese players had claimed that distinction on 17 occasions, while Indonesia and Denmark had achieved the mark once each.
Such a happenstance has never before taken place in the Indian women’s game. Saina Nehwal, over the past seven years, has won several Superseries tournaments, but has never been called upon to play against a fellow-countrywoman in a final. Not even at the India Open, which would have meant strong crowd support and familiarity with home conditions for Indian players.
In fact, Saina had been the sole trailblazer in Indian badminton before Srikanth won the 2013 China Open, lowering the colours of five-time World Champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist, Lin Dan. Srikanth went on to win the 2015 India Open, and rise to as high as No 3 on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings before a spate of injuries caused him to take a fast snake down into the 30s.
Saina’s heir apparent, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, had to wait five years before she bagged her first Superseries title – the China Open in November 2016. But, with Saina returning from a serious knee injury, sustained during the Rio Olympics three months earlier, the chances of an all-Indian women’s singles final turned remote. Sindhu went on to win her second Superseries crown at the India Open last month, but has since had disappointing results at the Malaysia and Singapore Opens.
All these above-mentioned facts beg the question: Has India, in the wake of the Praneeth-Srikanth Singapore Open final, barged into the ranks of the elite badminton nations — China, Denmark, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea — who routinely contest for top honours in the Thomas Cup, symbol of international men’s team supremacy?
Despite the euphoria that has suffused the nation, in the wake of the achievement of national coach Pullela Gopichand’s fondest dream, there is need for a reality check. Several factors contributed to the placing of two Indians on the top two rungs of the victory rostrum at the Singapore Badminton Association Hall; and not all of them point towards an Indian surge to the pinnacle of the sport at international level.
First and foremost, the tournament was not a Superseries Premier event, equivalent to tennis’ four Grand Slam major events, in which almost all of the world’s top players make it a point to participate. It featured prize money of $350,000, compared to the $600,000 on offer at the Malaysia Open, which had been held just a week earlier.
In addition, the Singapore Open was held at the fag end of an exhausting schedule that featured the All England Superseries Premier in the first week of March, followed closely by the India Open Superseries, the Malaysia Open Superseries Premier and the Singapore Open Superseries, the last three in successive weeks.
Naturally, participation in the Singapore Open, particularly in the men’s singles, was nowhere near as strong as it had been in the two Super Series Premier events held in the immediate past. The top four men’s singles players, Lee Chong Wei, Chen Long, Lin Dan and Jan O Jorgensen, either stayed away altogether, or cried off at the last moment, citing injury and fatigue.
The Singapore Open draw was further weakened by the unexpected first-round defeat of Viktor Axelsen, currently ranked No 3 in the world. Before the giant Dane could get his bearings, he was knocked out at 15-21, 15-21 by the bustling Hong Kong player, Wong Wing Ki Vincent.
Korean Son Wan Ho, seeded No 4, had a difficult time in his opening outing against a Korean qualifier, and fell without a whimper in the second round to Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie. In fact, by the quarter-final stage, every one of the seeded stars was eliminated, with Sai Praneeth edging out Thailand’s No.8 seed, Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk, at 21-19 in the final game. It left four unseeded players contesting the semi-finals.
Srikanth, meanwhile, had picked up steam from the bottom half, scoring impressive straight-games victories against fifth-seeded Shi Yuqi of China and Anthony Sinisuka Ginting of Indonesia. But he had had to extend every nerve and sinew to come through his second round encounter against another Indonesian, Ihsan Maulana Mustofa, saving three match-points in the decider before coming through. That fighting win had shown Srikanth’s tremendous resolve and mental strength.
All these details are being recounted to give the reader an idea of how circumstances had become decidedly propitious for two unseeded Indians, ranked Nos. 29 and 30 on the BWF ladder, to face off against each other in the final. This is not to denigrate their sterling achievements of knocking out players who were either seeded or ranked much higher than them, but to place their praiseworthy achievement in proper perspective.
If there is a fault that Indian players have, it is a lack of consistency. All of our top players, most of them emerging from Gopichand Academy, have beaten one or another of the world’s top five stars, at one time or another in the near past. Ajay Jayaram, Srikanth, Sai Praneeth, HS Prannoy, Parupalli Kashyap, Sameer Verma, Sourabh Verma, RMV Gurusaidutt, Siddharth Jain have all notched victories against the topnotchers, with Srikanth’s win over Lin Dan in the 2013 China Open final ranking at the very top.
Several of the boys have won Grand Prix Gold events, which rank with the Challenger circuit in tennis. They have also notched up significant victories in the Premier Badminton League, which unfortunately is not considered a representative tournament. But few of them have followed up a sporadic epochal triumph over a top-five player with a necklace of wins that needs to be strung together to win the title at an elite tournament.
“The main problem with our men players is inconsistency,” asserts former national champion Vimal Kumar, who is chief coach of the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy and the current coach of Saina. “They can beat anyone in the world, but are found wanting when it means going all the way to the title. Our guys have taken down all the top players, like Chong Wei, Lin Dan, Jorgensen and Axelsen, in one tournament or another. But they have lacked the ability to go all the way.
“I think the main reason is the tactical aspect. The ability to choose just the right strokes at the appropriate time is lacking. Similarly, the ability to change strategies during a match situation is lacking. They also seem to get very contented after a couple of good wins. They are very much on par with the others in the matter of basic ability, but these shortcomings are letting them down.”
So, a reality check? While there is ample reason for euphoria at the moment, and sufficient evidence to show that Indian men’s badminton is on the right path, and in a far, far better place than it was a few years back, the Indian badminton-lover should show a modicum of sobriety in the short term, and await the posting of results similar to that of the Singapore Open before he can puff up his chest and consider his country to be one of badminton’s elite nations.
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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2017 14:41:42 IST