No two opinions about it; the crowning moment for Indian badminton in 2016 was the capture of the Olympic silver medal by the one who had widely been expected to just make up the numbers, while her compatriot vied for top honours in the prestigious quadrennial event.
Pusarla Venkata Sindhu’s amazing run in the lead up to the Rio Olympics final, where she raked the redoubtable world and European champion Carolina Marin over the coals before capitulating in a titanic battle, was the stuff of legends and folklore.
It made up for the agony that the Indian badminton fan had suffered earlier in the tournament, when her fellow-countrywoman Saina Nehwal had struggled gallantly with an unstable knee before going down to unheralded Ukrainian Marija Ulitina in straight games.
It is worth taking a look back on the stepping-stones that the 21-year-old Sindhu tread on her way to the final. Her opening round victory against the wily Chinese-born Canadian Michelle Li was tough enough, but then, she simply went from strength to strength as she eliminated Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying in the round of 16 and China’s 2011 world champion and 2012 Olympic silver medallist, Wang Yihan, in successive rounds.
Sindhu handed out a crushing 21-13, 21-15 defeat to Tai, who was to end 2016 as world number one, after deposing Marin from the pedestal three weeks before the year-ending BWF Super Series grand finals in Dubai. Then, in the quarter-final, came a repeat of Sindhu's 2013 World Championships quarter-final win against the accomplished Yihan, who had a 4-2 winning head-to-head record against the Indian at the time.
With the bit now firmly between her teeth, Sindhu went for broke against the reigning All-England champion and 2015 winner of the BWF Super Series grand finals, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan. The brilliant 21-19, 21-10 semi-final win against the diminutive Japanese dynamo produced visions of the lanky Hyderabadi becoming the first Indian woman to bag an individual Olympic gold medal.
But alas, it was not to be, as Marin used speed, fitness, guile and the left-hander’s natural advantage to peg Sindhu back, albeit after an epic three-game battle. The Indian’s graciousness in defeat, as she went across the net to raise a tearful Marin to her feet, embrace her, and then quietly place her rival’s flung racket in the courtside box, in a gesture that touched the pinnacle of sportsmanship, showed that the Gopichand Academy trainee was as an exceptional sportsperson.
Sindhu’s exploits in the remaining months of the year, when she won the China Open for her first Super Series title, nearly repeated the feat in the Hong Kong Open that followed, and then barged her way into the semi-finals of the BWF Super Series grand finals in Dubai, before losing to Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun, marked 2016 out as her best year to date. She promises to perform even better in 2017.
For the erstwhile queen of Indian badminton Saina Nehwal, however, the year 2016 had precious little to show. Struggling with injuries throughout the year, Saina was seen at her best in the Australian Open Super Series, when she knocked out Thailand’s 2013 world champion Ratchanok Intanon, 2011 world champion Wang Yihan and another Chinese, Sun Yu, to take her first major title of the year.
Much was expected of Saina at the Olympics, but her movements on court against the Ukrainian Ulitina were slow and laboured, and she had obvious difficulty pushing back from the net. She went under the knife in Mumbai immediately after the Rio Games, and her doctor went on record saying that he was at a loss to know how she had managed to play at all in the Olympics on such a badly damaged knee!
Saina’s recovery after the knee surgery has been nothing short of miraculous, and is indicative of the effort she has put into her physiotherapy. Her results in tournaments, after her return to the circuit in November, have been nothing to write home about, but then, that was to be expected. Her coach, Vimal Kumar, expects her to get to somewhere near her best when she takes the court in the forthcoming Indian Premier Badminton League.
The hefty contributions that both Saina and Sindhu made to the Indian Uber Cup team’s march to the semi-finals of the 2016 edition ensured that the country was on the rostrum at the end. Lowering the colours of defending champions Japan by a 3-2 margin at the round-robin group stage was no mean feat; the Japanese team boasted the likes of All-England champion Nozomi Okuhara, Sayaka Sato, Akane Yamaguchi and the world number one ranked women’s doubles pairing of Misaki Matsumoto and Ayaka Takahashi. Sindhu proved useful to the Indian side in both the singles and doubles.
A 3-1 victory in the quarter-finals over a strong Thai side that had Ratchanok Intanon, Porntip Buranaprasertsuk, Busanan Ongbumrungpan and Sapsiree Taerattanachai in its ranks, ensured the booking of a semi-final clash with multiple times winners China. A 3-0 thrashing at China’s hands did not lessen the merit of India’s campaign in the tournament, that signals the global supremacy of the women’s team.
While the top two Indian women continued to make waves at the international level, the men were not too far behind. Kidambi Srikanth, who remained in the world’s top ten all the way till the Olympics, was at his best at the Rio Games.
After losing the Malaysia Masters semifinal to Iskandar Zulqarnain Zainuddin of the host nation, the 23-year-old Andhra Pradesh player won the Syed Modi International Grand Prix gold title, and went on to bag two gold medals (individual singles and team) at the 2016 South Asian Games.
The bustling, aggressive Srikanth’s finest moment, though, came in the pre-quarter-finals of the Rio Olympics, when he knocked out Denmark’s reigning world number one, Jan O Jorgensen, in straight games at 21-19, 21-19. At the last eight stage, however, he bowed out narrowly to five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist, Lin Dan of China, by a 6-21, 21-11, 18-21 scoreline. It was the Chinese legend’s greater experience that prevented him from suffering a repeat of his defeat at Srikanth’s hands in the 2014 China Open final.
Srikanth’s batch-mates at the Gopichand Academy, Sai Praneeth, Saurabh Verma, HS Prannoy, RMV Gurusaidutt and Parupalli Kashyap, and Ajay Jayaram, who trains with Tom John, all performed with distinction in the second-tier Grand Prix tournaments, and generally remained in the top-50, without really troubling the big guns ranked in the top ten.
The exceptional performance of the year among India’s male players came from Saurabh’s younger brother Sameer Verma, who had won the 2016 Indian Nationals at the expense of his elder brother. Sameer showed a rare blend of speed, aggression and stamina in the Hong Kong Open semi-finals to out-manoeuvre Denmark’s Jorgensen, who has unwittingly become a player against whom lower-ranked Indians have performed well this season.
To put the 22-year-old Indian’s straight-games victory in perspective, the Dane had only six days earlier lowered the colours of world and Olympic champion Chen Long in the latter’s own den, in the China Open final.
Sameer had been lucky enough to gain promotion from the qualifying rounds to the main draw of the Hong Kong Open, when a bunch of the top players had pulled out at the last minute. But he showed grit and temperament in the closing reaches of the match, to bundle out Jorgensen, who had been the kingpin of Denmark’s maiden Thomas Cup triumph earlier in the year.
Sameer ended up losing the final to local lad Ng Ka Long Angus, but not before putting up stiff resistance, and stretching the match to the decider. It was only a finishing burst of pace and power from the more experienced Hong Kong player, coupled with a rash of unforced errors from the Indian, that won the day for Angus.
However, Sameer’s opening round loss in the Macau Open that followed immediately at the end of the Hong Kong Super Series showed that, like Sindhu in her earlier years, the young man is far from being consistent. There is no quarter asked or given at the international level; and Sameer must prove himself to be a consistently dangerous customer in the premier tournaments. The need is to replicate the implacable desire to win, and the hunger for titles, that Sindhu has shown of late.
Updated Date: Dec 28, 2016 10:04:15 IST