For a very long time, Indian badminton relied heavily on Saina Nehwal to carry the tricolour into the latter stages of tournaments. The Hyderabadi, then under Pullela Gopichand’s guidance, would make a mark at the 2012 London Olympics, Super Series Premier titles in China and Indonesia, World Championships in Jakarta in 2015, Asian Champions in 2010 and 2016 to name a few. But what Indian badminton or any sport needs is to see more players emerge – youngsters or otherwise. It is beneficial for badminton and the growth of Indian badminton if there is more than one player vying for trophies as it helps build competition and improves the overall infrastructure of the sport. And that is exactly what has happened in the past year or two.
PV Sindhu who remained in the periphery for a long time proved her emergence by winning the bronze medal at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, stepped up on the gas with a final entry at Denmark Open in 2015 but 2016 would remain her biggest year. Sindhu won the silver medal at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, won the China Open Super Series and a week later finished second in Hong Kong. During this period, Nehwal sat on the sidelines after going under the knife for a knee injury.
But if the women were growing in stature, the men were still finding their feet. Barring one or two entries in the final, the male shuttlers were unable to make a consistent mark. Kidambi Srikanth would win the China Open Super Series Premier in 2014, India Open Super Series in 2015 and enjoy a healthy rivalry with Parupalli Kashyap who would Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold in 2012 and 2015, but falter in the late stages of Super Series events. So on the whole, titles evaded male shuttlers.
Move to 2017 and the tide has turned. As Sindhu and Saina stutter, the men have picked up the pace. Ever since Sindhu won the India Open Super Series, the men have taken the mantle and they’ve done so in beautiful fashion. Srikanth has reached three straight Super Series finals – Singapore, Indonesia and Australia – winning the latter two. In the first, he lost to compatriot B Sai Praneeth. In Jakarta and Sydney, Srikanth has displayed solid badminton with deft drop shots, thunderous smashes to highlight that the injury that plagued him last year is well and truly behind him.
In the last two weeks, Indian badminton has seen such surge that might not have been seen before. Despite not winning a title, a name that should get an honourary mention is that of HS Prannoy. In Indonesia, he beat two former World No 1’s and Olympic gold and silver medallists Chen Long and Lee Chong Wei respectively in back-to-back matches. But lost to qualifier Kazumasa Sakai in a thriller.
If Prannoy hiccuped, Srikanth didn’t. The Guntur-based player needed just 37 minutes and two games to beat the Japanese player and win 21-11, 21-19. During the week, he notably beat Jan O’Jorgensen, currently ranked nine and was as good as World No 2 a few months back, and then World No 1 Son Wan Ho.
Move a week forward, to Sydney, and the euphoric script has largely remained the same for Indian players. Both Saina and Sindhu exited in the quarterfinals as men shone brightly. Prannoy couldn’t replicate the script of Jakarta as he lost in the opening round alongside Kashyap (who qualified for the tournament and played two matches in a quick span), Ajay Jayaram and Sameer Verma. Sai Praneeth kept at it before his path collided, unfortunately, with Srikanth and the latter won 25-23, 21-17. Srikanth, meanwhile, once again beat top players in Wan Ho and Chinese top-ranked Shi Yuqi for his place in the final.
And on the decisive Sunday, he made little of the 0-5 win-loss deficit against Long to win 22-20, 21-16 in 45 minutes – once again exemplifying his raised confidence level, form and the sheer desire to win. It stood out how Srikanth didn’t succumb to any pressure or be affected by nerves with the finishing line in sight. And just for that,
2 – Chen Long, former World No 1 and reigning Olympic champion, has lost twice in as many weeks to Indian players – HS Prannoy in Indonesia and Kidambi Srikanth in Australia
4 – Indian players have won four of six Super Series titles this year. PV Sindhu, B Sai Praneeth and Kidambi Srikanth twice
3 – Indian male players have won three Super Series titles this year which is more than other countries (China – 1, Malaysia – 1, Denmark 1)