After nearly a decade, a lightning surge in men’s badminton circuit

For nearly a decade, Indian badminton was about the two girls—PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal. But the last six months have beheld a lightning surge in the men's circuit too— Sai Praneeth and Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy. The Indian Express goes behind the scenes and weaves their coming-of-age narrative.

Written by Shivani Naik | Updated: July 9, 2017 10:14 am
Kidambi Srikanth, Kidambi Srikanth Super Series, Kidambi Srikanth beats world no 1, Chen Long, indian badminton, PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Gopichand, sports news Kidambi Srikanth, who is India’s biggest bet for Tokyo, is the winner of 4 Super Series – China, India, Indonesia and Australia. 

It will go down in history as Indian badminton’s famous mic drop – beamed out of Australia and witnessed by many at home on TV. Kidambi Srikanth had just beaten Chinese Olympic and World champ Chen Long in a final of a Super Series. He celebrated the triumph by spreading his arms, looking skywards like he owned this universe and sent his racquet tumbling to the floor, with slow-mo finality.

His smashing, slashing racquet had done all its talking over three tournament-weeks and the country’s other men’s singles players – HS Prannoy slaying reputations, Sai Praneeth hitting the peak – were determined to end all the fretting about their abilities to win big. The Indians had arrived. There are bigger landmarks in Indian shuttle – PV Sindhu’s being the biggest: a silver at the Olympics. Then, the twin All Englands by Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand like spectacular sightings of Haley’s Comet. And, of course, the sheer consistency of India’s biggest badminton superstar Saina Nehwal, winning titles after titles, year after year for over a decade.

But ‘Srikanth bt Chen Long’ of that Sunday morning was an advent of a different kind. It’s too early to talk big, coach Gopichand says, adding with a sobering tinge that the upcoming World Championships and future All Englands and Olympics remain the definitive ambitions. More on that later, but first a quick recap of what you might’ve missed in Indian badminton’s men’s singles since Gopichand’s All England win.

The blips on the radar, while you were sleeping: the strapping Anup Sridhar had a big game and no sparkling silverware. He beat Olympic Champion Taufik Hidayat during the 2007 World Championships, after having thrice lost to him. That day the freshly appointed coach Gopichand would tell Anup to hold back his two best shots – the down-the-line smash and the cross-court service return – until 16-16, so he could spring a surprise on Hidayat. Having lulled the legend into predictable responses, the Indian star would bring out the big weapons and come from behind to win the decider and the respect of the world. The titles, though, never stacked up.

Arvind Bhat was at the fag end of his career in 2014 and recalls discussions about taking a set off or winning the next round than staking claim on titles when touring. India hadn’t won big abroad since Gopichand, and Bhat would string together 6 good matches over everyone save the Dominant 3 of that era, to claim the German Open. Parupalli Kashyap had scalped big names like Chen Long and Jan O Jorgensen here and there and made 7 semifinals of Super Series. He chuckles about the ‘random s*&^’ like strings breaking or opponent blitzing blind shots to the lines, that would ensure he would sit in the stands and applaud even as Saina Nehwal forged further winning finals.

Until in 2014, when in the semis of the Commonwealth Games against Rajeev Ouseph, he finally defended out of his (attacking) skin, getting back more than 20 shuttles to finally win. Incidentally, Gopi was there too. He had one eye on Kashyap and the other on PV Sindhu and a third on Gurusai Dutt, as matches overlapped.

Srikanth, of course, beat Lin Dan in China famously and then plunged to 9 first-round defeats in the next two years, while Sameer Verma (Hong Kong) and Ajay Jayaram (Korea) fell at the last finals hurdles, stubbing the big headlines.

Kidambi Srikanth, Kidambi Srikanth Super Series, Kidambi Srikanth beats world no 1, Chen Long, indian badminton, PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Gopichand, sports news HS Prannoy, Rank: 23 There’s the big title to be won for shuttle’s big smasher, the hulking Prannoy. Not only does he hit hard he also retrieves maniacally. He took out Olympic finalists on successive days in Indonesia but will need to keep his confidence high and temperament even if he has to fulfil his potential and win a title. There are too many runner-up finishes to not want to break out of that pattern for the mammoth stroker.

HS Prannoy had a killer smash that slayed all in the juniors as he won silver at the Youth Olympics, though he plateaued in the world of men. But perhaps, the biggest blink-and-miss is B Sai Praneeth. Playing a late night first round match at the All England against long-time World No 1 Lee Chong Wei, the talented touch-artist who’d beaten Taufik as a teen, would score a sensational upset against the Malaysian.

“By the time the next edition’s papers came in India, I’d played a very early morning (and very rubbish) second round match and gotten thrashed already. So no one remembers me!” Sai Praneeth recalls, chuckling wildly. Something changed these last two months in men’s singles badminton after years. This summer, the Indian men started winning titles.

So, what was brewing?

“It is down to the amount of work you put in, in training. If you are physically stronger and know that you won’t tire, you will have the confidence to deal with anything on the court, for however long it takes.” It is Gopichand’s eternal refrain, and it comes with its limitations of dogma, but no one – save Saina whose base was this very system – has figured a viable alternative.

With results showings, even the doubters change their mind. The last six months have thrown up results in the form of Sai Praneeth and Srikanth winning titles, as well as HS Prannoy scalping big names on back to back days. Unlike in the past, Gopi now has a helping hand, rather a co-mastermind. Last winter, in a coup of sorts, Mulyo Handoyo, the Indonesian former coach to Hidayat was roped in.

Taufik was a dazzler on court – a misleading quality masking the hours of prep-work that went behind creating magic. Srikanth with his jump smash, Prannoy with his power-backhand and Sai Praneeth with oodles of deceptive trickery were about to learn that pure skill wasn’t enough to win. January 2017 – was the month when the Gopi curriculum got a tweak.

Kidambi Srikanth, Kidambi Srikanth Super Series, Kidambi Srikanth beats world no 1, Chen Long, indian badminton, PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Gopichand, sports news Sai Praneeth, Rank: 18 Truckloads of stroke making talent is now supported by improved fitness as India’s second Super Series winner lines up at the Worlds in August with no dearth of scalping pedigree. He’s beaten the big names of the world, and shown resilience in learning the art of patience necessary to win titles. He can still get stronger and will remain a treat to watch for his sheer talent though he’s spoiling for a scuffle to beat a non-Indian in another SS final soon to prove his mettle.

The first off the blocks was Sai Praneeth who Gopichand had asked to stay put at the academy instead of travelling to Europe. Later Srikanth and Prannoy were urged to skip senseless travelling and first-round-losses in favour of training. One exacting week blurring into the next is how Sai Praneeth remembers training – the hardest he’s ever done since starting at the academy in the coach’s first batch.

“Saturday-Sundays are not holidays like for normal people, we actually recover,” is his preamble to a breathless description. “The Monday-Tuesday sessions are extremely tough, by Wednesday morning we’re out. Thursday, Friday we push, push against limits. Friday evening is the worst – we have to run on the ground against time. If we don’t, the clock starts again.” You wait for him to exhale, but he chants on, “you would think after the run, Oh My God, it’s over, but no. After the run, is the high-intensity court session.” It’s how these men – whose first instinct is to kill the shuttle in a flash – have gotten used to lasting longer rallies, and not flubbing the end stages. Narrow losses – like losing from 19-all – are not glorified anymore.

Besides Mulyo and the younger Indonesian Hariawan, Gopichand has help from Sidharth Jain and Amrish Shinde, former players who are chipping in with backroom preps now. It’s about quality multi-feeding – like cricket’s tireless throwdowns to batsmen. “It’s 5 hours with breaks, 1.5 hrs intense stroke practice,” Jain explains. “So, say once Srikanth is done with his strokes, he has to move to the next court and act as feeder to another player. Even when feeding you can’t make mistakes, so you stay continuously tough even when tired and last session there’s no let up in intensity,” he adds.

The idea of multi-shuttle is to increase court-speed and to improve the ability to return shuttles at faster clip. It also enhances lung capacity. “The boys are learning to play these strokes under such high pressure that in a match situation they aren’t cracking,” explains Shinde. “These are strokemakers. But they’re learning to last to be in a position to play those strokes.”

Earlier it was down to one coach feeding – and with 20 wards needing the same intensity. Now on any given weekday morning, 9 courts witness whirring activity as shuttles take flight and are smashed to pulp – but only after a long rally. Mulyo’s entry has freed Gopichand to focus on every shuttler minutely. Though, initially the new system had faced teething troubles.

“There were initial doubts about specific drills,” Prannoy recalls the struggle to adjust to this new-found personalised attention. “Some communication gap, and we didn’t know why we were doing a certain dribble-smash-drill. No one can do blind training, and we needed clarity, so Gopi bhaiyya sat us down and explained the thinking behind every stroke and why you need to do certain things in what match situations,” he adds.

Earlier accustomed to blindly hitting his way out of trouble, Prannoy cut a calmer frame against Chong Wei and Chen Long. He was now thinking through his final points patiently. “But Mulyo’s passionate about every session, the energy and curiosity just rubs off,” Prannoy adds of heady days spent deconstructing rallies.

There’s sessions allotted to stroke-corrections, evenings full of gym-work, agility, shadow, skipping and the dreaded twice-a-week track-runs. “When Mulyo told me my game is like the top-class players I was elated. His next line was my fitness is awful,” Sai Praneeth remembers. Indonesians don’t mince words, because they come equipped with direct, candid English and have no time for euphemisms. Sai’s bubble of ‘immense talent’ needed to be burst before he won at Singapore. Mulyo was ready with a smile and a prick-pin.

A thousand needles though had poked painfully when at the turn of the century, Gopichand had attempted to manouvre all this into his own schedule as a player. “They don’t understand excellence in sport is very finicky. Small things matter big time in sport – we hardly got shuttles on time. Simple things would take a long time, so we wouldn’t ask for anything more. Getting sparring partners (for multifeeding) took years and eventually never got done because there was no provision in our system for something like this,” he recalls.

He remembers his 2002 Busan Asiad trip. He didn’t have a coach or a sparring-mate. He received funding for just one tournament per year. “I don’t think when I played in Indonesia, they even considered India a team,” he laughs, while today Indian academies receive requests to coach Indonesians. “Courts, shuttles, physio, food, basic funding…..” the 44-year-old starts a thought, that Anup Sridhar, Olympian from Beijing, continues: “recovery drinks, stretching, ice bath, support staff… I had no means to recover for the next match. But no complaints, things take time.”

In India, the push came with Nehwal’s sustained success which saw the government coughing up funds for badminton a little less stingily. Though it is with extreme weariness that Gopichand declares: “Those challenges have been ironed out now.”

Soon after Gopi, another Hyderabadi, Chetan Anand, had shown promise with a delectable game which even the national coach calls one of the most talented he’s seen. But the idea of a player completely buying into the ‘fitness’ narrative was a decade away. “Chetan, Anup, Arvind were exceptional strokemakers, but maybe the belief was lacking,” says Kashyap, of the bridging-generation.

“We weren’t fit enough,” concedes Anup who struggled with ankle troubles that never got sorted, thus hampering his pursuit for a big power-jump game. Kashyap didn’t shy away from fitness. “I trained extremely hard, pushed long hours – 10-12 a day when my body could take it. But it wasn’t planned, I would just train madly and didn’t have answers for why I lost. I was stuck at quarters-semis and never challenging to win,” he says wryly, plotting his final flourish this time with all the help.

Arvind Bhat, admits he had his first protein shake at age 28. “Srikanth must’ve started at 18. Dietary supplements were not even on our plans, and India’s progressed leaps n bounds in that.” He would also train on old, worn out shuttles and waste time adjusting to top-quality ones at the tournament. “It was the difference between winning a set against Lin Dan and winning a tournament,” he states. It’s helped additionally that the biggies Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei are in the twilight of their career, and there’s no clear leader globally in men’s singles with Chen Long imminently beatable.

“With many Indians at high levels, they will hunt in a pack. The confidence is high, though Worlds is where we’ll know,” Bhat says. Badminton is set for a large number of cerebral coaches though it remains to be seen if they can fashion themselves after Gopichand – he spends hours watching videos and is quick on the uptake of trends. “It’s critical to understand where badminton is headed. Cross / drops, attack, defense, games keep changing, you need to see what’s coming – like how racquet positioning changes, how to slow games down, how to use length of the court – though people know how to use the breadth,” Gopichand says.

They say the next big thing in shuttle will be mastering the court drifts, given it’s played in halls with ACs that hugely affect playing strategies. So, will we see teams going around with anemometers and simulating AC draught directions?

“No there are bigger issues to solve. It’s not that complex. Just leave two more windows open when training,” the coach says, killing the shuttle, insisting the sport is still badminton.

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