There is much that is gloriously individualistic and fantastic about the tennis circuit that badminton players envy. But the way shuttle is structured in typically herded environments of Asia, a badminton tournament ends up resembling a team sport if you have a good crop of players from the same country. One of India’s long-cherished dreams – after watching China enviously all these years – was an all-India Super Series final, which happened last month in Singapore.
The other half of the dream is having its men’s singles players hunt like a pack in a tournament. And coaches P Gopichand and Mulyo Handoyo are relishing this hound-trail.
Consider Day 1 at the Indonesian Premier Super Series: HS Prannoy sneaks into the main draw because he is there-and-thereabouts in rankings, right on the brink. Sai Praneeth, who is fresh off two titles including the last Super Series in Singapore, gets the first shy at World No 1 Son Wan Ho. He goes down, but no matter.
As the week progresses, Prannoy finds pristine touch and takes out former World No 1s Lee Chong Wei in Round 2 and Olympic champ Chen Long in quarters. He’s mine-swept the dynamite half of the draw, even as Kidambi Srikanth neutralises another former World No 1 Jan O Jorgensen, before putting his head down in two quiet clinical matches to go deep into the weekend from the bottom half of the draw.
Prannoy falls in semis, but he’s cleaned up the field, even as Srikanth goes into his biggest battle of the meet against current table-topper Son Wan Ho to ensure at least one Indian lined up for the final.
Saturday fulfilled that long-held fantasy of Indian badminton, and Korean Son was the miserable victim as he realised if Sai Praneeth doesn’t get you, K Srikanth will. Swap and shuffle those names at different events, and that script promises to be the future of Indian badminton in the coming years. A skilled pack, having tasted blood and hungry for titles, off on a hunt.
That was Chinese folklore: if not Bao Chunlai, then Chen Jin, and if not him there’s always Lin Dan ready to move in for the kill. Lots of talented Indians dangerously floating around the 32-man draw is what you get when you have four of them squirming restlessly and waiting to bound away in the Top 20. It helps that this is an outrageously talented bunch – Kashyap’s not done yet, Ajay Jayaram is maxing his touch-play, and then there’s Srikanth, Prannoy, Sai Praneeth and Sameer Verma, who’ve now made three Super Series finals.
Semifinals day at Jakarta was as much about Srikanth’s audacious win over Son Wan Ho — a 72-minute thriller that ended 21-15, 14-21, 24-22 — as it was about the missed opportunity when Prannoy flubbed five match points in middle game against Kazumasa Sakai to go down 21-17, 26-28, 18-21. But just like the Singapore loss in final had sent Srikanth back to the drawing board to plot Final No 2 in successive Super Series, Indonesia would have stoked the fire in Prannoy, and made him hungrier for his maiden title. All players have skipped tournaments, licking wounds from losses, spent hours away from the stadium lights and A/C vents of competitive venues chipping away at flaws and gaining stamina, and returned with vengeance to perform in the limited tournaments that the coach is allowing them. Systems are often credited success and this is no different, but coaches don’t play on the court, and it’s entirely down to the motivation of all individual players that’s ensured so many Indians in SS finals.
In this storm of success, Srikanth is the most curious case. It’s often joked – which Srikanth will turn up on the day. On Saturday, all three did. The first version, ‘Overlord of Offence’, pounced on the Korean’s rustiness and strung together a great attack in Game 1: there were the trademark flick net crosscourts and big smashes.
In Game 2 came the ‘Self-Destructor Srikanth’ who got into such a rush to gather winners in short rallies that he smashed straight into the net multiple times and from leading 13-10, gave away 7 points in errors to lose 21-14.
It was in the decider that the champion material burst onto the court – he lived by the sword and while the errors crept in, there was enough punch in the all-out attack to withstand a match-point by simply unleashing his crosscourt weapon to pull himself out of the corners.
“In the last point, I was very lucky to pull off that tap retrieve. I was 1 per cent luckier than him,” he would say of a close game, where his attack showed intent and fortune favoured the brave. “It’s good to play a final in Indonesia which has one of the best crowds and is one of badminton’s biggest homes. I had a bad injury after Olympics, because I pushed hard in Japan and Korea which I shouldn’t have. Once I came back, taking the loss in India Open was painful. But I pulled out of Malaysia, and that one week training helped in Singapore. I’m surprised to play back to back finals in Super Series events,” he would say.
Yet, it has been an abrasive week on those who’ve gone deep into the draw. While two big matches ultimately felled Prannoy, Son Wan Ho too spoke of diminishing strength. “My stamina dropped in the third. Srikanth’s attack was very good. I was defending well, but his defense too was strong. I need to evaluate my stamina,” the top-ranked Korean would say.
The fatigue will count when the Indian meets the unfancied Japanese qualifier Sakai. “Sakai is steady, and Srikanth is tough to read the first time someone plays him. But it’ll depend on how well Srikanth recovers from today’s long match,” coach Gopichand said. The pack has set it up nicely for Srikanth. He’ll have to go for the final kill – climb his own final ascent for a glorious individual title.