The Siri Fort badminton courts in New Delhi have been the temporary base of the Indian team ahead of the Thomas and Uber Cup. Being first-time hosts of the Finals of the prestigious team championships has given India an obvious home advantage. A plus being that the squad of 20 players and an almost equal number of support staff have been able to camp here in the capital, train and stay together.
The drift, caused by the air-conditioning in a badminton hall, has been accounted for as training sessions were held on the main courts where matches will begin from Sunday. Drift is a factor beyond the control of a shuttler, more so at Asian venues where high temperatures mean the A/C is set to full blast, and can upset the rhythm of a player if he or she does not quickly adjust to the kind of forces the air puts on a shuttle.
Nothing is being left to chance when it comes to the home team.
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Commuting for the 6 am practice sessions has also been made hassle-free with the Indian contingent staying in a hotel just a stone’s throw from the courts before they moved to the five-star accommodation in central Delhi.
To shore up the coaching staff, former national coach U Vimal Kumar, Anup Sridhar and Arvind Bhat — singles players of recent vintage — have been added to the Indian team to complement chief national coach P Gopichand and Madhumita Bisht. The presence of Indonesians have gone up to three with two sparring partners for doubles players. Doubles coach Dwi Christiano, who has been a longer fixture in the coaching set-up, is being assisted by Vijaydeep Singh.
The Indian team arriving for practice can be classified as a platoon. But even this strength in numbers is dwarfed when the Chinese roll onto the practice courts.
The Chinese have been the gold standard in world badminton — dominating the world rankings and the marquee competitions — and they have been the yardstick by which Indians also judge their own status in the sport, where they have experienced a recent upswing with the rise of singles star Saina Nehwal and more recently PV Sindhu.
But in team competitions of the Thomas and Uber Cup, individual spurts of excellence will not suffice. Three singles players and two doubles pairs have to be fielded in a five-match tie which will provide a clearer reflection of the overall strength and depth of talent of a nation in this sport.
DOUBLES IN JEOPARDY
It is widely believed that Indian women can reach the quarterfinals of the Uber Cup, a presumption based on Saina being ranked in the top-10, Sindhu at No.11 and the bronze-medal winning show of the women’s doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa at the Asian Badminton Championships. But the men’s and women’s competition — where the full strength squads across disciplines will be fielded — will give the hosts a reality check at home.
Nearly four years ago when Jwala and Ashwini won the gold at the Commonwealth Games at the Siri Fort courts, it was expected to be the springboard for greater success and consistency. Since then, after taking a break after the Olympics and breaking up before joining hands again last year, the duo’s progress has been limited. Yet they remain the only Indian combination of any repute.
Jwala and Ashwini are ranked 36th in the world and the second best pair considered for the Uber Cup is that of Pradnya Gadre and Sikki Reddy, World No.87.
The pace of progress around the world, more so from rising Asian powers, can be gauged with a glance at the rankings. The Danish pair of Kamilla Rytter Juhl and Christinna Pedersen made waves earlier this year by breaking the Chinese dominance and winning the World Super Series Finals crown in women’s doubles.
While the Danes have seemingly gained ground on the Chinese what highlights the challenge before an Indian pair is the fact that the Japanese, who have built their game on a strong defence, the Thais and the Koreans have two pairs each in the top-10 and have consistently reached the business end of Super Series events.
In the men’s doubles, the Indian team lags further behind as they have been in a rebuilding phase since the exit of the well-established pair of Rupesh Kumar and Sanave Thomas. India’s top three men’s pairs are ranked outside the top 40 in the world. Manu Attri-B Sumeeth Reddy are ranked 46, Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Akshay Dewalkar follow three places behind while Alwin Francis and Arun Vishnu are ranked in the late 70s.
National coach Pullela Gopichand believes that men’s doubles is an area where lots needs to be done if India is to challenge top teams in team events. “We struggle with doubles because fundamental issues need to be addressed. What we have is what we have. But we need to bring more (players) from the bottom and more people need to take up doubles,” Gopichand says.
Vimal Kumar says there is a lacuna in the way doubles players are developed in India. “Many doubles players first play singles and only when they don’t make it do they shift to the the pairs-event,” Kumar says.
For example, Ashwini made the switch in 2007 after initially dabbling in singles.
“Skills you need to be developing in doubles is something Indian players don’t learn at an early stage. You need to have specialised doubles-stroke practice. Multiple routines for doubles — developing of the grip, quick hands, pushes, flat exchanges — have to be imparted by specialised coaches in early stages of a players’ career. In India it has not happened because our training methods are based on singles training methods. Those who reach the national camps get specialised doubles training but it needs to start at the state level,” Kumar says.
When he was national coach in 2005, it was Kumar, along with former internationals Uday Pawar and Leroy D’sa and Indonesian doubles coach Hardy Suguyanto, who first combined the pair of Rupesh and Sanave.
“I think we enter our men’s doubles pairs in too many big events where they get knocked out early. It would be better, as they are developing combinations, to start off at the Grand Prix level so they can get some wins under their belt and get used to winning,” Kumar, who in his capacity as president of the Karnataka State Badminton Association (KSBA) has proposed to the Badminton Association of India to set-up a specialised doubles training centre, says.
“It is simple, we need more pairs to come through if we are to even compete with Japan, Thailand, Korea, Chinese Taipei and Malaysia. This is the key to becoming a top badminton nation because in team competitions we need to win doubles matches too against top nations. Currently as a team we are one or two rungs below the top nations,” Kumar adds.
The world team rankings puts India outside the top-10 countries at 14. Eight Asian countries other than China sit above India. Denmark at No3, Germany at 8 and Russia at 12 are still ahead.
Jwala indicates the lack of depth in women’s doubles when she says: “We don’t have a pair that can replace Ashwini and me right now.” Ashwini admits that the pair is not playing at the level they were when they won the women’s doubles gold at the Commonwealth Games.
“Teams like Indonesia, Korea and Japan have four to five pairs at the international level playing constantly. It isn’t easy especially when you are getting back together as a pair. The more tournaments we play, the better we will get,” Ashwini says.
India is placed in Group C along with Thailand, Canada and Hong Kong in the Uber Cup, a competition in which they are expected to progress to the quarterfinals. This particular squad is being termed as the ‘strongest’ India has fielded in the competition with two women’s singles players — Saina Nehwal (World No.8) and PV Sindhu (World No.11) — carrying the weight of expectations. However, when it comes to numbers, India is still found wanting. The third singles player, initially picked in the Uber Cup squad, Arundathi Pantawane (injured and hence replaced on Saturday) is outside the top-50. Thailand have four in the top-20, Japan boast of three while powerhouses China have five.
In men’s singles, on the face of it the numbers are impressive — six players led by Parupalli Kashyap (No.19) are in the top 50. But when it comes to lifting titles, K Srikanth’s Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold remains the lone notable success in recent times.
The onus will be on Saina, who has been affected by a toe injury and a prolonged bout of sinusitis over the past year, and Sindhu to win the first and second singles respectively if the team is to have a realistic chance of progressing in the Uber Cup.
“It will be a more open Uber Cup but it will be even more tougher before because now there are girls (in the top-20) who can beat anyone on their day. The focus has moved away from the Chinese because the competition is growing in each and every team. Japan, Thailand, Chinese Taipei, Korea are all making tremendous progress,” Saina says.
China’s chief badminton coach Li Yongbo believes that India’s women’s singles players have raised the profile of the country yet as a team they are still work in progress. “At the world level badminton is growing beyond the traditional powers like China and countries like Japan, Thailand and even India are progressing,” Li Yongbo says. What he said next pointed to how far India has to progress to be in the top-four. “India have good women’s singles players but as a team they are not comparable to the Chinese team,” Li Yongbo says.
At the Siri Fort, with the Chinese coach stretched out sitting calmly and overseeing his champion unit rolling, it hits home.