Riding the Saina wave,India now has five men and two women among the worlds top 50. From the years first domestic tournament in Pune,our correspondent writes how Indian badminton could be on the cusp of a genuine breaktrhough
Its the first note of the Sargam. But when Aravind Bhat screams out Sa after grabbing a point to end a long rally,his mind isnt making any musical connection. Bhat picked up the infectious war cry,which means come on in Korean,while playing overseas.
Bangalores Bhat has not been too far off the musical scale though,with Indian badminton striking the right notes early in the year. With a busy 2009 lined up the All England is in two months,the ABC and the World Championship in seven it is a season of optimistism. And the 28-year-old jokes that he has even taken a plunge into the tried and tested formula of marriage,which has,coincidentally,brought luck to Indian shuttlers. Bhat rose to his career-best 27 in the rankings this week. Happily for Indian badminton,unlike at any time in the past,this hasnt been a solo performance. The conductor of the orchestra,if you may,has been Saina Nehwal,with Chetan Anand,Anup Sridhar,Jwala Gutta,V Diju and Bhat hitting pleasant chords.
Nehwal has been carrying the game on her robust shoulders effortlessly. And having declared her intentions of reaching the top 5 in rankings by the end of the year,with the eventual target of becoming number one in 2010,shes willingly stepped under the microscope,leaving others to plot their own climbs in relative peace.
Though his ankle eventually played spoilsport,Sridhar had gone to the Beijing Olympics high on some good results. Anand,who was absent from Beijing,has hit tremendous form after that,working his way up to No 13 in the world. There are five Indian names now in the mens top 50,with P Kashyap and Anand Pawar joining their three more-talked-about colleagues.
Theres also Aditi Mutatkar Indias No 2 and in the worlds top 40. She is currently nursing a knee tear,but Mutatkar is otherwise in a terrible hurry to catch up with Saina. The bantamweight shuttler is willing to slog just as hard,though both girls know that their biggest enemy whether its in finishing off the last few points of a match or getting to the very top of rankings is impatience.
Then,the bold Jwala Gutta and her more sedate mixed doubles partner V Diju brought the first happy tidings of the year. With a win over the reigning world champions from Indonesia during their run to the semi-finals at the Korean Super Series,the two pitch-forked themselves into the worlds top 20.
So,with a badminton calendar that promises opportunity,2009 holds the promise of being the year when badminton comes into its own.
Even national coach P Gopichand,steadfastly realistic,cant rein in his anticipation. I see India emerging as a world-class nation in badminton. We are natural badminton players and destined to do well in this sport, he says.
But with this year sandwiched between Nehwals phenomenal surge at the Olympics and the tangible opportunities of 2010 that will see the Commonwealth Games,Asian Games and the Thomas and Uber Cup,he adds a slight note of caution: The last year was very good. But when you come back from a big event like Olympics,the next year tends to be tough.
He also wants to drive home the importance of being in a peak physical condition. Malaysian national coach Misbun Siden recently dropped world no 33 Mohd Hafiz Hashim from his All England and World Championship lists,and Gopi believes that Indians have bought into his basic belief that physical conditioning is key.
There is no limit to endurance. You become mentally strong if you push the limits of physical training. I know it because Ive felt it, says the 2001 All England winner and former world No 4.
There is also unity of purpose as the bitterness that had threatened the sport with the stand-off between Gopi and players such as Anand,Gutta and Shruti Kurien fades.
Gopi,who has always maintained that long,intensive training camps were central to success on the circuit,ran into controversy after the three players boycotted the camp ahead of the 2007 Sudirman Cup in Glasgow. BAI,in turn,refused to enter the players in open international events. The trio had insisted that they needed to travel and earn precious qualifying points to make it to the Beijing Olympics,instead of sweating it out at the camps. They finally did not travel,and by the time Anand was back on the circuit,and the matter resolved,he had lost out to Anup Sridhar in the qualification-race,leaving a bitter taste.
But Anand tided over the rough times,working hard and then feeding off his rapid rise to the threshold of top 10. He has narrowed down his 2009 target to tournament victories,having broken his quarter-final jinx at the Super Series events. Wife Jwala,too,insists that her performance in doubles has left no doubts about her commitment and,along with Diju in mixed doubles or Shruti in womens doubles,she too will be aiming at titles.
Jwala insists her approach has changed over the last year. It always used to be well played,hard luck,ho jaata hai. Now we dont travel just to participate,we want to win titles,and all tournaments are a prepartion for the world championship.
But finding sparring partners is an issue in India,and the pair train with the mens doubles team of Sanave Thomas and Rupesh Kumar to work on their pace. The Hyderabadi player admits that the three boys make sure they rib her with weak link taunts and make her work harder.
The camaraderie is transferring onto the senior-junior relationship as well. Tips on tactics were in ample circulation at the inter-petroleum units meet in Pune this week one of the few opportunities when the big international stars team up with youngsters. This way they wont wake up dreaming about what to do at the highest level. They need to watch us,and we need to talk to them, says Bhat.
For Gayatri Vartak,the present environment couldnt have been better as she prepares herself for her second year on the senior circuit. Still outside the top 100,she talks about the buzz of success. Its a very healthy atmosphere. Our shuttlers are causing ripples,and its just good to be a part of it. You get motivated and tend to put in that extra bit.
The first big target in sight is the prestigious All England from March 3. Anand insists this is the best hes felt heading into a tournament,where he wants to break his second-round jinx. Ive been focussing on the positives. My attack has improved to supplement my net game, he says.
The Indian contingent heading to the All England in Birmingham will be the strongest in many years,and even Bhat says that the nationals and the German Open prior to that will be mere tune-ups. Banking on good draws,and layers of rust on the games of the Chinese who have taken long breaks after Beijing,the Indians are hopeful of hitting the headlines as early as March this year.
Gopichand believes that players have been on circuit long enough and played enough tournaments to know what targets to set for themselves. If you look at what we want to achieve,rankings dont matter. They are indicative of performance,but Id look for tournament wins, he reiterates. For Indias big hope Nehwal,he says: Purely on her level,I can see her making semis and finals of the biggest events. Heading into a tournament with a hope of winning it is big enough.
But what will give the Indians a bigger reason to cheer is India hosting the World Championships in August in Hyderabad within five months of the Indian Open. Anand has always done well at home,and Nehwal will be a very realistic challenger.
Public perception on the sport is changing too. There used to be these websites where youd have links to cricket,tennis,football and hockey,and then thered be Others, Anand laughs. Badminton was always clubbed with the others. But not any more.