Had PV Sindhu — or Saina Nehwal before her — settled for merely equalling the stupendous feats of Prakash Padukone (1980) and Pullela Gopichand (2001) at All England, India would never have had three silvers (2015, 2017, 2018) and one precious gold (2019) at the Badminton World Championships. Keeping men as the benchmark has its obvious limitations in sport, as in life: Sometimes, when the moon is there for the taking, why go chasing after twinkling stars?
The All England still has its charm — the Chinese still covet it and both these Indian women are yet to win it. However, both Saina and Sindhu were prodded, by the same two gentlemen in fact, to aim for what is now considered the pinnacle in the sport, the World Championships.
Of course, that was well after the women themselves had made up their minds to let their ambition be unfettered and limitless. After all, why restrict your career goals to just bettering the best from India — which happened to be the two men in singles?
And so, they aimed obsessively for the biggest crowns, this grand pursuit giving India some rousing sporting memories: Saina scything through the game of Danish All England champ Tine Baun on way to her Olympic bronze at London 2012. Sindhu scuttling every Chinese attempt that came in her path, and her glorious final matches at the World Championships — one won, some lost — since 2016 and Saina’s defiance against younger opponents while making the finals of the All England and World’s in 2015.
None of these forays (into World Championship finals) had any precedent amongst Indian men. Padukone, who won a Worlds bronze in 1983, was a trailblazer in figuring out the first steps internationally for Indian men. And Gopichand fought against his rotten luck with injuries, putting in a massive effort into winning his All England crown before the knee gave out.
Sindhu and Saina had this past to turn to but they still had to swim in uncharted waters when they played those big finals. They had to control their fraying nerves and maintain their poise in order to win big: And Sindhu did it marvellously last week, becoming the World Champion.
But neither she, nor Saina who won India’s first World’s silver in 2015 — nor the doubles pair of Jwala Gutta-Ashwini Ponappa who won bronze in 2011 — allowed the occasion to get to their heads. They have eight of India’s 10 World Championship medals to show for their incredible tenacity.
As a sport, badminton is equitable. Equal pay has existed for as long as one remembers in the sport — the prize money is always equally distributed between men and women. This isn’t just a function of how both men and women play the best of three punishing sets. Badminton’s equal pay is also a function of a distinctly Asian value system, given the sport’s predominance in the eastern hemisphere: Pay is proportional to hard labour. There is minimal interference of the markets or popularity when it comes to determining one’s earnings.
At their sporting zenith, first Indonesia and then, China, had iconic female champions — Susi Susanti and Zhang Ning — matching the feats of their male compatriots effortlessly. The first challenge to the Chinese juggernaut a decade ago in women’s singles was mounted by Mew Choo Wong from Malaysia. Women like Mia Audina and now, Carolina Marin, have been pioneers for the sport in their respective countries as well.
At a starry gathering of legends — Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, Peter Gade and Taufik Hidayat — in a Mumbai five-star hotel a few years back, the quartet were left fielding questions on whether men’s singles had become too uni-dimensional and… umm… boring, when compared to the burst of talent and sheer variety in styles in women’s singles.
In the context of these developments worldwide, it is little wonder that Sindhu and Saina have become badminton’s biggest names in India. One can go on about when this duo will bring back the All England crown. With Sindhu’s form and game, such a prospect seems inevitable. But, Saina Nehwal and P V Sindhu have always known better than to measure their sporting arcs against male achievements. Why trot towards equality with men when you can gallop away to further greatness?
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 3, 2019 under the title ‘Smashing gender bias’. Shivani.firstname.lastname@example.org