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In sport, tomorrow always comes. And it brings both promises and pressures of a brand new title to fight for. India’s victorious Thomas Cup team will be feted, hailed and will go down in the pages of history as path-breakers. But even these pages must turn, for tomorrow always comes. While the youngsters soak in the adulation, India’s two watch-towers — Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand — have immediately called for building more turrets to bolster India’s badminton citadel.
Padukone waited 21 years for his All-England to find an encore, and Gopichand continues to wonder which of the women or men can actually forge ahead and trap down that one. The duo never had the wealth of depth surrounding them to contest for the Thomas Cup at times when Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea and China throbbed with talent. But the two guiding lights have patiently waited through the years for that next big headline to light up the shuttle world. As coaches running successful academies and guiding young talent — some of whom successfully won the world team event on Sunday — the two are wisely calling for urgency to step up efforts to capitalise on this triumph.
Indian hockey waited 41 years for the Olympic medal in 2021. Grand Slam doubles wins have dried up since Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza Malik began wrapping up their careers. Indian shooting has gone two Olympic Games without a medal. Vijender Singh’s bronze from Beijing is still looking for an upgrade. Viswanathan Anand won one World Championship after another, but the second rung wasn’t exactly a step behind.
Lovlina Borgohain did step up at Tokyo to follow in MC Mary Kom’s high-top boxing boots and Mirabai Chanu finally revived weightlifting 22 years after Karnam Malleswari. But Sania Mirza, Dipa Karmakar and Sakshi Malik are yet to find equally adept successors. PV Sindhu followed Saina Nehwal alright and went a step better at most events, but both Padukone and Gopichand have spoken of the sparse talent waiting to take up the women’s singles baton.
In men’s badminton, young Priyanshu Rajawat was waiting, swaying in front, to rush out from the wings as the newly minted Thomas Cup champions lined up to hit the winners’ podium. And there is Ravi Kumar, the tall find of the trials, Kiran George and Mithun Manjunath besides young Cup holders Lakshya Sen and Satwik-Chirag, who will take it upon themselves to defend the Thomas Cup in two years. Still, it merits restating that it was Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy using the cumulative experience of their careers to propel the Indians towards the Cup. In two years, China and Malaysia who fielded young rookie squads at Bangkok will be in the advanced stages of their regeneration and become stronger contenders.
Nothing firms up resolve like stinging losses. And it was India dishing them out this time, with Prannoy, Srikanth, Satwik and Chirag channelling their disappointments from defeats to victory. Time never stops, and 2024 will be a stiff title defence — something that Padukone and Gopichand have focused the dizzily-celebrating country’s attention towards.
When H S Prannoy had the brainwave two months ago that India’s Thomas Cup squad should start seriously training their focus on the tournament in Thailand, and he started stringing feathers for the colourful dream-catcher, his optimism was based on results on the circuit. Srikanth and Sen had medalled at the World’s, with Sen making the All-England final. Satwik and Chirag were ripe for the ambushing of badminton’s superpowers, and also hurting from their narrow losses of the last few months.
But this was the amalgamation of a decade-long journey where these men plugged away at the inconsistencies in their games, effected lakhs of repetitions of that net dribble, chiselled the jump smash angle to get it just right in that one moment when it would be belted down to the floor. Indians watched a week of success. The badminton fraternity will have to start preparing for those years of silent training that will not be streamed live or trend on social media. Doubles coach Mathias Boe, just hours after the triumph, spoke of how India needs to quickly shed the perennial underdog tag and embrace the favourites one. The Thomas Cup was just the start, a giddy, grinning one, but now tomorrow will come.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 18, 2022 under the title ‘The challenge of tomorrow’. Write to the author at email@example.com
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