There was no definite number to give for the crowd that gathered at the Divisional Sports Complex in Nagpur – a few hundred never got to enter the stadium at all. The excitement had all to do with Saina Nehwal playing PV Sindhu for the Senior National Championship title.
It was a tie expected to happen ever since the two star players confirmed their participation for the event. And there were no upsets on the cards to prevent the ‘dream final’ from happening. Yet that in itself put forward a question that, if not now, sooner or later will plague the women’s field in India. If Saina and Sindhu are to miss an international major, who will be good enough to compete instead of them?
The new generation of players so far haven’t sparkled like Nehwal and Sindhu – the only two players to have captured an Olympic medal in the sport – did when they were teenagers.
Before Nehwal’s 20th birthday, she had already been crowned Junior World Champion, won two Grand Prix Golds, one Grand Prix, a Super Series, and had been at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Sindhu meanwhile had two senior World Championships medals, podium finishes at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, an international series win, and three Grand Prix Golds.
SHAHID JUDGE was on the sidelines when an array of teenagers had shown up at the just-concluded nationals in Nagpur, and he didn’t come close to answering Indian badminton’s most-uncomfortable ‘who next’ question.
Ruthvika Shivani Gadde (Rank 101)
In G Ruthvika Shivani, India seemed to have found a player ready to take up the reins from Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. A lot was expected of her at the start of the 2017 season, given the form she had hit in the previous year. But she’d only be fit enough to compete by June.
An injury to her left knee in January, compounded by a period of illness had rendered her unable to continue in the same vein as she had when she first burst onto the scene.
At the South Asian Games last year – then just 18 – she upset Sindhu in the final of the women’s singles event. That year she’d also go on to win her maiden Grand Prix in Russia.
But it was the 20-year-old’s inclusion and role in India’s bronze medal winning run at the Uber Cup that would give a glimpse of her potential. In the quarterfinals, she sealed the tie against Thailand by pulling off an upset win over current world no 14 Nitchaon Jindapol. The performances would take her to her highest rank of 49 by the end of 2016.
“She’s got a very deceptive game with good clean strokes,” says former international and now coach Arvind Bhat. “Among the younger generation, she’s the one who has the brightest chance of making it big internationally. But right now she isn’t moving well enough.”
The Vijayawada native who started playing the sport when she was just five, made a comeback to the international scene only in June this year at the Thailand Grand Prix Gold, losing her first match to world no 154 Sri Fatmawati of Indonesia. She suffered a few more early early exits until playing at the Vietnam Open. Her first two matches were straight forward affairs, but an injury forced her to give a walkover in the quarterfinals.
“We’ve been pushing her to work on her fitness, but her body has not been able to adapt,” says Siddiqui. “Because of it she’s become prone to injury, and she can’t build her endurance and strength. That’s the only thing lacking for her.”
Her rank has now sunk to 101 in the world. Till date, she’s still considered the one closest to taking over from Nehwal and Sindhu. Yet she’s still a world apart.
Aakarshi Kashyap (junior rank 216)
There was some intrigue when Aakarshi Kashyap reached the quarterfinals of the recent Senior National Championships, and was drawn up against Saina Nehwal. Both players are retrievers and so a slugfest was expected. “I’ve heard some people calling me the ‘second Saina,’” Kashyap says. Nehwal finished off the match in 33 minutes.
The gulf in class between the two, however, wasn’t only because of the difference in experience or age. Kashyap is 16, the same age Nehwal was when she won her first GP Gold—at the Philippines Open in 2006. The current world no. 11 had the strength, stamina and grit to boost her game back then.
“Aakarshi has a simple game. Clean strokes, but very simple,” says Arundhati Pantawane, former world no. 49 and now a coach. “She lacks variation. There’s no X-factor to help her finish off points even when there is a chance to be taken.”
The Bhilai-born teenager, who took up the sport after her parents’ insistence, earned a bronze at the nationals last year—when none of the big names were competing. In the world junior category though, she’s the second highest Indian player, ranked 14.
At that level, her retrieving game has kept her relevant, although she suffered shock defeats on multiple occasions this season. At the Junior German Open, she reached the pre-quarterfinals only to be ousted by junior world no. 26 Hirari Mizui (ranked 667 overall). Later at the India Junior International GP, another lower ranked player—39 in juniors and 421 in senior rankings —Yann Jaslyn beat her in straight games.
And at the Junior World Championships just last month, she crashed to 94th ranked Vietnamese player Thi Anh Thu Vu. “I need to be more positive in my play and get more strength to finish points quickly,” she says. Furthermore, Arvind Bhat cites a fitness issue. “She’s a bit on the heavier side, so she needs to tone her body to work on her athleticism,” he says.
Rituparna Das (Rank 51)
Nobody wants to write off Rituparna Das yet, but her attitude is slowly pushing the idea closer to becoming a reality. The 21-year-old was once considered the rising star after Saina Nehwal’s emergence, and before PV Sindhu hit the circuit.
The strokes were always there. And while most players rely on quick reflexes, she had the uncanny knack of anticipating a shot. “She could read her opponents well,” says coach Arundhati Pantawane. “What’s been her downfall has been her fitness.”
Her pace isn’t up to international standard at senior level and she is injury-prone.
The last time Das stepped on court for a competitive match was at the World Championships in August. She lost out in the second round against Kirsty Gilmour before entering another period of injury recovery.
And while all the big names in the sport attended the Senior National Championships in Nagpur recently, India’s third highest ranked player – 51 in the world – missed out.
“She’s been getting injured quite regularly. And it’s time she sits down and thinks hard for herself about what she needs to do to be injury free,” Pantawane adds.
The sport’s physicality today leaves no place for players blessed only with talent. The quicker, stronger and fitter, yet with fewer skills can create a spot for themselves.
“The problem is that she seems to have lost her passion and drive to get better,” says Arvind Bhat. “She can easily be a top player, but she’s content with where she is.”
Pulella Gopichand, who has been training her at his academy for the last eight years, has been a hard taskmaster when it comes to discipline – it’s a style that has produced two Olympic medals. Das’ talent had been discovered long ago, but she’s proven to be the only renegade to the path that could have taken her to great heights.
Still, there is hope for her, but it’s steadily wearing thin.
Shreyanshi Pardeshi (Rank 141)
The 19-year-old stands just half an inch over the five foot mark. Invariably, her game is modelled around retrieving the shuttle cock rather than taking up a more aggressive role.
That style however, did serve her well at the Tata Open International Series last year, when, ranked 410, she made it past the qualifiers and all the way up to the final, where she lost to current world no 28 Soniia Cheah of Malaysia. Pardeshi did announce her presence at the event – it was the first time she’d reach the final of an international event. Her ranking shot up from 410 to 234. But that promise would soon plateau.
In the 2017 season, she’s stepped into the senior stream and has competed in four international events. She’s suffered first round losses at the Syed Modi International Championship, the Malaysia Open International Series and also at the India Open Super Series where she had progressed to the main draw from the qualifiers.
After last year’s Tata Open, her only win against an opponent ranked higher than her at an international event was when she beat world no 121 and compatriot Vaidehi Choudhari 24-22, 21-17 in the first round of the Vietnam Open. Pardeshi had started the competition in the qualifiers, but would crash in the second round after losing to third seed Dinar Dyah Ayustine of Indonesia.
Training at the Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad since 2011, the Indore girl has had to focus mainly on her fitness and speed to compensate for her lack of height. “We’re working on her to start dropping her weight now to increase her speed,” says Mohammed Siyadath Ullah Siddiqui, one of her coaches at the academy. “For the junior level, she’s got good speed but not in the seniors.”
Technical work is also underway, as she’s still learning how to get the shuttle to dip faster once across the net. “It’s one of the new alternates I have to learn because of my size,” she says. “Gopi sir has also made me start shoulder exercises to get more power in the shots and smashes. So I do a lot of weight training now along with my movement.”
Gayatri Gopichand (Junior rank 196)
The reputation behind the surname may put a lot of pressure on Gayatri Gopichand, but so far, the 14-year-old has been on track. Blessed with strokes that are smooth and accurate, the youngster has already started making her way up the charts.
“She has a smooth game, she’s balanced and is talented,” says Arvind Bhat.
At the Junior World Championships last month, she started out in the round of 256. She beat three 18-year-olds, another girl of 16, before finally crashing in the pre-quarters to 17-year-old Yanyan Cai of China – who has a senior ranking of 91. She would be the furthest to go amongst Indians.
The feat came six months after she won an u-19 tournament. At the Junior GP in Indonesia, Gayatri beat 4-year-old Samiya Imad Farooqui. Samiya too is a prodigy – she recently won the u-15 Asian Junior title.
The pair however, need to work on their strength and stamina. “That will come with age,” says Mohammed Siyadath Ullah Siddiqui, a coach at the Gopichand Academy. “Right now you have to focus on the foundation, their strokes and court-craft. But we will be working on their fitness soon.”
Anura Prabhudesai (Rank 144)
When you first look at Anura Prabhudesai, there are instant comparisons with PV Sindhu – based solely on her height. The teenager from Ponda, Goa, stands at a cool 5-foot-9, just two inches shorter than the Rio Olympics silver medallist.
Her game too is modelled along what is expected of a player with a tall frame. “I’m an attacking player, and I like to play smashes and the net game,” she says.
But while the 19-year-old is still finding her feet despite the height advantage, Sindhu had already captured three Grand Prix Gold titles and two senior World Championship medals when she was at the same age.
Prabhudesai has a lot to work on with regards to her fitness, especially strengthening her legs. “I need to move faster on court,” she says. Agility – the perennial scourge of tall players, will remain a challenge.
Ranked 144 in the world, the shuttler hasn’t had the best start to her senior career. The season began with a loss – in 21 minutes – to Sindhu in the first round of the Syed Modi International.
She did however, find some form at the Mauritius International Series in June where she reached the final. In the summit clash though, she lost to Shikha Gautam, currently ranked 209.
In the very next event, the Malaysia International Series, she was upset by world no 259 Ghaida Nurul Ghaniyu in the first round.
Her coach Arvind Bhat doesn’t find fault in her strokes though. “Her shots are good, and she takes advantage of her height to play steep smashes. So she’s an intelligent player,” he says. What she lacks however, is mainly on the fitness front.
“For her height, you need to have very strong legs to carry you and that’s something she’s missing. Her movement is slow, and she is not flexible enough,” he adds.
Back in 2012, she had moved to the Prakash Padukone Academy where she trained for four years. It was at that stage that she had decided to take up the sport professionally. “I started playing when I was six because I was mischievous and my mother wanted me to get into some activity,” she recalls. “Then when I started growing I got better and moved to Bangalore.”
She’s been under the tutelage of Bhat for the past two years now, and she’s aware of what’s next on the roster. “A lot of skipping and running now, just to get the legs strong.”