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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Why the Malaysians love Kidambi Srikanth, and other sights and sounds from World Badminton Championships

There was more to last week’s Badminton World Championship than the action on court which saw Viktor Axelsen win the men's singles gold medal by pipping Lin Dan and Nozomi Okuhara winning gold in women's by edging PV Sindhu.

Written by Shivani Naik | Updated: September 3, 2017 10:55:56 am
world badminton championships, BWF world championships, PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, Saina Nehwal, A general view of the main show court during the semi finals on day six of the 2017 BWF World Badminton Championships at the Emirates Arena, Glasgow, Scotland, Saturday Aug. 26, 2017. (Jane Barlow/PA via AP)

Why don’t Japanese fans mob players for selfies? Why is an 80-year old photographer thrilled with Prakash Padukone? Was it really Lin Dan who whisked away in a car after his loss? And a Prince without ostentatious pomp … there was more to last week’s badminton World Championship than the action on court. Shivani Naik answers these questions as she captures the sights and sounds from the badminton fandom at Glasgow.

THE KIDAMBI FAN CLUB

If there was a distinct buzz about any Indian player, it was Kidambi Srikanth. Expat fans from East Asian countries have taken to calling him Kidambi, and the day he lost to World No 1 Son Wan Ho, the non-Chinese ones offer their commiserations: “Lin Dan and Chen Long would’ve been worried about him. They’ll be happy today,” they say accusingly, adding that at the next Worlds in Nanjing, China, they’ll root for the Indian.

While Srikanth’s tying-in-knots strokes have earned him fans from distant Asian corners, it’s his footwork that gets many rooting for him as the next man who’ll challenge Chinese dominance. “The way he moves is amazing. Tell him to gain strength but not at the cost of his footwork,” says Chris Pang of Malaysia. He’s even fascinated by Sai Praneeth, whose footwork and fluid movement again he gushes about. “We notice the legs. We decide to like a player or not depending on how he moves his feet,” he adds.

“Does Kidambi have a girl-friend?” one fan sneaks a question. A ‘No clue’ drops their opinion of you as a worthy journo. “You have no paparazzi in your country,” they accuse. Guilty as charged.

SHE WAS NEVER GONE

Sindhu ended up being India’s star at the World Championships and Glaswegians applauded her on Finals Day. But they started out with rolling out massive posters of the established faces from many years. Saina Nehwal found herself — poised to return serve — amongst an array of international names on the huge hoardings on Day 1. Her preparations had been quiet and two days before she began her campaign, India physio C Kiran was stretching her after a hard workout on the main courts. Kiran said before the Worlds that Nehwal remains a contender for 2020, and slowly but surely and a year after her bruised knee gave her immense pain, the 27-year-old got going after promising to play ‘smart badminton.’ She ended with a surprise bronze — though neither the city, nor Kiran are particularly surprised. “There’s 30-35 tournament matches that will be important next year with Asian and Commonwealth Games. I’m under no pressure to win because there’s many more chances,” Nehwal herself said, as her relaxed mindset fetched her successive Worlds podium finishes.

NAME AND FAME

The Japanese media is as meticulous in its preparation as Nozomi Okuhara was in winning her title. A request is made to enunciate pronunciations of every Indian shuttler in Glasgow into a dictaphone, so that their names are uttered perfectly at next month’s Japan Open and in the lead-up to Tokyo.

The big screen in Glasgow on Finals Day mis-spells Okuhara’s name as Nozami, even while the Chinese are coaxed into answering in English with the Koreans making a real effort to start communicating with the rest of the world.

There’s much mangling of pronunciations and names, before the Japanese hack spells out J W A L A and enquires about where she’s disappeared. He is slightly disappointed she’s moved onto coaching. I’m expected to pass on a message to her that she’s missed on the tour. “Tell her she should’ve played more mixed doubles. All guys were scared of her left-hand smash.” We suspect, she knows that.

THE FANTOM CHAMPS

Tai Tzu Ying is missed at the World Championships — when she chose to play the World Universiade. There’s consensus that she’d have given even Carolina Marin and Sindhu a run for their money. And through all this mourning, a dozen women in women’s singles try to prove that she’s not the only one to talk about. Kirsty Gilmour and Cheung Ngan Yi of Hong Kong come close, though Nozomi walks away with all the love and the big dough.

Neutrals are won over by her cerebral game and whizzing easy darts on court, and she attempts to recall by-hearted sentences in English as well — the effort, much like Rafa Nadal’s, appreciated by all.

The phantom man in men’s singles who everyone is dying to find out more about is Kento Momota, who’s returning to the international circuit later this year, after the Japanese enforced a strict ban on him when he was found gambling in a casino. “If he was here Lin Dan would’ve not won,” fans say.

Super Dan, whose played at a loopy dull pace all week to make it to his 7th finals, doesn’t win after all. He leaves his fans searching for him exiting in a super car with tinted glass. No one quite knows for sure it’s him, but his fans presume it is and wave to the departing vehicle. It’s the first final he’s lost since 2005 — to Taufik Hidayat, something that most have forgotten about.

V FOR VIKTOR

world badminton championships, BWF world championships, PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, Saina Nehwal, Viktor Axelson was never home-sick at Glasgow, for traveling with him were his family members, friends and fans. (Source: Reuters)

A busful of supporters have crossed the Channel to cheer for big Dane Viktor Axelsen. He’s expected to bother Lin Dan with slow courts as well as his strong-shouldered smash giving him the edge.

It’s 20 years since Peter Rasmussen won the world title defeating an Asian in this very city. And Viktor, who grew up watching Super Dan win at the Denmark Open, got himself a dream maiden title. Retirement talk follows Dan and Lee Chong Wei routinely and it even struck Lilyana Natsir — the Indonesian doubles great. Ironically, she gets asked every time she wins a doubles title, if it’s her last. No one’s going away anywhere yet, Viktor’s just gotten started — and his fans promise to traverse many lands following his exploits.

FROM OLD to OLDEST

world badminton championships, BWF world championships, PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, Saina Nehwal, Photographer Ross, 80, still recalls the joy of watching the graceful Prakash Padukone. Shivani Naik

Louis Ross is in his 80s and part amused, part mortified that people nowadays take pictures of themselves and don’t look at “the prettier cities and scenery and badminton around.” Selfies — he just doesn’t understand. One of the earliest photographers to start clicking badminton in England, the Southampton grand-daddy of lensmen started taking pictures so he could teach his badminton students how the greats played their shots. “I’d take 80 frames of a single rally and teach my students,” says the former club level coach of 60s–turned–lensman, when lighting wasn’t the best and developing film was an almighty task.

Indonesian great Rudi Hortano was a friend and visited his class to demonstrate his skills as seen in the pictures.

He recalls Prakash Padukone winning the All England as a “completely composed sportsman and a joy to watch.” By the time Gopichand came along, he’d retired but recalls being gladdened by the fact that someone with elegant strokeplay and not “crash-bang” had won the All England.

FANS UP TO SPEED

Chinese fans are milling away boasting about how they’ve figured where Chen Long plans to have dinner one evening, and how the crowd-friendly Olympic champion has promised to have dinner with them.

Badminton in Asia comes with its superstitions and a Japanese expat believes fans ruined Long’s campaign by chasing him for autographs. “We believe no players should be made to pose for pictures or their wrists bothered by asking for their autographs,” Japanese Huaro (29) claims.

Indonesians have come with their sports songs, while Scottish home fans play 500 Miles on loop — except they seem to know when to shout and when to not. India’s BMKJ brigade just don’t strike the right chord in Sindhu’s final, and are not particularly creative with a short-running “Blah blah blah blah, Sindhu is a Superstar”. The sweetest song though gets played in silence when Nozomi Okuhara and PV Sindhu play the greatest tune in badminton.

CELTIC WALK TO THE PARK

Some members of the Indian team are taken on a tour to Celtic Park. The radios are buzzing with the Glasgow club’s demolition of Kazakh side Astana and the World Championships week straddles the away leg which doesn’t end too bad at all.

Semifinals coincide with their league game against St Johnstone, and there’s much talk about an annual race for every club’s mascots. They’re speculating about who was inside the inflated frame of one Big Cup Willie, after an hour-long discussion on a quiz question. “Which Scotland manager said, ‘If I walked on water, my critics would say it was because I couldn’t swim.”

The line is repeated numerous times in the Glaswegian drawl with the poetic flourish of a Robert Burns Week rendition. At the badminton, Lin Dan ain’t that eloquent, but he wonders why they keep telling him he’s 34 years old even if he’s making the finals.

SLAMS FOR SMASHES

Badminton is keen on getting its circuit jazzed up, and though everything’s going quite smooth if you ask us, the sport wants to create tennis like Grand Slams. So from next year, four Super Series will be elevated to Slam status. And India is rumoured to be in the third tier for its Siri Fort event.

It’s not a particularly adored venue by badminton fans owing to its inaccessibility, and inability of the capital to fill up the stadium. The Emirates Arena was sold out for quarters, semis and finals — which the organisers knew wouldn’t star a Scottish name.

There’s one other difference. Prince Edward is in attendance for the finals, and after a very brief wave and smile, the patron of Scottish badminton settles to watch the sport, amongst the other fans. None of Delhi’s VVIP ugly red sofas for the dignitaries. Players remain the focus through the week, even as Okuhara is declared the queen of shuttle.

Sindhu adds another painful memory to the stadium where she couldn’t win the Commonwealth Games gold. But this time, she’s made history no one’s forgetting anytime soon.

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