INDIA’S BIG-TICKET shuttlers, P V Sindhu, Lakshya Sen and the doubles team of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, woke up on Monday morning in bleak Birmingham, and settled some serious scores. The background score of the OTT mobster series Peaky Blinders, which plays on loop at all venues, was apt for the occasion given that revenge was sought and taken, against opponents with whom the Indians had a fair amount of history.
Alongwith the legendary paddler, Sharath Kamal, who was winning his singles title in the adjoining arena, the shuttlers helped India (22 gold) leapfrog over New Zealand (20 gold), and finish fourth in the medals tally. But it was the closure to haunting defeats from the past, which only comes with scything wins, that really signed off the Birmingham Commonwealth Games for India.
“Lost gold,” Sindhu said, with deep relief, pleased at having exorcised the ghost of Glasgow 2014. That year, she had left the arena in tears after losing the semifinal to Canada’s Michelle Li and settling for bronze on a dreary evening. On Monday, at the NEC, she beamed at the “beautiful” UK weather, her confidence and mental strength blowing Li’s challenge to smithereens with a 21-15, 21-13 win.
Though it was the Canadian winner of 2014 who had prevailed in a monster 57-stroke rally, what summed up the final was an exchange between the two at 11-6 in the second set. Sindhu sent a motion-drop swirling into a curve and the shuttle deceptively went cross-court, forcing Li into a tangled twist trying to reach it. “Lots has happened since 2014. I’ve had lots of surgeries and she’s had lots of gold medals,” Li said. More pertinently, this time, Sindhu got Li to make a lot of errors, which usually lead to blistering defeats. And Sindhu had her missing CWG gold.
In the men’s doubles, Ben Lane and Sean Vendy are a pair of cheeky Englishmen who had cost Satwik-Chirag a match at the Denmark Challenge event in 2019. Their antics would keep the Indians on their toes, even if their badminton was error-prone. “We had fallen into their trap in 2019,” Satwik recalled.
“They’ll do irritating things — deliberately pull the shuttle from our side of the court, make faces, delay, screech,” Shetty explained. Here, they hadn’t expected their rivals to make the finals but were still wary of them, owing to the drama that accompanied the high-energy maverick pair.
“Our coach Mathias Boe and Arun Vishnu knew about this history. They told us to focus on winning points, and not get involved in their craziness and fall in the trap again,” he said. As clinical as Sindhu’s win, and with identical scores, Satwik-Chirag won 21-15, 21-13 to take India two gold clear of the Kiwis.
The duo, who had silver at the Gold Coast edition in 2018, recalled that evening four years ago when, sitting alongside Kidambi Srikanth who had similarly lost gold to Lee Chong Wei, the Indians had vowed to win gold next time.
“I still remember, we went on court right after Srikanth had lost and couldn’t win either. Sitting together, we had taken a pledge that next time it would be gold,” Shetty said. The wall of noise at Birmingham’s intimate stadium setting — similar to the Olympics and World Championships — was turned into an ambient buzz that propelled them past the Englishmen, their focus firmly on gold. “They are taller than us, and were stronger today. We were not quite there,” Ben Lane said.
Kidambi Srikanth, in fact, won bronze after losing to his Malaysian nemesis Ng Tze Yong for the second time in a week after the mixed team event. The heartbreak remains an open wound that may or may not find a salve in 15 day’s time at the World Championships in Tokyo. But Lakshya Sen was at hand, to exact revenge in the men’s singles final after his teammate went down in the Last Four.
A defensive automaton, the young Malaysian with his typical skiddy speed, was causing the Indians all sorts of trouble, nicking the crucial men’s singles rubber in the team event a few days back. Srikanth lost to him in three games in the individual semis, after nearly winning. In the men’s singles final, Sen found himself a game down, facing a similar fate.
In 2014, India held the men’s singles title through Parupalli Kashyap, but Chong Wei had turned up in 2018 to deny Srikanth. Now a younger upstart was threatening to send Sen packing after he erred from 18-all in the opener to go down 19-21. But Sen had had some conversations with Srikanth, and figured out a workable length against the Malaysian — putting him under pressure on the deep backhand and far forehand, playing to the lines. The early pressure cramped Sen’s free-flowing game but he found his rhythm and shirked off the stress to win 19-21, 21-9, 21-16.
Ng Tze tends to conserve energy in the second, and comes bombarding in the third. Sen stayed alert just for that, fed off his typical defence to launch counters and dismantled the Malaysian to land his first big Games medal, in a city where he had lost the All England final six months back.
Sen also stubbed a brewing controversy that swirled around the team and threatened to ruin the cheer. There had been stinging criticism of Srikanth being played in the team event, with many believing Sen could have beaten Ng Tze. The individual win brought the knives out again. But Sen was forthright in Srikanth’s defence.
“Look, I had won two important matches back to back in the quarters and semis, and a third straight match could have gotten tricky. Frankly, Srikanth’s match could have gone either way and he was close to winning because Ng was playing well. Even I might have lost. It was a very professional decision taken by coaches to play him, and I completely respect that. It made sense,” Sen stressed.
Even as Sindhu spoke of the 2024 Paris gold being her ultimate goal after ticking the missing CWG box, and Satwik-Chirag finally picked a gold at a Games after an unlucky Olympics, Indian badminton’s two biggest men’s singles players, arch rivals once, were carrying forward the bonhomie from Thomas Cup into the Commonwealth Games.
After the shuttlers had lost their team final earlier, TT star Kamal had dropped in courtside to put an arm around their shoulders, and urge them to fight on. Today, these racquet folk, guided by Sindhu’s first gold, pushed India higher on the medals table.
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