Foreign sparring partners needed to lift India's doubles shuttlers

Six Indians — four men and two women — are among the world's top-20 ranked singles badminton players. In doubles, however, the best-ranked pair is Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy at No. 25. Why does India lag in doubles?

Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy at No. 25 is India's highest-ranked doubles pair.   -  K. V. S. GIRI

With P. V. Sindhu flying high in international tournaments, Indian badminton presents a very happy picture these days. Four men and two women from the country are among the world's top-20 ranked players.

“You have shown incredible progress in singles with players like Sindhu, Saina (Nehwal), (Kidambi) Srikanth, Ajay (Jayaram), (H. S.) Prannoy and Sai Praneeth. But you don’t have really world class players in doubles,” said England’s former world doubles No. 1 Nick Ponting on the sidelines of the Manorama BWF World senior badminton championships here.

“And in the academies, I don’t see anybody practising doubles, nobody does a backhand serve. If you want to win the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup, the World team championships for men and women, you need to start training in doubles seriously.”

While India has made giant strides in singles, it does not have a single pair in the world’s top-20 doubles rankings. Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy, at No. 33, are the country’s highest-ranked men in the world’s doubles rankings while in women’s, it's Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy at No. 25.

Well, what is the problem with doubles?

“In India, there is a limit to what is being taught in doubles. After we reach a certain level, the juniors use us to improve,” said Rupesh Kumar, who along with Sanave Thomas had a world ranking of No. 13 at their prime, many years ago.

“We are then thrown out and juniors take our place and the next bunch of juniors start practising with them. There is no way, or plan, for us to go up. For that, either we should be sent abroad or foreign players should be brought down here. But that is not happening.”

FOREIGNERS THE KEY

Sanave feels that Indian doubles players need to regularly train with the Koreans, Indonesians and the Malaysians to do well.

“The power, speed and reflexes are very different in doubles when compared to singles. We do not get them in India,” he explained.

With badminton becoming a high-profile sport, Rupesh feels that a change in strategy is needed.

“Now that the funding is there, instead of bringing two or three coaches, bring four or five players from abroad, they can train our players and also play with them,” said the star, who has figured in many World Championships and Thomas Cups with Sanave.

A WORLD CHAMP IN EVERY CORNER!

“In Indonesia, you will find a world champion in every corner. There, after they reach 24 or 25, they are thrown out of the national academy and 18 and 19-year-olds are brought in who also become world champions."

“So these 25-year-olds, who will still be among the world’s top 20, can be brought to practise with the Indians for a month or so, three or four times a year. That could transform the doubles scene here.”

Rupesh feels that the Badminton Association of India and even chief national coach Pullela Gopichand have not really understood doubles.

“All they say is, we are giving them everything but they don’t think what do they actually need?,” said Rupesh.

“Gopi has always told me, I have this system, one against three, why not you have something like two against five’. In singles, you can play rallies, you can afford to toss, drop, make the opponent move.

“But in doubles, it’s all about your reflexes. It’s very fast, by the time you realise it, it is 11. And soon after the break, when you gather yourself, it becomes 21. The first game is over… and before you realise, the match is over.

“I have spoken to Gopi about it (for) years but it has never convinced him because he has always been a singles player.”