The USD 900,000 India Open, held in New Delhi from January 17 to 22, was the biggest badminton tournament in the country. Naturally, it attracted the best players from around the world. With Indian badminton riding the crest of a wave, it was hoped that emerging stars such as Lakshya Sen would make an impact, especially with superstar P. V. Sindhu still rusty after a long period of hibernation owing to injury.
For fans thronging the KD Jadhav Hall at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium and effortlessly chanting the difficult names of the talented youngsters, it was double bonanza. It was thrilling to witness young challengers Kunlavut Viditsarn and An Se Young going going toe-to-toe with players of renown despite the odds and the depleting energy levels. World No.1s Viktor Axelsen and Akane Yamaguchi were stunned at the business end of the competition. Their opponents overcame them with clinical precision.
The 21-year-old Kunlavut, a three-time world junior champion from Thailand, fought spiritedly against Axelsen in a memorable final. His six losses to the Dane – including thrice in the final – did not deter him from playing at his best, much to the delight of the capacity crowd. “This is competitive badminton. There are strong competitors who want to win. Even though I have won many times, you cannot expect me to keep winning all the time. It was not my day and I congratulate Kunlavut,” Axelsen said after his defeat, putting things in perspective.
It was about taking one’s chances. Kunlavut saved a game point in the first game, and winning that game proved crucial. After a dip in the second game, when Axelsen asserted his dominance, Kunlavut was at his best in the third, the Dane losing grip and making a flurry of errors.
Kunlavut had already shown his never-say-die spirit during the first game of his semifinal tussle against Anthony Sinsuka Ginting of Indonesia. He won that game 27-25, saving a game point. “I was ready for a long match,” said Kunlavut, a quick learner. He did not worry about the result, but “gave it all” in the final, not in the least worried about the reputation of his rival, to happily pocket the winner’s purse of USD 59,500. Given the manner Axelsen crushed Asian Games gold medallist and World No. 3 Jonatan Christie in the semifinals, few would have bet on him losing the final. But such is the beauty of sport: it does not always go as per the best-informed predictions.
Energy and stamina
Like Axelsen, Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi was dominant in the women’s section, fresh from victory at the Malaysian Open. She did not drop a game except in the tight quarterfinal against former World No. 1, Olympic and world champion Carolina Marin.
Yamaguchi was in control of the proceedings in the final against 20-year-old An Se Young until midway through the second game. She possessed the ability to make opponents run around in long rallies, but Young had reserves of energy. In the deciding game, Yamaguchi, the ‘pocket rocket’ could not step into a high gear. She instead made the battle physical, engaging in tough rallies to exhaust the wiry South Korean. However, it was Yamaguchi who lost steam and made uncharacteristic errors even as Young sailed to a memorable victory.
Young had shown her class in the semifinals by turning the match around midway through the second game against He Bing Jiao of China. She was superb not only with her court coverage but with the courage she showed in handling a top champion when so much was at stake.
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The emergence of young champions indeed makes badminton so much more lively and unpredictable. The game is gaining in popularity, especially in India. It has forced Yonex to establish a second factory in Bengaluru to make high-quality racquets to meet the growing demand.
Fans supported the established superstars but were also willing to get behind youngsters showing the stomach for a fight. They cheered for Young during crucial stages of her semifinal. Sitting in the compact hall, which usually hosts wrestling bouts, many fans enjoyed watching the quarterfinals, semifinals and the finals, even with no Indian participation. It was a clear indication that the love of the game trumped fandom based on patriotism.
India does have bright youngsters who can weave magic on the court. Fans were unlucky not to see them at their best. Lakshya did lose in the second round but defeated World No. 7 and another promising talent Kodai Naraoka of Japan the following week in the first round of the Indonesia Open.
Indian badminton has been kept in a healthy state, thanks to the coaching methods of Prakash Padukone and P. Gopi Chand, and therefore there is room for more challengers to emerge in the years to come. There is definitely a strong system in place, and together with good support from the government, the game is on the right track in the country.
There is no doubt that India would play a significant role in keeping world badminton healthy, imparting deception and dexterity to complement the agility, athleticism and aggression of the rest.
India Open did show that badminton is not all about raw physical power. Fitness and mental stamina are important, too, to give underdogs a chance to upset the apple cart.
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