Strong shuttlers, weak team: India still a minnow in elite team championships

India may have qualified for the Uber Cup despite failing in the quarterfinals of Asian Team Badminton Championships, but the gap between Sindhu, Saina and the rest is far too wide for India to make a mark in the World Team Championship. India has the firepower in men’s singles and doubles to pose a challenge in Thomas Cup, but fitness is a major concern.

Indian interest is only limited to P.V. Sindhu and Saina Nehwal.   -  G.P. Sampath Kumar

Just six weeks into the New Year and Indian badminton produced plenty to talk about – both on and off the court. The cash-rich Premier Badminton League spilled over from the previous year.

Within days, Saina Nehwal made her way past P.V. Sindhu for the second successive occasion in their ‘grudge’ match, and reached the final of the Indonesia Masters. The following week, Sindhu tossed away a match-point in the final of the India Open against USA’s Beiwen Zhang and fell agonisingly short of defending the title.

Within hours of the final, the Indian contingent flew to Alor Setar, Malaysia, for the Badminton Asia Team championship to claim a qualifying spot for the Thomas and Uber Cup Finals. Saina’s decision to stay away did not go down well with the Badminton Association of India (BAI) but the governing body could do little.

On the brighter side, after all the uncertainty, India did enough to bag qualifying spots in both sections. Sindhu gave it all, won all her matches, including the one against World No. 2 Akane Yamaguchi. Though India lost in the quarterfinals to Indonesia, and could not be among the four qualifiers from the tournament, the technicalities worked in its favour.

With India’s winning margins, in the matches leading to the last-eight stage making it a higher-ranked quarterfinalist, one of the spots came its way by default.

Read: Indian teams bow out of Asia Team Badminton Championship

Even in Thomas Cup, the world ranking of the Indian players (three Indians are currently among the top-17) came handy and despite losing the quarterfinals, the team had reasons to believe they would travel to Bangkok for the Thomas and Uber Cup Finals slated from May 20 to 27.

During the India Open in New Delhi, Saina made it clear that she would not be part of the team to Malaysia. The BAI secretary Anup Narang did write to the players after the late inclusion of all leading players – Sindhu, Saina, Kidambi Srikanth, H. S. Prannoy, Ashwini Ponnappa and N. Sikki Reddy – before the January 15 deadline for the Asian qualifiers.

All except Saina played but the former World No. 1 had her reasons. “I know people want me to play and want me to be there. But what is the point when people say, ‘Saina lost,’ and ‘Saina is out of form.’ Then, I have to face it, nobody else,” she said.

Saina had been talking about concentrating “only on fitness and not on tournaments,” reminded the BAI that she was not fully fit. She even pointed out, “I am not getting any younger” and “my body needs more time to recover.”

PROBLEMS APLENTY

  • It has been a disappointing performance from a vast majority of Indian players, proving that consistency is seriously an issue even with the best of home-grown champions:
  • Sindhu and Saina haven’t been very consistent.
  • Srikanth hasn’t regained the form which helped him win four Super Series titles last year.
  • H.S. Prannoy, troubled by corns on his foot, will also take time to recover ahead of the premier events.
  • Kashyap is keen to make up for the lost time but clearly hasn’t tasted much success.
  • Barring Sindhu and Saina, no singles player has the calibre to even cause a minor upset in the women’s category.

It is also pertinent to remember that players in the Top 15 face a new challenge this year, following the Badminton World Federation’s directive making it mandatory for them to play at least 12 tournaments, or face action, in the revamped calendar. But it is likely that the rule may be relaxed when BWF sits down to review the rules in May.

Indeed, for some of Asian countries, the year 2018 also has Commonwealth Games and Asian Games as priority events. Therefore, not every top-ranked Indian player is keen to add another event to his or her schedule.

Also read: I want time to be fresh for tournaments, says Saina Nehwal

Saina argued she needed time to prepare for the All England Championship. On its part, the BAI requested the player to serve the interest of the country in the Asian qualifiers since it would end more than a month before the All England, scheduled from March 14.

Coming back to the India Open, the late withdrawal of World No. 1 and defending champion Viktor Axelsen left Srikanth as the favourite. However, the top-ranked Indian, lost to a qualifier and for the second successive year, failed to make the quarterfinals. This was Srikanth’s first major outing of the year after being troubled by injury late last year.

From left: B. Sai Praneeth, Kidambi Srikanth, national coach Pullela Gopichand and H.S. Prannoy.   -  NAGARA GOPAL

 

Earlier, H.S. Prannoy and Ajay Jayaram exited owing to fitness issues, B. Sai Praneeth, Sameer Verma and P. Kashyap lost listlessly in the quarterfinals. For the record, fourth seed Shi Yuqi, the third highest ranked Chinese won the title by overcoming Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen, seeded three, in the final. This was Chen’s second successive runner-up finish in this annual event.

In the women’s section, the Indian interest was limited to Sindhu and Saina while all others exited in quick time. Saina could not build on her second-best finish in the Indonesia Masters and fell tamely to eventual champion Beiwen Zhang.

In fact, the 27-year old of Chinese origin, who migrated from China to Singapore to USA, went on to nail sixth seed from Hong Kong, Cheung Ngan Yi – the conqueror of Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin.

Sindhu produced her best of the week against former World champion Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon in two controlled games in the semifinal. But she failed to produce the same aggression in the final.

In the three doubles, only Pranav Chopra and N. Sikki Reddy impressed the home crowd on their way to grabbing an unexpected spot in the mixed doubles semifinals.

Also read: Padukone wants BAI to make India a badminton superpower

Over all, it was a disappointing performance from a vast majority of Indian players, proving that consistency is seriously an issue even with the best of home-grown champions. Sindhu and Saina will have to more consistent.

Srikanth, who played his first event of the year after nursing an injury suffered in November, is capable of getting his act together. H.S. Prannoy, troubled by corns on his foot, will also take time to recover ahead of the premier events. Kashyap is keen to make up for the lost time but clearly finds the going tough. Sameer Verma played well in parts but voiced his concern over getting injured in dealing with a punishing schedule.

Among the ladies, barring Sindhu and Saina, no singles player has the calibre to even cause a minor upset.

No wonder then, even when India plays as part of the elite teams in the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup Finals, women’s singles and doubles shall remain the areas of serious concern.