In the global arena, Saina Nehwal and P. V. Sindhu have given Indian badminton fans plenty to cheer for. Over the past few years, the duo had also raised a strong possibility of making an all-India final in an elite event.
But they were beaten to this feat by two men, who exceeded expectations in Singapore and set up a face-off in the title-clash.
B. Sai Praneeth and K. Srikanth, ranked 30th and 29th in the world and unseeded in a Badminton World Federation super series event, made India only the fourth country — after China, Indonesia and Denmark — to have both the finalists in a premier competition.
This dream run for the two Indians proved a huge fillip to the growing fortunes of the sport in the country. For long, Saina and Sindhu, plus the exploits of G. Jwala in doubles, grabbed most of the attention.
Can this result from Singapore provide a turning point for the Indian men at the world stage?
The answer lies in a reality-check of the India’s male players’ performances. Five players, led by 13th-ranked Ajay Jayaram, are in the top-40 bracket in the world. But given the number of quality players in the game, only the top-10 players hold places that command respect of the followers.
Given this background, Indians still have some distance to cover to become part of the world’s elite. Indians have not been consistently good in the elite events. It will still take some time before these men play to their potential, stay injury-free and sharpen their skills, to be able to pose a serious threat to those who form the creamy layer.
It is equally true that barring Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan, among the elite, players lack consistency. They can be expected to lose to lower-ranked rivals. In such a scenario, Indians see their chance to grab the limelight. But winning elite events still seems some distance away.
Consider this: Notwithstanding Srikanth, who rose to become World No. 3 after bagging two back-to-back international titles in 2015 to add to his historic triumph over Lin Dan in the 2014 China Open, no Indian male could stitch together victories through a week of a super series until Praneeth came good in Singapore.
It is pertinent to remember that Srikanth and Praneeth benefited a great deal from the last-minute withdrawals of the top two seeded players. Sai was scheduled to play top seed Jan O Jorgensen of Denmark in the first round, while Srikanth faced the prospect of meeting Olympic champion Chen Long, seeded two, in the second round.
In their journey to the final, both Indians faced only one seeded player each. Srikanth took out fifth seeded Chinese Shi Yuqi and Sai accounted for eighth seeded Thai Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk.
Though, the two Indians did their best, they were not required to come good against great quality players. Between the finalists, the result meant more for Sai, who finally won his maiden super series title.
Until this title, Sai was best known for beating former World and Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat in the first round of the 2013 Indonesia Open 21-15, 12-21, 21-17 and the current World No.1 Lee Chong Wei in the first round of the 2016 All England championship 24-22, 22-20.
But what gave indication of Sai’s form, leading to the Singapore Open, was his three-game opening round encounter in Malaysia Open against eventual title-winner Lin Dan.
The title in Singapore saw Sai reach his career-high ranking of 22, one behind Srikanth. Moreover, Sai’s victory has raised the self-belief of players like Ajay, H. S. Prannoy, P. Kashyap, Sameer Verma and Sourabh Verma to win super series events.
For long, Indians were happy with individual victories that did not add up to winning a title of significance. Kashyap, winner of the gold medal in the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, had stunned Chen Long, then World No. 1, in the 2015 Indonesia Open. Prannoy has a victory over Lin Dan and Jan O Jorgensen, when the Dane was ranked second in the World.
A decade ago, when Gopi Chand Academy was being built, it was one such victory that caught the headlines.
This was around the time when the likes of Chetan Anand, a medallist in the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, Anup Sridhar and Arvind Bhat were dominating the senior ranks in the country. Overseas, these players could not make a lasting impact.
Among the trio, Anup caught the attention of the badminton world in the 2007 World championship, where the Bangalore-based shuttler knocked out the reigning Olympic champion, Indonesia’s Taufik Hidayat, 21-14, 22-24, 22-20 in the second round in Kuala Lumpur.
In the current crop, there are more such players who have beaten World and Olympic champions or even the top-ranked players. That’s what has changed in the past decade.
As things stand now, Kashyap is back on the circuit after recovering from an injury. Prannoy, Sai and Srikanth need to ensure their injuries do not reoccur. In the same league, the Verma brothers — Sourabh and Sameer — too have it in them to test some of the bigger names.
Until these players work on their staying power on the court and train right, more titles will be hard to come by. The overseas players concede that the top Indians have the skill to beat most of the elite names but lack the fitness to grind it out over a week to win the title.
What one saw in Singapore cannot be repeated at will. Notwithstanding the Indian players’ talent and tenacity, it will take time.
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