The players are enjoying the attention. The crowd loves the action. The organisers are not complaining. In short, the Premier Badminton League brings smiles all over the fraternity of shuttle-lovers in the country.
The latest edition, with the P. V. Sindhu-led Chennai Smashers winning a memorable title-clash at the expense of Mumbai Rockets, had all the ingredients that made good viewing and left cherished memories.
The 11-point format, introduced by the BWF on experimental basis, was used in the league. The shortened version of the game raised the chances of surprise results. And there were plenty of upsets, all the way.
In all, the event managed to build on the growing interest in badminton in the country. Not many are aware that television viewership of the Sindhu-Carolina Marin final in the Rio Olympics had set a record over-around 65 million. No doubt, Carolina winning the gold in Rio brought some difference to the following she enjoyed prior to these Games. In fact, the match was the second watched Olympic event in Spain after the Russia-Spain basketball encounter.
Another major factor that kept the crowd interest alive was the potential clash between Saina Nehwal and Sindhu. Saina, having recovered from the knee-surgery she underwent after her painful exit from the Rio Games, maintained that she would be fully fit by the end of January. But on January 13, the two met during the semifinal involving Chennai Smashers and Awadhe Warriors. Sindhu won in straight games to rightly prove her superiority. No doubt, given Sindhu’s form and growing confidence against an uncertain Saina, it was a fair result.
If the world’s richest badminton league — that offered Rs. 3 crore to the winner and Rs. 1.5 crore to the runner-up — was a success yet again, it has a lot to do with the steady growth of Indian fortunes in the game.
In the past few years, especially after the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, badminton has been able to pull the crowds to the stadiums around the country. The consistency of Saina for a decade and the rise of Sindhu, coupled with the less consistent performances of K. Srikanth, P. Kashyap and some others like Ajay Jayaram, H. S. Prannoy and B. Sai Praneeth — the country’s badminton lovers have something to cheer about.
In the doubles, Jwala Gutta has remained a constant factor for a long time. Whether in mixed doubles, mainly with V. Diju and later in the women’s doubles with Ashwini Ponnappa, Jwala had caught the imagination of the country like no other doubles specialist.
So overall, badminton has managed to catch the eyeballs at regular intervals. The first edition of the Indian Badminton League in 2013 managed to tap the potential of the event. However, the differences between the Badminton Association of India (BAI) and the event management company resulted in the second edition remaining a non-starter.
In 2016, the event fully owned by the BAI, returned in a new avatar as Premier Badminton League. But like in the IBL, the Chinese players continued to stay away. In fact, even in the latest edition, the players from China were not available. But as things turned out, the quality of badminton on view was such that the Chinese were not missed.
In this background, there was plenty of interest around the players’ auction. Carolina expectedly fetched the most, followed by Sindhu. But Saina remained unsold after the first round. By the end of the day, Awadhe Warriors chose to have Saina in its ranks, knowing her fitness was a source of concern.
Defending champion Delhi Acers appeared to have the best of the bargain after bagging World No. 2 Jan O Jorgensen and World No. 4 Son Wan Ho. But as things turned out, both came up with very average showings, losing a couple of matches each. As a result, Acers became the first team to bow out, with two matches still in hand.
Chennai remained the only franchisee without a home game since it was decided that Bangalore would host the matches allotted to the former. Eventually, it did not matter since Chennai made the ‘cut’. Awadhe Warriors topped the league, but Saina lost her matches against Carolina and Sindhu.
Carolina contributed immensely to the success of Hyderabad Hunters but she lost twice against Mumbai Rockets’ Sung Ji Hyun. And interestingly, Sindhu, after losing the opening match to Carolina, twice beat Sung.
In the semifinals, Smashers got past Warriors but more than the match-result, Sindhu’s 11-7, 11-8 victory over Saina remained the talking-point of the evening.
Rockets zoomed past Hyderabad Hunters by winning the two ‘trump’ matches, scheduled as the first two rubbers of the tie. Carolina’s repeat loss to Sung proved a huge setback to Hyderabad in the opener. And H. S. Prannoy won his sixth match on the trot, at the expense of National champion Sameer Verma in straight games.
The final provided a thrilling finish. After Chennai won the ‘trump’ mixed doubles followed by Sindhu’s conquest of Sung, Rockets hit right back by winning its ‘trump’ – the men’s doubles – followed by Prannoy’s triumph over P. Kashyap, who hurt his shoulder during the match.
That left World No. 11 Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk facing Ajay Jayaram in the title-deciding clash. Tanongsak had lost both his previous matches in the competition but held a 3-0 head-to-head advantage over Jayaram.
Amid rising tension, Tanongsak lost the opening game 9-11. Just when Rockets looked like pulling off a sensational come-from-behind victory, Tanongsak changed gears and raced away with the match after breaking free from 3-3 in the second game. As Jayaram froze, it was an easy dash to the finish-line for Smashers. Rockets, for the second successive year, ended up second best.
Final: Chennai Smashers beat Mumbai Rockets (Chris Adcock and Gabrielle Adcock (T) bt Nipitphon Puangpuapech and Zeiba Nadiezda 11-9, 11-6; P. V. Sindhu bt Sung Ji Hyun 11-8, 11-8; Chris Adcock and Mads Pieler Kolding lost to Yong Dae Lee and Nipitphon Puangpuapech (T) 10-21, 6-11; P. Kashyap lost to H. S. Prannoy 4-11, 11-8, 11-8; Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk bt Ajay Jayaram 9-11, 11-7, 11-3).
Semifinals: Chennai Smashers beat Awadhe Warriors 4-1 (Chris Adcock and Gabrielle Adcock 11-9, 8-11, 5-11; P. Kashyap bt Wing Ki Vincent Wong 11-4, 11-6; Tommy Sugiarto lost to K. Srikanth 12-14, 7-11; (‘T’) P. V. Sindhu bt Saina Nehwal 11-7, 11-8; Chris Adcock and Mads Pieler Kolding bt (‘T’) V. Shem Goh and Markis Kido 11-3, 12-10).
Mumbai Rockets beat Hyderabad Hunters 3 to -1 (Sung Ji Hyun bt Carolina Marin (‘T’) 6-11, 11-6, 11-5; H. S. Prannoy ('T') bt Sameer Verma 11-8, 15-13).
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