OF late, Indian badminton has struggled to provide its followers with any cheerful news. Since P. Gopi Chand reached the semifinals of the Japan Open in April 2002, there have not been any great strides made by the Indians. Abhinn Shyam Gupta's recent victory over former World number one Roslin Hashim was surely the best news from the home shuttlers in more than a year.
Despite the international exposure our players including juniors, have received in the European and Asian circuits, the results have not been very encouraging. Therefore, it is against this background that the triumph of Aparna Popat in the Asian Satellite championship at Jaipur holds significance.
Top seed in women's section, Aparna justified her billing against some tough challengers from Singapore and Thailand. Ranked 24th in the world at the time of this annual event, Aparna won the final by avenging the loss suffered at the hands of Salakjit Polsana of Thailand last year in Mumbai.
Aparna gained 180 ranking points for her triumph. She will have to aim for a place in the 30-40 bracket in the world rankings by April to gain automatic qualification for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Aparna had done well to outplay Singapore's Xiao Luxi in the semifinals after overcoming a slow start, like in her quarterfinal-clash with Luxi's teammate Jiang Yanmei.
Later, Aparna pointed to the fact that the speed of the shuttles used in the competitions posed an added problem of adjustment for the players. In other words, the player who adjusted himself or herself better, ended up superior in the end.
In the men's section, the Indian challenge ended in the semifinals where Nikhil Kanetkar went down to top-seeded Malaysian Lee Chong Wei in straight games. In fact it was this game that brought into focus the issue of the speed of the shuttles. From the very first day, the players, including those from overseas, had been struggling to keep pace with the speed of the shuttles. Usually, at least in India, the players have been given the liberty to `break' the top edges of four or eight feathers to alter the speed of the shuttles, following mutual agreement. Since the Indians depend more on the length of their returns and not on power and pace, it is important for them to be comfortable with the speed of the shuttles.
Lee Chong Wei did not allow Kanetkar to `break' the shuttle when the second one was taken with the Indian leading 6-1 in the opening game. Though as per the International Badminton Federation regulations, shuttles of three speeds should be made available. But in this tournament, the players had no such choice. Once it was ruled that Kanetkar had to continue without altering the speed of the shuttle, the Indian was never the same. He lost his focus and gradually the points. The Malaysian's ploy of unsettling the Indian worked. Thereafter, he allowed Kanetkar just three points on serve in the first game and another two in the second before galloping into the final.
In an all-Malaysian final, second seed Yeoh Kay Bin proved superior on the day and tamed Lee Chong Wei in straight games. The top seed was hampered by an injury on his playing hand finger in the first game. Though Lee Chong Wei tried to come back in the second game, Yeoh Kay Bin was not to be denied victory.
While the three-day competition saw the domination of the Malaysian men, the women's doubles and mixed doubles titles were captured by Singapore. As far as India's challenge was concerned, the men's duo of V. Diju and Sanave Thomas almost knocked out Malaysia's Woon Fui and Chieng Hun in the semifinals. However, the Indians let two match-points slip in the second game and lost.
National champion Abhinn Shyam Gupta, seeded three, was expected to do better than he did while reaching the quarterfinals. His three-game loss to Kuan Hong of Malaysia left Kanetkar carrying the Indian hopes in the men's section. Kanetkar had earlier tamed J.B.S. Vidyadhar with surprising ease in the quarterfinals. The previous day, Vidyadhar had knocked out fourth seeded Thai Anupap Thiraratsakul 15-9, 17-14 after trailing in both the games.
Chetan Anand, Sachin Ratti, Anup Sridhar and Arvind Bhatt were among those who did not perform to expectations.
Among the women, the seasoned Manjusha Kanwar impressed on her way to the quarterfinals. She overcame Singapore's Lui Fan in three games to show that she still had plenty of badminton left in her. Trupti Murgunde and Shruti Kurian surrendered without much fight in the quarterfinals after G. Jwala raised visions of upsetting Xiao Luxi in the pre-quarterfinals.
The overall results of the Indians once again showed that a lot needs to be done. Joint Chief Coach Vimal Kumar said he had "chalked out a detailed action plan but it was yet to be backed fully by the Badminton Association of India." Clearly, the need of the hour is to make the Indians play more in two-star and three-star tournaments to instil more confidence in them. Since the gap between the upcoming juniors and the seasoned seniors is quite wide, the younger lot should be given more opportunities to watch the seniors in action. Time has surely come for the BAI to concentrate on taking small but productive steps. Expecting the players to take giant leaps will only see them falling flat.The results (finals):
Men's singles: Yeoh Kay Bin (Mal) bt Lee Chong Wei (Mal) 15-5, 15-13.
Women's singles: Aparna Popat (Ind) bt Salakjit Polsana (Tha) 11-4, 10-13, 11-4.
Men's doubles: Mohammad Tazari and Abdul Latif (Mal) bt Lin Woon Fui and Hong Chieng Hun (Mal) 5-15, 15-9, 15-10.
Women's doubles: Jiang Yanmei and Li Yujia (Sin) bt Duangnong Aroonkesorn and Kunchala Voravichitchaikul (Tha) 15-9, 15-11.
Mixed doubles: Hendri Saputra and Li Yujia (Sin) bt Nuttaphon Narkthong and Kunchala Voravichtchaikul (Tha) 15-4, 5-6.