Bellwethers of Indian badminton

P.V. Sindhu’s run of success, and the rise of Rituparna, Ruthvika and Sri Krishna Priya in the rankings augur well for Indian badminton even as Saina Nehwal, at 27, strives to be among the top.

Saina Nehwal... fighting to stay in the mix.   -  PTI

On August 6, Saina Nehwal posted a clip of her on Instagram, doing push-ups. Her arms stretch a green elastic band; one foot is in the air; the body — almost straight — goes up and down nine times. Then, exhaling heavily, she kneels and does a thumbs up for her followers. “I hate pushups :-/ :-/” says the caption.

It’s inspiring. It’s an ageing champion doing whatever it takes, even the things she hates, to be on top of her game.

At 27, Saina, along with USA’s Beiwen Zhang, is the oldest among the top-15 women in the BWF singles rankings. And no woman of 27 or more has won any of the major tournaments — including over 45 Super Series — in the last four years.

Saina might not be aware of the trend, but she is striving hard to break it. Last year, she was the only one above 25 to win a Super Series title when she beat Sun Yu in the Australian Open final. But then came the shocking second-round exit at the Rio Olympics and a knee injury that hampered her game.

“For 2020 (Tokyo Olympics) it depends on my progress and health conditions. Rio is an ideal place to showcase my game,” she had said after winning the 2016 Australian Open — her only major triumph since recovering from the Achilles heel injury she had suffered the year before.

The average age of a women’s singles Super Series winner has been reducing for the last three years. Saina’s younger rivals, particularly P. V. Sindhu, Tai Tzu Ying, Nozomi Okuhara and Carolina Marin, have started to peak. The four won seven of the first eight Super Series this year. So, a herculean task it will surely be for Saina to consistently beat them in major tournaments and be among the top contenders at the Tokyo Olympics.

SAINA’S MAJOR WINS*
 

YEARTITLES
2009
  • Indonesia Open
2010
  • Singapore Open
  • Indonesia Open
  • Hong Kong Open
  • Commonwealth Games
2012
  • Indonesia Open
  • Denmark Open
  • Olympics (bronze medal)
2014
  • Australian Open
  • China Open
2015
  • India Open
2016
  • Australian Open

*Includes Super Series, Olympics and Commonwealth Games

The face of Indian badminton changed from Saina to Sindhu when the latter won a silver medal on her Olympics debut. “Life has changed a lot after the Games,” she had said a month after that historic day in Rio.

From a promising young talent, she became a household name, a recognised world beater. She is reportedly the country’s most sought-after athlete by brands after Virat Kohli. But the possession of silver also instilled a promise of gold.

It showed she has what it takes to beat the best at the highest level. The talent was evident; now, it’s only about her temperament.

Despite defeating several higher-ranked players, Sindhu, before Rio, frequently lost to opponents ranked much lower than her. Five of her 12 defeats from January 2016 till the Rio Olympics came against players ranked below 15.

“She has been inconsistent a few times, squandering leads, but it’s part of growing up,” National coach Pullela Gopichand had said when his ward upset the then World No. 2 Wang Yihan in the semifinals in Rio. “She’s young and she has the time and age on her side.”

Sindhu’s improvement was immediate — after the Rio Olympics she hasn’t lost to a player outside the top-15. This year, she has won two Super Series; another one would take her on a par with Saina’s haul of three titles — the best by an Indian woman — in 2010.

The two three-game thrillers — the World Championships final and the Korean Open final — she played against Nozomi Okuhara will surely be among the best matches of 2017. For the sight of two players, contrasting in most aspects — 5.9’ to 5.1’; bellowing screams to stoic silence; thunderbolt smashes to unshakeable defence — outwitting and out-willing each other for well over an hour, on two occasions, made us chew nails, shift uncontrollably in our seats, and scream and sigh.

The Sindhu-Okuhara rivalry has been riveting this year, except for the one where the Indian suffered a lopsided 18-21, 8-21 defeat in the second round of the Japan Open.

The Japanese, with the victory, nosed ahead of Sindhu in head-to-head record (5-4). Apart from World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying and Ratchanok Intanon, nobody in the top-10 leads Sindhu by more than two wins in head-to-head stats.

And Sindhu is just 22. She has three World Championship medals, one Olympic silver, and three Super Series titles. No Indian has done better at her age. And if one were to believe Gopichand, Sindhu’s yet to reach her potential. There will be, one would expect, more titles on way to Tokyo, where she’ll strive to get what she missed in Rio.

SINDHU’S HEAD-TO-HEAD RECORD AGAINST THE TOP-10 PLAYERS

PLAYERRANKAGERECORD
Tai Tzu Ying1233-7
Sung Ji Hyun3267-4
Akane Yamaguchi4203-2
Carolina Marin5245-6
Ratchanok Intanon6221-4
Sun Yu7234-4
Nozomi Okuhara8224-5
Chen Yufei9193-2
He Bingjiao10204-5

As on November 27, 2017

The other three in the Indian women’s singles top-5, Rituparna Das (ranked No. 50), Sri Krishna Priya Kudaravalli (No. 58) and Ruthvika Shivani (No. 83), are yet to make it to the top rung.

Rituparna, 21, won the Polish International — her first international title — last year, when she defeated compatriot Rasika Raje. Three years before that, she had lost the National Championship final in straight, but hard fought, games to Sindhu.

After losing to Ruthvika in the 2014 edition, Rituparna, in February this year, became the National champion after trouncing Reshma Karthik in straight games.

“Sure, she has the spark and the ability to go a long way if only she keeps working hard and aims big,” said Gopichand of Sri Krishna Priya after she, at 15, won the under-17 and under-19 singles titles in the 2013 Hyderabad District Badminton Championship. She’s yet to win an international title at the senior level, but is rapidly rising in the world rankings.

Ruthvika, also from Gopichand’s academy, shocked Sindhu last year in the South Asian Games final. After trailing 8-11 in the first game, Ruthvika won 21-11, 22-20. Only a year ago, after winning her maiden National title, she was bedridden for around three months because of viral hepatitis. Later in 2016, she upset Thailand’s Nitchaon Jindapol in the Uber Cup, assuring a medal for India.

PLAYERRANK IN JANUARY 2016CURRENT RANK
Rituparna Das26951
Sri Krishna Priya Kudaravalli482*58
Ruthvika Shivani13098

*on July 14, 2016

For the next five years at least, if she stays fit and injury-free, Sindhu is expected to spearhead the Indian women’s challenge in major tournaments. Her accumulation of major titles, and Rituparna, Ruthvika and Sri Krishna Priya’s rise in rankings augur well for Indian badminton even as Saina, at 27, strives to be among the top.

But after them, who?

Vaishnavi Reddy, 15, and Aakarshi Kashyap, 16, are among the top-15 juniors in the world.

Vaishnavi, according to Gopichand, has done consistently well in her age-group events and has beaten older opponents as well. Last year, the Hyderabad girl won her maiden international title (U-15 girls singles) at the Pilot Pen Age Group Badminton Championship in Singapore.

Aakarshi’s first major international success was at the 2016 Junior Asia Championships in Indonesia, where she won a bronze medal. She was with the Delhi Aces in this year’s Premier Badminton League, training with the current men’s World No. 1, Viktor Axelsen, and No. 2, Son Wan Ho.

Gopichand’s daughter, Gayathri, as a 12-year-old in 2015, became the youngest player to represent India at the Asian Badminton Championships in Indonesia. This February, she won the U-15 singles title in a national-level tournament in Gulbarga.

It isn’t a guarantee that a player can carry the success from the junior level to the senior level. But to aid her in that direction, she’ll now have a good infrastructure and the best of trainers and coaches, which Indian badminton had been longing for long.