Indian badminton and the ‘S’ factor

Sindhu is seen as the lone flag-bearer, not to forget a fiercely-determined Saina’s efforts to be back to winning tournaments. The growing Sindhu-Saina rivalry is also here to stay. No quarter given, none asked for.

P. V. Sindhu is sure to find a place in any badminton-related topic in India today. Her performances have been compelling and she has risen to number two in World rankings.   -  Sandeep Saxena

For sometime now, Indian badminton has caught the eye of the country’s sports lovers for the right reasons. A clutch of titles to go with some big wins by those who do not necessarily end up the eventual winners have kept the home-grown shuttlers in the spotlight. However, it is equally true that the game is yet to bloom in the country. But the efforts are being done.

As chief coach P. Gopi Chand puts it, “for long, we have concentrated only on a couple of players and they have given us reasons to be happy. But there is a lot of work that needs to be done before we can even think of becoming a badminton power.”

Gopi was speaking about the growth of Saina Nehwal and P. V. Sindhu, apart from the showings of P. Kashyap and K. Srikanth, despite any real structure in the country. There is a shortage of quality coaches and support staff. And the growing instances of injury to the players that are a reflection on the lack of quality trainers and timely guidance to those on the court.

Lost in the glitz of the medals won by Saina and Sindhu, is the not-so-bright side of Indian badminton. The doubles has not received the kind of focus and priority it deserves. Notwithstanding the results attained by G. Jwala, in the company of V. Diju and Ashwini Ponnappa, India has struggled to make a presence in the paired events. An effort has started lately but the results will take time to emerge. In the latest edition of the Yonex India Open, which Sindhu won, all seven men’s pairs lost on the first day, while the home presence in the women’s doubles and mixed doubles ended on the second day!

What kept alive the event was the much-awaited Sindhu-Saina quarterfinal match that the Rio Olympic medallist won in straight games. Sindhu went on to beat Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun in the semifinal and Olympic champion Carolina Marin in the final.

Men’s badminton in India is of no consequence in the context of world rankings. Kidambi Srikanth is number 28 and B. Sai Praneeth 32. No wonder Sindhu gets all the attention, for she has proved to be a somebody on the world stage.   -  V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

 

There is no denying the fact that it will take a few more years before India’s talent in all three doubles events begins to show results. Till then Sindhu is seen as the lone flag-bearer, not to forget a fiercely-determined Saina’s efforts to be back to winning tournaments.

In short, given the inconsistency of the Indian men players, all eyes are on Sindhu. Whether it is her overall performance or the rivalry against Marin or Saina, Sindhu dominates every discussion on Indian badminton.

Without doubt, the growing Sindhu-Saina rivalry is here to stay. No matter, what these players say in public about each other, make no mistake, they want to win against each other. No quarter given, none asked for.

From Saina’s perspective, it is not easy to deal with the sudden shift of popular attention towards Sindhu. After all, since 2006, the nation has looked up to Saina as the flag-bearer of Indian badminton in the global arena. She gave the country the belief that a woman player could be among the best in the world. She proved it by becoming the World No. 1.

In the past 10 years, Saina has enjoyed the adulation and attention of the country’s sports lovers. And in the space of a couple of weeks in Rio, things changed dramatically.

Saina carried an injury to Rio and spent close to a fortnight in desperation and anxiety over a troublesome knee before the commencement of the competition in Rio.

The injury occurred after Saina’s prolonged and clearly ill-advised training session with P. Kashyap in Bangalore, a couple of days before the squad’s departure for the Olympic Games.

Having over-trained, Saina felt the strain and eventually, did not recover in time. By her standards, the fifth-seeded Saina struggled to beat local girl Lohaynny Vicente and despite two days’ rest, surrendered to little-known Ukranian Maria Ulitina in straight games.

Once in Mumbai, the consulting doctor told her that a chipped bone, from the right knee-cap, was pressing against the fat in the knee-area. This caused the ever-increasing pain. A surgery followed and Saina was away from a badminton court for a couple of months.

Saina’s fall and Sindhu’s rise took place concurrently. Sindhu went on to produce the best form of her career. After an easy opener, Sindhu scored an important victory over Canada’s Li Michelle — the girl who beat her twice in the Glasgow Commonwealth Games — and defeated Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying (the current World No. 1), China’s Wang Yihan (the former World champion) and Japan’s rising star Nozomi Okuhara in straight games!

Saina could only watch silently as the country found a new star.

Sindhu fought gallantly to take the first game in the final against Marin, the favourite, before losing in three games. Sindhu’s silver straightaway put in the shade Saina’s bronze from the 2012 London Olympics. In the absence of any gold medal, the nation showered blessings and booty on the silver medallist. Sindhu, the youngest Olympic medal winner from the country, that too in her maiden appearance, needed no reminding that this was destiny-making moment.

All this while, thanks to a stupendous job by the South African physiotherapist Heath Mathews, Saina worked her way to the court in November. Not many care to remember that the first six matches that Saina played — one in the China Open, three in the Hong Kong Open and two in the Macau Open — went to three games!

Interestingly, since then, Saina has played 13 times — spread over five tournaments — without going into the decider. This includes the Malaysia Masters that Saina won without dropping a game in January.

During this time, Saina made a valiant attempt to grab the eighth and final berth in the year-ending Dubai World Superseries Finals. As it turned out, the spot went to Sindhu.

After losing to Sindhu in the Premier Badminton League match, Saina chose not to play the Syed Modi Grand Prix event in Lucknow thereby avoiding a potential final clash with Sindhu. This left Sindhu with virtually no challenger and she raced away with the title without dropping a game.

The two finally met in the India Open quarterfinal and tried to underplay their rivalry. But for those who watched the match, it was clear that both played as though there was more than a semifinal spot at stake.

Saina’s pre-event comments about not recovering fully from the effects of surgery were seen as a spadework to lessen the impact of a possible defeat to Sindhu in their much-anticipated quarterfinal clash. After the match, Sindhu made no secret of what she thought of Saina’s on-court movements, “I think she moved very well. At least, I didn’t see her struggle to move at any point.”

While Saina stayed away from the post-match media conference, Sindhu spoke her mind. “I took the match just like any other” and was emphatic in saying, “Saina is not someone special that I have to beat all the time.”

But, three days after Sindhu won the India Open at the expense of Marin, the Malaysia Open proved a disastrous one for the two Indian contenders. They lost in the opening round.

Less than 24 hours later came the new World rankings. From being fifth, Sindhu touched a career-high ranking of second while Saina slumped to ninth after dropping a place. Interestingly, Saina mentioned she was chasing a “secret” goal and that was not being World No. 1 again. Her comment, made two days before she lost to Sindhu in New Delhi, triggered off speculations that it could well be to beat the younger Indian.

After all, no one doubts Saina’s grit or mental strength. Saina knows where she is in her career. She may not find the need to be World No.1 in a hurry but a victory over Sindhu looks paramount in her list of priorities. Saina will be looking to beat Sindhu and with it, make a point to Gopi, her former coach and mentor.

No doubt, Sindhu will be under pressure and how she deals with it, will reflect on the results. Though Sindhu and Marin are good friends off the court, their on-court rivalry is developing. With the left-handed Spaniard holding a 5-4 lead in their head-to-head clashes, Sindhu will be looking for a hat-trick of victories to even the score.

The women’s world rankings, released on April 6, shows that the top seven represent different countries. What makes the women’s competition so unpredictable is the fact that the top 12 are capable of beating one another.

A look at Sindhu’s head-to-head record against the six other leading players in the world rankings gives a fair idea of the competition among the elite players.

For instance, against the World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying (Chinese Taipei), Sindhu has a 3-6 record. Even against the others, Sindhu is yet to build a favourable score. But, at 21, Sindhu has age on her side to work on her game and improve on all aspects of it.

One area where Sindhu needs to work harder is the strength behind her strokes. Unlike most elite players, Sindhu lacks the punch. At the net, or when it comes to rallying, Sindhu is second to none. She has the confidence in her defence but once she is able to pack power into her forehand smashes, she will be tough to beat.

Given the inconsistency among the elite women players, one should expect the unexpected. Sindhu will win some, lose some. Much will depend on how she gears up and turns up for the big events. The Rio Olympics showed what Sindhu was capable of. The World championship this year could well see her return with a third medal from the premier event.