It is time to revise the format

K. Srikanth...a profitable outing.-Pics: RAJEEV BHATT

The National championship provided a stage for some players to prove that they deserved a better deal in selection matters. Rakesh Rao reports.

For a casual follower of Indian badminton, the picture looks rosy. A medal each from the Olympic Games, World championship; seven men and three women in the World top-50 list of singles; not to forget P. V. Sindhu and K. Srikanth winning Grand Prix titles during the year they signed out as National champions.

But take a closer look and the other side of Indian badminton presents a disappointing picture. Instances of selectors being informed after the teams have been “selected”; a select few getting overseas exposure despite ordinary performances; lack of regular domestic tournaments; frequent experiments with doubles combinations; in addition to the situations that had made G. Jwala and Prajakta Sawant to fight their cases in Delhi and Bombay High Courts… the list only gets longer.

Against such a backdrop, the National championship provided a stage for some players to prove that they deserved a better deal in selection matters.

With the Badminton Association of India wisely making participation of every player mandatory in the National championship, a prerequisite for being eligible for selection to the National team, there was an added interest.

Saina Nehwal, the top seed, expectedly withdrew at the last minute citing “cold and cough” as the reason. P. Kashyap and B. Sai Praneeth, troubled by shoulder injury and shin pain, sought permission to stay away from the team championship.

Given the quality of the competition, both in team as well as in individual events, it is time the BAI revised the format. As Chief Coach P. Gopi Chand put it, “I have been talking about the need for a change (in the format) for sometime now. We can have a series of domestic tournaments through the year and players can qualify for the Nationals instead of the current draw of 128 players in singles and a schedule of eight days.”

Indeed, the performances in the National championships did reinforce the idea. A very high percentage of results up to the quarterfinals came as per seeding that was based, for the first time, on the World rankings.

Barring the withdrawal of Saina and the early exit of former champion, eighth seed Trupti Murgunde, the remaining six seeds in the women’s section and the top-eight men took their allotted berths in the quarterfinals. Even in doubles, surprise results were at a premium.

Therefore, two days of team championships where Petroleum teams won for the 15th successive time, that too without requiring the services of their best players, and another two days of individual championships only served to produce expected winners.

Individually, Sayali Gokhale, the seventh seeded defending champion who found herself in the same quarter as Saina Nehwal, made it to the semifinals where she surprisingly lost to the recently-crowned National junior champion Rituparna Das in three games.

P.V. Sindh... living up to expectations.-

Even as National champion, Sayali did not get many opportunities to play in overseas events in the past 14 months. Since the Indian Open in April, she was sent for one overseas event, the Macau Open, (that Sindhu won). If the BAI was making the players play the Nationals, a National champion surely deserved to be treated with respect.

When Sayali won the title in October 2012, her ranking was 159. Today, Sayali is tottering at 143. In comparison, a player like Arundhati Pantawane, thanks to repeated overseas exposure, is ranked 50th. Needless to say, even without recording a single significant victory, she has been persisted with.

Sindhu, an obvious favourite in the absence of Saina, walked away with the title worth Rs. 80,000. She played to her form and expectations without ever looking in danger of dropping a single game!

All credit to young Rituparna for making the most of the big stage. She has the strokes, moves well and has the potential to be very dangerous when playing with slow shuttles. Rituparna’s real test will be when she has to deal with faster shuttles and more agile players. Nevertheless, it was a great sign that two 18-year-old players battled for the National title!

Among the men, a less-than-fit Kashyap was always going to be upstaged at some point. “If Srikanth gets a chance, he will not let it go,” said Gopi on the eve of the semifinals, where Kashyap eventually surrendered to his young colleague from the Gopi Chand Academy. In fact, Gopi proudly underlined the fact that 16 out of 20 semifinalists were his trainees.

Kashyap did not look too disappointed after his exit. “Since I was the defending champion, I wanted to come and play here. But after a point I was more focussed on not aggravating my shoulder injury than on winning.”

From the other half of the draw, second seed R. M. V. Gurusaidatt made it to the final in an impressive manner. His first severe test was against former champion Saurabh Verma and he came out winner after breaking away at 18-all in the decider. The same evening he overpowered B. Sai Praneeth — the youngster who ousted third seed Ajay Jayaram in the quarterfinals — in straight games.

Against an all-attacking Srikanth, who defeated fourth seed Anand Pawar on the way, Gurusaidutt’s performance fell short in the final. In the doubles, the comeback of G. Jwala and Ashwini Ponnappa as second seeds meant the women’s section had an added point of interest. The duo, treated shabbily by the BAI on the day of the auction of the Indian Badminton League, decided to come together to prove a point or two. But later news came that Jwala had been cleared of all charges by the BAI.

Though the pair had lost to top seed Pradnya Gadre and Sikki Reddy in the Tata Open final a week ago in Mumbai, the result in New Delhi was just what Jwala and Ashwini had wished for.

In the men’s doubles, top seeds Pranav Chopra and Akshay Dewalkar avenged the loss suffered to second seeds Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy in last year’s final and won the title.

The mixed doubles final saw second seed Arun Vishnu and Aparna Balan upstage top seed K. Tarun and Ashwini Ponnappa. Overall, on the organisational front, the newly-formed Delhi Capital Badminton Association did a magnificent job with the players, officials and the BAI readily giving it thumbs up.

But it is time the BAI did enough to receive a thumbs up from the players for being more transparent in its working, particularly selection.

* * * THE RESULTS

Men’s singles (final): 5-K. Srikanth (Pet) bt 2-R. M. V. Gurusaidatt (Pet) 21-13, 22-20. Women’s singles (final): 2-P. V. Sindhu (Pet) bt 15-Rituparna Das (AP) 21-11, 21-17. Men’s doubles (final): 1-Pranaav Chopra (Pet) and Akshay Dewalkar (AI) bt 2-Manu Attri (AAI) and Sumeeth Reddy (AP) 21-19, 21-17

Women’s doubles (final): 2-G. Jwala and Ashwini Ponnappa (Pet) bt Pradnya Gadre and N. Sikki Reddy (AAI) 21-17, 21-16. Mixed doubles (final): 2-Arun Vishnu and Aparna Balan (Pet) bt 1-K. Tarun and Ashwini Ponnappa (Pet) 21-10, 21-17

Team championship (finals): Men: Petroleum beat Air India 3-1 (Saurabh Verma bt Anand Pawar 21-13, 21-12; K. Srikanth bt Aditya Joshi 21-19, 21-16; K. Tarun & Pranav Chopra lost to Akshay Dewalkar & Sanyam Shukla 22-24, 16-21; R.M.V. Gurusaidutt bt Harsheel Dani 21-19, 21-15). Women: Petroleum beat Air India 2-0 (P.V. Sindhu bt Sayali Gokhale 21-16, 21-17; G. Jwala & Ashwini Ponnappa bt Sanyogita Ghorpade & Saili Rane 21-12, 21-12).

Note: prefix denotes seeding