The past decade in Indian badminton was packed with tales of extremes. Unprecedented success, attention and fame made the creamy layer of home-grown talent household names. Rising prize-money, rewards and exposure made them financially secure. A steep rise in their following gave some of them celebrity status that could easily be the envy of most of their predecessors.
Though disciplines like shooting, archery, chess, wrestling, boxing and cue-sports brought in more medals in the past decade, badminton gained more. As live badminton action was available across the length and breadth of the country, even casual followers of sports witnessed one triumph or the other.
The live telecast of every major tournament helped the country’s leading players gain familiarity and popularity. The visuals of triumphant Indians stayed in the minds of television viewers and administrators alike. The impact on those in authority in the Sports Ministry and Sports Authority of India reflected in the sport getting more funding.
The growing popularity of badminton provided the right environment for the advent of the Premier Badminton League, the richest of its kind in the world.
For players, senior and junior alike, exposure in overseas tournaments followed with amazing regularity. Sadly, several undeserving players also made the most of the generosity of the Government funding. But overall, more players than ever before got a taste of playing at different levels of the international circuit. Following a series of no-holds barred exposure trips, the reality came to the surface in two seasons — 2018 and 2019.
Besides the anticipated success in the 2018 Commonwealth Games plus two of the biggest triumphs of Sindhu’s career — the 2018 BWF World Tour Finals and the 2019 World championship — and B. Sai Praneeth’s World championship bronze, India had very little to cheer about.
Even Saina’s lone success — in the 2019 Indonesian Masters — came after reigning Olympic gold medallist and three-time World champion Carolina Marin withdrew from the final following a knee injury when the Spaniard led 10-4.
A closer look at the decade brings out some heartening facts. Former World No. 1 Saina Nehwal, P. V. Sindhu, B. Srikanth, P. Kashyap and doubles specialist G. Jwala rose to single-digit world rankings.
International titles and medals were won at various levels. Many new coaching academies mushroomed, catering to the young brigade. Many former players took to coaching and badminton appeared to offer better prospects than before.
If one were to zero in on the starting point of this rise in the popularity of badminton, the 2010 Commonwealth Games singles gold medal to Saina and the doubles gold to Jwala and Ashwini Ponnappa could well emerge as the trigger. The doubles gold saw India tie England at 37 gold medals. Saina’s comeback win took the host to the second spot, ahead of England, for the first time.
In fact, 2010 saw Saina win three BWF Superseries titles — the most in a year for her — to go with her India Open Grand Prix crown. Saina truly caught the imagination of the nation. The 2012 Olympic bronze medal made her a household name.
Not many remember that, in terms of performance, Saina’s career-best showing came in the 2012 Indonesian Open where she truly established her credentials as an Olympic medal-contender. Seeded fifth, Saina overcame the challenges of Chinese third seed Wang Shixian, a former World No. 1 and 2010 Asian Games gold medallist in the quarterfinals.
In the final, Saina defeated the eventual Olympic gold medallist China’s fourth seed Li Xuerui, who stunned World No. 1 and compatriot Wang Yihan, the previous day.
After a fruitful 2012, the following year Saina went without a major title before she added a couple more in 2014 and reached the World No. 1 ranking in 2015. The same year, she also became reached the World championship final.
However, Saina carried an injury to the 2016 Rio Games and thereafter, her career graph has not been the same.
Saina’s further triumphs came in the 2016 Australian Open, 2017 Malaysian Open Grand Prix and the 2019 Indonesian Masters. Sadly, her 2017 World championship bronze was lost in the background of the din following Sindhu’s silver.
In these years, Saina collected a couple of personal reasons to be happy. On the court, she won the Nationals twice and the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold — all at the expense of arch-rival Sindhu. Off the court, she married old mate P. Kashyap.
Twice, she decided to part ways with her coach and mentor P. Gopi Chand before returning to him. In 2011, in the aftermath of the 2010 Asian Games debacle, the spat between the Saina and Gopi saw her performance dip to an alarming low. But her decision to return to Gopi helped her finish the year as the finalist of the BWF Tour Finals.
Again, in 2014, Saina decided to leave Gopi and train with Vimal Kumar in Bangalore. She made another U-turn in 2017 to rejoin Gopi in Hyderabad.
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In all, 21 BWF Tour titles to go with medals from the Olympics, World championships, Asian Games, Asian championship and Commonwealth Games truly established Saina as the path-breaker for women’s badminton in the country.
All this while Sindhu steadily made her presence felt. Though she has not won as many BWF Tour titles as Saina or become World No. 1, her performances in the marquee events have been far more noticeable.
The 2016 Olympic silver medal, five World championship medals, including the historic title in 2019 and silver medals in the previous two editions to go with the bronze medals in 2013 and 2014, apart from the 2019 World Tour Finals title, make her the most successful Indian singles player.
Sindhu walked the path charted by Saina and has already gone beyond. She has not matched Saina’s consistency, or improved her personal record against the latter, but in terms of popularity and attracting endorsements, Sindhu has moved far ahead.
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With her reported earnings of $8.5 million in 2018 and $5.5 million in 2019, Sindhu made it to the Forbes list of highest paid female athletes!
Together, Sindhu and Saina played their parts, with the doubles combination of G. Jwala and Ashwini Ponnappa, to bring bronze medals from the Uber Cup in 2014 and 2016.
Jwala, the nation’s most loved doubles player, contributed to the rise of Indian badminton in a way far different from Saina and Sindhu. Her persona, on-court presence, flamboyance and the way she carried herself in the badminton arena, brought in more spectators. Whether it was her mixed doubles career with V. Diju or the more productive association with Ashwini, Jwala could not be ignored. Clearly the most photographed face among the Indian shuttlers, after Saina and Sindhu, Jwala’s performances will not be surpassed in a hurry.
With the media focus mostly on singles performances, Jwala and Diju did not get as much attention as they deserved when they became the first Indian pair to win a Grand Prix Gold title in the 2009 Chinese Taipei Open.
They also made history by becoming the first Indian mixed doubles pair to reach the World championship quarterfinals in 2009 and repeated the feat in 2010, too.
More significantly, Jwala and Diju stunned the badminton world by reaching the final of the 2009 BWF Super Series Masters Finals. This was the first Indian entry in the final of this prestigious, cash-rich year-ending event.
The pair was successful in Grand Prix events but after the 2012 Olympics, where she qualified for both paired events, Jwala took a sabbatical and returned to continue playing women’s doubles.
The high-point of the Jwala-Ashwini pair was the bronze medal from the 2011 World championship in London. The duo reached a career-high world ranking of 10 and was instrumental in India claiming two Uber Cup bronze medals.
Even as the absence of a strong third women’s singles player and men’s doubles pair continued to hurt India in the Sudirman Cup or the Thomas and Uber Cup competitions, Jwala’s presence clearly kept the hopes alive in the paired events.
Meanwhile, the country’s male players finally made their presence felt among the elite. Kashyap showed the way and won the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold, but could not translate his performances into title-winning showings at the BWF Superseries or World Tour levels.
The 2012 Olympic Games quarterfinalist climbed to the sixth spot in World rankings until the effort was bettered by K. Srikanth. Winner of six BWF superseries titles, including four in 2017, and three Grand Prix crowns, Srikanth went on to reach the World No. 1 spot.
B. Sai Praneeth, too, added to the interest in 2017, by winning a Superseries and a Grand Prix title. In fact, he claimed a surprise bronze from the 2019 World championship and eventually overtook Srikanth in the year-ending rankings, for the first time.
Though Sameer Verma and H. S. Prannoy also provided some joyous moments and pulled off some surprise results, Indian badminton showed signs of stagnation in 2019.
The silver lining was provided by young Lakshya Sen who climbed to the 33rd rung in world ranking and became eligible to take part in almost every elite BWF event in 2020. The doubles duo of Satwik Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty provided some very encouraging results and promised to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
A closer look reveals that the present lot in the seniors excelled as juniors at the start of the decade. That, in effect, proves that the country’s crop of juniors, since 2011, has not grown into world beaters.
Gopi, the man who turned the fortunes of Indian badminton around by shaping the careers of Saina, Sindhu, Kashyap, Srikanth and Sai Praneeth, among others, was rightly bestowed several sports and Padma awards.
He dealt with the players in a disciplined way in his Academy in Hyderabad. The Government agencies supported him to the hilt. The Badminton Association of India presidents, by turns, gave him a free hand and it all looked good as long as the results were encouraging.
But controversies, leading to litigation, were not far from Gopi. Jwala was the first to raise her voice against the head coach. He was also taken to court by players like Maharashtra’s Prajakta Sawant, Telangana’s Vaishnavi Reddy and later by Kerala’s doubles specialist Aparna Balan, questioning the way they were treated.
Some notable foreign coaches chose to leave the country before their contracts were over and also pointed out how difficult it was to work in Gopi’s Academy with some “insecure” Indian coaches.
Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo, credited by players like Sindhu, Srikanth and Praneeth for their performances, left before completing his term in December 2017. He later became Singapore’s National coach.
In 2019, Korean coach Kim Ji Hyun, who played a part making Sindhu the World champion, left soon after the historic triumph. Initially, it was reported that she was away to look after her ailing husband. But soon she took up a coaching assignment in Chinese Taipei and revealed in an interview that her stint in India ended on an unpleasant note.
In December, another Indonesian coach, doubles specialist Flandy Limpele spoke about the “bad attitude” of some Indian players in the elite camp and expressed his worry about “lack of team work” and said “they only care about individual self.”
Looking ahead, 2020 could well see the end of several careers since the focus of the SAI and the BAI, in consultation with Gopi, is clearly on grooming the younger lot. This also means, players like Srikanth, Sai Praneeth, Prannoy and Kashyap could find it a bit tougher, unless they make amends for their overall showings in the past two seasons.
The good news is that Gopi, the coach, is back on the badminton court in the early hours of the day, just like he did for the better part of the decade with Saina, Sindhu and others.
As things stand, it is difficult to be too optimistic about India’s prospects in 2020. In the New Year, with the Olympic qualification on the line, there is no dearth of motivation for the players. But, it is also time for the average Indian badminton follower to be more realistic instead of ending up as an exasperated victim of his or her expectations.