I consider myself extremely lucky to have played a small part in India’s Thomas Cup triumph. Honestly, I never imagined I would see India win the prestigious title in my lifetime. The Thomas Cup is to badminton what Davis Cup is to tennis. Since this team event started in 1949, India is only the sixth country to win. I remember Japan (2014) and Denmark (2016) became the fourth and fifth nations and followed Indonesia, China and Malaysia in the Roll of Honour.
I cannot help recalling the feeling I had when I was returning from China after India’s 1982 Thomas Cup tie against the host. Those days, the format was best-of-nine matches and we lost them all. Our team had Prakash Padukone — who pulled out after we landed in China — Syed Modi, Uday Pawar and others. We were no match to the Chinese, who returned to mainstream badminton following the merger of International Badminton Federation and World Badminton Federation in 1981. Looking at the might of the Chinese, I wondered whether we would ever be able to win this Cup.
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Today, as I look back at the week in Bangkok, I am filled with pride and joy as I recall the way these boys pulled off some incredible results. Having been with the India’s Thomas Cup team between 1981 and 1991 as a player and since then as a coach in many editions, I can safely say that the spirit shown by this team was unprecedented. Never before have I seen senior players backing the junior ones. The team members gelled with each other on and off the court; they displayed tremendous spirit during matches, and never gave up when the going got tough. I have not seen this level of camaraderie in the Indian teams of the past.
Before the team left for Bangkok, I made a statement that India held an outside chance of winning the Thomas Cup. My assessment was based on the fact that we had three good singles players — a young Lakshya Sen and experienced campaigners like Kidambi Srikanth and H. S. Prannoy — all ranked within the top-25 besides a top-10 doubles pair in Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. I consider the contribution of Satwik and Chirag as the key to India’s success. Of course, the singles players gave it all, but if our doubles pair had faltered during those big moments, India would have not gone this far.
Lakshya, troubled by a bout of food poisoning from the beginning of India’s campaign, pulled off the opening match of the final against Indonesia after being blown away in the first game. That took some pressure off the doubles duo. Once Satwik and Chirag saved four match-points in the second game and went on to win the decider, Srikanth still had a job to finish against Jonathan Christie. Remember, he trailed in the second game before closing out the tie.
Among India’s victories, I rate the one over Denmark in the semifinals as the biggest. Before that, I followed Denmark’s quarterfinals where the second Korean doubles pair held two tie-points at 20-18 in the second game but could not convert. So, having survived Korea, Denmark started well against India. The way Viktor Axelsen defeated Lakshya, I was seriously worried. But credit to Satwik and Chirag for their incredible victory. Srikanth beating Antonsen was a big moment. Thereafter, Prannoy coming out stronger in the decider after dropping the opening game to Rasmus Gemke was something special.
Here, I would like to mention the factors that went in favour of Prannoy's selection. Being a selector, I was very clear in our selection committee meeting that Prannoy could be a very strong third singles player. We considered B. Sai Praneeth (ranked 19th against Prannoy’s 23) but went by the results of the past few months. Prannoy’s results were better and in November, he had a victory over Axelsen, the Olympic champion and World No. 1. I am so happy he justified the faith of the selectors.
On other teams:
Malaysia, whom we beat in the quarterfinals, was not so formidable. They had trouble winning the singles and I always thought we had a good chance of getting past them. China, with Chen Long looking at retirement and Shi Yuqi struggling from a series of injuries, decided to pin its hopes on some of the lower-ranked players. But then, China has been doing this for years. They don’t necessarily give importance to present rankings but prefer to invest in players with an eye on the future.
Japan, after the disappointment of claiming just a bronze from the Tokyo Games, is a struggling unit. Kento Momota is not the same after returning from a nasty accident in January 2020. Their other players are still not quite up there. So, it will take time for Japan to put together a strong challenge.
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For now, it is time for our boys to celebrate. With the much-needed focus back on the team event, India will look at grooming more youngsters and prepare them for the challenges ahead, especially when we go to China in 2024 to defend our title.
(As told to Rakesh Rao)