India's Twitter trends received an almighty stir when the news of Kidambi Srikanth, winning his second successive Superseries title broke out. But by then, the new Australian Open champion had well and truly created a niche for himself as the new poster boy of Indian badminton.
With this win, Srikanth became the first Indian man to win the prestigious Australian Open title and along with two back-to-back Superseries titles. He also strengthened his position as the second-most successful Indian shuttler after Saina Nehwal in Superseries events and this is staggering enough to take notice as in the last two or three decades, no male Indian shuttlers have reached such remarkable heights.
Apart from legendary Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand, who won the All-England Championships in 1980 and 2001 respectively, Indian male badminton stars didn’t have much to boast about. Furthermore, the lack of consistency of the promising youngsters derailed India’s progress and that subsequently diminished to a point of no hope. Meanwhile, a young girl from the historical town of Hyderabad made her way into Indian consciousness with her fantastic backhand smashes and beautiful court coverage. Saina Nehwal announced her arrival on the big stage with a gold medal in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, only at the age of 20, and two years later, she won the Bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. What made that bronze more special was the fact that there was no precedent in front of her. No Indian shuttler had done what she did at London- India achieved the first Olympic medal in badminton. In a way, Saina had just set the footprints for many an Indian to follow. After Sania, another Hyderabad lass PV Sindhu produced a series of stunning performances en-route to the final of the Rio Olympics, where she lost to Spain’s Carolina Marin but not before giving her a tough run for money in a grueling three-setter. The shining silver, when entire India rooted for one medal, made her the new famous star on the block- for the corporates and fans alike.
But, amidst their heights, Indian male badminton stars had already become afterthoughts due to their lack of exploits on the court. But since the Rio Olympics, it has changed big-time and how!
For a record, since the Olympics last year, Indian men have won three Superseries titles and recorded as many runners-up finishes with one or two consistently making it to the quarter-final stage. Apart from the Superseries events, the likes of B. Sai Praneeth, K. Srikanth, Sameer Verma, Saurabh Verma, Ajay Jayaram, Siril Verma, and Anand Pawar, have secured Grand Prix level titles and runners-up finishes and are the chief architects of the Indian male dominance on the international circuit.
One of the main reasons behind such a transformation can be attributed to the success of Saina and Sindhu on the world stage. Their popularities among the yout started to influence their men counterparts. Now, they know that, in the day and age of social media, they can also achieve the same limelight if they perform consistently at the world stage. That reflected in their game as well and the strong desire to win the big matches rather than just being satisfied with rankings and team selections, which has worked in their favour.
As a result of it, currently, we have 15 Indians stars enjoying the status of being among the top-100 players in the world and at least a couple of them making it to the top-20 consistently. Currently, India has six shuttlers in the top-35 and fans can expect to see at least two of them in the World Championship in August this year.
Ever since Sindhu won the India Open Super Series title in early April, Srikanth reached three straight Super Series finals- at Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia respectively and won the last two. At Singapore, though, he lost to his compatriot and long-time confidante B Sai Praneeth. Despite having not won a title, HS Prannoy also showed tremendous ability and big-match temperament to beat two former World No 1’s, and Olympic gold and silver medallists, Chen Long and Lee Chong Wei respectively in back-to-back matches at the Indonesia Open. Although he lost the qualifier at Australian Open against Kazumasa Sakai, he gave him a tough run for his money. This tells us the story of how brilliant the Indians have been in last one year or so and for that to happen, many factors have come together to ensure the phenomenon.
The arrival of Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo and his assistant Hariawan at the start of 2017 proved to be a masterstroke taken by the Badminton Authority of India as Gopichand, alone, was struggling to do justice to the ever increasing pool of talented players due to his time and body constraints. After the Indonesian's arrival, Gopichand started to concentrate on individual players depending on their needs, while Mulyo started taking care of the overall planning and sessions. The decision reaped rich dividends as Gopichand himself admitted that the partnership is on the way to becoming a successful one.
“We had Indonesian coach Mulyo along with Hariawan. Also, the likes of Siddharth Jain and Amrish Shinde have been spending more time at the camps and that has ensured that all the top players are getting more attention,” Gopichand told PTI some days ago.
The Premier Badminton League, which started in 2016, has also helped the youngsters get a chance to play against the best of the stars of the world game. In addition to that, the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA), which expanded from a nine-court facility to a 17-court one, and which now has expanded its wings to many cities in India, including Gwalior, Tanuka in Andhra Pradesh, Vadodara and Salem in Tamil Nadu, and Greater Noida. The Academy laid the foundations for world-class infrastructure and results are here to see.
Now, we are witnessing the decline of Chinese dominance over badminton and there rises the opportunity for Indian stars to shine under the sun more than ever. With the male shuttlers beautifully coming out of the shadows of Saina and Sindhu, it is, probably, the time to replace China as the next Badminton superpower. Zeal is there and let the results keep coming.