The Popov brothers are here, Team India be wary

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A file picture of Christo and Toma Jr. Popov.

(BWF)

The Popov brothers are here, Team India be wary

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Madhav Agarwal

04/07/2022

Back at the 2000 Summer Olympics, a young Mikhail Popov, representing Bulgaria, lost in the second round of the men's singles badminton event. That entry into the second round was by virtue of a bye he got in the first, before being decimated 0-15, 4-15, in the next by Chinese Taipei's Fung Permadi.

Later on in his career, Popov went on to represent France for a few years, before hanging up his boots in 2007, with not much to show, apart from a few national titles under his belt.   
Bulgaria, or for that matter France, is not the traditional powerhouse in badminton, and the players are not considered half as good as their counterparts from other European nations. But Popov might have done just enough in his career to give the next generation of players from France a little legacy to build on. Today, still the nation is not known for the racket sport but does have a few names which can challenge the top players in the world.
Thom Gicquel and Delphine Delrue are the 11th best pair in the world in mixed doubles today, while Emilie Lefel and Anne Tran are in the 29th spot in women's doubles. In the women's singles Qi Xuefei, ranked 44th, had beaten Malvika Bansod of India recently, at the Swiss Open. But hands down, their best bet, at least for now, is in the men's singles, with Toma Junior Popov and Christo Popov, carrying forward the legacy of their uncle Mikhail, or perhaps building one of their own. 
The duo play both, men's doubles and singles, and are becoming mighty good players in both categories. Their current rankings, 30 in doubles, and 28 (Toma) & 55 (Christo) might not give a fair idea as to where they stand, but the players they have beaten in the recent few tournaments could. Toma, the winner at the recent Orleans Masters, has wins against Misha Zilberman, Irish Nhat Nguyen, P Kashyap, Kidambi Srikanth, and Kunlavut Vitidsarn. Not to forget, he has a Super 300 title, Spain Masters to his name, as well. 
On the other hand, in his nascent career, younger Christo has accounted for World Championships bronze medalist B Sai Praneeth, Koki Watanbe, and Olympics medalist Anthony Ginting. Not to forget, he is a silver medalist at the 2019 BWF World Junior Championships, only losing out to Thai Vitidsarn in the final; the first from his country to achieve the feat. As a pair, they surprised one and all by making it to the quarter-finals of the Denmark Open in 2020. 
The duo, for the ones who keenly follow the sport, would know that relying a lot on deception and speedy cross-court rallies is where their strength lies. Their style of play might sometimes remind the fans of Carolina Marin at her best; of course, a lot of work is left to be done to reach that level, but the raw talent is there for everyone to see. Perhaps, this could be one of the reasons that the French Badminton Federation has roped in Fernando Rivas, long-time coach of Marin, with an eye on the 2024 Paris Olympics. If only Rivas could produce half the magic which he did with Marin, these boys could well be on their way to becoming world-beaters and more. 
"I come with my very high-level experience and I will provide a framework with a method that has already proven itself," Rivas had said on his appointment, and if his words are to be taken seriously, it could be alarm bells ringing for the entire world, especially India. While the competition among the top badminton nations, in men's singles, is on the same level mostly, these boys from France could pose an immediate danger to the Indian boys, perhaps excluding someone of the caliber of Lakshya Sen, who just finished second at the All England Open. If one looks at the Indian singles shuttlers closely, it is just Sen who looks untouchable at the moment, while the others, despite producing results, look vulnerable. 
So we have 16 players inside top-100 in the world, and out of those, the promising ones have been inconsistent, to say the least, and just do not display the confidence to sustain their current rankings. Srikanth, HS Pannoy, Sameer Verma, and Sai Praneeth lack the match fitness on any given day, while the newer ones -- Kiran George and Mithun Manjunath -- looks like, will take long to reach the top. In a nutshell, the Popov brothers, either Toma Jr. or Christo can beat these Indian men, as they have in the past.
2022 would be the first time when the Popov brothers would be tested for an entire calendar year among the best shuttlers in the world, and till now the signs have been encouraging. Yes, of course, they could be better than some of the Indian boys, and a lot of Indian fans would hate to believe it, but in their hearts, they would maybe know that the Popovs are somewhat special. 

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