Time to take on the world
India’s stock in international badminton is undoubtedly high. It is currently viewed as one of the top nations in badminton as well as a major money-spinner for the game. That India is hosting one of the most prestigious events in international badminton, the Thomas and Uber Cup finals at Siri Fort Sports Complex from 18-25 May, is an indication of India’s fast growing stature.
‘Had you asked me four-five years back whether India would host the Thomas and Uber Cup in foreseeable future, I would have said it may not be possible,’ said chief national coach Pullela Gopichand following a training session.
It’s not that things have started to happen all of a sudden. Continentally, India was a major power during the playing days of Prakash Padukone and the late Syed Modi. Gopichand too successfully carried forward the legacy of Trilok Nath Seth, Devinder Mohan Lal, Nandu Natekar and Dinesh Khanna, who have all made a splash on the international scene.
Back in 1950s-60s, India looked good enough to be counted among the top badminton playing nations and overseas players also regularly played on the Indian circuit. India came close to reaching the Thomas Cup finals twice in the 1950s, thanks to the individual brilliance of the singles players. However, they lacked the depth, particularly in doubles, to seriously make a challenge for the cup and twice, in 1952 and 1955, the men’s team bowed out in the first round of Thomas Cup. Overall, India qualified for the Thomas Cup finals eight times, their best show being two quarterfinal finishes in 2006 and 2010. However, India’s Uber Cup record is quite dismal, qualifying for the finals only thrice – 1957, 1960 and 2010. On the first two occasions, India were ousted in the first round while in 2010 they reached the quarterfinal.
From this year on, the format of the tournaments has simplified with the top 16 teams in world ranking making the cut, doing away with the qualifiers. The Badminton World Federation (BWF) have started showing serious interest in India since around the last five years and after passing every test, India is now considered good enough to host major events on a regular basis.
It all started with Pune hosting the 2008 World Junior Championships where Saina Nehwal announced her arrival loud and clear, becoming the first Indian to win the title. The next big event was the World Championships held in Hyderabad the following year. In 2010, Saina and the doubles pairing of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa created history by clinching gold in the Commonwealth Games held in Delhi. The next year, BWF awarded India with a three-year Super Series contract, which has now been extended till 2017. The Thomas and Uber Cups will yet again give India a huge opportunity to showcase its organisational skills as well as its players’ ability to compete against the best teams in the world.
This time around, India have teams which can really challenge the best in the business, especially in the Uber Cup where the Saina-led team has been drawn with Thailand, Canada and Hong Kong. On paper, India should manage to go past Canada and Hong Kong with ease while Thailand will pose a tough challenge with current world champion Ratchanok Intanon in its ranks. However, since the top two teams from each group will reach the quarterfinals, India should make it without much ado. India have two extremely strong singles players in Saina and World Championship bronze medallist PV Sindhu and with the experienced Jwala-Ashwini in its ranks, they should be a force to reckon with.
However, the picture does not look so rosy in the men’s category where the team is clubbed with Malaysia, South Korea and Germany. Malaysia, who finished third in 2008 and 2010, will pose a tough challenge with players like world no.1 Lee Chong Wei in top form. Also, their doubles pairings of Thien How Hoon/Wee Kiong Tan and Khim Wah Lim/V Shem Goh are among the world’s top combinations. Though South Korea are seeded lower than Malaysia, they pose an even tougher challenge after finishing runners-up in 2008 and 2012.
Though India’s Parupalli Kashyap and Kidambi Srikanth have good chances of winning in singles, it will be a miracle if they pull it off against Korea in doubles. To make it simpler, India will have to beat two teams in the group to make the knockout stage and going by form, India can fancy its chances against Germany.
India’s doubles specialists Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa feel playing in team champioinships such as the upcoming Uber Cup moitivates them to make that extra effort on court. The 2011 World Championship bronze medallists are confident of playing their part well when the tournament kicks-off on Sunday. ‘As a team we are playing well,’ said Jwala referring to the duo’s bronze in the Asian Championships last month. There are lot of expectations from doubles, we will give our best to clinch victory for India,’ said Jwala, who made her Uber Cup debut way back in 2000 when she was 16. Jwala and Ashwini helped India win gold in 2010 Commonwealth Games at this same venue and the experienced shuttler insists it is the charm of team events that makes them punch above their weight.
‘The whole idea of playing for a team is so different from playing individually, I am a team player and I like the feeling around that we are one team. We all have one aim, represent India and win it for the country,’ Jwala added. Ashwini concurred with her partner. ‘In the individual events we play for ourselves. Even if we play for the country, there is no one relying on us. But when we play for a team, it is different. When we play team championships, we ensure that whatever we do the end result needs to be that team is doing well. We have to think as a team and not just about our own performances alone, so it is different,’ said Ashwini.
Meanwhile, P V Sindhu said playing alongside Saina Nehwal will strengthen the team. ‘It is going to be our strength. If Saina can take the first single and me the second single, then that would be good thing for the whole team. Sindhu also said of the three teams in their group (Thailand, Canada and Hong Kong), Thailand could be ‘tricky’.
‘I think in our group, Thailand is a bit tricky. While Saina would face world no. 4 Ratchanok Intanon, I will play against Porntip (Buranaprasertsuk, who is ranked no. 9 in the world). She is playing really well and I think for the last 4-5 months I have not played against her. She will be one key player,’ she added.
‘It is a prestigious tournament and there are no easy draws here. It is difficult to predict where we will finish in the tournament. The team will give their best in every match and I think we should get into the last-eight stages in Uber Cup. The men’s draw is tough. But I think except for Lee Chong Wei, every singles match we have a chance,’ chief coach Pullela Gopichand said.