With this bunch of promising young players, India could become the next badminton powerhouse
It was midway through the London 2012 Olympics, and India’s badminton coach Pullela Gopi Chand, ensconced in the stands of Wembley Arena, looked ruminatively at the courts. His protégés P. Kashyap and Saina Nehwal were still in the tournament, and the possibility of a medal was yet some distance away.
For the moment, the talk was of how the Chinese had come to dominate world badminton so comprehensively.
Last August, at this venue, they had swept the World Championships, winning all five gold medals (a few days later, they would repeat that feat at the Olympics, despite the unwelcome publicity of having their top women’s doubles pair disqualified for “throwing” a group match). Most of their former competitors had even given up talk of trying to match them. It was a dominance that had assumed mythical overtones.
Yet, when Gopi Chand talked with clinical detachment of how it was possible to overcome them, it was more than just bravado. He had already shown it with Nehwal at Superseries tournaments. With men, the success rate wasn’t as good, but Kashyap had vanquished world No. 3 Chen Long at the Indonesia Open in June. The Indian coach, in his unobtrusive manner, seemed to have worked out a lot of things that were puzzling the rest of the world. “It’s all about planning and execution,” he says. “Think about it—our one centre in Hyderabad has produced around 10 good players. What if there was a centre like this in every city?”
What had befuddled the world—the question of spotting the right talent, grooming and developing a pack of players—had, in Gopi Chand’s words, become a matter of simple arithmetic.
At the moment, the arithmetic is in his favour. It has come to a point where one can legitimately talk of India becoming a badminton power in the next three years. It’s not just Nehwal or Kashyap—a crop of young singles players who will follow them into the elite divisions of world badminton is already in place.
Strength in numbers
Gopi Chand reels off a dozen names—apart from the current crop, including Ajay Jayaram and Guru Sai Dutt—like Sai Praneeth (Andhra Pradesh), H.S. Prannoy (Kerala), Sourabh Verma and Sameer Verma (Madhya Pradesh), K. Srikanth and P.V. Sindhu (Andhra Pradesh). All of them either in their teens or early 20s. He’s conservative about how far he thinks they can go, but believes they have the capability to match the world’s best.
As important as his conviction is, he has managed to make the team believe. The group of around a dozen, all of them training at his academy in Hyderabad, will be eased into the high-pressure senior circuit. This group has been culled from the most promising juniors in the country—they hail from different places and different social, mostly middle-class, backgrounds. In a few years, they should be battle-hardened, and ready to lead the country in events such as the Thomas Cup or Uber Cup, or any of the major Superseries events.
Sameer, the 18-year-old from Dhar in Madhya Pradesh, beat two of the top Chinese juniors—Guo Kai and Liu Kai—in succession before falling in the final at the Badminton Asia Youth Under-19 Championships last year. A few months later, he made the semi-finals of the World Junior Championships. The transition to the senior level will be a challenge, but Sameer, like his older brother Sourabh, has a stubbornness on court that has given him impressive wins even in the senior category. Gopi Chand believes Verma has good defence and court coverage, and “the potential to be in the top 20 in the world”.
Sourabh, already the national champion, isn’t as naturally talented as some of the others but makes up for it with his work ethic. The 19-year-old is a battler, a physical sort of player, who cannot command either the grace or the economy of some of the other players, but is reckoned to be extremely tough mentally, like his brother. The boys were inspired by seeing their father, an employee of Narmada Development Authority, practising at a ramshackle court in their neighbourhood.
Sourabh’s victims include top 15 ranked players like Hu Yun (Hong Kong, currently world No. 16) and Kenichi Tago (Japan). Both brothers picked up the game in Dhar before shifting to the Gopichand Badminton Academy once they started showing promise.
Kidambi Srikanth, a 19-year-old from Guntur, shot into prominence by winning the Maldives International Badminton Challenge in June, taking down world junior champion Zulfadli Zulkifli in the final. The lean son of a landlord in Andhra Pradesh comes across as being carefree, but his results show otherwise.
“He is a talented player, confident for his age,” says two-time national champion Anup Sridhar, who was beaten by Srikanth in the semi-finals of the Maldives International. “Give him time… he’s only 19.”
Both Sameer and Srikanth know it will take a while before they can make a mark among the seniors, unlike their compatriot Sindhu, who is already being talked about as the next big talent in women’s badminton.
First off the blocks
For a few years now, the lanky 17-year-old Sindhu from Hyderabad has made heads turn in the national circuit. The daughter of volleyball players has the reach and steep shots which define her game—added to that is her composure under pressure. Sindhu, it was reckoned, would follow Nehwal into the international league, but even close watchers of the game were surprised at the quickness with which she claimed her biggest victim.
It was at the Li-Ning China Masters in September that Sindhu’s big moment came. A stunning defeat of Li Xuerui—the current Asian, All England and Olympic champion—is likely to set the tone for a promising career. Suddenly, it looks like a top 10 ranking by the end of the year is not so far-fetched for her. “I rate Sindhu highly,” says Vimal Kumar, a former national coach. “She has already got the big wins, and even when she loses, it’s usually in three games. She’s mentally strong.”
Of the others, B. Sai Praneeth and H.S. Prannoy have had impressive results in the juniors. Both were semi-finalists at the World Junior Championships 2010, and Prannoy was a silver medallist at the Youth Olympics the same year.
Praneeth, 20, is the most naturally gifted of this crop—his ease of movement, variety in shot-making and grace, make him look effortless.
Prannoy, 20, who rose up the ranks alongside Praneeth, was initiated into the game by his father Sunil Kumar in Thiruvananthapuram, and started training in Hyderabad around six years ago. The ‘H’ in his initials stands for Haseena, his mother, and the “S” for Sunil. A thoughtful, articulate boy, Prannoy is an aggressive, fast player, who employs the jump smash often and can rely on his strong backhand.
Given the depth of quality, each player is aware that he cannot relax in training. Prannoy, who missed a couple of weeks’ practice because of an injury, says he is constantly aware that others are catching up. “I have to be careful. As a senior player, your rate of improvement is usually lesser than the juniors’. You just have to grab every opportunity that comes your way during matches.”
Encouraged by example
What will make this bunch of Indian players formidable is the match experience they will log by the time they are in their mid-20s, which is probably the prime for any player. Prannoy acknowledges that every success of their senior compatriots translates into a shot of confidence for him. “When Kashyap beat Chen Long, he showed that we could do well against the Chinese,” he says. “After every campaign, our seniors share their experiences with us. We are all aware of each other’s standards. We know that fitness and strength-wise, we are able to match the pace of the world game.”
Vimal believes the current standard of the men’s game isn’t as high as in previous generations, and consequently, the situation would be ripe for India’s emerging players to establish themselves. “Apart from the two players in men’s singles, I don’t see anybody special,” he says. “Everybody is playing a similar style. It’s a good time for Indian players to establish themselves. I have hopes in Sai Praneeth and Sourabh Verma; they’re eligible for the top 15. India has 8-10 players capable of making the top 30. But they should be consistent—I don’t see that yet.”
The Saina-Sindhu duo heralds an exciting time for Indian badminton. Can Sai Praneeth and Co. emulate them? That’s a prospect the Chinese won’t be too thrilled about.