2017 saw a fresh world order in Badminton, a new rise in global power, India. Indian Badminton reached unprecedented heights and India was regarded as a force to reckon with in world Badminton alongside our Asian counterparts. India had far bigger contingents playing at super series events, which earlier witnessed only a couple of Indian shuttlers. It won’t be an exaggeration to say, 2017 made Badminton mainstream in India.
Check out some of the super series and super series premier events in 2017 and how our top shuttlers fared
Let’s look at some of the phenomenal achievements here. Srikanth won 4 super series events, a record which is only held by legends of Badminton Lee Chong Wei, Lin Dan and Chen Long. Sindhu won 2 super series and was a Silver medalist at World championships and Dubai world super series, a first for any Indian shuttler. Saina won Malaysian open and was a Bronze medalist in world championships.
Besides the big achievements, we saw the next generation of Indian players making big strides. Sai Praneeth defeated Srikanth at Singapore open and won his first super series. It was also an all Indian super series final, a first for Indian Badminton. HS Prannoy made several semifinal appearances. At Indonesia open, he became the first player of India to defeat Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long in successive matches.
Siki Reddy/Pranav Chopra had a good run and achieved a career-best ranking of 13. Satwik/Chirag also emerged as names to reckon in the highly competitive Men’s Doubles world. As Gopi puts it, it’s not only the winners but the bench strength also contributed to the rise by defeating good players early in the draw, making the road to final easer. One Saina or one Srikanth can’t make India a global power in Badminton. We need an equally strong bench and that’s what 2017 gave us.
If 2017 can be called a dream run, 2018 has been equally disappointing. There has not been a single super series win by any Indian shuttler in any category. Forget winning, none except Sindhu, have even made a super series final appearance. Let’s talk about some of the BWF 750 and 1000 events in 2018 – erstwhile super series and super series premiere.
The cells in Green represent their best ever performance in 2018 so far. Sindhu’s Silver medal at World championship has been the only saving grace so far. So what went wrong. Let’s look at some of the factors.
Some players and observers have blamed it on packed schedule by BWF putting stress on shuttlers and not giving enough time to rest, think and recover. Apart from regular BWF events, there have been 2 extra events this year. The Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. Apart from Denmark, all other prominent Badminton playing countries play Asian games. Malaysia plays CWG. So, if we look at it, CWG is the only event which was extra on Indian shuttler’s diary. Rest BWF calendar is the same for players from all the countries. Another rule that came into effect in 2018 was, top 15 ranked players in all events must play at least 12 BWF events in a calendar year(Excluding Asian and CWG). Of course, it puts stress on players but again, it is the same for players from all countries. From winning 4 super series in a year to not making it to a single final and only 1 semifinal appearance can’t be described by a packed schedule.
Every athlete, irrespective of the sports, sees a lean patch in his career. It’s a passing phase and athletes do bounce back. So can it be attributed to the temporary loss of form? Maybe. But as a counter-argument, even if I accept that Sindhu and Srikanth are going through lean patches, what explains the dismal performance of the entire continent. Those who were making the routine semi-final or quarter-final appearances are not going past the 2nd round. How probable is it that the entire team loses form at the same time and may bounce back together next year?
What’s wrong then?
What then has really changed from last year to this year. One remarkable event is the departure of Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo. He was roped in during early 2017 to help and ease the burden off from Gopi during early 2017. With Mulyo coming in, one incredible change that we saw in our shuttlers was their physicality on the court. Their stroke making was never bad. But, our Asian counterparts triumphed our players in the physical department.
Mulyo Handoyo targeted the correct areas and it showed immediate results in 2017. However, unfortunately, for personal reasons, he had to leave the Indian team in December 2017 and then started the downfall of Indian Badminton. If you compare the videos of 2017 vs 18, the aspect that is missing is physicality and aggression on court. Well summarised by Gopi, who during Malaysia Open, told Sameer Verma(Audible through camera mics), “lag hi nahin raha ki tu jeetne ke liye khel raha hai“. This, in fact, can be applied to the entire Indian team. That relentless attacking attitude is totally lacking. For Srikanth, this is his natural game. And because most of them, including Srikanth, are low on confidence, they further slow down their game, taking it to long rallies, which doesn’t suit their playing style, affecting the end result.
India needs a new coach or two of them. Counter-argument, “Are you serious? We have Gopi, what else do we need”. What if, Gopi tells you the same? Fact is, Gopichand is a lot more than just being a coach. He is a national selector. He has a lot of other duties as a BAI member. Also, the Badminton continent is growing. Gopi can’t focus on all of them. We need more quality coaches for focused training for each player suiting their game style as China or Malaysia do.
One more area, that we need to look at is the psychological aspect of the game. Many of our players, youngsters, in particular, are lacking the nerve in big matches. The table above may not do justice but many players actually lost matches to big names. In All England Satwik/Chirag were one game up against the legendary Boe/Mogensen and leading in the 2nd and they lost the match from there. In Asian games, they did the unthinkable by winning one game against Gideon/Sukamuljo who are in the form of their life. They were again leading in the 2nd but pressure gave it to experience. Sindhu has lost to Carolina Marin in finals at big stages umpteen number of times. Prannoy gave away the Bronze to Rajiv Ouseph at CWG despite having a lead. I can go on and on. This aspect of our shuttlers needs to be looked into. What exactly are they lacking in the final moment? Confidence, nerve, positiveness all of these have a huge impact on the outcome.
Last but not the least, I will be a little blatant here. Yes, there is burn out of players given the packed schedule. I will say, let the big players stay away from Badminton for a month, probably a holiday sort of. They spend most of their time at the academy. It’s time for a big break. It is time to sometimes, NOT think about Badminton. Relax and come back. If it means, missing out on a few super series events, so be it. Participate in smaller tournaments to fulfil BWF’s 12 tournament criteria. Playing with relatively weaker players will not force them to stretch beyond their limits and few wins can give back the confidence that is missing.
Badminton is a gruelling and punishing sport. It’s rare to have a player performing consistently at the top level for more than a year unless you are Lee Chong Wei. You will rarely see a Federer or Nadal in Badminton. It’s difficult to stay at the top. However, with proper training, rest and right attitude as well as mindset, let’s hope for a better 2019 for our shuttlers which should serve as a perfect launchpad for Tokyo, 2020. After all, we know Indian Badminton is in good hands. Let’s keep calm and trust Gopi to fix things.