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India’s Thomas Cup win: The years of hard work, the team spirit, the struggles and all that went into making the dream a reality

If Ginting on a song is the most beautiful thing to watch, Srikanth on his day is poetry in motion who can defeat even the mighty Lin Dan in his prime. And it was this vintage Srikanth on display when he saved a net tap from Christie and flicked it to his backcourt in just a matter of a few microseconds.

Whatsapp groups I am part of, that usually send tricolour forwards on Republic day and Subhlabh stickers on Diwali and stay silent throughout the year were buzzing about Badminton, last Sunday morning. That’s the euphoria India’s maiden Thomas cup final appearance had brought in. But it was just a curtain-raiser. The full movie was about to unfurl at 11:30 AM IST. The journey of Indian Badminton from being a rank outsider to individual brilliance to a powerhouse had been a long and arduous one.

The years in the making

Post Gopichand’s 2001 All England win, India didn’t really see any success till late 2009, when Saina became the first Indian to win a BWF super series. She had won the Indonesia Open. It was a phenomenal event for Indian Badminton in many ways. Apart from being a super series win, it made Indians believe that Chinese shuttlers can be beaten. This was really the proverbial breaking the glass ceiling moment for Indian shuttlers.

But even after that, Indian Badminton’s successes remained limited to individual brilliance, few and far between. It was mostly Saina Nehwal and Jwala/Ashwini who carried Indian Badminton till 2012. Sindhu entered this elite league in 2013 when she became the first Indian to win a world championship singles medal post-Prakash Padukone era. It was not until 2014, that the Men’s contingent would come out of the shadow of Saina-Sindhu. Srikanth stunned the world, defeating two times Olympic Gold Medalist and 5 times World Champion Lin Dan at China Open and announced his arrival. Around the same time, Kashyap became the first Indian to break into the top 10 in the Men’s singles ranking. The dream that Gopichand had seen was taking shape.

Indian Badminton as a whole saw steady progress since then and reached its pinnacle in 2017. Well, before this Thomas cup, the biggest moment in India’s badminton would be Sindhu’s Silver at Rio, 2016 and World Championship Gold at 2019 Basel. But, if we look at Indian Badminton as a whole, 2017 was clearly the Golden period. Srikanth won 4 super series in a year equalling the records of the legends Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei. Sai won Singapore open in an all Indian final. HS Prannoy had a very good run in a couple of super series tournaments playing several semi-finals and defeating Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei. 2017 was the year when India rose as a Badminton powerhouse. India had as many as 5 players in the top 30 of Men’s Singles ranking. It was higher than any other nation.

But the momentum was short-lived. In 2018 Indian Badminton was on a steady downfall. Apart from Sameer Verma’s Swiss open win, there were disastrous results abound. And this only aggravated further in coming years except for the lone achievement of Sai Praneeth’s 2019 World Cup Bronze where he had back to back wins against Indonesia’s Jonathan Christie and Anthony Ginting. 2020 saw the outbreak of COVID and the BWF calendar was severely curtailed. Early 2021 also continued with COVID restrictions. India didn’t have a good run at Olympics. Except for Sindhu’s Bronze, we had a group stage exit in all categories.

2019: Satwik and Chirag

Meanwhile, something interesting happened in 2019. India saw the emergence of its first-ever Men’s Doubles super pair in the form of Satwik Sairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty when they won the first-ever super series by an Indian Doubles pair in Thailand. Yes, the story began in Thailand, where we made history last Sunday. The super series win was special because the duo had defeated a couple of high ranking pairs including Alfian/Ardianto and Li Junhui/Liu Yuchen. In the coming months (and years), they would defeat Endo/Watanabe, Olympic Gold Medalists Lee/Wang and the legends Ahsan/Setiawan, who are also known as “Daddies”.

2021 Olympic was a forgettable experience for Men’s Badminton except a couple of wins of Satwik/Chirag’s at the group stage. The resurgence wouldn’t start until Bali Badminton Festival which hosted Indonesia Masters, Indonesia Open and World Championships. Indians had a couple of deep runs in all the tournaments, including a Silver and Bronze by Srikanth and Lakshya respectively, who announced their arrival at the senior circuit with a bang.

2022 continued the Golden run for Indian Men’s Badminton in general and Lakshya in particular. Lakshya won India Open, was runners up at the German Open and All England after causing some massive upsets. Our doubles duo Satwik/Chirag had defeated the legends Ahsan and Setiawan at India Open final to claim their second super series win. Srikanth was also getting his mojo back after the world championship Silver. He made it to the Swiss open semi-finals. Prannoy, who had some good wins at Bali Badminton Festival in 2021, made it to the finals of the Swiss open too. It was then that HS Prannoy had a discussion with his compatriots Srikanth and Lakshya.

Serious consideration was given to forming a good team for Thomas cup and giving a tough fight, as all of them were finding back their rhythm. This camaraderie would continue till last Sunday when team India would engrave their names in Golden letters in Bangkok. “Two months back I started having these small conversations with Lakshya and Srikanth separately and told them we need to seriously try this time since we are all in decent shape. Maybe, much stronger teams had gone to the Thomas Cup before us, but either due to injury or not performing well, India hadn’t done well. This time, we discussed giving our best. We wanted it badly” Prannoy says.

After Korea Masters in April, BAI held selection trials for the Thomas Cup and the team that will go to script history a few weeks later was created. Immediately after the team formation, Srikanth created a Whatsapp group titled “We’ll Bring It Home”. They would have at least one meal together, mostly dinner. Something Tan Kim Her, India’s former doubles coach had introduced between Satwik/Chirag to boost the bonding. They would have each other’s back and routinely encourage each other. The doubles and singles teams practised side by side on 5 courts. Training sessions were shorter but more intense. There were team meetings after each session. But only players and no coaches.

The group stage matches were straightforward and we have had some very good wins except against Taiwan, where apart from Srikanth and Prannoy, everyone else lost their matches. But those 2 wins also boosted our confidence. Meanwhile, Lakshya had a stomach infection after his dinner post-arrival in Thailand. However, it was kept a secret and he was rested in the tie against Canada. He was also a little low on confidence after Badminton Asia Championships.

The toughest phase: From hanging by a thread to beating the odds

Over to knockout, our first tie, Quarterfinals, was the toughest among all the ties we played including the finals. Malaysia has a strong doubles team capable of beating all our doubles pairs. And Lee Zee Jia, their star singles player has the capability to beat our best.  Our first singles player was coming back from a stomach infection and was struggling with form, while Lee Zii Jia was brimming with confidence with some good wins under his hat. It was tilted in Malaysia’s favour. This means, on paper, if we were losing the first MS, we had to win the next MD or our chances were virtually over. Our fate was hanging by a thread. But then so was Malaysia’s. Given The depth of our singles prowess, an LZJ loss would mean Malaysia was out. The chances of Malaysians winning the other 2 singles against Srikanth and Prannoy were remote. So they too had exact 3 matches marked which they had to win, so did we. And between those 3 marked matches, we won one. Satwik/Chirag delivered. And it sealed our fate for us. Malaysia’s dream of winning both doubles was crashed and their run in the Thomas Cup had to come to an end. As the legend Malaysian shuttler Lee Chong Wei was quoted, the lack of depth in Malaysia’s Men’s Singles team was their undoing.

Semifinals: Facing the mighty Danes

Our next outing was the semifinal against the mighty Danes. Denmark had arguably the best Men’s Singles team. Viktor Axelsen, Anders Antonsen and Rasmus Gemke. World Rank 1, 3 and 13. But they had their weaknesses as well. Antonsen was struggling with form in 2022. Gemke was coming back to the circuit after injury, Thomas Cup being his first world tour in 2022. Also, on paper, our first MD pair was better than their best MD pair. But that was on paper. We had seen WR 336 defeating WR 1 in the Uber Cup. So we could never be so sure. Lakshya had a brilliant win against Viktor Axelsen 2 months back, coming back from 9-16 down in the 3rd and deciding game in the German Open semifinals. But he was struggling with form while Axelsen was continuing his beast mode post Olympics. As expected, Lakshya lost to Viktor. However, as per the script, Satwik/Chirag gave us our first win which kept us alive in the tie. Srikanth also had a brilliant win against Antonsen at the Swiss Open in a 3 game blockbuster match where Antonsen was seen losing his cool and throwing his headband in disgust post-match. Srikanth continued the momentum but this time he didn’t have to wait for a deuce in 3rd like the Swiss Open. He finished it quite comfortably at 21-15. It was just a matter of formality then before Prannoy beat Gemke but the Badminton Gods had other plans. He had a terrible slip in the 1st game and called for a medical timeout. He was seen limping for a couple of mins after he returned to court. Post-match, he said he was in pain for the entire 1st game which he lost. But it seemed to ease as the game concluded. When Siyadath Ullah went to him after 1st game for a pep talk, he assured “Main ye game nikal lunga”. And the beast knew what he was talking about. The brilliant retrieving skills and sharp attacks ensured Gemke couldn’t understand what hit him and the match was sealed at 21-9, 21-12 in the 2nd and 3rd game-winning the tie for India, 3-2. As Srikanth hugged Prannoy post-match, he said “Bro, I’m way too happy today. It was emotional and such a healthy team feeling”, Prannoy recalls.

The finals: Facing 14-time champion Indonesia

The plan that was made in March was falling in place. The idea that was sown was getting to reality. It was a matter of 3 more matches. But this time, we were up against 14-time champions, mighty Indonesia. A Badminton powerhouse. A doubles team that can probably defeat the combined best pairs from the next 4 best countries. WR 5 and 8 in Men’s Singles. Indonesia’s team was what a champion team looks like in every sense of the word. They had a team that can virtually come back from any stage. But we had something working for us. The team spirit, the backing, and the camaraderie that was crafted carefully over the past several weeks were showing their effects on the mental fortitude of the players. Clubbed with a few good wins in the last few ties, our players went into the final with confidence oozing from their body language. On paper, it was always Indonesia, given they had a very high probability of winning both MDs. So it was a matter of winning just 1 MS. Anthony Ginting, who had a terrible 2022 so far, was finding his rhythm in the last 2 matches defeating Momota in the semis. Jonathan Christie was in the pink of his form having beaten Srikanth recently at Korea open semis in straight games and being runners up at the Badminton Asia Championships a few weeks back. The odds were heavily tilted in Indonesia’s favour.

Lakshya went into the first match with 3 back to back losses in the last 3 matches that he had played. Despite trying hard, he was not able to get a win and there was certain guilt he was carrying to the finals. He had defeated Ginting at German open 7 and 9. But that was Ginting, 3 months back. There are very few players who make look Badminton as beautiful as when Anthony Sinisuka Ginting is on a song. And he played his first game exactly like that. His smashes were inch-perfect and found the lines. Lakshya, even with his out of the world defence skills, was finding it hard to retrieve. Ginting was fully exploiting his weakness at the forehand deep corner. He lost the first game 21-8. But Lakhsya is a fighter. The best one among Indian Men’s shuttlers, if I am allowed to say so. The boy went into the 2nd game with no baggage. Playing from the faster side meant the shuttle was now obeying his commands and he was placing it at will. He soon wrapped it up at 17-21 and the game went into a decider. Ginting started fast and was leading 7-11 at the mid-game interval. But as Lakshya recalls, “I knew I could pull it off as I was going to play the 2nd half of the game from my preferred side and a couple of point difference was always manageable”. He had a flurry of points which left Ginting clueless. Lakshya delivered India its first victory with a 21-16 win. Post-match, Lakshya was quoted saying “This one is for the team. They have been backing me throughout my previous performances. I played well but was not able to get a win. My team was there for me then. Now I am happy that I have pulled out the first point for the team”.

The Men’s doubles match after this was what, legends are made of, things that we see in movies. The match had several layers to it. Satwik/Chirag were up against, a pair made up of World Rank 1 for the last 3 years and World rank 2 for the last 2 years and winner of almost every single super series as well as Olympic and World Championship medalists. Mohd Ahsan and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo. Kevin is arguably the best ever doubles players the world has ever seen. On top of that, the boys had this mental block of an 11-0 head-to-head against Kevin and his usual partner Marcus, who was not in the team due to surgery. Add to it, they had recently lost to the Indonesians at All England Quarterfinals from 5 game points. They were leading 20-15 and could not take a single point after that losing the game and the match. Everything was stacked against the Indians. Mentally as well as physically. As expected, they lost the 1st game. And the Indonesians soon had 3 match points in the 2nd. But Lakshya’s win against Ginting had given them some breathing space which meant they were not under huge pressure. Boe, our recently appointed doubles coach had said that he was working on the mental aspect of our players. Satwik/Chirag just kept the shuttle in play and Ahsan netted a return. This gave us an opening and boys pounced on it. They not only levelled at 20-20, coming from 3 match points down, but they also won the game at 23-21 taking the game to a decider.

The 3rd game was nail-biting, to say the least. At 19-19, it was anybody’s game. The last 2 tantalising points as Gillian Clarke would put it. But there was something working for the Indians. Playing in a team event and that push for doing it for team India gives you that extra thrust. It is amazing what the body can achieve when your brain says you can do it. A strong cross-court forehand smash from Chirag at 20-19 and the shuttle landed in the backbox. As Kevin and Ahsan looked towards each other, the Indian camp erupted in joy with Chirag throwing his shirt off and breaking into a dance, quite reminiscent of Sourav Ganguly at the Lords. Satwik’s reaction at the end summarises the match. “At All England, we just wanted to finish finish finish but we could not finish. This time, we just kept our calm. They too were under pressure. So just played our game”.

India was 2-0 up and it was now up to the captain to deliver on the promise they made to each other 2 months back. If Ginting on a song is the most beautiful thing to watch, Srikanth on his day is poetry in motion who can defeat even the mighty Lin Dan in his prime. And it was this vintage Srikanth on display when he saved a net tap from Christie and flicked it to his backcourt in just a matter of a few microseconds. And there was no stopping after that.

When Srikanth looked comfortable winning the second game, a couple of good points by Christie gave him a good lead and a game points at 20-19. Those who have seen Srikanth over years would know, you can look at his face and movements and can tell with certainty about his state of mind. Srikanth fans are used to his frustrating looks, terrible surrenders and lack of movement on the court for 3 long painful years. But on Sunday, even being a game point down, there was a certain calmness on his face. His movement was not hindered. That was a good enough sign that he was confident of sealing it. And he didn’t disappoint. At 22-21, as he flew several inches above the ground and hit that inside out smash, the exact shot he hit at match points in his previous 2 matches against Wang Tzu Wei and Anders Antonsen, a fully stretched Christie failed to reach the shuttle travelling at 359 KMPH. Srikanth dropped his racquet on the court and fist-pumped soon to be trampled by his teammates. A dream had come true. Hopes and prayers of billions had been answered. The 10 men had achieved something which India didn’t achieve in the last 73 years. Chants of Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Jai Hind reverberated the Impact Arena in Bangkok. India had won the Thomas Cup for the first time. We had arrived at the Badminton world. We were the world champions.

9 out of 10 players in the Indian winning team are from Gopichand’s academy

A team that has been struggling with form for years, finding their rhythm back, deciding to give a good fight at the Thomas Cup, the plan falling in place like clockwork and we winning against Indonesia 3-0 in the finals, India’s Thomas Cup win is stuff that dreams are made of. As Indian Badminton’s Dronacharya, Gopichand had always said, the individual brilliance is the outcome but what he was working on was to create a pool of talents. Because only a strong bench can make you a real Badminton nation. These weren’t mere words. He has worked towards it. 9 out of 10 players in this team are products of his academy. It’s incredible how he followed every minute detail of the tournament even back home. During the match against Antonsen, Siyadath Ullah could be heard telling Srikanth “mella mellagadi, quickuh aadu” (Mix the slow and fast). Because Antonsen was reading Srikanth’s game at net and was ready to counter. The coach says, “I speak to Gopi bhaiyya every night about deciding sets, and he had asked me to keep an eye on this aspect”. That’s how detailed the man is.

“It was important for our batch to play in an event not for ranking points, not for individual glory, where there’s no cash prize, but just a tournament for the country. That feeling is enough to push yourself”, quips Prannoy. It’s amazing how a good camaraderie and having each other’s back can boost the morale of every player. Satwik/Chirag’s win against Kevin/Ahsan is the living proof of it. It can’t be better described than what Chirag said in one of his post-match interviews. “You can see I have lost my voice to shouting. Yesterday there were around 200 Malaysians in the Arena and us 10 had to outshout them. I think we did it”.

As Gopichand puts it in words, “Saina and Sindhu didn’t take the team along, we should have built that culture in the Uber Cup. That’s the difference between bronze and gold.” Now that it has been achieved, what’s next? How do we keep pushing the boundary further? There are Asian games and Sudirman cup and there is also World Championship coming up. Our players are brimming with confidence. They look happy and relaxed on the court and that is all that matters, to them and to their fans. There is a long road ahead but let’s live in the trance and glory that we are the world champions. For the first time in 73 years. Hope it encourages generations to come.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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