Smashing Her Way to the Top

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Numero uno Saina Nehwal creates history in 2015 by becoming the first-ever Indian woman shuttler to achieve top ranking after a below par performance in 2013
Numero uno Saina Nehwal creates history in 2015 by becoming the first-ever Indian woman shuttler to achieve top ranking after a below par performance in 2013, Photo: AFP

Though the Indian sports enthusiasts were disappointed when Team India failed in the semifinal of the 2015 cricket World Cup, they got a new reason to rejoice quickly. And for this Badminton stars — Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth — need to be applauded.

The duo dished out career-defining performances to clinch their respective $275,000 India Open Super Series titles at the Siri Fort Sports Complex, New Delhi. Women’s singles top-seed Saina Nehwal trumped former World Champion Ratchanok Intanon in the final to win 21-16, 21-14 in 49 minutes. Later, 22-year-old Srikanth had a contrasting victory but ensured a double bonanza for the Indian badminton by defeating Danish World No. 6 Viktor Axelsen 18-21, 21-13, 21-12 in 55 minutes. Trained under the close guidance of former All England winner Pullela Gopichand, it was matter of time that Srikanth fulfilled his potential and showed his talent on the world badminton stage.

In fact Srikanth’s first big breakthrough came in 2013, when he upstaged the then national champion, Parupalli Kashyap, in the 2013 All India Senior National Championships at New Delhi, thus heralding a new era in the country’s badminton history. As if to prove his effort was no fluke, Srikanth produced impressive outings at the international circuit in the later years, which culminated in him beating Thailand veteran, Boonsak Ponsana to clinch the Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold, at Bangkok in 2013. This made him the second Indian player after HS Prannoy, to win a tournament of such stature. The successes in the year of 2013 were replicated in 2014 as well. Srikanth won the prestigious 2014 China Open Super Series Premier after beating Lin Dan by 21-19, 21-17 in the final round, thus becoming the first Indian to win a Super Series Premier Men’s title. And the Indian Open Series in 2015 was a result of these impressive shows and the confidence he has displayed as a shuttler over the years.

While Srikanth provided joy to everyone with this feat, Saina on the other made the occasion more memorable as she became the first-ever Indian woman badminton player to achieve world number one ranking. She took a 6-3 lead in the head-to-head encounter with Ratchanok Intanon when she trounced latter in the India Open Super Series last week. This was her second title of the year after winning the India Grand Prix Gold in January at Lucknow.

For Saina, the win at the Indian Open Series was all the more special. India’s only world number one player previously was the legendary Prakash Padukone. The Indian Open Series win by Saina comes as no surprise as she had come into the tournament with her confidence sky-high after narrowly losing the prestigious All England 2015 title to Spaniard Carolina Marin. So the momentum was with her and she carried on that good form.

Saina’s return to form was a timely one, after a forgettable outing in 2013. She got bogged down by several injuries and it affected her a lot. She was struggling and it was quite evident in her approach. But in 2014, she came back with a bang and the result was there to see, as she attained the world number two ranking. During the year, Saina won the India Open Grand Prix, besides pocketing Bronze medals at the Uber Cup and the Asian Games.

So with a series of impressive results under her belt it was quite natural for her to be miffed when she was not chosen for the Padma Bhushan honours. Instead, the government chose wrestler Sushil Kumar. And when she made her displeasure known the government was forced to do a re- think. Saina told Tehelka, “In 2013 my fitness was a huge concern and it affected my performances. In 2014, I did well since I was fully fit. In 2015, the target is simple — to stay fit and carry the good form of late 2014 into the new year and be consistent with my performances.” And going by her recent outings, one can say that she has lived up to that promise.

And presently, Saina’s career is panning out like a fairy tale. An impressive showing at the All England championships, where she finished runners-up, followed by clinching the Indian Open Series and rising to the world number one spot. Her strategic move to train with Vimal Kumar instead of Pullela Gopichand also paid off. Saina’s top ranking did not go unnoticed as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Sachin Tendulkar, Virat Kohli, Jwala Gutta and VVS Laxman tweeted their best wishes.

Some analysts see Saina’s rise to the world number 1 spot as a defining moment in the Indian badminton. V Krishnaswamy, a senior sports writer told Tehelka, “Saina Nehwal becoming No. 1 is a major landmark in Indian sport, not just badminton. It also indicates that Indian sport and badminton have achieved that vital breakthrough. After Saina’s Olympic medal and PV Sindhu’s World Championship medals, the No. 1 ranking is a proverbial icing on the cake for the Indian badminton. Indian badminton also has tremendous depth. If you have Saina, Sindhu and Ashwini-Jwala among women, you also have three men within world’s top 20 bracket with Srikanth, P Kashyap and HS Prannoy. The depth is tremendous with six Indians in top-50 and eight in top-100. Similarly, among women, India has two players in top-10 and six in top-100. So, that’s a huge leap for Indian badminton.”

Moreover, in a cricket-crazy country like ours, the ascent of several promising shuttlers is a boon for the sport. Years ago the seeds of Indian badminton were sown by the one and only Prakash Padukone. India were a virtual nonentity in the badminton arena, but when Padukone showed the way, the rest as they say is history. In 2001, the iconic Padukone’s feat was emulated by Pullela Gopichand. And since then there was no looking back. Indian badminton’s generation-next have benefitted immensely from the academies of both Prakash Padukone at Bengaluru (the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy) and Pullela Gopichand’s at Hyderabad. It was under Gopichand’s able tutelage that the future Indian stars like Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth, Parupalli Kashyap and PV Sindhu honed their skills and learnt the craft to become players who could take on the best in business. So never before was there so much gung-ho about the Indian badminton as it is today.

arijeet@tehelka.com

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