It was a testament to how much support PV Sindhu had gathered over the course of the tournament. The loud roar that welcomed her on the court was the collective support pouring in from the contingent of Indian supporters. They had been there, every match, cheering on every Indian who came on to make a mark for themselves in the sphere of Badminton, cheering for Pullela Gopichand and Vimal Kumar and Mulyo Handoyo- the people who made the renaissance of the sport possible. And all their support had paid off. At the end of a fantastic run, it was an Indian who would be competing in the finals and, if all went well, it was an Indian who would be the new World Champion.
A look back at the recent surge of world class badminton talent coming in India is enough reason to make the sport popular in the country. India is slowly inching its way to becoming one of the global powers in badminton. And the sport has names that every Indian now knows.
For a sport that is played by a major part of the general population in India, development has been fairly slow. For the longest, the biggest achievements by the male shuttlers were Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand’s All England and Olympic victories.
There were moments of brilliance, of course, but they were as rare as hen’s teeth. In 2007, there came one such spark in the form of Anup Sridhar. In what can only be described as a wonderful showdown, Sridhar defeated the legendary Taufik Hidayat in the World Championships that year. A tactical masterclass by Sridhar and the freshly appointed Gopichand as the coach went on to achieve the desired results.
Then there was the meteoric rise of Parupalli Kashyap who reached a total of 7 semi finals often defeating big names like Chen Long and Jan O Jorgensen along the way.
But these names faded away soon enough. There was never one that stuck, a name with an achievement that would be remembered for a long time to come. Until Saina Nehwal.
Off court controversies aside, the one thing about Saina Nehwal that stands out is her hard work and determination. It was this resolute endurance that allowed her to win a bronze medal at a major global tournament barely a year after a potential career ending injury. In the recently concluded Worlds, most of Saina’s victories were hard fought. She was clearly not completely recovered and this is exactly what makes her podium finish all the more commendable. There is a hunger to win, a driving force that seems to be absent from quite a few athletes these days.
It has been a year since the Rio Olympics. Already, schemes have been put in place by the theoretically efficient Olympic Task Force to ensure that India wins more than two medals at the subsequent Olympics. Recommendations have already been submitted and implementations are expected to begin soon enough. The goal seems to be 20 medals by 2028.
Exactly how realistic is that?
The recent performances at the World Athletics Championships and the Wrestling Championships have been disappointing, to say the least. Mediocrity seems to be the norm and we, the audience, need to stop celebrating that.
After the 2015 World Championships which saw Narsingh Yadav win a bronze, wrestling was touted as the next big thing for Indian sports because of the consistent laurels it brought to the country. In 2008, Sushil Kumar won bronze at the Beijing Olympics. 4 years later, he bettered his previous performance by winning a silver. Two years later, he won Gold at the World Championships.
Flash forward to recently concluded tournament in Paris where the Indian wrestlers failed to put up any memorable performance and we are forced to conclude that badminton, as a sport and culture, has been through a bigger positive change than wrestling- a sport which boasted of Indian dominance at one point of time.
Badminton is a sphere which was dominated by the Chinese. In the face of such stiff competition, the Indians were nowhere near that level and any random victory was a big deal. This was a period where mediocrity in badminton was celebrated due to the lack of any substantial achievements.
That changed and so far, the shuttlers have maintained the positive upward curve of the improvement. Take PV Sindhu as a shining example of this progress.
Initially, as a player, she seemed to have all the skill and the aggression but was without the right outlet to challenge it through. The fact that she has matured as a player was clearly evident in the final game against Nozomi Okuhara at the World Badminton Championships. At a game where the chair umpire was heard more than in most badminton bouts, Sindhu seemed visibly flustered and frustrated.
There was one particular moment in the final game, however, which saw Sindhu produce one of the most fantastic smashes of the game. The shuttle seemed to almost break the sound barrier and the force with which it was hit seemed to almost disintegrate it. That is the mark of a mature player- one who is tired and beaten down but definitely not out.
Couple that with the immense mental and physical stamina that both the finalists displayed and one is left wishing that the game never ended. Such fantastic displays of badminton are rare and it is little wonder that the audience for the match considers themselves privileged to witness this particular encounter between equals.
PV Sindhu may have lost the match but it was surely a match with no losers. She may have brought home a silver medal but that is only because official sport records do not allow for two winners.
The fact that athletes looking for incentive or inspiration should learn from the likes of PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal is undeniable. These players have single-handedly revived a dying sport to once again restore the pristine glory India once had in the game. This truly is the golden age of Indian Badminton.