Rise of the Shuttle Men

Gone are the days when Indians struggled to clear the qualifying stage and breaking into the top-50 was celebrated as a major feat.India have as many as six men in the top-35 of world rankings at present

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Having played second fiddle to Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu for long, India’s male shuttlers, led by K Srikanth, have suddenly created big buzz with several stunning international triumphs recently. TOI looks at the phenomenon…

‘Hunting in packs’ is the new mantra in Indian men’s badminton. The exploits of Kidambi Srikanth, Sai Praneeth and HS Prannoy have catapulted Indian badminton to a new high as a group of Indian men have begun dominating men’s singles as never before.Led by Srikanth, they have achieved a rare Super Series hat-trick besides notching up title wins in four of the last five big international tournaments. While Srikanth won the Indonesia and Australia Open Super Series titles, Sai bagged the Singapore Super Series and Thailand Grand Prix Gold crowns.

The support cast too has played a key role in the number of titles won by the Indians. Prannoy and Parupalli Kashyap may not have won titles but they had helped their friends by clearing their path. In Jakarta, Prannoy knocked out the legendary Lee Chong Wei and Olympic champion Chen Long, thereby letting Srikanth negotiate an easier opponent in the final.

In Australia, Kashyap shut out Indonesia Open finalist Kazumasa Sakai at the qualifying stage itself.

The sterling performance of the Indian boys in the last two months have made them one of the most feared gang of shuttlers in the world arena. Interestingly, most of them are in the 22 to 24-year age group, making them bright prospects for marquee international events which are coming up -like the Olympic and World Championships.

What makes the scenario even more heartening is that besides these four, there are other talented shuttlers like Ajay Jayaram, Sameer Verma and Sourabh Verma who have been keeping the Indian flag flying.

Undoubtedly, this is the best phase ever in men’s singles for India. Earlier, success in this sphere was limited to Prakash Padukone (All England title in 1980) and Pullela Gopichand (All England title in 2001).

After the two major titles – which were separated by more than two decades – the best feats were Kashyap winning the Commonwealth Games Gold and Srikanth clinching the China Open Super Series Premier in 2014. Srikanth added the Indian Open Super Series crown in 2015 while the likes of Jayaram and Sai Praneeth claimed Grand Prix Gold titles. But the major push came in last two months.

Gone are the days when Indians struggled to clear the qualifying stage and breaking into the top-50 was celebrated as a major feat. Our men are in the elite league now. It has taken years of hard work, sweat, sacrifice and a lot of planning to bring about this transformation. A lot of credit for this turn around has to go to National coach Gopichand.

As a player, he faced a series of difficulties, got injured often, found no proper system but still achieved success. Once his career ended, he was determined to build a system. “There was never a dearth of talent in our country. Even during my time, we had extremely talented players like Chetan Anand, Anup Sridhar, Arvind Bhatt, Nikhil Kanetkar. But what I realised was that all were crafty but lacked fitness, strength, speed and endurance. To get these things we needed to create a group of people around a player. In our days, we never had a proper coaching system, no concept of having a physio, nothing like that. These are the necessities and thankfully we have created them now,” Gopichand said.Gopichand also realised that the thought process of Indian shuttlers needed to change. “I always used to think different from others. In those days, we were told to pick and play small tournaments, win some and improve the rankings. I thought it was wrong. So, I started making Saina (Nehwal) play in Super Series events. We need to believe in ourselves, think big and do what it requires to reach there,” Gopi said.

              Though Gopi achieved success with the girls – Saina and PV Sindhu – it took a while for him to replicate it in men’s singles. “Success in women was achieved fast because I got two strong girls in Saina and Sindhu. But it took time for me to build that strength and fitness in men. Another area I succeeded in was converting the success at the junior level to senior stage. I also got an excellent support staff,” Gopi said.
India have as many as six men in the top-35 of world rankings at present. It’s a promising position and if the players keep improving, India can become a global power.With the longevity of shuttlers increasing due to modern training methods, Srikanth & Co will be around for at least another five years during which time they can take Indian badminton to a higher plane. With talented youngsters like Lakshya Sen and Siril Verma waiting in the wings, the future seems to hold exciting prospects for India.

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