In 2013, Brazilian Genildo Ronchi published a cartoon titled As vezes só depende de nós (Sometimes it just depends on us) of two men in a bus, one looking at a sunlit scenery with a smile on his face and the other facing a rock wall looking desolate. This piece of art sums up the mood of the 19-member Indian badminton contingent heading to Hangzhou for the 2023 Asian Games.
Riding the momentum high
This has been an interesting year for Indian badminton. H.S. Prannoy’s resurgence in men’s singles has seen him break out of the ‘fringe player’ mould, starting from his clutch performances in India’s Thomas Cup triumph last year. More recently, he finished with a bronze at the BWF World Championships after sending out the erstwhile world champion Viktor Axelsen on home turf. Prannoy, World no.7 now, is India’s highest ranked men’s singles player.
The most potent weapon in India’s arsenal is the doubles duo of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. The pair’s imperious show was bookended by a gold medal in the 2022 Commonwealth Games and was followed by titles at the Swiss Open and Indonesia Open. The historic gold at the Badminton Asia Championships was easily their most coveted triumph.
India’s best result in the Asian Games is P.V. Sindhu’s silver in the 2014 Incheon Games and ‘Sat-Chi’ look best placed to go where no Indian has. Dhruv Kapila and M.R. Arjun is India’s second entry in doubles. A combination forged by P. Gopi Chand, the two have played together for a few years, challenging higher-ranked opponents and proving they could be formidable on their day.
Young guns Lakshya Sen and Mithun Manjunath round off India’s squad in the men’s team event. The former withdrew from the Hong Kong Open Super 500 to nurse a minor neck strain. The 2021 World bronze medallist won the Canada Open this year but crashed out of the World Championship in the round of 16. An aggressive player who thrives on pace, Lakshya will eye a ranking improvement too and his ability to control a match and stay calm under pressure will come in handy.
In National champion Mithun, India has a fearless attacking option. 2022 was a big year for the 25-year-old as he vaulted 100 spots in the world rankings (133 to 33). Last month, though Mithun knocked out former World champion Loh Kean Yew 21-19, 21-19, the win was emblematic of his tendency to squander early leads.
On the same boat
Only top-20 players are handed direct entries into the Asian Games, forcing K. Srikanth to fight for a spot in singles, via the trials route, for the first time in his career. The Guntur shuttler has been struggling with a slump in form for a few seasons now, triggered by a slew of injuries.
In May, Srikanth sought the assistance of Indonesian coach Wiempie Nahardi, keeping the 2024 Paris Olympics in mind. He will have to rely on his fitness and experience to conquer his demons and his opponents.
Srikanth’s struggles have found a sympathetic shoulder in Sindhu who has probably had one of the worst years of her career so far. After the high of a gold at the 2022 Birmingham Games, Sindhu’s early tournament jitters have seen her make first-round exits at seven BWF Tour events this season.
A combination of bad luck and poor net play has been Sindhu’s undoing. Given her height and aerial prowess, she draws strength from rallies, but defence has been a chink in her armour. Once that hits her confidence, the opponent needs to do little to get the double Olympic medallist to buckle mentally.
Sindhu, now under new coach Muhammad Hafiz Hashim of Malaysia, has approached Prakash Padukone for assistance. “She is low on confidence and physically and mentally in a poor state. She has some work to do and we shouldn’t expect much from her at the Asian Games,” said Vimal Kumar, director, Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy.
Chance to shine
There could be no better opportunity for Ashmita Chaliha to announce herself on the global stage. The 23-year-old from Assam won the selection trials and was named India’s second singles player. Being a left-hander with a physical style of play, she is expected to be a key member in the team event.
Anupama Upadhyaya and Malvika Bansod complete India’s women’s quartet. Malvika has given the Indian badminton community plenty to hope for when she made two-time World champion Akane Yamaguchi sweat at the Asian Championships.
Anupama was crowned National champion this year but Hangzhou will be a different ball game as the China-Indonesia sway will leave little room for the others. The teenager has her sights set on the Paris Olympics and the Asian Games will be a dress rehearsal.
The 2022 Commonwealth bronze medallists Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly are on the younger side in the age and experience spectrum in Hangzhou. Gayatri’s strength lies in placement and finding gaps to stun the opponents while Treesa’s pressing play down the middle helps her gather pace when smashing home a winner. At the other end is the experienced Ashwini Ponnappa who now has Tanisha Crasto by her side in women’s doubles.
Tanisha will also partner K. Sai Pratheek in the mixed doubles category which will also see Rohan Kapoor and N. Sikki Reddy team up. Tanisha is defensively solid and confident at the net, with Ashwini guarding the backline and getting into the act on aerial rallies. Her pairing with Sai Pratheek has not been as smooth with basic errors creeping in and taking games away from them. Facing a high standard of competition will help the pair’s development.
This mixed bag of form and fortune makes the Asian Games a litmus test not just for the players who have Olympic qualification pressure dangling over them, but also for those who cheer them on. For a country that took to India’s successes in badminton instantly, failure is often seen as the lack of will and skill to dominate.
INDIA’S HONOUR ROLL AT THE ASIAD
P.V. Sindhu (women’s singles) – 2018, Jakarta
Davinder Ahuja, Partho Ganguli, Raman Ghosh, Dinesh Khanna, Prakash Padukone (men’s team) – 1974, Tehran
Leroy D’Sa, Pradeep Gandhe, Partho Ganguli, Syed Modi, Uday Pawar, Vikram Singh (men’s team); Vandana Chiplunkar, Ami Ghia, Madhumita Goswami, Amita Kulkarni, Hufrish Nariman, Kanwal Thakar Singh (women’s team); Syed Modi (men’s singles); D’Sa and Gandhe (men’s doubles); D’Sa and Kanwal Thakar Singh (mixed doubles) – 1982, New Delhi
D’Sa, Vimal Kumar, Ravi Kunte, Sanat Misra, Syed Modi, Padukone, Pawar (men’s team) – 1986, Seoul
Pradnya Gadre, Tanvi Lad, Saina Nehwal, Ashwini Ponnappa, N. Sikki Reddy, Sindhu, P.C. Thulasi (women’s team) – 2014, Incheon
Saina Nehwal (women’s singles) – 2018, Jakarta
Gopi Chand drew attention to the big picture at a Sportstar Conclave event in Hyderabad recently.
“99% of sportspersons fail. If you lose in the quarterfinals, it draws criticism. How many doctors can call themselves top eight in the world, how many lawyers or bureaucrats can do that? We’ve been insanely critical of sport. To be the best 150, 200 in the world should be celebrated and we should celebrate ourselves a lot more,” said Gopi Chand. Taking the extra effort to look for the silver lining will be a lesson for the Indians on their Chinese sojourn.
The Asian Games returns to China after 13 years and two editions — a country whose hegemony in badminton at the continental level is underlined by 107 medals (43 gold, 29 silver and 35 bronze). The Chinese are generously sprinkled in the top-10 of the BWF rankings across categories and will look to make the home Asian Games another memorable one.
With formidable contenders who need to find their rhythm and a bit of luck, India will hope to challenge the Chinese giant in Hangzhou.