There are three Indian men among the top 15 badminton players of the world for the first time ever. Kidambi srikanth, ranked no. 2, has won two straight Super Series titles, that too twice. Thanks to the Indian national team coach, Pullela Gopichand, Indian badminton is enjoying unprecedented success. 2017 has definitely been the year of the male shuttlers.
After winning six league titles and FC Barcelona’s first ever European Cup, Pep Guardiola almost immediately transitioned into becoming a worldclass coach. The Catalan won a continental treble in his debut season managing his childhood club, and has since gone on to collect a total of 22 trophies (and counting) in his decade-long managerial career. At the foot of 2017, former Indian badminton star Pullela Gopichand’s contribution to the sport in our country reminds us of Guardiola.
The All England Open winner founded the Gopichand Badminton Academy in 2008, after reportedly mortgaging his own house. Within the next decade, it has already produced two Olympic medallists for the country, in the form of Saina Nehwal (2012, singles bronze) and PV Sindhu (2016, silver). “At the end of the day, I’m still hungry; I jump out of bed and say that this needs to be done. I’m in a hurry all the time, and not relaxed, because I feel that there is so much more we can achieve,” the Hyderabad man had said in an interview earlier this year.
It’s indisputably this vision and passion that drove his disciples one step forward in 2017. Following in the footsteps of the ladies, the boys let their racquets do the talking, with three of them occupying berths among the top 15 players of the world by mid-November.
Leading the line is World No. 2, K Srikanth. After battling a serious injury following the 2016 Rio Olympics, his prolific form this year has not only helped him create history by clinching four Super Series titles in a calendar year, but has also helped him pile up 73,403 rating points, the most by an Indian ever. When I spoke to him following his record-breaking back-to-back Super Series titles in Indonesia and Australia earlier this year, he sounded exactly like the determined, single-minded athlete whom I’d first met three years ago. He eats, sleeps and breathes badminton. “It’s always been about doing well in the sport and winning tournaments. When not playing badminton, I ensure that my body gets the optimum amount of rest that it needs.” He’s like that nerd on the first bench whom you know will work for the likes of NASA or Google one day. The 24-year-old followed his consecutive titles by taking home the Denmark and French Open winner medals, and he has now grabbed the top spot in the Destination Dubai Rankings — a yearly ranking system which factors in performances across the 12 annual Super Series and determines the top eight.
Through all his accomplishments, Srikanth remains an honest and humble individual. “I think the credit always goes to him. He’s always supported me and believed that I can do really well. I’ve been training under him since 2009, and to be able to do so for close to a decade, I feel really lucky. Gopi sir’s produced so many players over the years. We’ve never had so many badminton players from India play at the international level earlier.”
Srikanth’s acknowledgment hit the nail right on the head when his closest Indian rival and world No. 11, HS Prannoy, ousted him 21- 15, 16-21, 21-7 in the men’s singles final of the Senior Badminton National Championships in Nagpur last month. Prannoy might be racing against time to qualify for the Dubai Finals, with just two Super Series events left this year — the China Open and the Hong Kong Open — but his career-best ranking will cap off a hugely successful year regardless.
Prannoy downed compatriot P Kashyap in the final of the US Open for his biggest international win of 2017. What makes it all the more special is that it has come after ten first-round losses, ten pre-quarter-finals, three quarters and just one semi-final since his last coup at the Swiss Open. “For all the headlines, I hadn’t played a final since Swiss Open last year. It felt good to just play a final here,” Prannoy said after the gruelling summit clash.
In the last couple of months, he’s also reached the quarter-final of three Super Series events in a row. He also reached the semi-final of the French Open, losing to the eventual winner, Srikanth. So, even if he doesn’t make it to Dubai by the time this article goes into print, he would have done enough to warrant a place as one of India’s men of the year.
The same can be said about another Indian shuttler, Sai Praneeth. Ranked 15 in the world, he had also gotten the better of fellow Gopichand Academy graduate Srikanth, on a much bigger stage — the Singapore Open Super Series final. “My target is to break into the world’s top 10 in a few months’ time. I want to win Grand Prix and Super Series titles in the future. Winning medals for the country is also on the top priority list,” he told The Times of India recently.
Much like the way things are shaping up at Guardiola’s Manchester City currently, the idea of three Indian shuttlers in the top 10 — as a part of the Gopichand project — doesn’t seem far-fetched any more.