Kolkata: Abhinav Bindra had just made the final of the 2008 Beijing Games and all of India was euphoric - but there was someone else who had done everything but had just missed out on countback. It was harsh.
Gagan Narang, who was in prime form leading up to Beijing, went into depression soon after the Olympics was over. Abhinav had won gold and was in limelight while Gagan was all by himself - trying to resurrect his career. Two years later in the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, the tables had turned.
Narang, leaving the Beijing behind and perhaps wanting to prove a point, was in sublime form and it was one and two for India at the podium. In fact, Narang’s London 2012 medal may well have pushed Bindra to do what he did in Rio - shoot at his best yet again to eventually lose out on a medal in a heart wrenching shoot-off. This was a rivalry that had given Indian sport some magic moments. Two champions, legends in fact, pushing each other to the limits of human endurance.
A similar rivalry - and more high profile - seem to be playing out yet again. It’s a different sport and this time, the actors in this real life story are two women who have both captured fans’ imagination in India. Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu have given this rivalry a near mystical flavour and there is just one beneficiary in the end- India.
Each time these two champions meet, India wins. While they play these never-say-die encounters and desperately push the boundaries of physicality, future generations of Indians get attracted to the sport. Indians ruling a world sport is a rarity and to see the two of them do so is inspiration enough for kids to participate in what is certainly an ongoing badminton revolution.
There is a history to this rivalry. Saina, in a way, was the undisputed queen of Indian badminton till the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games. With Pullela Gopichand in her corner, she had redefined the contours of Indian badminton and the cheer in Delhi as she was fighting for her first CWG gold was proof she was a superstar in the making. The story was all going to script and Saina added an Olympic medal to her already impressive repertoire in London in 2012.
Just when Saina could do no wrong did, things started to unfold differently. The biopic needed a twist and it got just that. Saina parted ways with Gopi - leaving a void for a new champion to come up. P.V. Sindhu, who had been under Saina’s shadow till then, made the most of the opportunity that presented itself. Multiple medals at world championships and all of a sudden, there were two champions - not one. While Saina was pushing herself to the coveted world number one position, Sindhu wasn’t too far behind.
When Saina faltered at the world championships, Sindhu grabbed her opportunity. The Gopi element was always a part of this story. While Saina had moved away and had to prove a point to herself and to Gopi, Sindhu had to do it for Gopi. The man behind the badminton revolution was always the silent actor backstage in this ongoing serial biopic.
Sindhu finally turned the tables on Saina in Rio and her silver, India’s only silver at the Games, was a defining moment in her career. Brand Sindhu soared and so did her fortunes. She was the new queen and Saina had to play catch-up. Saina was still a legend but she had been upstaged for the moment. Sindhu, on the other hand, was going from strength to strength - winning one Super Series after another.
Injury and surgery did not help Saina and at one stage it seemed it was game, set and match for Sindhu. To her credit, she had always conducted herself with poise and sincerity and all she was doing was work hard. All these, while Saina was struggling to come to terms with the surgery and make a comeback. To what extent it was possible was a question even she did not have an answer to.
That’s when Saina played her last card. Seeing things weren’t going the best, the world championships bronze medal behind Sindhu’s silver in Glasgow notwithstanding, she decided to come back to Gopi and to the academy in Hyderabad. All of a sudden, the two champions were training with each other and against each other every single day. They were seeing each other every few hours and it was incentive enough for the two ladies to keep pushing the bar. And yet again there was one beneficiary - India.
Scientific training and humungous effort made sure Saina was steady in her comeback trail while Sindhu kept chasing that elusive world number one ranking. Losing a close national championship final to Saina was a small hiccup on the way but it was the nationals after all - and not really a big deal. At the year-end world championships in Dubai, it was Sindhu who made the final while Saina faltered early.
As the two got ready to travel to Australia for the CWG, India sensed something good was about to happen. It did and for the first time ever India won the team gold in badminton. Neither, however, was done yet. Both made the singles final and it was evident that CWG was all set to host the most intense singles final of all.
Saina may have triumphed in the final and given her comeback story a fairytale feel, but it has to be said Sindhu is anything but vanquished. She did not have what they call winners’ luck in Game 2, something she admitted on the phone soon after the final was over, and in all fairness the match could have gone either way as Gopichand repeatedly emphasised.
With a new sense of self-belief, Saina will now approach the Asian Games with optimism. Sindhu may still be the higher ranked player but Saina is back in every sense. Sindhu, on the other hand, will know CWG may well have been an aberration. It was a day to forget and it is time to move on.
There are other bigger platforms and the nation would be watching. And watching with joy as two of its best keep making the world stage their own. Never has it happened before with such amazing regularity. Whether it will happen again in future is impossible to predict. Let’s just enjoy it as it lasts. Not always do you see a real life biopic play out before your eyes. Lip-smacking...isn’t it?