New Delhi: India’s badminton team hit new heights last week with their maiden Thomas Cup victory in Bangkok, even managing to keep cricket in the shade leaving former players confident the sport can “build on this success”.
The men’s team beat giants of the sport Malaysia, Denmark and then 14-time winners Indonesia to win badminton’s equivalent to the Davis Cup in tennis.
Team manager Vimal Kumar hailed the victory as the “biggest achievement” for a country whose rare top men’s tournament successes in the past had included All England Open Championship wins for Prakash Padukone in 1980 and Pullela Gopichand in 2001.
Kumar, a former player who once won a team Asian Games bronze, said he always foresaw good things for Indian badminton as players began to come through.
“From 2017 when there were three good singles players in Sai Praneeth, (Kidambi) Srikanth and (HS) Prannoy, I had faith in them,” Kumar told AFP.
“But as a team, they couldn’t play together for various reasons. This win comes after years of hard work.”
The latest talented youngster to emerge is Lakshya Sen, who made heads turn when he reached the prestigious All England Open Championship final in March, losing to Danish world number two and Olympic Champion Viktor Axelsen.
The 20-year-old Sen proved a key player en route to India’s 3-0 Thomas Cup final triumph against Indonesia, along with senior singles players Srikanth and Prannoy, and the doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty.
Kumar said India now needed to build on the team’s achievements and begin to lay the foundations for future success.
“They need to look at how they can market the sport better. Maybe get a team sponsor. And with the money (that comes in) they can get grassroot development for the next line of players.”
The exploits of the team in Bangkok kept sports fans gripped across the cricket-mad country.
“For three days, all of India was looking at badminton. I think that is their achievement, more than winning the Thomas Cup they gave Indians so much joy,” journalist G Rajaraman told AFP.
Women’s singles players such as Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu kept Indian badminton in the spotlight in recent years by winning Olympic medals, but the sport stands a distant third to cricket and hockey in popularity.
“Badminton is one of our better sports in terms of results, achieved from Prakash (Padukone’s) time going down to Gopi (Pullela Gopichand) and more recently through the women,” said Rajaraman.
“But to see them come together as a team, it galvanised the whole nation.”
World number one
Now 48 years old, Gopichand has been singled out for being the architect of India’s recent badminton success after he mentored Sindhu, Saina and Srikanth, who became world number one briefly in April 2018.
“It’s a phenomenal success,” Gopichand was quoted as saying by the Indian media.
“What our boys achieved is simply incredible. It was my dream. I am confident that we can build on this success.”
The Gopichand academy - a state of the art badminton facility in the south Indian city of Hyderabad - has become synonymous with success.
“Nearly every player would have played with Gopi or his academy at some point of time,” said Rajaraman.
“I think that kind of selfless approach of his, where he has got in foreign coaches even in his own academy has helped India become a better badminton nation.”