India’s giant badminton leap: From semifinal spot in 1979 to top of the world in 2022

When was India last able to boast about ‘killer instinct’ in its sportspersons while simultaneously triggering meltdowns and chokes in three massive powerhouses? India’s Thomas Cup final triumph was all about comebacks – Lakshya Sen and Satwik-Chirag’s in their matches, and Kidambi Srikanth’s from three years in the oblivion. Also, HS Prannoy’s from wondering whether all his big scalps without titles, amounted to much.

Like the World Championships in December, young Lakshya Sen led the way.

India’s not too familiar with the American collegiate idea of sophomore blues, but various versions of impending doom have been buzzing about Lakshya Sen, and his imminent struggles after being figured out on the international circuit. An unprecedented Thomas Cup final, where he had been battered in quarters and semis, was to test his mettle when he took to the court. Losing the opener 21-8 against Anthony Ginting, the damning prophecy began buffering. Then, Sen snapped.

Taking a 7-3 and 11-7 lead playing at a faster clip, Sen would parry Ginting’s attempts at pinning him to the deep forehand corner by retrieving relentlessly. Sen’s defense is an addictive watch, an assured pulse-metre spike as he scurries around the court chasing down the bird from all manners of balanced and imbalanced positions. It’s vertiginous from an eye-level because the quality big his strokes rises as the rally goes on. Ginting had him trapped in the corners in the opener, but lost confidence in his masterstroke, the moment Sen sent back the shuttle.

He then played into Sen’s hands. Rather into his body, frustrated at being retrieved at the far lines. Anyone who knows Sen knows that is an invitation in bold & underlined to Trouble. Any shuttle close to his body with his torquing torso is Sen’s strength and he happily started winning the longer rallies – including a 46-shot one, which annoyed Ginting even more. The Indonesian is a speed fiend, and doesn’t like those speed breakers. At 18-15 while levelling, Sen reaped the rewards of his defense, which earned him the right to kill at unexpected junctures within a frenetic rally. There was a gorgeous looking round the head smash from his little hop-step after all that blur of sweaty retrieving. He even treated himself to a cute long serve, and finally watched Ginting deflated while dumping a return into the net for a 21-17 set score.

Into the decider, Ginting looked like he’d seen a ghost. Sen was now sending the crosscourt smashes with aplomb, but looking unfussed if a long rally was needed to bide his time. Ginting’s smashes landed in the net now. At 16-14 Sen was galloping the breadth of the net now – a clear sign that scores were irrelevant, his attack was a juicy steak on a green, leafy, crunchy bed of defense now.

Sophomore blues might well be on the horizon, but on Thomas Cup finals day, Lakshya Sen had dialled back his days of romping across the All England and World Championships courts. India took a 1-0 lead laced with hope.

Doubles magnifique

Satwik-Chirag were alert and moving well, but had still gone down 0-1 on set score to Indonesia’s legendary Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Mohd Ahsan. They took a 12-8 lead in the second, but then allowed the Indonesians to pick 12 of 14 points to hike up to 14-19. At 17-20 the Indians were staring at 3 match points.

India’s Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, left, and Chirag Shetty react after winning over Indonesia’s Kevin Sanjaya and Mohammad Ahsan during their men’s double final badminton match at Thomas & Uber Cup in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP | _PTI)

But through the course of the second set, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had roused from his strictly steady zone to begin to put a lot of shoulder on his downward strokes. Chirag Shetty has been pulling this team like a yellow headband rimmed steam engine all week. But the gentle giant, Satwiksairaj had woken up. He would muscle up the smashes with such a rip, that Ahsan and Kevin were beginning to get rattled. At 20-18, Ahsan dumped a nervous smash into the net.

The Indians had taken more than giantkilling reputation into this tie after disposing Malaysia and Denmark. In winning all doubles against the top nations, Satwik Chirag had announced their whistling return to winning ways. The two can bully on court, and the fact that they don’t often makes it even more menacing when they do. Kevin-Ahsan flubbed 4 match points. It was surreal, as the Indians went 20-all, 20-21, 21-all, 22-21 to finally have Satwik bissect the Indonesians with his steep smash to level 23-21.

The Indians have lost so many from 20-18, it was a delicious sight to watch them turn the tables on opponents. In the decider, leafs were traded, but 13-16 didn’t look dire. Piling on the pressure with Satwik belting away his smashes, the Indians easily turned 17-19 to 20-19. Their audacity in not giving too much respect to Indonesia’s big names, brought India 2-0 up.

Comeback 2. Check.

Srikanth’s case has been a protracted period of three long years in wilderness, hearing broken tape of how he had wasted his talent from random strangers on Twitter to coming into contention again.

Kidambi Srikanth India’s Srikanth Kidambi reacts after winning a point against Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie during their men’s singles final badminton match at Thomas & Uber Cup in Bangkok, Thailand. (AP | PTI)

The World Championship silver medallist had waited for his body to patch up all the niggles so he could freely express his game. Yet the December event had ended in a lost final against Loh Kean Yew.

In Bangkok, Srikanth’s comeback was 6 out of 6 matches played and won. He had been parrying off second singles till quarters, but in Anders Antonsen and Jonatan Christie, he had two bonafide Top Tens. He made mincemeat of the rankings, of all history, of their gnashing resistance on the day, with mere great shot selection and an error free game.

All he touched was marked gold, though Christie attempted comebacks and stayed calm. But Srikanth’s class was far too much for the Asian Games gold medallist to find any rhythm when he was left scrambling to return the Indian’s delectable bouquet of racquet work.

Reflexive backhand returns in response to tightspinning net dribbles, saw him sticking his hand out for the most defensive of winners at 8-7 in the second. The iconic net charging follow-up to a smash brought him match point, and the crosscourt smash set fire to the curtains of the dramatic day.

3-0 ain’t dramatic as a whole. But every moment was for a pulsating nation back home, giddy with anticipation of a historic Sunday.

Leave a Comment