These are good times for Indian badminton. The sport is enjoying a following that is second only to cricket thanks to the performances of the leading players who are among the best in the world.

If 2016 saw PV Sindhu making it to the final of the Rio Olympics event – making her title clash against Carolina Marin the most watched event in Indian sports history outside cricket – last year saw her being joined by several men players making their mark on the international stage. In the meantime Saina Nehwal too remained up there somewhere in the rankings and the surge of Indian players in that list as well as the growing interest by Indian followers in the sport was all too apparent.

All this of course has put additional pressure on the players. Can they perform an encore by doing even better as 2018 gets underway? The start to the season has been neither here nor there. Saina lost in the final at the Indonesian Open and Sindhu met with the same fate at the Indian Open while both the men and women’s squads were eliminated at the quarterfinal stage of the Asian Team championship in Malaysia.

So it has been a slow beginning off the starting blocks but then these are early days yet. Sai Praneeth for one is confident that the players will get good results as the year goes on. ''We are training hard and everyone is playing well. It is not possible to win every match. The year has just started and there is a long way to go’’ says Praneeth who won the Singapore Open Super Series title last year and is currently ranked world No 18.

Kidambi Srikanth (5) and HS Prannoy (11) are the other Indian men players in the top 20 and they are just as optimistic. Following his excellent showing in 2017 when he won four Super Series titles a feat beyond any other Indian, male or female, expectations from Srikanth are sky high and this of course will put pressure on him. Can he rise to the occasion? He certainly has the game for it and last year’s performance must have boosted his confidence no end.

Prannoy and Praneeth could well be the two other flag bearers. Last year they earned the sobriquet of giant killers by toppling higher ranked players in prestigious tournaments even if they could not go on to win the title. Can they make the transition to world beaters this year?

But however well the men may perform the focus as far as the sport is concerned will be on Sindhu and Saina. Simply because they have achieved over a period of time more than what the men have achieved. It is a tribute to Srikanth that he garnered so much attention last year even as the duo performed up to expectations. This is an important year for besides the world championship and the all England there is also the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. Opportunities are there for the players to come good in the big events and whatever the chances of the men, the main hopes for medals will still be Saina and Sindhu.

She has been around for nearly a decade now and it is a tribute to Saina that she has been in the top ten for most of the time. She has undergone ups and downs, even endured surgeries but her fighting spirit has never diminished. The emergence of Sindhu has pushed her into the background but only just. At 27 she is still good enough to give younger players a run for their money and can never really be written off.

With all that Sindhu remains Indian badminton’s ''golden girl’’, their best hope for a medal at the mega events. She is capable of beating the best, is a prime contender for being the world’s leading player and what’s more, she knows it. Her fitness levels are unbelievably high, her temperament exemplary and her court coverage admirable.

All this however optimistic is only one side of the picture. Yes, when an athlete wins top laurels he or she is expected to repeat the feat. But it is not easy. Actually this is tougher than winning for the first time. Athletes are not machines. Even the most gifted have had to endure tough times when things just don’t fall into place. And even as expectations rise and the pressure is that much more opponents also get used to your game. Having been beaten they don’t want to get beaten again. They make a study of the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and come back strongly the next time.

This is what the Indians will have to guard against. And this clearly means that the Indians may have to raise the level of their game. It must not be forgotten that India are only an emerging superpower. The badminton superpowers for years have been China, Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea and Denmark and the competition out there is unbelievably intense.

Much of the credit for the upsurge in the fortunes of the Indian players has been credited to Pullela Gopichand and rightly so. The coach has worked wonders with his wards at his academy at Hyderabad and every top Indian player to a great or lesser degree owes a lot to the former all England champion. Starting from scratch he has produced world class talent and his academy in Hyderabad has surpassed expectations by a distance. However even in this upbeat mood there is one regret. It is unfortunate that the Hyderabad model has not been emulated elsewhere in the country. Experts have stressed on the need for creating a system instead of depending solely on one centre of excellence. The sooner this is done Indian badminton will soar even higher.