Has Indian badminton ever had it so good?

With the Indian Open starting on January 11 it is a good time to reflect on an enviable situation. First it was the men notably TN Seth and Nandu Natekar who put India on the international map in the fifties and sixties. Indian badminton’s stature took a giant leap from the 70s to the 90s thanks to the stellar achievements of Prakash Padukone and Pullella Gopichand.

Both won the all England championships the blue riband of international badminton. In the new millennium it was the turn of the women predominantly Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu who saw to it that the Indian flag flew high around the world arena.

And now even as Sindhu remains among the world’s leading players – the two time Olympic medallist and former world champion is currently ranked No 7 – a quartet of men players have struck it rich as India have emerged as a major badminton power in both events.

Leading the pack is Kidambi Srikanth. He turns 29 next month but has already experienced enough ups and downs. In April 2018 he was world No 1 in the BWF rankings and was awarded the Padma Shri the same year. From that pinnacle he fell to such an extent that he failed to qualify for the Olympics last year. And yet last month he created history becoming the first Indian to reach the men’s singles final in the world championships in Spain clinching a silver medal. Having seen the ups and downs in less than four years it was no surprise that his celebrations were rather muted. Instead Srikanth displayed the equanimity that has helped him stay afloat during his struggle with fitness and form. All he could say that ''this is something I really worked hard for.’’

Srikkanth who trains at the Pullela Gopinchand academy in Hyderabad was first hailed as the next big thing in Indian badminton when he shocked five time world and two time Olympic champion Lin Dan in the final of the China Open Super Series event in 2014. This raised hopes of a medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016 but Lin Dan avenged the earlier defeat by beating Srikanth in the quarterfinal.

However Srikanth returned to stun the badminton world by claiming four Super Series titles in five finals in 2017 a feat achieved only by the likes of Lee Chong Wei, Lin Dan and Chen Long in a calendar year. For some time he was the most talked about sportsman in the country but he then injured his knee and this led to a lapse in form. He recovered to claim the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast in 2018 and earned a place at the top of the world rankings for a week in April.

But then came a sharp slide in his fortunes. The knee injury followed by problems related to his ankle badly affected his performance. With Olympic qualification around the corner Srikanth rushed back to competition and the haste not unexpectedly backfired. His court movements were slow, his stroke precision was fractionally off and as a result the number of international wins dwindled. His ranking started plummeting and he was out of the top ten in November 2019.

However he kept at it, defeating the top ranked players now and then, reaching the quarter and semifinals in various tournaments but a title triumph eluded him. Still his reaching the final in Spain besides being historic has meant that he is back in a big way and is currently No 10 in the BWF rankings.

In the process Srikanth bettered the feats of the legendary Prakash Padukone who won a bronze medal in the world championships in 1983 and Sai Praneeth who also won a bronze in 2019.

Interestingly enough in the same tournament Lakshya Sen became the third Indian to win a bronze in a world championship. In fact the two Indians met in the semifinals where Srikanth prevailed. The 20-year-old Lakshya who trains at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy (PPBA) in Bangalore is the newest star on the horizon.

He became the youngest Indian to win a medal at the World Championship, capping a rise that has been nothing short of sensational. A prodigious talent like him was always marked out for success but to have a world championship podium finish as a breakthrough performance is the stuff of dreams.

Lakshya has been fortunate in having legends such as Prakash, Morten Frost and Vimal Kumar as mentors and coaches. The great Danish player was brought in as a consultant coach at the PPBA and his inputs have been especially crucial in prepping him up for elite level badminton. He has trained with Frost in Denmark in 2019 and also trained with Olympic gold medallist Viktor Axelsen last year. All this has helped him to become a better player good enough to rise to No 17 in the latest BWF rankings.

Completing the quartet are HS Prannoy and Sai Praneeth both of whom have been trained by Gopichand. They have been fairly successful around the circuit and in fact Sai Praneeth was the first Indian shuttler in 36 years to win a medal at the world championships when he won the bronze in 2019.

Both are in the top 20 in the world rankings with Prannoy having a career best ranking of No 8 nearly three years ago and Sai Praneeth being ranked No 10 two years ago. Add to all this the feats of Saina who was No 1 in the BWF rankings in 2015 and Sindhu who has a career best ranking of No 2 in 2017 - and one can see why India is now a major badminton power.