New generation scripts Thomas Cup final date

Seeing Prakash Padukone’s incoming call on his phone, Vimal Kumar half-heartedly tried to silence the group of young players partying around him at Bangkok’s Nonthaburi Stadium late Friday night. Kumar, the coach of the Indian men’s team at the Thomas Cup, could only do so much in this exuberant atmosphere and quite frankly he would have wished them that this time. After all, just minutes ago, these brazen boys had written one of the greatest moments in Indian badminton history.

Earlier, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy hit the most outrageous serve winner to secure a win against Danish doubles Mathias Christiansen and Kim Astrup alongside Chirag Shetty. Kidambi Srikanth had then played the most nerveless of finals to beat former world silver medalist Anders Antonsen before HS Prannoy proved grit personified as he braved a dodgy ankle coming back from a set to beat Rasmus Gemke in the decisive tie beat the Thomas Cup semifinals.

READ: India beats Denmark 3-2 to reach first-ever Thomas Cup final

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They had beaten Denmark 3-2 to reach the finals of the Thomas Cup, becoming the first Indian team in the tournament’s 73-year history. They earned the right to prove on Sunday that they are the best men’s badminton team in the world. Through laughter and cheers, Kumar cheekily teased India’s first badminton world champion on the other side of the phone call. “43 years ago these guys beat you all. We got revenge for you, Prakash!”

The spirits the current team exorcised were at least that old. Back in 1979 – the last time they reached the Thomas Cup semi-finals – the Indian team, led by Padukone and featuring Syed Modi, Leroy D’sa, Suman Mishra and Partho Ganguly, also had to compete against a Danish side for a place in the Thomas Cup played finals. Back then, the Indians were outplayed and came out on the wrong end of a 7-2 win.

chip on the shoulder

In the decades since, even making the bottom four would be a challenge. There were flashes of individual brilliance, but neither team had the depth of field needed to actually make a dent in badminton’s ultimate test of team strength, the Thomas Cup.

“Years ago we asked ourselves whether we were good enough to even qualify for the Thomas Cup,” Pullela Gopichand recalls. “Even if we did, we would normally be eliminated in the group stage. I remember how tough it was,” says India’s former national team coach and the last Indian to win the All England Championships.

The teams and players would largely be relegated to the shadows of India’s super-successful women’s shuttles – who would win two medals in the final editions of the women’s version of the team championships – the Uber Cup. But through it all, the men had honed their skills and learned from their losses until finally on Friday the final pieces of the puzzle snapped into place.

This was a victory whose time had come, delivered by a generation of players probably unequaled in Indian history. It’s hard to overstate how monumental this victory is for Indian badminton. “This is such a significant moment,” says Gopichand. “The Thomas Cup is the biggest tournament in team badminton. Reaching the final means you are eye to eye with the best badminton nations in the world. The size of an Indian team reaching the final is what I envision for the team that reached the 1983 Cricket World Cup final,” he says.

How it came about

There’s a confidence that this team is proud of at this tournament. It didn’t matter whether the opponents had made it through the last four stages of the last three editions on Friday. It doesn’t matter if their own team’s best player – All England finalist Lakshya Sen – has been bullied off the pitch in straight games by Olympic gold medalist Viktor Axelsen. In other years, this would have been the beginning of the end. On Friday only the doubles Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty made more sense. “You can’t do what you’ve done without a world-class doubles pair like Satwik and Chirag. This dual option gives the site a depth that we didn’t always have before,” says Gopichand.

HOW IT HAPPENED | India beats Denmark 3-2 to reach first Thomas Cup final, HIGHLIGHTS

The duo would live up to their bill. Against a scratchy Danish doubles, they managed a sometimes heartbreaking 21-18, 21-23, 22-20 win. There was more than its fair share of rattling nerves. Three match points were burned by the Indians in the second game, which eventually went to the Danes, then two more in the decider that made the score 20-20.

In the past, the Indians often gave away leads. But just when it seemed like the match was getting out of hand – and Astrup and Christiansen eagerly leaned forward to await an expected shy serve from Satwik, he surprised everyone by hitting the shuttle with a brave serve wrapped over their heads. He had tried twice in the previous game and hit the shuttle long both times. It was the ultimate high-risk, high-reward option—an option that another generation of gamers might have balked at. Not this one. “The thought was simple: ‘Let’s see what happens if I hit a quick serve,'” Satwik later said.

The tie was 1-1, it was set up Kidambi Srikanth against current world No. 3 Anders Antonsen. Relegation to No. 2 in the Indian ranks could potentially hurt a player’s self-esteem, but at least India’s case of having a former world No. 1 as a second singles player has proved a bonus. While Srikanth has been more than capable of producing silky smooth strokeplay and confusing bugs within the same game lately, it was mainly the earlier version that hit the court that day. Despite an almost usual slip in the second game, Srikanth delivered where it counted, winning the match 21-18 12-21 21-14 to put India ahead.

Srikanth’s victory would be crucial after young couple Krishna Prasad Garaga and Vishnuvardhan Panjala lost their reverse doubles tie. It was ultimately up to HS Prannoy to bring things home. Prannoy was brought on the side without having to go through a selection process and while it was a decision that raised eyebrows when it was made, it has proven to be a brilliant choice. As India’s third singles player, the 29-year-old has proved to be the team’s missing piece of the puzzle throughout the tournament, winning every match he has been a part of. But while it was clear that world No. 22 would have a tough time against world No. 13 Gemke, few would have expected him to exhaust his reserves of strength.

TIED TOGETHER:

HS Prannoy secures his own medal for India

When he fell 4-10 after a shuttle in the opening game, he awkwardly landed on an already taped right ankle and collapsed on the court. Prannoy stood up and called for a medical timeout, but grimaced each time he gently put weight on the joint. A weaker player might have gone, but the 29-year-old showed he was made of sterner stuff. “After the slip it hurt a lot more than usual, I couldn’t lunge properly. I was wondering what to do, thought I’ll try to make it work somehow. In my head it was always: ‘I shouldn’t give up.’ I just tried what I could and prayed the pain wouldn’t get worse,” he said after the game.

Watching from the stands, says Vimal, he can only marvel. “He definitely had problems with his leg. And there he was down. But he just found a way to solve his problem. He was struggling up until then but used this break to figure out what to do,” says Kumar.

As Prannoy worked through the pain, Gemke found his task increasingly difficult. While the Dane struggled with drifting around the court and struggling to find a rhythm, Prannoy kept things simple and focused on getting the shuttle onto the court while unbalancing Gemke through occasional attacking play.

Ahead of the decider, perhaps just on adrenaline, Prannoy felt the pain had subsided enough. “I knew the first 11 points would be crucial. So I just decided to give everything I had,” he later said after a 13-21, 21-9, 21-12 win.

The damage Prannoy has caused to his ankle is not insignificant and he will only find out the extent later on Saturday. As they take on 14-time champions Indonesia, India will be hoping to have every advantage on the pitch. Purely by the records, it’s the ultimate mismatch. But you have to be brave to bet against an Indian side who have left mighty teams Malaysia and Denmark in their wake. “They are happy but even now they don’t realize how great what they have achieved is,” says coach Kumar. “They’ll find out at some point. I’m just telling them they’re not done yet,” says Kumar.

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