When I was growing up in Malleswaram (Old Bangalore) a few blocks from Canara Union Community Club in the early 1980’s, the sport of badminton was in the air all around me. I’ve often heard of the timeline in Indian badminton history: “Before and after, Prakash Padukone won the All England title.”
A predominantly individual sport, badminton is usually about the Twin Peaks – an athlete who wins the All England title and becomes world No. 1. However, when badminton made its debut as an Olympic sport in Barcelona (1992), the quest for gold became another mountain for athletes to climb.
Amidst all these individual moments of glory, the team championships – Thomas Cup (men) and Uber Cup (women) – were seen as even more challenging, with only 16 teams qualifying for this biennial event.
Additionally, unlike singles events, this format requires multiple match winners to work together coherently in singles and doubles. As of 2020, only five countries had won the Thomas Cup title in its 73-year history. The latest addition to this elite group is India, who won the prestigious event a few days ago.
And what did the Indian team need to climb to the top of Mt. Thomas? Was it pure coincidence or decades of work that culminated in this moment of fame?
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The story of three decades
Since the Thomas Cup began in 1949, India had qualified in just 13 of its 32 editions. Despite having two All England Champions in Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand, the depth and bench strength required to win the Thomas Cup was tremendous. In the 1990s, India had not even qualified for the tournament. The 2000s were better as India reached the quarterfinals twice in 2006 and 2010.
Former Olympic badminton player U. Vimal Kumar, who served as team coach for India at the Thomas Cup, assessed how the script evolved from individual sporting success to overall team performance. “We’ve always had good players, but the priority was individual players and tournaments. Of course, Prakash and Gopi won All England, Sindhu won, all great achievements, but as a team we couldn’t deliver what we did sooner.”, said Vimal Kumar in an interview with PTI.
Several moving parts began to align, notably after India’s overall performance in badminton at the 2010 Commonwealth Games (New Delhi) and the 2012 Olympics (London) and finally at the 2018 Commonwealth Games (Gold Coast) where the team spirit was palpable.
“HS Prannoy was the first badminton player to be supported by the GoSports Foundation in 2012. And that opened the doors for supporting more badminton players like Kidambi Srikanth and Sai Praneeth,” said Deepthi Bopaiah, CEO of GoSports Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting athletes and para-athletes.
Doubles, the differentiator
The tendency to focus on single players is what most countries work towards early on. However, this strategy only goes so far. Because badminton is an intense and competitive sport, expecting two high-level singles players to win doubles together is easier said than done.
Not to mention the risk of injury for single players due to the increased workload in both formats. Although the women’s doubles team of Ashwini Ponnappa and Jwala Gutta had won multiple awards for some time, the same wasn’t quite the case for the men.
Specialized doubles coaches had to be brought into the system to boost player performance to compete with countries like Indonesia, Denmark, China and Malaysia. And the results started to trickle in the last five years, starting with the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
“It was a conscious decision to encourage doubles players as I remember our advisor Pullela Gopichand mentioning that singles players alone cannot help win team championships like the Thomas Cup. With this in mind, we accepted Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty as part of GoSports Long Term Athlete Development Scholarship program in 2017.
“Satwik and Chirag’s rise from CWG 2018 to the Tokyo 2021 Olympics has been extraordinary. Furthermore, the gold medal (team event) won by India at CWG 2018 in Gold Coast (Australia) was a validation of our strategy in developing dual specialists,” said Deepthi, speaking for the CWG during her visit to the Gold Coast -Event witnessed India’s performance at the stadium.
Vimal Kumar, who currently occasionally coaches India’s newest badminton sensation Lakshya Sen at Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore, was particularly impressed by the doubles. “What the doubles players have done in each game is amazing, we used to depend on singles but Satwik and Chirag pulled out all the pressure plays so kudos to Lakhsya, Srikanth and HS Prannoy for delivering when it was important “said Vimal Kumar in his interview with PTI.
READ | Everything that doesn’t glitter in Indian badminton – lessons from the Thomas Cup victory
TEAM – Together everyone achieves more
After the Rio 2016 Olympics, there has been a notable shift in the Indian sports ecosystem over the past half decade. Teamwork between different stakeholders. For athletes to thrive on the field, there is a greater need for successful partnerships off the field.
“It is evident that all stakeholders, namely the government (BAI, TOPS), academies (Gopichand Academy, Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy), together with non-profit private organizations (GoSports Foundation, Olympic Gold Quest), have worked together seamlessly for this historic triumph . Badminton players typically travel alone on the BWF tour, unlike players in a team sport such as cricket or football. So the camaraderie of the Indian men’s team was essential in an event like the Thomas Cup,” Deepthi reiterated.
The pressure on every badminton player is high now, but in a good way. Indian fans expect nothing less than a podium finish every time an athlete steps onto the badminton court. “It’s an achievement of pure team spirit that I haven’t seen in the past. It was a fantastic team effort. The coaches worked hard so overall this is a fantastic achievement. And that achievement will spur the players on to do well to provide.” the upcoming major events like the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games,” said Vimal Kumar, who believed Team India could continue the triumphant march in the upcoming world events.
With constant support and encouragement from key stakeholders within the ecosystem, it is equally important to build the pipeline of next-generation players. “With this win now on the table, we at the GoSports Foundation are delighted to deepen our support in badminton for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. We are currently supporting the next generation of players like Malvika Bansod, Samiya Farooqui, Treesa Jolly, Gayathri Gopichand and Sankar Muthusamy.
“We are fully aware that both singles and doubles players are equally important in order to shine on the world stage in the long term,” said Deepthi Bopaiah with optimism as she looks forward to India continuing to consolidate its position in global badminton .
From a team of champions to a champion team, has the Indian badminton team finally turned the tide? It certainly looks like it.