Men make 2017 a summer of content for Indian badminton
K Srikanth's sensational run, H S Prannoy's giant-killing spree and the rise of B Sai Praneeth -- men have stolen a rare march on women in what has been a summer of content for Indian badminton this year. Ever since the emergence of a certain Saina Nehwal, women's singles has dominated with the gutsy Haryana-born shuttler winning titles galore. And P V Sindhu's meteoric rise only added to the supremacy that the women shuttlers enjoyed.
In 2010, Saina won three Super Series titles at Singapore, Indonesia and Hong Kong, besides clinching the coveted gold at the Delhi Commonwealth Games, a feat that has never been matched by any Indian ever since.
Cut to mid-2017, Indian shuttlers have so far won an unprecedented four super series titles out of six and barring P V Sindhu's win at the India Open, it's the Indian men's brigade led by Kidambi Srikanth, which has been on a rampage.
Srikanth clinched back-to-back titles at Indonesia and Australia, while Sai Praneeth lays claim to his maiden Super Series title at Singapore after defeating Srikanth in the summit clash.
If the duo won the titles, Prannoy won hearts after he sent a shocking reminder of his talent by stunning Olympic silver-medallist Lee Chong Wei and Rio gold-medallist Chen Long of China in successive days in Jakarta.
"The last two weeks have been fantastic. Not only for me but for Prannoy and Sai. It is great, the way men's singles is progressing and I think we have a great chance of winning a medal at the World Championship now," said Srikanth, who is also a winner of the 2014 China Open and 2015 India Open.
Prannoy adds: "I am really glad that badminton is growing in popularity and glad that I am a part of that. I just hope we can have three or four players in the top ten in the next couple of years."
India have six shuttlers inside the World top-35 with Srikanth, Praneeth and Ajay making it to the top 20 and chief coach Pullela Gopichand, who produced two Olympic-medallists in Saina (London Games bronze) and Sindhu (Rio Games silver), feels time has come for the men to come out of the shadows of women's singles.
"I think overall, these wins have put the men's singles on a platform now. So we can say that they have come out of the shadows of women's singles. The way the players are playing, we can expect more results in the coming months and I hope for more consistency from the players," he told PTI.
Besides the World Championship in August, there are many more Super Series and Super Series Premier tournaments which will be up for grabs at Korea (Sept 12-17), Japan (Sept 19- 24), Denmark (Oct 17-22), France (Oct 24-29), China (Nov 14- 19), Hong Kong (Nov 21-26) and Dubai World Super Series Finals (Dec 13-17) this year.
A lot of credit for the turnaround in men's singles goes to the arrival of Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo and his assistant Hariawan, who joined Indian badminton at the start of 2017 and completely overhauled the training program by going for back-breaking long sessions.
Handoyo's technique bore results as Prannoy, Srikanth and Praneeth showed great physical and mental energy to outlast their more illustrious rivals in energy-sapping rallies.
"I think we only had Gopi sir before and now we have Indonesian coach Mulyo, he has seen the highest level of badminton and with both of their inputs, it has really helped me. Now two people are working to improve Indian badminton and it is really working for us," opines Srikanth.
"After Mulyo joined, our practice sessions have become longer. He changed our schedule to three hours instead of 90 minutes and this has really increased our stamina," Praneeth explains.
The rampaging form of men's shuttlers have meant that they are now hunting in a pack and Gopichand, who took over the charge of Indian badminton in 2006, feels it is the culture of sharing that has helped the shuttlers to go from strength to strength.
"We should realise that we can't work in isolation, it is important to share and grow. People like P Kashyap and RMV Gurusaidutt have been great in building team spirit, Prannoy, Praneeth and Srikanth respect each other, support each other, and encourage each other," said 2001 All England champion.
One of the challenges is the proper management of injuries as many top players, including Prannoy, Kashyap and Sameer Verma, have been left on the sidelines due to multiple injuries.
Gopichand said: "There is such a fine line in between pushing and crossing over. If you don't push you won't get the result and if you push too much then there will be injuries. So it is a tough call, there are no easy answers but we can't stop training hard."
To reach optimum fitness and to face the growing demands of competition, the Gopichand academy is now creating an athlete-oriented genetics report after testing their genetic information.
Looking at badminton's run, expectations have soared for 2020 Tokyo Olympics but Gopichand says his next challenge is to see the doubles players reaching the finals of big events.
"Doubles events is the next challenge. I think we are getting there. Pranav-Sikki, Sikki-Ashwini doing well. Manu- Sumeeth, Chirag-Satwik, Shlok-MR, we are looking good. We have 6-8 doubles players qualifying at the World Championship," he said.
"Some of the players are very young and there is a bunch of them coming and I'm sure we will have good results. The idea is to create more competitions, it will take time but when they come up they will be strong," he signs off.