HYDERABAD: India’s splendid feat of storming into the Thomas Cup final has stunned many across the world. While the Indian fans are celebrating this monumental occasion, the scale of this victory will be understood only by serious followers of the game. Winning individual titles is different but doing well in team events like Thomas Cup indicates the depth of the Indian squad. It also tells us how far the sport has come, compared to 15 years ago when there was little following.
In the late 90s, Pullela Gopichand’s mother Subbaravamma used to call newspaper offices and television channels to give the scores of her son’s matches.
Things did not change much even after Gopichand’s triumph at the All England Championships in 2001, but once he took over as India’s chief coach, there was steady improvement not only in the performance of the players, but also in the popularity of the sport.
A lot of credit for this turnaround goes to Gopichand. Gopi himself points to three major incidents and personalities for turning the fortunes of shuttle sport in the country.
In 2004, when Sania Mirza won the WTA Hyderabad Open singles title, the tennis stadium was packed beyond capacity. That made the then SAAP vice-chairman LV Subramanyam realise that to popularise a sport one needs to conduct international tournaments. From then on, every year Hyderabad hosted an international badminton event and the World Championships in 2009. “His (LV’s) foresight helped us to improve the popularity of the sport,” Gopichand said.
The second incident was Saina’s quarterfinal finish at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. People started taking notice of Saina and followed her every move. She too did not disappoint her fans and when she played the Commonwealth Games final in New Delhi, the stadium was packed and police found it difficult to control the crowd outside the stadium.
Thereafter, Saina started winning one tournament after the other. The NRIs started following her in whichever country she played.
One of Saina’s favourite hunting grounds is Indonesia. It’s said even the taxi drivers recognise her there and some even refuse to take the fare from her!
Though Saina became the first shuttler to win a bronze in the 2012 London Olympics, she did not get the credit due as Indians won medals in other disciplines too.
But the very next year, Sindhu took over, winning World Championship medals year after year.
Badminton’s popularity reached its zenith when she won the singles silver in 2016 Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro. Sindhu won the medal towards the end of the Games and it helped that no other Indian had won a medal in Rio till then. And soon the nation was cheering Sindhu’s silver and Sakshi Malik’s bronze in quick succession. The entire country watched Sindhu’s final against Carolina Marin and the moment she arrived in Delhi proudly displaying the silver medal, she was swarmed by fans at the airport and the hotel. The 20-km long victory procession in Hyderabad was watched with admiration by millions of people across the world.
Kidambi Srikanth played his part in popularising the sport by winning four Super Series titles, a feat no Indian has achieved. Srikanth and Saina became world No.1, even if it was for just one week each. And in keeping with their achievements and the rising stature of the game, all three – Saina, Sindhu and Srikanth – signed lucrative deals.
The consistent success of these shuttlers, all from Gopichand’s academy, changed the face of the game as thousands of academies sprung up all over the country. The emergence of Lakshya Sen has added to the lustre of the game. During his All England final, the youngster who trains at the Prakash Padukone Academy in Bengaluru, enjoyed the support usually reserved for Saina and Sindhu. That someone like Unnati Hooda, the 14-year-old with no training from any reputed academy went on to win the Odisha Open International event shows that there is plenty of talent in the country.
“You have three singles matches in Thomas Cup. Even if you have 10, India will be hard to beat, for such is the depth we have in this country,” says Gopichand.
Apart from being the chief coach, Gopichand and veteran administrator Punnaiah Choudhary worked relentlessly to get sponsors for the tournaments. “Initially, it was very difficult to get sponsors. We knew so many people and everyone liked Gopichand but very few gave money. Gopi used to ask me, ‘sir is it so difficult to get sponsorships?’ We struggled to get money for the events we conducted between 2005-10,” Punnaiah said.
Along with his friend Srikanth, Gopichand used to spend many sleepless nights to get everything in place for tournaments. But Saina’s Commonwealth Games gold medal changed things. The then BAI president Akhilesh Das Gupta’s decision to shift these tournaments from Hyderabad to Delhi also helped the sport.
Before 2006, an Indian shuttler entering the main draw or breaking into top-100 was major news. But now dozens of Indians enter the main draw of several international events every year and the entries for domestic tournaments cross 3000!
From just entering the tournament to Indians reaching the final of international events has become a regular feature now, and they even have a dedicated fan base, particularly in Switzerland, Birmingham, Malaysia and Indonesia.
There is hectic activity on social media too whenever an Indian wins a title. Celebrities like Anand Mahindra, Rajnikanth, Amitabh Bachchan and many film stars send congratulatory messages. Prime Minister Narendra Modi never forgets to applaud the Indian team.
Age group shuttlers now find it easy to believe that they can make a career out of sport and the confidence levels have zoomed with the Premier Badminton League adding to it as international stars are part of the teams. The prize money has been hiked for domestic tournaments and badminton has never had it so good in the country.
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