PV Sindhu, Sameer Verma only redeeming feature for Indian badminton as below-par performances bring forgettable year to end

Shirish Nadkarni
A prolonged period of frustration for PV Sindhu, when she ended runner-up in seven successive finals – some of them massive ones like the Olympics and World Championships – finally came to an end when she beat three of the world’s top players.

It is rare, indeed, to find a year that has started on a sombre note, and proceeded in a distinctly pedestrian and discouraging manner, ending in a blaze of glory and optimism. But that is exactly the kind of year 2018 has been for Indian badminton.

A prolonged period of frustration for the country's premier female shuttler, PV Sindhu, when she ended runner-up in seven successive finals €" some of them massive ones like the Olympics and World Championships €" finally came to an end when she beat three of the world's top players, including the reigning Nos 1 and 2, en route to the women's singles title at the World Tour finals in Guangzhou.

One can well imagine the massive sense of relief that Sindhu would have felt after scoring for the first time in seven meetings over the long-reigning World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, acing No 2, Akane Yamaguchi of Japan; and then knocking out her conqueror in the 2017 World Championship final, Japan's Nozomi Okuhara.

If there was one player she would have regretted not beating during her triumphant run in Guangzhou, it would have been Spaniard Carolina Marin, who had wrested the gold medal from the Indian at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but withdrawn injured on the eve of the 2018 season-ending grand finals.

Nevertheless, Sindhu did manage the supreme satisfaction of beating the three-time world champion in their marquee clash in Mumbai during the opening tie of the fourth season of the Premier Badminton League, between her new team, Hyderabad Hunters, and Marin's debutant side, Pune 7 Aces. It was somewhat ironical that Marin had led the Hyderabad side to the Rs 3 crores top prize in last year's PBL.

Sindhu's subsequent defeat in the Hyderabad-Chennai PBL tie at the hands of the redoubtable South Korean, Sung Ji Hyun (as also the manner of the reverse, by a 8-15 margin in the third game) did show that the 23 year old's problems of consistency have not yet been totally laid to rest. A charitable explanation for her abject capitulation to Sung in the decider could be physical and mental fatigue at the fag end of a lengthy and crowded season.

The only other source of optimism for the Indian badminton supporter, going into a new year, was the excellent form that former national champion Sameer Verma showed in the final three tournaments he played in the closing weeks of 2018.

Not only did the 24-year-old Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) native win the Syed Modi International in Lucknow, to add to his earlier victories at the Swiss Open in February, and the India Open in Hyderabad, but he sneaked into the year-ending World Tour finals, won two of his three group matches to qualify for the semi-finals, and then held match-point against the eventual champion, Shi Yuqi of China, before bowing out.

Verma was always going to be an unlikely participant in a tournament that has traditionally brought together the best and most consistent eight players of the year, for the richest prize in the sport. An injury-ravaged 2017 had seen him from a spot just outside the world's top 20 fall to as low as 46th in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings by February this year. Yet, that steep fall allowed him to sail under the radar, free of major responsibilities like representing India at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.

It is interesting to set down here his thoughts at match-point 20-19 in the second game against Shi. "At match-point, I should have taken a break," he said later. "I was just trying to hurry things up. But after losing the point, in my mind I felt that it is just a matter of a single point; it should come."

And then came the fateful umpiring blunder that saw the chair umpire ignoring Verma's impassioned plea that his Chinese rival had crossed the net while tapping the shuttle. "I had fought for every point till 20-19, but I still hadn't won," he reminisced. "Then I started thinking about that tap fault that didn't go my way. I must learn to control my mind in such situations."

Now that he has managed to stay injury-free in the closing months of 2018, Verma has decided to focus on improving his mental toughness. "Last year, I had pushed myself and got injured; I needed to start looking after my body," he said. "The biggest change I made this year was that I planned my tournaments very carefully because I wanted to remain injury-free."

The hardworking Verma's badminton skills €" particularly his variations at the net and his strong defence, though he still lacks the brute power of a Momota or a Lee Chong Wei in his smash €" have been bolstered by his body being free of the ailments that had held him back earlier. Having zoomed up in the BWF rankings to the 12th position after his recent exploits, there is every likelihood of his breaking into the world's top 10 for the first time in the next few weeks.

Verma has been a calming influence on the Mumbai Rockets in the ongoing PBL, and his straight-games victory over HS Prannoy, his regular sparring-mate at the Pullela Gopichand Academy, helped his team to a thumping 5-0 win over Delhi Dashers in their opening clash. His forthcoming duel on 27 December with either China's Tian Houwei or Thailand's Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk of North Eastern Warriors will be eagerly looked forward to.

Meanwhile, for the other front-runners in the Indian national squads €" Kidambi Srikanth, Prannoy and B Sai Praneeth €" 2018 was an eminently forgettable year. Only for Saina Nehwal, still making a return to top-flight badminton after her career-threatening knee injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics, was there something to cheer about, with her second Commonwealth Games gold medal (the first one had been in 2010), won at the expense of compatriot Sindhu, in a repeat result of their 2017 Indian Nationals final.

The shield of near-invincibility that Srikanth had built up during his title-winning spree in 2017 was punctured by Malaysia's Iskandar Zulqarnain at the India Open in the opening weeks of this year, was further dented by a loss to China's Huang Yuxiang at the All-England Open, and reached its nadir at the World Championships in Nanjing, with a loss to Malaysian Daren Liew.

In the interim period, there was an unexpected golden nugget €" his elevation to the World No 1 ranking in April, when a tournament scheduling anomaly deprived the erstwhile No 1, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, of the chance of defending the points he had won in that competition last year. With the moving annual total deducting 9,000 points from his kitty, Axelsen was pushed down into second place by Srikanth for all of one week on 12 April.

The Guntur native also helped India to the Commonwealth Games team title with a superb win over the Malaysian veteran Lee Chong Wei in the India-Malaysia battle, but had to settle for the silver in the individual event in the face of an amazing onslaught by the wounded Malaysian tiger.

However, there was no further reward from the international tournament circuit for Srikanth, who at one stage kept running into Japan's Kento Momota; and getting administered the knock-out punch, for embarrassing returns from his forays to the courts. The Malaysia Open saw the Indian lose at 13-21, 13-21; the next one, the Indonesia Open, where he was the defending champion, saw him extend the Japanese left-hander to three games.

Prannoy, who recovered from a troublesome corn on his foot, to post some encouraging results, including a victory over Chinese legend Lin Dan, broke into the world's top ten on the eve of the Nanjing World Championships. But thereafter, his fall was as marked as it was unexpected, and he ended the year outside the top 20.

It must be noted that Prannoy was good enough to hold a clutch of match-points on three separate occasions against three different opponents, but failed to convert even one of them into victory.

For the latter half of the year, the 26-year-old shuttler seemed well under the weather with a leg injury, an affliction that seemed to persist if one were to consider his laboured court movements in his PBL loss to Sameer Verma.

As for Sai Praneeth, his performances throughout the year were marked by a lack of ability to last the full distance in a lengthy encounter. He would invariably work his way into a good position in the match, but if it extended to a decider, he would be found wanting in staying power.

One such loss was at the Singapore Open to the world's 61st ranked player, Yu Igarashi of Japan, when Praneeth, attempting to defend the title he had won in 2017 at the expense of fellow-countryman Srikanth, won the first game with a degree of comfort, but then lost the next two, palpably running out of fuel as the match progressed. There is no doubt that he needs to work on his fitness, going into 2019.

On the doubles front, the giant strides made by the youthful pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (18) and Chirag Shetty (21) deserve special mention. The clever placements of Shetty, combined with the raw power of Rankireddy, have made the two the pre-eminent doubles combination in India; and they have even achieved the distinction of being the first Indian men's doubles to make the semi-final of a prestigious World Tour Super 500 event.

Next year could well be a watershed year for them, and provide vindication of the methods employed by Malaysian doubles coach, Tan Kim Her, to pull Indian doubles up by the scruff of the neck, and bring it up to international standards.

Also See: BWF World Tour Finals: World champion Kento Momoto storms into semi-finals with clinical victory against Tommy Sugiarto

BWF World Tour Finals: Sameer Verma joins PV Sindhu in playoff semi-finals with straight games win over Kantaphon Wangcharoen

BWF World Tour Finals: PV Sindhu turns the tables on redoubtable adversary to down Tai Tzu Ying, ensures qualification for semis

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