CHENNAI : During the India Open in March, Kidambi Srikanth lost his cool for a second in the mixed zone. Despite winning, he was asked why Indian badminton and he himself were nowhere close to the force they were in 2017. One couldn’t have blamed him. He had just won an intense match. “Don’t make me go back to 2017. I am thinking of 2020,” he had said.
Well, 2020 is five months away. Since that India Open where he lost in the final, Srikanth has played the Malaysia Open, Singapore Open, Indonesia Open and Japan Open. Two quarterfinals, Round of 16 and 32 were his returns from those.
It is not just Srikanth, whose form has noticeably fallen. Apart from Saina Nehwal’s Indonesia Masters title in January, no Indian - in singles and doubles - has won a world-level title this year. Despite the fall from grace, doubles player N Sikki Reddy was quick to point out that even semifinal and quarterfinal appearances are fetching them points, that will help them seal an Olympic berth.
“The competition is tough. If we want, we can take part in small tournaments and win. But that won’t fetch points,” she said. But that’s where 2017 and the time before that come into play. The standard set by some of these players were high. From Olympic medals in 2012 & 2016, are they ready to settle for qualifying spots? HS Prannoy admits that his form has not been great lately. He also explains the psychological effects it has on players. Expectations skyrocketed from the glory days and the need to perform every time they step on the court is taking its toll mentally.
“When we had the winning streak, it was all jolly. Now, we are scared when we play. There is a mental block and we question ourselves,” he told this daily. But he does not want to give excuses. Apart from the issues players face, Prannoy strongly suggests there is a need for change in the structure of the sport. “Gopichand (Pullela) sir is very busy and we are all top-level athletes. We have been following the system for a few years. We have been successful. But we need to move on. Our opponents have. There is a need to upgrade.
Look at Japanese players. They are at their peak at 21 and 23. Here, I am struggling at 27.” B Sai Praneeth, who lost to Kento Momota in the semifinals of the recently concluded Japan Open, has an interesting take on this. “It is not possible to think about what the public thinks. They evaluate based on results. But as a player, I know what I have achieved by reaching the semifinal or quarters. It is not enough. But it doesn’t mean that we are not playing well,” the World No 23 said. India is a medal-happy nation.
Hima Das’s five gold medals on the trot in small meets being celebrated is a glowing example of that mentality. While Sikki also felt the same way, she was quick to point out that lack of depth is a worrying sign. “We are not a team that we were. We don’t have a second string too. In singles and doubles, apart from a few of us, there are not many who can even play at this level.”
With less than a year to go for the quadrennial event, it is safe to say that Indian badminton players are not exactly having the time of their lives. They all have admitted it at some point. And they are running out of time to prove that they can once again be world beaters.