Guangzhou in China has deep, if uncomfortable, ties with India. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was through this city (and the province then known as Canton) that opium was funnelled into China by the British from Bombay. The East India Company sent the opium to its warehouses in the free trade region of Canton, from where Chinese smugglers would take it to mainland China.The trade created nearly 12 million addicts and resulted in two Opium Wars in the 19th century.
The fumes of opium are long gone, but the heady feeling was back last December in Guangzhou, and once again, India was involved. This time, the person responsible, had travelled not from Bombay, but from the landlocked Deccan city of Hyderabad.
Leading up to that day last December, P. V. Sindhu had done almost everything right in her career. She had burst on to the leaderboard of world badminton and became one of the best recognised faces in the sport. She landed sponsorship contracts most male cricket superstars in the country could only dream of. For all her achievements, though, she could not shake off the tag of a “choker”. She had medals from the Rio Olympics, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, two World Championships, BWF Super Series Finals (in 2017) but they were all silver and her mental fortitude had been questioned every time. Seven Super Series losses in the finals had only fortified fans’ belief in her fallibility.
Sixty-two minutes in Guangzhou changed all that. When she held aloft the prestigious season-ending BWF World Tour trophy, tears of joy and relief in equal measure streaming down her face, after a 21-19, 21-17 win over Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, it was headiness the likes of which no artificial stimulant could ever duplicate.
An Indian woman was at the top of the sport of badminton. It was the culmination of a journey that began decades before, and Guangzhou represented a moment that went far beyond sporting achievement. It signaled the coming of age of a new India.
t was at the age of seven that I fell in love with Badminton. What was not to like? Every winter evening in Kolkata my sister and I would walk to my father’s friend’s house on Dover Lane, a street and a few buildings away. He and his wife, renowned doctors, spent the summer in London. In winter, they devoted their time and energies to treating patients back home, including free camps in villages. More importantly for me, their lawns were converted for the winter into badminton courts with floodlights.
Their school and college friends would drop in to play around 6.30 p.m. And for two hours before the adults arrived, as early winter darkness fell upon us, the lights came on, boxes of used shuttles from the previous evening’s adult matches were handed out, and our very own kids’ tournament began.
When we were done and the adults took over, we would hang around and watch them play. It was around those courts in the mid-1970s that I would first hear the oft repeated name—Prakash Padukone.
When the adults at our Dover Lane courts spoke about Prakash, the discussion was not only around the fact that he had won several national titles. It was the fact that Prakash was far ahead of any other Indian badminton player at this stage of his career.
This was 1977. Prakash was 22 and had just won the national championships for the 7th straight time. He won his first junior and senior title at 17 at the same national championship in 1972, making a mockery of the age divide. Seven years later, there was still no one to challenge his dominance. He was a sporting phenomenon like no other.
Prakash came from a family that had deep connections with the sport. With father Ramesh being the secretary of the Mysore Badminton Association, it was natural that the son would take to the sport at a young age.
When the adults at our Dover Lane courts spoke about Prakash, the discussion was not only around the fact that he had won several national titles. That was not a first. Nandu Natekar had won it thrice in the 1960s, and Meena Shah, like Prakash, won the women’s event seven times in a row (more on her later). It was the fact that Prakash was clearly at an early age, far ahead of any other Indian badminton player at this stage of his career. With his speed and strength, he looked like he could compete at a global level, which no Indian badminton player had ever done.
India had long been a force to reckon with in team sports like hockey, and had done reasonably well in football and cricket over the years. Individual sporting achievements at a global level had, however, been hard to come by. Ramanathan Krishnan reached the semi-finals of Wimbledon, and Milkha Singh flattered to deceive at the tape at the Olympics. Thirty years after independence, surely a country of a billion people could hope for more?
That little group of old friends in Dover Lane, Calcutta, was convinced that the man who would change that was Prakash Padukone.
This was also the time I first heard the tongue twister of a name (at least for a 10-year old) Liem Swie King whenever the topic of Prakash came up. In a country called Indonesia that my father had just visited on work, this man was a legend and ruled the world of badminton that had traditionally been a Caucasian-dominated sport. The link the Dover Lane group made was obvious—if one Asian could do it, why not another? Why not an Indian? Why not Prakash?
Years later, Kapil Dev would tell me, “Yes, that moment on the Lord’s balcony was significant, but what made the difference was television coverage. If live coverage had existed of Prakash Padukone’s All England win in 1980, the future of badminton in India may have been different.”
Their call would turn out to be a brilliant one, although it would take three years to fully play out. In the meantime, Prakash would win two more national championships to take his tally to an incredible nine in a row.
In 1978 Prakash won the Gold Medal at the Edmonton Commonwealth Games. In 1979 he sent alarm bells ringing at the home of European badminton by winning the Denmark Open. If there was one nation that still kept the Caucasian flag flying, it was Denmark. The name of Morten Frost Hansen was another that had grabbed my attention. Prakash had gone to Frost’s home and taken away the prize. For good measure, he picked up the “Evening of Champions” title at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Prakash Padukone was now 25, and ready to scale his Everest.
ineteen eighty was a tumultuous year in India: India Gandhi made a spectacular comeback after her defeat in 1977. Her heir apparent and younger son Sanjay Gandhi was killed when the Pitts aircraft he was piloting crashed not far from his home. Policemen in Bihar’s Bhagalpur blinded alleged criminals by pouring acid into their eyes in a gruesome perversion of justice.
Bhagalpur was no stranger to violence. There were 89 officially recorded murders in the 10-month period preceding this act—an average of one every three days. “Daylight holdups, Chicago style, and caste wars [in Bhagalpur] are as commonplace as the dust and the flies,” a report of the time stated. So there was public support for the blindings. Indeed, the local populace, irrespective of caste or creed, took to the streets in support of the police.
Sport provided the positive notes in a difficult year for the country.
The hockey team won gold at the Moscow Olympics reigniting memories of a time when India ruled the sward. Sixteen years of decline was forgotten and V. Bhaskaran’s team was warmly embraced when they returned. But it was Prakash Padukone who made 1980 a year that the nation would look back upon with pride.
Against all odds, or predictably, depending on how you looked at it, he marched into the finals of the All England Championships, where he faced Liem Swie King. It was a clash of Asian titans—India and Indonesia, two countries with links stretching back thousands of years, fighting for the biggest prize in world badminton. This time, India would not be denied. A 15-3 runaway first set victory to Prakash saw a stunned opponent shaking his head, and an hour and more later, the world stood up to applaud the first Indian to be crowned (unofficial) world champion in an individual sport.
Modi had been heading home after a practice session the previous night when he was shot dead from point blank range on a street outside the K. D. Singh Babu Stadium in Lucknow. Reports from the scene said at least six men had been seen fleeing in a red car.
Years later, Kapil Dev, who led the Indian team to World Cup glory in cricket, would tell me something insightful. “Yes, that moment on the Lord’s balcony was significant for Indian sport, but what made the difference was television coverage and the fact that people could see it. If live coverage had existed of Prakash Padukone’s All England win in 1980, the future of badminton in India may also have been different.”
s the Dover Lane court side reverberated with joy at the success, invisible to all but the most discerning, the baton of Indian badminton was already being passed on. After Prakash’s victory, journalist Shirish Nadkarni, wrote: “The victory was all the more creditable as Padukone has no opposition worth the name in India.” He would soon find out how wrong he was.
Months after the All England victory, Prakash Padukone, poster boy of world badminton, found the trophy that had adorned his mantelpiece for nine years snatched away by an 18-year old from a nondescript town in Uttar Pradesh. The name of his conqueror was Syed Modi.
A match report would say: “For Modi, it was the cathartic culmination of a three-year wait to have a crack at the country’s nine-time national champion. And, as a forlorn Padukone walked off the court after his 10-15, 9-15 defeat, like many others, he must have wondered why it had to happen. Champions, especially All-England title holders, are expected to deliver. Prakash, constantly aware of his stature became tense and eventually wilted under pressure. For Modi being an underdog was a definite advantage. Nobody expected anything out of him and so the Gorakhpur-based railway officer played his natural best—“a fast and aggressive game with bounce and bravado that forced the superstar into errors.”
All of India sat up and noticed. The question they had was, who is Syed Modi?
Syed Mahadi Hassan Zaidi was born in Sardarnagar, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, where his father worked in a sugar mill. The youngest of eight siblings, he had his name mistakenly changed to Modi by the clerk at the local school. No one protested so the name stuck. Syed Mahadi became Syed Modi.
Young Modi was affable and good looking, and being the youngest he would in any case have been spoilt by the older siblings. The fact that he turned out to be a rare talent on the badminton court made him a favourite at school and in the family. When in 1976 he won the junior nationals at 14 and his name was announced on the radio, a doting Mother got the three eldest sons to promise they would support him financially to enable him to reach his potential on the court.
Later that year Modi moved under the wing of Pushp Kumar Bhandari, chief coach at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala. Under Bhandari, Modi would make giant strides. The year before Prakash won the All England, Modi was being noticed as the second player from India in tournaments abroad. When he beat Prakash in the 1980 championships (the first time Modi was allowed to play in the seniors at 18), the talent was truly beginning to shine. But even before that victory, Modi’s game and confidence had been growing.
A Modi interview in the New Straits Times from May 1980, just after Prakash’s All England triumph is revealing. Talking about the man who had been his idol for many years Modi would say: “Prakash is good. I have never beaten him in competition or practice, although I have come close—give me time.”
It didn’t take long. A few months later, Modi would hand Prakash his first defeat and win a title he would not relinquish for the next eight years.
n the meantime, Prakash moved his training base to Denmark after the All England triumph in order to stay at the top and compete with the best. Modi was also upping his game. In 1982, he changed coaches, going to Dipu Ghosh, former multiple national singles champion and coach of the Indian men’s team.
In the same New Straits Times interview two years earlier, Dipu Ghosh had remarked: “What Modi needs is a little more power in his game...and he is working on that.”
Before the year was out, Modi looked a different player, with fast developing muscles in his lower body to give him the strength, and a leaping baseline smash both from overhead and forehand. By early 1982, he had added an incredibly fast high backhand smash, a difficult-to-execute shot largely absent from the armoury of most of his opponents. The results showed immediately.
In 1982, Modi won gold at the Commonwealth Games and for good measure picked up the Asian Games Gold in New Delhi as well. A besotted nation celebrated a good-looking boy from a remote town with no pedigree in the sport, making it big on the international stage. It was the story movies were made of.
Yes, there had been Prakash Padukone. But Prakash’s story was less captivating to the common man. He had a background in the sport and strong financial support. Modi, on the other hand, was living the common man’s dream.
After a few years away from the courts at Dover Lane in Kolkata, and now studying in Cochin, like millions of boys my age around the country, I was playing badminton. It was Modi fever of the non-political kind.
As luck would have it, the National Championships that year were held in Cochin and my father managed to get us court side seats through an obliging friend. Every evening, I was glued to my seat for the matches, and when possible (thanks to the obliging Uncle) for the practice sessions before the start of the evening’s play.
And then one evening, it happened. Modi finished a training session and walked up to me and said: “I see you here every day. Do you want to come on the court for a while and knock around a few?”
Shyness had never been my failing, and I was on the court in a jiffy. The answer to his next question, “What do you like most about my game?” was an easy one. “Could you teach me the backhand smash?” was my answer. And so he did. For the next ten or so minutes, fulfilling the dream of a boy he had observed watching him every session, Modi taught me the shot, making me practice it until he was happy that I had the hang of the technique.
It was a lesson I would never forget. Years later, back again in Kolkata, when I stepped on to the courts at Presidency College and played more often than I had in years, no one had the measure of my backhand smash.
odi was the junior national champion in 1978 on an overseas trip to Beijing when he first came across the dark and petite Ameeta Kulkarni. Ameeta, a Bombay girl, in the women’s team, and, as the Supreme Court would later record, “there arose intimacy between the two”.
Neither family was particularly sold on the idea of the North Indian Muslim boy marrying the upper-class Marathi girl, but they eventually gave way. Ameeta and Syed were married six years later. Modi continued to rack up titles, winning his eighth consecutive national trophy in 1987 while Ameeta took a break to plan their family. The following year, however, his game seemed to lose its sting amid rumours of personal problems, and for the first time in nine years, Modi lost his hold on the national championship.
Then on the 29th of July 1988, just as I graduated from college, I woke up to the shocking news of Modi’s death. He had been heading home after a practice session the previous night when he was shot dead from point blank range on a street outside the K. D. Singh Babu Stadium in Lucknow. Reports from the scene said at least six men had been seen fleeing in a red car.
Ameeta had delivered their first child just two months earlier.
Then in a sensational turn of events, police circulated stories about “a love triangle,’’ and Ameeta began facing intense interrogation. The CBI searched the Lucknow home of a wealthy, aristocratic and flamboyant politician, Sanjay Singh, close friend of the Modis and a descendent of the royal family of Amethi. In fact, Ameeta and Syed had got married at Singh’s home in Uttar Pradesh. A senior CBI official was quoted in Indian newspapers as saying, “We have evidence that would prove beyond doubt that the murder was masterminded by Mr. Sanjay Singh.’’
Sanjay Singh was no ordinary politician. He had been a close friend of Sanjay Gandhi and was a much feared man in Uttar Pradesh. Locals told a reporter that men kept their eyes down in front of him, as they were afraid to meet his eyes. After Indira’s Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, her son Rajiv had been swept to power with an unprecedented majority. The new prime minister was not a fan of his brother’s friends. Sanjay Singh was one of them. While he had proven invaluable in Amethi in Rajiv’s early years in power, he had later moved to the camp of opposition leader V. P. Singh. Relations with the prime minister had been somewhat strained.
Singh’s response to the CBI statements was not unexpected. “This is purely a political game started by the prime minister,” was his first statement. This was followed by an even more bizarre: “I think Syed Modi was murdered just to fix me.”
The reason behind Syed Modi’s murder has never been explained. The accused, Bhagwati Singh, was sentenced to life imprisonment 21 years after one of India’s most talented badminton players was shot dead.
The CBI arrested Ameeta. Newspapers reported that investigators had established that Sanjay and Ameeta had long been in an affair. The conclusion being sought to be established was that Syed Modi had been killed on Sanjay’s instructions through another politician and henchman, Akhilesh Singh, so that Ameeta and he could be together.
In the end, the CBI investigation would go nowhere and the initial bluster would turn out to be just that. While the CBI was accused of pursuing a political agenda, Sanjay Singh and Ameeta were discharged in 1990 by a trial court, a year after the investigative agency filed the charge sheet.
The reason behind Syed Modi’s apparently senseless murder has never been explained. The prime accused, Bhagwati Singh, was sentenced to life imprisonment 21-years after one of India’s most talented badminton players was shot dead. Two eye witnesses died while the investigation was still on. Akhilesh Singh was freed for lack of evidence as were all other accused.
Curly hair swaying and sari fluttering in the air as she rides down Hazratganj in Lucknow on a bright green Vespa in the 1960s.
In 1993, Sanjay Singh married Ameeta Modi. In 1998 their marriage was deemed void as Sanjay had not legitimately divorced his first wife Garima Singh. Sanjay Singh and Ameeta continue to live together and are active in politics. Thirty years after the event the drama continues to play out with Ameeta and Garima contesting against each other in elections as recently as a year ago, both still claiming to be Sanjay Singh’s wife.
Modi lies in a nearby grave long overtaken by the weeds of political intrigue.
n talking about the two decades of dominance by Padukone and Modi of the Badminton scene in India, and their global achievements, it is easy to ignore the women shuttlers who dominated the game at the national level.
Twelve years before Prakash Padukone won the first of his national championships, Meena Shah became the women’s national champion. The year was 1959. For seven years she would remain unchallenged at the top rung of the women’s game.
Hers is a story well worth telling.
“Curly hair swaying and sari fluttering in the air as she rides down Hazratganj in Lucknow on a bright green Vespa in the 1960s”, is how her neighbours remember her. She was then the undisputed queen of Indian badminton. Her school friends remember her for the magical flick of wrists with which she would send them cantering to the different ends of the court to return the shuttle while she stood laughing. Her lifelong companion Mauveen Shaw, who cared for her until Meena passed on in 2015 at the age of 78, adores her for her undying love of stray animals.
There were many Meena Shahs that people who knew her remember, but the Meena Shah who rode the crest of Indian badminton for close to a decade, has been largely forgotten. And that is a travesty. For it is that Meena Shah the modern divas of women’s badminton should be grateful to.
A Times of India piece said it well when she passed on: “At a time women could not move out of the four walls of the house, Meena flicked her wrists effortlessly with a badminton racket in hand. Unmarried, the Muslim woman taught the game to three generations of her friends and their families.”
The one man whose name began to be taken in the same breath as a Padukone and Modi was the immensely talented Pullela Gopichand.
She did more than that. She inspired a generation of women badminton players. Bursting into the national scene as India was limping back to normalcy after independence and the partition, Meena Shah captured the imagination of an entire generation, and inspired the next.
In the 1970s and 80s Ami Ghia emulated Shah by winning seven titles, but they were in three separate instances. It was, however, Madhumita Goswami who would go one up on Meena Shah by bagging seven successive national titles between 1984 and 1990 to add to the title she won in 1981. For good measure she also added nine doubles titles and 12 mixed doubles titles to her trophy cupboard. She then called it a day. The year before her phenomenal seven-title singles run began, she had married Vikram Singh, a multiple national championship winning doubles player.
Two and a half decades after she laid down the racquet, Madhumita would again be seen on a badminton court as coach of the national women’s team, quietly helping Saina Nehwal and P. V. Sindhu. But all that was in the future, for Indian badminton’s story in the international arena through the 1980s, 90s and Noughties, was about its male players. The one man whose name began to be taken in the same breath as a Padukone and Modi was the immensely talented Pullela Gopichand.
n a rare instance for Indian sports, cricket lost out to badminton when young Pullela Gopichand, equally adept at both sports, chose the latter for his career. Spotting his potential, Gopichand was taken in by the Prakash Padukone Academy, and the young shuttler would soon show his mettle. He won his first national title in 1996 at 22 and would go on to lift the next four.
In 2008, Gopichand took out a reverse mortgage on his home, and launched the Gopichand Badminton Academy. Industrialist Nimmagadda Prasad donated ₹5 crore on condition that it produce at least one Olympic medallist for India in the future.
While Gopichand often flattered to deceive in an international career that did not seem to match his potential, in 2001, he laid to rest all doubts. Twenty-one years after Prakash won the All England, Gopichand brought back the trophy to India. In doing so, he defeated World No. 1, Peter Gade of Denmark in the semis and then China’s Chen Hong in the finals.
Sadly, by the time he retired from the sport six years later, Gopichand had not added any other significant silverware to his cupboard.
In 2008, Gopichand would take a step that was to transform Indian badminton. He took out a reverse mortgage on his home, and launched the Gopichand Badminton Academy. In what must then have seemed a leap of faith, an industrialist, Nimmagadda Prasad, donated ₹5 crore to the academy on condition that it produce at least one Olympic medallist for India in the future.
The groundwork had been laid for history to be made.
he first signs of a shift in momentum for Indian badminton in the international arena would come not from its male players, but from its women. While Meena Shah and Madhumita Goswami Bisht had dominated the domestic scene like no women before (or indeed since), their laurels had largely been confined to India’s borders.
Three years before Gopichand won his first national title, the women’s trophy had seen the name of slightly built 5’4” tall Aparna Popat etched on it. That name would continue to appear on the trophy an incredible nine times in succession, matching the achievement of Prakash Padukone, at whose Academy she had raised her game after joining it in 1994.
Popat won every championship until she was 27, lifting the last trophy in 2005, sweeping away the challenge of a 15-year old sensation and rising star. In 2007, a wrist injury forced Popat to retire from the sport, undefeated through her career in the national championships. For good measure, she added four medals in three Commonwealth Games.
In 2005, after defeating her 15-year old opponent to win what would turn out to be her last national championships, Popat said about the young player: “She has a good future and I wish her all the luck.”
Neither Popat nor the rest of the country knew at the time, but the intense teenager would come to represent the new India in the world stage—fearless, ambitious and determined to reach the very top of her profession. Her name was Saina Nehwal.
hile Popat had ruled the roost at the domestic level, international badminton, particularly in the women’s game, had become the exclusive playground of the Chinese.
By 2010 they had taken a firm grip on most major events. That year, Chinese players won eight Superseries, excluding the season-ending World Superseries Finals. A year later they hit peak form while winning 11 of the 12 Superseries. They continued their domination, winning another seven in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, they captured the crown at nine events.
This shuttler has the attitude and the stamina to make it. If Sindhu continues to show the same commitment, the day will not be far when she can be in the media glare for all good things in badminton.
But through these years of domination, the assembly line of Chinese women was challenged by a lone ranger from India.
Saina, the precocious teenager was winning international matches more often than any Indian woman before her, before she was past her teens. In 2009, aged 19, Saina cracked the top 3, reaching No. 2 in the world rankings, and won the women’s singles gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2010, a feat she would repeat eight years later.
In 2012, at London, Saina won the Olympic Bronze, becoming the first Indian shuttler to earn an Olympics medal. In the process, she helped her coach Pullela Gopichand fulfil the condition laid down by the investor in his Academy many years before.
Three years later, in 2015, Saina brushed aside Chinese dominance to emerge as No.1 in the world, becoming the first Indian woman shuttler and second Indian after Prakash to climb the Everest of badminton.
Saina is the only Indian to have won at least one medal in every BWF major individual event. This includes the Olympics, the BWF World Championships, and the BWF World Junior Championships. Saina Nehwal at the time of writing this, has won over 24 international titles, which include eleven Superseries.
Just as India was basking in the sunshine of good fortune at having a Saina Nehwal carrying the national flag, a second sun appeared on the horizon.
Court sides across the world had at the start of the second decade of the century got used to the sight of the tri-colour fluttering and raucous Indian supporters turning up in large numbers to cheer Saina. Now the numbers multiplied and stadiums across the world filled up faster than they ever had before as crowds divided their loyalties between Saina Nehwal, and the new kid on the block—P. V. Sindhu.
Twenty-three-year-old Pusarla Venkata Sindhu from Hyderabad, almost six feet tall and gaining in stature every day she walks on to the court, took the country by storm when she burst into the Top 20 of the BWF World Rankings at the age of 17. Since then, every year has presented an occasion to celebrate for her countrymen.
That Indian badminton has Sindhu as the new poster girl is entirely fortuitous. Her parents were national level volleyball players, but young Sindhu had a childhood idol far removed from the volleyball court. His name was Pullela Gopichand, and being a part of his Academy was her dream.
Early in Sindhu’s career, before she had stepped into the international arena, a correspondent of The Hindu wrote about the 14-year old: “The fact that she reports on time at coaching camps daily, travelling 56 km from her residence, is perhaps a reflection of her willingness to complete her desire to be a good badminton player with the required hard work and commitment.”
His next comments were prescient: “This shuttler has the attitude and the stamina to make it. If the early promise is any indication and if only Sindhu continues to show the same commitment and sets big goals, the day will not be far when she can be in the media glare for all good things in badminton.”
Two years later, she broke into the Top 20. A year after that, she won her first Grand Prix title at the Malaysian Open. She followed that up with a bronze medal at the BWF World Championships, becoming the first Indian woman to do so. After a second Grand Prix victory of the year, this time at Macau, she received the Arjuna Award, following in the footsteps of her father, P. V. Ramana, who earned the award for his contributions to volleyball.
If Sindhu thought she would be the toast of the country for winning the silver at the Olympics, she was right. If she thought love would last forever, she had not accounted for the fickleness of the media and fans, driven by soaring expectations her quick success had generated.
In 2016, when Sindhu walked on to the court at Rio, she was less than two hours away from becoming India’s first Olympic gold medallist in badminton. The Hindustan Times report the next morning said it all: “Guttural screams from both sides of the net were the norm in this high-intensity slug fest. It wasn’t pretty, it was a street fight.” Eighty-six minutes later, she was being consoled by Gopichand and Madhumita Bisht after a lost gladiatorial battle with the vastly experienced Carolina Marin.
A smiling Sindhu was soon atop the podium holding up her silver medal, pressed between her teeth. The smile was even wider and the pride writ large on her face when she took a lap around the court draped in the tri-colour. The significance of the moment had just sunk in, and Gopichand’s investor had an unexpected second Olympic medal coming through from a graduate of the Academy, this time silver.
f Sindhu thought she would be the toast of the country for winning the silver at the Olympics, she was right. If she thought love would last forever, she had not accounted for the fickleness of the media and fans, driven by soaring expectations her quick success had generated.
The following year she reached the World Badminton Championship final for the first time after making the semis in 2013 and 2014. Sindhu was a different player this time and would face Nozomi Okuhara of Japan, a player ranked below her. For an hour and fifty minutes, all of India was glued to their TV sets, watching the second longest match in the history of women’s singles, waiting to witness history being made. Their wish would be fulfilled, but not quite in the way they had imagined. Okuhura was the one who would win this battle of the ages and claim Japan’s first gold in 40 years.
Hindustan Times ran the blazing headline—“Why choker P. V. Sindhu is still not pure gold standard.” The fans on social media echoed the sentiments. In 2018, she lost her second successive finals at the World Championships. Instead of celebrating her consistency at the top, the bandying around of the “choker” tag, intensified.
Would Sindhu’s mental strength allow her to rise above such misplaced criticism?
The answer was not long in coming. In December 2018, Sindhu reached the finals of the year ending BWF World Tour Finals at Guangzhou.
Perhaps the greatest change came from the introduction of the “Rally Point” scoring system. This was revolutionary in that by granting a point, and the next service, to whoever won a rally, made the game very fast.
This time Sindhu would not be denied. She ran away with a comprehensive 21-19, 21-17 victory. India had a world champion. The naysayers had been silenced.
“I am the winner. No one can say I don’t win in finals, I have won the gold and this win is really special to me,” Sindhu would say after the match.
hile we marvel at the achievements of Saina and Sindhu, it is perhaps worthwhile spending a few moments considering how the sport of badminton has changed in the ensuing decades, for that is linked inextricably with the story of their success.
Padukone and Modi had played the sport with racquets that used natural gut and were strung with far less tension. Their game consisted of wearing down the opponent with their solid defence, superior fitness, eastern deception, and delectable drop shots from loosely strung racquets. The smash, when it was used, was deadly in intent and execution.
All that changed from the mid 1980s when multifilament string replaced natural gut, and racquets, like in tennis, switched to graphite, lighter, more powerful and strung tighter, enabling the shuttle to be hit with much greater force. Over the next decade, the biggest breakthrough came in the form of nanotechnology which make use of carbon, titanium and a host of other materials that are present in the shaft and grip of the racket. The speciality of these materials is that they add firmness, stability and power without increasing the weight. This resulted in the sport becoming more fast paced.
But perhaps the greatest change to the sport came from the introduction of the “Rally Point” scoring system. This was revolutionary in that by granting a point, and the next service, to whoever won a rally, made the game very fast.
A report from Badminton Australia describes the impact of the changes: “With players knowing that they will not have to play for much longer than one hour at the absolute maximum they do not require the same endurance as before. In fact with most singles matches not lasting more than 30 mins, singles players are now trying to play far more aggressively, hitting the shuttle much harder, moving as quickly as possible and attacking their opponent’s body far more often. They have moved their base position further forward in court looking for the opportunity to attack the net as soon as they can. Women’s singles is going the same way as men’s singles. It is becoming far more aggressive and speed orientated. We are now seeing female players who have jump smashes and incredible speed and agility around the court, enabling them to play attacking short serves regularly.”
The report could well have been describing the Indian duo of Nehwal and Sindhu.
n the history of sport, there has always been a pivotal moment that changed the future of a nation, a moment that made the nation believe they could achieve what thus far was an unimagined prize. And then there has been that second moment, when the trajectory changed forever and the impossible became the expected.
For Indian cricket, Kapil Dev holding up the Prudential World Cup on the Lord’s balcony was that moment. But it was V.V.S. Laxman’s 281 at Eden Gardens in 2001 and the unlikely victory that followed, that forever changed the trajectory of the sport in India, putting the country firmly on its course towards world domination.
Sindhu is at the top of her game, and has just signed one of the biggest sponsorship deals in world badminton.She will earn close to a staggering ₹50 crore, over the next four years.
For Indian badminton, Prakash Padukone’s triumph over Hansen at the All England Championships in 1980 was that pivotal moment. India’s ascent would perhaps have been faster if television coverage of the kind that just three years later brought the Lord’s balcony into every home with a television set, had captured Prakash lifting the trophy in the very same city.
The trajectory changing point for badminton came almost unobtrusively, not the day Gopichand repeated Prakash’s feat at the All England in 2001, but on the day, seven years later, that his Badminton Academy opened in Hyderabad. It paved the way for Saina and then Sindhu, to emerge as world beaters, challenging and imperious Chinese dominance of the sport.
Sindhu is at the top of her game, and has just signed one of the biggest sponsorship deals in world badminton.She will earn close to a staggering ₹50 crore, over the next four years. Saina continues to win tournaments around the world as if rejuvenated by Sindhu’s challenge to her standing, and their rivalry has become one of the most refreshing features of the heights to which Indian badminton has risen from its humble beginnings.
The story of Indian badminton that started 47 years ago when 17-year old Prakash Padukone won the first of his nine national championships is coming into its home stretch.
The journey has been long, but fulfilling. Somewhere along the way, it has almost ceased to be about badminton, and instead, for the first time in any sport, it has metamorphosed into a celebration of the emergence of Indian women at the pinnacle of global sport. It is the new India.
Meena Shah is smiling up above as she breezes past on her celestial two-wheeler.