Why India urgently needs an influx of Women's Singles players
We are nearing the end of the 2016 Premier Badminton League. The fortnight-long tournament has seen some of the most well-known players grace Indian courts over the length and breadth of the country, providing great entertainment for the large crowds that have filled the stadia.
One of the major reasons why the League has seen such a good response has been its format. 15 points with a break at 8 has made sure it is a shorter, faster game and the introduction of the Trump Match has ensured that no match is finished until the last contest of the night has been played.
From an Indian perspective, the star performer was undoubtedly PV Sindhu. The 20-year-old was exceptional for the Chennai Smashers right throughout the Group stages as well in the semifinals and didn't lose a single match in the competition.
Saina Nehwal was the marquee player for the Awadhe Warriors but unlike Sindhu, didn't play in all the Women’s Singles ties for her side. However, whenever she did play, it seemed as though the 25-year-old was still in the process of attaining 100% full fitness and hence maybe opted to not play all her matches.
But barring these two, what else did the League offer in terms of good performance from the Women’s Singles? The answer: Very Little.
The Delhi Acers had in PC Thulasi, a player ranked 96 in the world. However, even the most ardent of Acers supporter will admit that if there was one loose end in their line-up it was this. The 24-year-old lost all her encounters against Saina and Sindhu, that included a straight games semifinal defeat to the latter.
The Acers also tried out Shikha Gautam in one of the matches and that didn't turn out well for them as she too lost in straight games 15-5 15-6 to Suo Di of the Bengaluru Top Guns.
Ahead of the final, Madhumita Bisht, the coach of the Acers and herself a top Singles player during her time will have a tough task trying to iron out the flaws in Thulasi for there could be a case where the title could be decided on the result of her match.
A look at the other teams and it's a similar story. the Mumbai Rockers, who were brilliant in the semifinal on Friday, found mixed results coming their way when they played Ruthvika Gadde in the Women’s Singles tie.
Gadde beat Vrushali Gummadi in her first match before losing to Thulasi in three games on the last day of the Group stages.
Gummadi played two matches for the Warriors and ended up on the losing side on both occasions.
Where are the back-ups?
Few would argue when told that Saina continues to remain India’s best bet at almost every major tournament. The expectations on her are massive and it must be said that she has handled the pressure from her supporters very well and performed exceedingly well.
But while 2015 was a very positive year for Saina and Indian badminton, in general, one also saw the shuttler skip a few events owing to injuries and with Sindhu showing patchy form for a large part of the year, there was no one to back both of them in the category.
When Aparna Popat retired in 2006, India had in Saina a 16-year-old prodigy who many felt could be a force to reckon with in the coming years if given time and correct coaching. 10 years on, she is ranked Number 2 in the world and entered territories that one couldn’t have imagined Indians breaching at the time.
In an interview with Sportskeeda last year, Saina had spoken highly of China’s ability to churn out players of quality regularly adding that they keep the opponents on their toes always.
“I worry about China every year! They have multiple players of a very high calibre, and they are constantly playing each other. They are extremely skilled because of this, and they keep players on their toes."
There is little doubting the fact that courtesy the exploits of Saina, Sindhu, badminton has risen the charts to become the second most popular sport in the country. However, if a nation has to sustain its position and keep its positive image, then they have to continue to progress upwards. They have to continue raising the bar. Provide opportunities to perform. Conduct tournaments. Develop a competitive spirit. Push players to the limit.
Also required are academies not in one or two cities but perhaps in every metro with coaches who focus on work on getting the basics right and ensure that players don't train on one aspect for hours-and-hours and rather focus on all round training.
The 2016 Rio Olympics are about 8 months away and if India are to provide a much bigger challenge for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, the preparations must start now.