Mixed doubles had no system until Tan Kim Her came, says Sikki Reddy in exclusive interview
It’s not just singles in which Indian badminton is shining at the moment. Doubles has made rapid strides in the past few months with a Grand Prix Gold mixed doubles title at the Syed Modi International being the biggest accomplishment in 2017.
Malaysian doubles coach Tan Kim Her, who took over the reins in December 2015, has undoubtedly been the man who has breathed new life into Indian doubles. The strategies, the training sessions, everything has been revolutionised which has resulted in the players believing more in themselves and delivering on the court more frequently than before.
One such Indian doubles exponent, who has self-admittedly benefited from the arrival of Tan, is Nelakurthi Sikki Reddy. Currently ranked 20th alongside Pranaav Jerry Chopra in mixed doubles and 25th in tandem with Ashwini Ponnappa in women’s doubles, the Gopichand Academy protege is a part of the No. 1 teams in both the categories.
Sikki, who won the Syed Modi mixed doubles title with Chopra, acknowledged how profound Tan’s presence has been in refurbishing India’s doubles in Sportskeeda’s exclusive chat with the India No. 1.
“Tan got a lot of change for mixed doubles. In men’s doubles, the programme remains almost the same. In women’s doubles also, there have been lots of changes especially in the training programmes and sessions like how to play long rallies without making any mistake.”
The Malaysian has not just lent his expertise to the senior players. Sikki revealed how he has his focus firmly fixed in shaping up Indian doubles’ future as well.
“After Tan came, everyone has an idea about mixed doubles. Nandagopal is now focussing only on mixed doubles. Even from the juniors, he picked a few boys and has been making them focus on mixed doubles. You can see Rohan Kapoor playing only mixed. Hopefully all this should work out.
"You can see so many teams have qualified at the World Championships…it’s the biggest contingent this time.”
Tan built a system in mixed doubles
Ever since joining forces at the beginning of 2016, Chopra and Reddy have flourished in mixed doubles. The two brought home Grand Prix titles from Brazil and Russia last year before getting the jewel in their crown this year; the Syed Modi International at home in Lucknow.
Having known each other for over a decade, their great rapport has definitely been instrumental in binding them together. Besides that, Tan’s magic has brought out the very best in them and it was he who advised Pranaav to devote himself solely to the mixed doubles section, Sikki revealed.
“It’s been a year since we started playing. The understanding on the court has been really good. Now we have an idea about mixed doubles. Before Tan Kim Her, we did not have much idea. Earlier importance used to be given only to men’s and women’s doubles. And if men’s doubles and women’s doubles players were going for mixed doubles, we just used to randomly get an entry for the team.
"No player had been focussed only on mixed doubles. In that case, Pranaav is now only focussing on mixed doubles.”
Pranaav has recovered from his back injury
However, since their triumph at the Syed Modi International in January, they failed to replicate that run in any of the subsequent tournaments. Fitness issue was the big reason as Pranaav was dealing with a back injury which also kept him out of action for two months.
“After Syed Modi, we were playing only in the top tournaments. Unfortunately we lost to the World No. 1 pair at the All England Championships and it went very close. Again at the Asian Badminton Championships, we lost in three games to the top seeds. And after that, Jerry was injured and was out for two months. So, after Syed Modi, we hardly played for two months together and those were all the biggest tournaments.
"Now he has come back. So, from this tournament, we are aiming to do well.”
With Pranaav having recovered fully, there was a sense of optimism palpable in Sikki’s voice. They have been aiming and preparing to do well at the World Championships for quite some time. The 25-year-old Ludhiana-born shuttler even wanted to test himself in competitions to check how his back has been responding after the hiatus.
The two played at the Canada and the US Open mainly for that purpose.
“Pranaav has fully recovered now. That’s why he wanted to play in USA and Canada. Before the big event, he wanted to play some tournaments to know how he is feeling. Playing in practice and playing in tournaments are totally different because there are a lot of conditions and pressure affecting the body. So it’s good that he has recovered well now and has been working hard. We are looking forward to the tournament now,” the southpaw said ahead of their first round.
What followed was an intense one month of training under the watchful eyes of Tan. The Malaysian left no stone unturned in fine-tuning the doubles skills of the shuttlers ahead of the premier global event and even got them involved in practice sessions on Sundays.
“Preparations were great. There were quite tough sessions, we did not even have an off on Sundays. We were all training even on Sundays. So we prepared really well for the World Championships.”
Pranaav and Sikki have been the only Indian doubles team to receive a seeding of 15th at the World Championships this year. And their breezy 21-12, 21-19 first round victory over the Indo-Malaysian combine of Prajakta Sawant and Yogendran Khrishnan speaks volumes of their courage and conviction.
That shone through even when she spoke about the team’s chances before they began their World Championships campaign.
“It’s a decent draw. It’s just how you can adjust to the conditions of the tournament and how you perform on that day. How confident you are on court is what matters. You just have to believe in yourself that you can beat anybody on that day.
"We don’t have any pressure basically because all are top-ranked players at the World Championships. If we upset them, it’s good. We shall get more confident.”
Having Ponnappa as teammate has been a blessing
For the 24-year-old Sikki, having someone as experienced as Ashwini Ponnappa has been a blessing. The reverence for her partner, with whom she reached the final at the 2017 Syed Modi International, was evident.
The former World Championships bronze medallist has not only been her teammate but her guide and mentor as well. And their faith in each other has been the very reason why they have quickly ascended the ranking ladder in less than a year and are now perched at 25th.
“Ashwini is helping me a lot like in the rotations of the combination. She has played with Jwala and her role was different at that time. Now we are trying out different types of rotations like I can play at the back, she can play at the front.
"We are working on our combination according to the opponent. We now have 2-3 plans. We see our opponents’ matches and we decide what’s to be done accordingly.”
Sikki stepped into the shoes of the doubles ace Jwala Gutta when the highly successful pair of Gutta and Ponnappa split last November. Comparisons between the two teams are unavoidable but Sikki is unperturbed.
“There was no pressure when I started playing with Ashwini because everybody has their own style of game. If fans want to compare, it’s upto them. I don’t have any pressure because I know I have to give my best.
"I am doing really well in mixed doubles and women’s doubles. I think all the people support me and get upset if we don’t perform on some days.”
Doubles players do not get any rewards
Time and again, Gutta has been vocal about the fact that the doubles shuttlers are discriminated against. While the singles players continue to enjoy the lion’s share of attention and rewards, their doubles counterparts remain mostly in their shadows, no matter how much progress the players have made of late.
Sikki elaborated on it further although she pointed out that it is the prerogative of the corporate houses and non-profit organisations whom they want to lend their support to.
“Yes, we have felt but no complaining about that. I am now 20 in the world and my best with Jerry was 13. I don’t have any sponsorship. I am not supported by any foundation. But if we take the case of singles players, they are supported by OGQ, GoSports or some other foundation. There are personal sponsorships to take care of them.
"I'm not complaining because it depends on the corporate companies whom they want to give support to.”
The World No. 20 also talked at length about how cooperative the Badminton Association of India (BAI) has been without whose sincere efforts, doubles would not have improved by leaps and bounds like it has.
“The BAI is doing really well. They are sending so many players for the tournaments for the past couple of months like Meghana and Poorvisha or Arathi and Sanjana in the women’s doubles, and Satwik-Chirag, Shlok-Arjun in men’s doubles.
"They are getting good chances. It’s good, at least they are not paying from their own pockets. Jerry and I had to pay our own money when we won in Brazil and Russia in 2016. It’s getting better and better. So, hopefully, in the coming days, it’s going to get even better.
"When doubles players win any title, no one announces any cash reward unlike what happens in singles. When we won Syed Modi, we did not get any reward.
"That’s how it is. In India, focus has mainly been on singles. But now things are slowly improving. The association is doing a lot. After breaking into the top 30, we now don’t have to pay ourselves. We can’t expect BAI to bring us sponsors. It’s the people and the corporate who need to be aware of the talent in doubles.”
Future of Indian doubles is bright
BAI has been trying their utmost to send teams abroad for exposure and that is what is shaping the future of Indian doubles well, Sikki believes. She emphasised the importance of exposure at an early age which the likes of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy -- a fast rising men’s doubles duo -- are getting.
And with a specialist doubles coach, who has already earned their trust, things are going to be even better in the future, according to Sikki.
“The future is good. Earlier you would see just one men’s doubles or women’s doubles team has been sent to a tournament. Even when Pradnya and I played, we weren’t much of a team. Only Jwala and Ashwini used to go for all the tournaments and Manu-Sumeeth used to go. There would hardly be any mixed doubles team.
"Now we have lots of pairs going for every tournament. The exposure is very important in the initial stages. That is how the players are coming up. When I was 18 or 19, we didn’t have any exposure at all. I have hardly ever gone for any Superseries then.
"Now the likes of Chirag and Satwik are getting such good experience from this young age. They have a good future. Previously, we didn’t even have a doubles coach. We are very happy now,” an optimistic Sikki signed off.