The year in review: Promise in singles; concern in doubles
The final events of 2012 – both domestic and international – played out on Sunday, signalling an end to a hectic season. Domestically, the PSPB (Petroleum Sports Promotion Board) tournament saw Sourabh Verma and PC Thulasi emerge winners in the singles, while on the international stage, it was Jan O Jorgensen who triumphed at the Copenhagen Masters.
There will be a short break before the 2013 season kicks off with the Korea Open Superseries Premier (8-13 Jan).
How did India fare in 2012? More importantly, what are the signs for the next year?
The Indian show was, understandably, dominated by Saina Nehwal. The year began somewhat disappointingly for Saina, as her dry run at major events continued from 2011. The only tournament she had won in 2011 was the Swiss Open GP Gold, although she made two other finals – the Indonesia Open and the year-ending Superseries Finals – both times losing to Wang Yihan.
It was the Swiss Open again which would see a turnaround in her fortunes. With a comprehensive victory over long-time rival Wang Shixian (China) in the final, Saina could heave a sigh of relief – it was her first victory in a year.
Just before the India Open, Saina talked of a major change in her diet, which had helped her lose five kilos. Although she had a disastrous India Open – losing in the second round – her improved mobility helped her regain the dream form she had showed in 2010. She started off by winning the Thailand Open GP Gold, and followed it up with a sensational triumph at the Indonesia Open. The Indonesia Open win would have to be one of the golden moments in India’s sporting history for the manner in which Saina achieved it. Having survived two three-setters in her first two matches, she went through a trial by fire in the quarterfinals against Wang Shixian – eventually winning 21-17 21-23 21-19 in an hour and 36 minutes, one of the longest and most draining matches of the year.
In the final, she stopped All England champion Li Xuerui, who was on a 30-match winning streak, in yet another stunning three-set win. The whole tournament showed a Saina who was as tough as any other player in the world, for she had survived four three-set matches out of the five in her draw.
The Indonesia Open victory laid out the stage for a grand performance at the Olympics, and this would count as yet another milestone in Indian badminton history. Having lost the semifinals to Wang Yihan, Saina appeared to be unsettled against Wang Xin in the bronze medal playoff match, but as the game wore on, Wang Xin kept clutching her hamstring. She eventually retired at the beginning of the second game, giving India its first Olympic badminton medal.
That medal would lead to a superstar status for Saina in India, and a huge increase in the profile of badminton. Such attention for an Indian badminton player was unimaginable even six or seven years ago, but Saina had catapulted a revolution. It was almost inevitable that there would be other developments in badminton. When the Indian Badminton League was announced, it was an acknowledgement of a long-felt desire among badminton fans and players for the sport to follow in the wake of the nation’s most commercially successful sport, cricket.
Saina’s dream season would extend into the European season, where she won the Denmark Open for the first time, and reached the final of the French. Another final at the year-ending Superseries Finals meant that she would go into 2013 with renewed vigour. The only sour point was her retirement on match point at the Syed Modi International in Lucknow, leaving fans and organisers disappointed.
But Saina was not the only success story in Indian badminton in 2012. Her compatriots V Sindhu, P Kashyap, Ajay Jayaram, Sourabh Verma, Guru Sai Dutt, K Srikanth and Sai Praneeth too had some strong performances internationally. Sindhu’s golden run of form came mid-year, when she won the Asian Juniors, and followed that up with an upset of newly-crowned Olympic champion Li Xuerui. She was talked of as the next Saina from India, and she finished the year with a silver medal at the Syed Modi International. Still only 17 years old, the lanky Hyderabadi has impressed in her first full season on the Superseries circuit. She has a long way to go yet, but the signs are positive.
In the men’s singles, P Kashyap led the way for India. Although he was inconsistent, he also had some sparkling performances to his credit – most notably at the India and Indonesia Opens, where he reached the semifinals. At the Indonesia Open, he effected the stunning upset of world No. 3 Chen Long by means of executing a strategy expertly, and he would end the year on a high, winning the Syed Modi International and finishing at a career-high No. 14. With better consistency, Kashyap can aim to break into the top-12, and he will hope for a strong show at the All England.
Other noteworthy performances:
Ajay Jayaram: Finished the year at No.31. Was in a close race with Kashyap to qualify for the Olympics, but Kashyap nosed ahead by making the semifinals of the India Open. One of Jayaram’s best wins was over Wang Zhengming of China (world No. 12) at the Hong Kong Open; he also beat players like No. 5 Kenichi Tago and Viktor Axelsen. However, like Kashyap, he was unable to maintain his consistency, and that is one problem he will have to solve if he has to move up the rankings.
Guru Sai Dutt: Had indifferent form for the first half-year, but then picked up in the second half after going through the qualifying rounds of the Superseries. The year ended on a high, as he reached the semifinals of the Macau Open GP Gold, beating players of the class of Dionysius Rumbaka (Indonesia) and Chan Yan Kit (HK). Won the Tata International Challenge at Mumbai beating compatriot Sai Praneeth in the final, and made the quarterfinals of the Syed Modi International at Lucknow. The top-20 is now a realistic goal.
K Srikanth: The player to watch out for. At just 19, he won the Maldives International beating former World Junior Champion Zulfadli Zulkiffli (Mas) in the final. Went on to reach the semis at Macau Open GP Gold, beating players like Yunus Alamsyah (Indonesia) and Nan Wei (HK).
While there were several promising singles performances, the doubles gave cause for concern. Following her near-miss to qualify for the Olympic quarterfinals, Jwala Gutta decided to take a long break, and that has disrupted two established combinations – with Diju in mixed doubles and Ashwini Ponnappa in the women’s. Having won a bronze at the World Championships last year, Jwala/Ashwini would’ve hoped for bigger things in 2012, but that was not to be. The pair had no great victories until the Olympics. At London, they recovered from a first match loss to post two good wins, but that was insufficient to see them through to the quarterfinals. Following Jwala’s decision to take time off the circuit, Ashwini partnered Pradnya Gadre, and the pair did well at the Macau Open, beating second seeds Lok Yan Poon/Tse Ying Tsuet in straight games.
The absence of the men’s doubles team, Rupesh Kumar/ Sanave Thomas, too was keenly felt. Most of the Indian doubles teams had early round losses at the Superseries following the Olympics, and this is one area the administration will have to address. India is in danger of lagging behind in team events with its doubles in jeopardy.