Of the 19 sports that India will field athletes in at the 2022 Commonwealth Games, badminton is expected to be one of the highlights. When the contingent boasts of a two-time Olympic medallist and former world champion in PV Sindhu, members of the team World Champions on the men’s side and some exciting youngsters, the expectations will, of course, be high.
At the 2018 CWG in Gold Coast, India had won six medals in badminton – two gold, three silver and one bronze. Sindhu, Srikanth Kidambi, Ashwini Ponnappa, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty are the medallists from 2018 who will be competing this time as well.
India's badminton squad for CWG 2022
|Kidambi Srikanth||PV Sindhu|
|Lakshya Sen||Aakarshi Kashyap|
|Satwiksairaj Rankireddy||Treesa Jolly|
|Chirag Shetty||Gayatri Gopichand|
|B Sumeeth Reddy||Ashwini Ponnappa|
Of all the badminton medals that India won in Gold Coast, perhaps the most significant one was the mixed team event gold. It was the first time ever that India had achieved the feat, breaking England and Malaysia’s stranglehold, and it served as a testament to the growing depth in their squad.
While it came as a pleasant triumph in Gold Coast, now in Birmingham, top seeds India will be expected to defend their mixed team title. In Sindhu, they have one of the finest women’s singles player of this generation, Srikanth and Lakshya are among the best men’s singles players in the world, and Satwik-Chirag can beat any men’s doubles pair on their day.
In a conversation with Scroll.in, Aparna Popat, former national champion and four-time CWG medallist, said she believed India will return with a good haul.
“Our prospects are very bright,” said Popat. “There will be certain challenges in events because there are good players competing, but overall I think we have a clear shot at medals. We will have to wait and see what the colour of those medals are but yes, we have to win medals.”
The mixed team event will be played first, followed by the individual categories across doubles and singles. India will open their campaign with a clash against Pakistan in the first qualifying round, followed by ties against Sri Lanka and Australia before the quarterfinals lineup is complete.
A strong showing in the mixed team event will not only vindicate the depth in Indian badminton, but it will also set things up nicely for the doubles and singles events to follow. India’s main rivals will be second seeds Malaysia, Loh Kean Yew-led Singapore and hosts England. Unless there are massive surprises, the podium will feature a combination of these four teams. Malaysia will be without Lee Zii Jia but with their superb strength in doubles, they will certainly push India.
Sindhu looks to tick off a box
As far as women’s singles is concerned, all eyes will of course be on Sindhu. Aakarshi Kashyap is the second singles player in India’s squad for this event and CWG 2022 will undoubtedly be a great opportunity for her to learn and improve. The 20-year-old has dominated on the domestic circuit and shown she can compete with the best in the country, but she has lacked consistency on the BWF tour against international opponents and would want to set things right in that regard.
However, it is Sindhu who will be the favourite to win gold in women’s singles. The 27-year-old has been quite consistent overall on the tour this season despite blips against the likes of Tai Tzu Ying and Ratchanok Intanon. Her Singapore Open Super 500 title earlier this month will give her immense confidence. A few top players skipped that event but Sindhu’s reaction at her triumph showed how much it meant to her.
“A win is a win, it brings great confidence with it,” said Popat.
“We can say XYZ player wasn’t competing but that doesn’t matter. If you look at Sindhu’s career, she has managed to peak at the right time at bigger events. So it’s all about how her calendar is planned and how her coaches see her performances. I think it would have been a little tricker if the Asian Games were being held on time, but now it is easier on the players because they know this is one tournament they can focus on.
“Also, the World Championships are around the corner so it will be interesting to see how she approaches the Commonwealth Games. Because the difference between this tournament and the others is the duration of it, it’s like playing two smaller tournaments in one. But I don’t see her having too many tough matches.”
Sindhu was defeated by compatriot Saina Nehwal in the final at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. She has had an illustrious career, with two Olympic medals and a staggering five World Championship medals, but a women’s singles gold at the CWG is something that has eluded her so far, having also clinched bronze in 2014.
“She will definitely want to get the gold medal just to tick off a box,” said Popat. “She’s won the big ones, there is no question about it. In that sense, compared to some of the other events, this will be easy pickings. She just has to get the job done.”
“Having said that, we expected the gold medal from her even at the last Commonwealth Games and the one before that but things didn’t go according to plan. You don’t want that to happen again but if she plays like she has been playing, it should be enough for her to win gold. People will expect her to win that, to be honest.”
Building on Thomas Cup
In men’s singles, Lakshya Sen and Srikanth Kidambi edged out HS Prannoy for the spots in the squad based on the rankings criteria set for selection earlier this year. As it turned out, Prannoy has been in good form recently while Lakshya and Srikanth couldn’t go deep in the Indonesian and Singapore tournaments. But their performances at the Thomas Cup earlier this year should stand them in good stead.
The absence of Malaysian star Lee Zii Jia, who won the Asian Championships earlier this year, has made things easier for the Indians but Ng Tze Yong is rated highly and will put himself in the mix. Singapore’s reigning world champion Loh Kean Yew will perhaps start as the favourite.
“Singapore and Malaysia are the ones you’re going to have to look out for,” said Popat. “I see the men’s medals being a four-horse race if things go according to form and reputation. And if that happens, the danger is that one of the four will miss out on a medal. It might be tricky because of that. It will also be interesting to see who India fields in the mixed event, that should give us an indication of what’s to come in the individuals.”
A lot will be expected of Satwik and Chirag too. The 2018 CWG, where they won the men’s doubles silver, almost kickstarted their journey towards the top and the duo has come a long way since. They couldn’t progress beyond the group stage at the Tokyo Olympics, despite defeating the eventual champions, but showed what they’re capable of by playing a key role in India’s historic Thomas Cup triumph.
“Satwik and Chirag can surely be counted as the favourites,” said Popat. “They have shown that they can not only compete with the big teams but also win against them. That was one of the biggest takeaways from the Thomas Cup. If they can do it there then they can do it again.”
In the women’s doubles, Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand will be competing for India. The duo won the Odisha Open Super 100 title earlier this year and finished as runners-up in the Syed Modi International Super 300 event. They also made headlines by reaching the semifinals at the All England Open. They are ranked 39 in the world and have not competed regularly in recent times due to an injury for Gayatri but before that, were in great form during the selection trials.
“It’s a great opportunity for them, the CWG is a great platform to make your foray into the senior level and win a big event,” said Popat.
“Doubles is a combination of two players and how they sync and soak in the pressure, which is something that remains to be seen. But again, they’re not really new. We should have seen them more often on the circuit but that doesn’t matter, I still think they have a great shot at a medal.”
Ashwini Ponnappa, meanwhile, will be determined to add to her five CWG medals. The 32-year-old will be playing mixed doubles with B Sumeeth Reddy and could play a key role in the mixed team event too.
Popat believes Ashwini’s vast experience will be a great asset for the Indian team in Birmingham.
“Ashwini is somebody who is very valuable, not only in her own event but also to the team,” said Popat. “Having Sindhu and Ashwini, two very accomplished players, in the squad will definitely help the team. If you see all the players around you have a great shot at a medal, someone of Ashwini’s reputation and stature will not want to return without one. I think that extra effort will be put in. Players like her have played so much high-class badminton that they will always have a chance no matter what.”
While India’s six badminton medals at Gold Coast were a sign of how the depth had been increasing, the expectations this time around will be to, at the very least, match and then hopefully upgrade. Indian badminton is no longer a surprise package at major multi-sport events, it is among the medal favourites from the start and with that comes a different pressure.