April 15, 2018. Saina Nehwal executed a tactical masterclass to get the better of top seed PV Sindhu in a feisty all-Indian final at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, thus completing the first-ever 1-2 finish for India in women’s singles at this event.
Cut to CWG 2022 and PV Sindhu won her first individual gold medal... but that ended up being India’s only medal in women’s singles in Birmingham.
So, in four years, why has India not seen another player, or two, join Sindhu in competing at the highest level in women’s singles? Why hasn’t India yet managed to find a true successor to Saina and Sindhu? How long can India continue to rely on them?
At the recently concluded National Games, Aakarshi Kashyap defeated Malvika Bansod to clinch the women’s singles title. The player from Chhattisgarh has been a consistent force in the domestic circuit for a while, dominating ranking tournaments and even the selection trials earlier this year to make it to the CWG and Uber Cup squad. Bansod too has been a regular in going deep in tournaments domestically and started the year off defeating an admittedly not fully-fit Nehwal.
But the results at home have not translated well to the international circuit, yet. At 21, while they have time on their side, both of them are part of the crop of players who must already be making their mark against the big names in the sport.
So in this column, we’ll try to analyse the women’s singles scene at the moment, and also see what the current crop of Indian youngsters can possibly do to get that breakthrough performance and get into, say, the top 20 of the world.
Firstly, what makes Saina and Sindhu special?
Nehwal is one of the most, if not the most, mentally strong badminton athletes in the world. Throughout her career, she has risen to challenges consistently. To think she started the Indian badminton revolution and is still giving players a run for their money, with all the injuries her body has taken over the years, shows her mental toughness. Tactically, she’s one of the best and additionally, she’s probably the best Indian player to understand and cope with drift.
Sindhu, on the other hand, is physically one of the finest athletes in the world, blessed with a tall yet extremely mobile physique. This combination has led to her becoming one of the most potent attacking players the sport has ever seen. Take the 2019 World Championships final for instance, where she beat Nozomi Okuhara 21-7 21-7.
But what do Saina and Sindhu have in common? One crucial factor is that neither of them play predominantly on the backfoot and do not play the retrieving game constantly. Instead, they are always trying to take the game to their opponents by taking calculative risks every now and then.
Moving away from passive style of play
Let us go through few stills from Sindhu’s Syed Modi India International Super 300 win over the up-and-coming Bansod in the final. Bansod played well but never really put Sindhu under a lot of pressure.
In this rally, Bansod picked up the pace and got a good smash from the overhead corner, before coming with the tap on the body which Sindhu barely managed to fend off. Bansod then gave away the attack from well within the midcourt and Sindhu then punished her with a down the line smash from the forehand side. Top players don’t let their opponents off the hook that easily.
Similarly, when Aakarshi Kashyap took on Thailand’s Busanan Ongbamrungphan at the India Open 2022, she played a really good first game but lost 24-26, before going down straight games. Just like Bansod, Kashyap was taking the initative from the front court but from the back court she would mostly just clear or play the drop shot straight and that allowed Busanan to come back into the rally.
There were a few occasions when Kashyap was not passive from the back court. As you can see in the still below, she took the initiative from the front court with a good push on the backhand rear end, with Busanan just trying to survive. She then shows anticipation and goes under the shuttle quickly and hits a hard smash down the line to which Busanan has no answer. But unfortunately, Kashyap doesn’t have the physical ability to sustain this level and drops off in the second game.
What it takes to be the best
The beauty of women’s singles in badminton is that it doesn’t need any specific style to be the best. The variety is brilliant. The power of Sindhu, the guile of Tai Tzu Ying and Ratchanok Intanon, the industry and agility of Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi, and the sheer relentlessness of Carolina Marin... there is space for a variety of skillset to be among the best and that should be a source of inspiration for the Indian youngsters.
Let’s look at one aspect of what it takes to be among the best.
Here is a still of current world No 1 Akane Yamaguchi at the 2020 Uber cup against Malvika Bansod.
Look at how early Yamaguchi has gone under the shuttle and used her leg strength to jump and take the shuttle as high as possible. And since she is playing with a jump, Bansod is already under pressure. What makes Yamaguchi special is that she does this nearly seven out of 10 times from the back court. One of the primary reasons why Yamaguchi and Okuhara have had great success over the years is that after playing a rear court shot, their movement to the centre of the court is faster than almost any player in the world.
For example, look at this still from Okuahara at the All England earlier this year.
Okuhara gets caught in the initial clear but her movement towards the center of the court is so quick that Tai Tzu Ying doesn’t go for a downward shot. Instead, Tai goes for a clear on the backhand side to which Okuhara plays the overhead crosscourt half-smash to win the point. But the important thing here is not the shot-making ability in both situations, it is that her movement towards the centre of the court is rapid. This is something all top-ranked players do on a consistent basis.
Transition from juniors to seniors
At the time of publishing, in the BWF junior world rankings, India has four women’s singles players in the top 10 (which includes No 1 and 2), six players in the top 20 and eight in the top 30. This is the most by any country, which – including the caveat that the junior rankings aren’t always the most definitive – means there certainly isn’t a lack of talent.
And if you add in players who have finished their junior career recently – like Malavika Bansod, Aakarshi Kahsyap, Ashmita Chaliha, Purva Barve, Aditi Bhatt, Tanya Hemanth, Samiya Imad Farooqui and some others – it gives a solid core group of at least 15 players who are under 23 years of age and can be groomed into long term prospects in the years to come.
The one crucial aspect in the successful transition of Lakshya Sen is how his body changed from that of a lean teenager to a strong, elite athlete in his early 20s. It’s crucial for the young female shuttlers to have a similar transition physically, but then that also comes down to the coaches and the support staff. Lakshya had that team since he was 11 and one can only hope that this group of young women also find the right team around them.
Another aspect of Lakshya’s successful transition was his tournament planning. He mostly entered the Super 500s and above after establishing himself at the international challenge tournaments, and the Super 100 and 300 level, which meant he played at a higher level only after gaining confidence in the lower tier tournaments.
Finally, having the experience of playing in high pressure matches is key. A stint at one of the leagues in Europe would be the perfect way to gain some exposure. India has had players like Ajay Jayaram, Anup Sridhar and more who have had stints in the French League, even Lakshya had a successful stint in the Danish League in 2021.
There is indeed a great deal of potential in India’s current crop of young women’s singles players, with Tasnim Mir giving us a reminder of it recently in Raipur and with whatUnnati Hooda did in Odisha at the start of the year. It all comes down to their respective teams to help them take the next step.
The one advice I’d give to all youngsters should be to move away from the standard passive play and add more flair to their game. They all have really good touch from the front court, but very few athletes have the height advantage of Sindhu. They should start developing more weapons from the back court, which comes down to having explosive leg strength. They should be able to get under the shuttle quickly for a jump and also move to the center of the court rapidly.
I believe that the talent is there and we have a lot of potential in our current crop of young women’s singles players. Should this collective improvement happen, hopefully success in Uber Cup is not far away.
Shlok Ramchandran is a former Indian doubles player, who reached a career-high world ranking of No 32 in men’s doubles. Having recently retired from the highest level of the sport, Shlok is currently head coach at Triangle Badminton & Table Tennis in North Carolina, USA. You can read the other pieces in his column, Shuttle Zone here.
Screenshots in the article courtesy BWF TV YouTube channel and are used solely for illustrating some of the technical points.