At one point in the second game between PV Sindhu and Supanida Katethong, the Indian stretched to defend on her forehand side and missed the shuttle. She was trailing by a game and 3-6 at that point. She went on her knees for the shot, and stayed there in that position for a few seconds. The fall was not hard, but the match situation was getting harder and she was evidently feeling the heat from the other side of the net. Just a few minutes back, the crowd at the KD Jadhav Indoor Hall in New Delhi had gone silent after she had dropped the first game but seeing her stay down, a few chants of ‘Come on Sindhu!’ started and picked up steam. Slowly but steadily, they found their voice back. When she fought back from 12-17 down to make it 19-19 and was a review away from winning the game, the arena was buzzing. It was the loudest it had been all night.
In the end, Sindhu’s straight-games defeat quietened them around 6.45 pm. But the fans who had gathered to witness day one action at the India Open Super 750 on Tuesday got their time’s worth with the quality of badminton they got to witness.
The action began at 10 am with a match involving Kento Momota, the former world No 1 from Japan who is going through an extended lean patch in his career. The stands were near empty at that point (apparently due to delayed entry), he walked out onto the court with not more than five people clapping. But soon, a steady stream of fans started coming in, and once the chants of ‘Kentoooo, Kento’ got going, it set the tone for the rest of the day.
With free passes being issued to fans, the expectations on the ground were that for Indian matches there would be a decent crowd. But the surprising aspect was how early they came in, how late they stayed and the energy they dissipated throughout the day.
There were standout moments of course. Carolina Marin, from her previous India Open and Premier Badminton League outings in the country, had already spoken the previous day about how fans here supported her despite, jokingly adding, having a reason to hate her for taking the Olympic gold medal away from Sindhu. And so they showed up on Tuesday when she took on Nozomi Okuhara, a fellow former World Champion, in a blockbuster opening round clash. The crowd clearly had a favourite for that one.
Marin prevailed in straight games too and said afterwards, “It feels great any time you walk onto the court and the crowd is supporting you. I have many fans here and as I have said before I like playing in India. I know the fans love me and I love them back. It is just a good connection, really grateful about that.”
Vaibhav Manocha, a Delhi resident who runs his YouTube channel for Olympic disciplines discussions, said that this sort of atmosphere for the first day at India Open was unheard of, a sentiment echoed by few others too who have been associated with the event.
“I have been coming to India Open for years now, more than a decade actually, and have never experienced such a terrific atmosphere right on day one,” Manocha said. “Only a Sindhu or a Saina usually pulled in such a crowd in the past, but this time even our doubles pair are getting so much attention. International players, who are fan favourites, such as Chou Tien Chen, got a lot of support in his match. And Carolina Marin was also supported with loud cheers. I met fans who have come a long way to be here all day, and they were enjoying the action. I was very happy about it.”
The point about doubles was obviously evident when defending champions Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty kickstarted their doubles title defence with big support. Given their exploits on tour in recent times, that was expected. But the other doubles matches during the day featuring the Indians too got the crowd going. Vishnuvardhan Goud and Krishna Prasad Garaga’s second game which witnessed an epic finish was a highlight and so was the support that the rising young women’s doubles pairing of Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand received, something they admitted helped them in getting past a tricky opening fixture in three hard-fought games.
“Really good experience playing in front of a home crowd,” Jolly said after the match. “Yes, it is the first experience where this much crowd was supporting us in a home tournament, the pressure always seems to go down when that happens. Amazing feeling. It feels good when the crowd was saying ‘maaro, Treesa’ and ‘maaro, Gayatri’, it gives me a boost from inside.
The main event for the day was the clash between India No 1 HS Prannoy and defending champion Lakshya Sen. While the match was over in straight games, with Lakshya finding his groove early in slow court conditions and putting his defence to great use, it had moments where both players got the crowd on their feet. A couple of fans said how they were cheering for Lakshya one moment and then Prannoy the next. And in between all those, a few “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” and “Let’s go India, let’s go” chants were thrown in.
And as Lakshya put it with a smile later on, “Last time when I played here, there were no fans allowed. I love to play in these sort of arenas with a lot of fan support. Today the support was a bit divided. And I am happy to play a Danish shuttler next so that all the support is with me.”
The day was not without its fair share of organisational downfalls here or there. The review screens in the arena kept glitching through the day, causing some confusion here or there. There were a couple of power failures too that led to play being halted briefly on all courts. But the second time the power went off was late in the evening when Saina Nehwal was battling it out in a tight decider against Mia Blichfeldt. The decider was underway, and after a superb winner by the Indian, the arena became near dark and there wasn’t even clarity on who won the point. At this stage, perhaps you’d expect a few boos? But the crowd instantly broke into a sustained round of “Saina, Sainaaa!” chants followed by a mini mobile phone torch light show.
The former world No 1, who pulled off a good win, said later how much she enjoys playing at the India Open but also observed how it wasn’t just for her. Indeed, her match had begun in somewhat of a funereal circumstance, with the crowd evidently still dealing with the Sindhu heartbreak. And when Saina lost the second game too, you could hear a pin (or a few shuttles) drop in the arena. But the night came to a close with them chanting ‘Love you Saina’ and one of the lucky fans receiving her racket was a fitting way to close out the opening day.
“Always fantastic, the home support here,” Saina said. “And today, not just for me. They have been sitting here since the morning, cheering the players on. I was listening to it all from the warm-up courts. Their energy was great, in this cold to be here all day cheering, I am thankful they could sit for so long.”
As the week goes on, the headliners will be the players. The quality of badminton action will only go up from here on. But for one day, it is worth reflecting that as the stars took centerstage, the spotlight was on those who came to watch the action unfold.
The quality of badminton action will perhaps only go up from here, but there’s a chance the atmosphere might not be as electric.