It’s been 22 years since an Indian shuttler won the title at the All England Open. Pullela Gopichand’s triumph in 2001 after a hard grind was a pivotal moment for Indian badminton. And if any singles shuttler has to end that long wait in 2023, they’d have to do so from an unseeded position.
While the past year has brought some good results for Indian shuttlers, couple of medals to remember in team events with the Thomas Cup gold in May 2022 a historic achievement, 2023 has been off to a patchy start. In the World Tour rankings for 2023, there are no Indian players in the top 10 in any of the five categories.
Some of it is understandable. Primarily, the start of 2023 is that phase on the tour where one may not necessarily want to go all out. All the attention this year is on the Olympic qualification cycle that starts from May and there are plenty of events during that window for which shuttlers would want to be at their peak shape. It is important to pace themselves.
For a while now, PV Sindhu has been a constant among seeded players on the World Tour but her long absence due to injury in the second half of 2022 and early exits in the two tournaments she played in 2023 so far, has meant she is now world No 9. As is HS Prannoy, in men’s singles, on the back of a solid 2022 but yet to fully hit the ground running in 2023. Lakshya Sen too is struggling for consistency in recent weeks.
In doubles, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty started 2023 with a bang, making the semifinals at Malaysia Open, showing the kind of form that augured well but an injury to the former at India Open has sidelined them since. (Chirag played with Dhruv Kapila at the Asian Mixed Team event and impressed too as a pair).
If anything, the brightest spark so far this year has been the form of Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly in women’s doubles.
Gayatri-Treesa’s good form
The Badminton Asia Mixed Team Championships in Dubai was an interesting tournament for Indian badminton in more ways than one. They went with their two best men’s singles players on tour, currently in Prannoy and Sen, they went with their superstar women’s singles player in Sindhu. But at the end of the campaign, which saw them finish on the podium (bronze) for the first time in this event, it was the performances of the doubles contingent that stood out more than the decorated singles stars.
Make no mistake, it’s a team event and the achievement of any medal is such an event is based on collective strength. But historically, India’s biggest badminton moments have been in singles, with the occasional exception. In Dubai, like in Bangkok for the Thomas Cup triumph last year, the doubles results have provided much to be proud about.
The biggest positive to emerge was the Gayatri Gopichand-Treesa Jolly duo. The pair of teenagers got their first win against their nemesis in Pearly Tan-Thinaah Muralitharan and carried that on for wins against Hong Kong and China too. From there, they came to the Nationals and breezed through it to be crowned the country’s best, deservingly.
“The consistency pre-match stood out for them during that week in Dubai,” doubles coach SR Arun Vishnu told Scroll.
“First to beat Thinaah/Tan, then to defeat Hong Kong and China pairs also. Before the All England last year, what training we were doing, we started that training again. You could say we went back to basics.”
“We were focussing more on their movement, not their strokes. Just move fast to get the shuttle and get back to position. Both of them are good at strokemaking, we just had to make them move fast. Whatever shot they play, it’s fine but reach early. They have the freedom with the shots. They can pick whatever, that is something we worked out. And then recover fast after matches,” he added in reference to his tweet during Dubai about tweaks suggested by Pullela Gopichand.
All England 2022 saw them make a massive breakthrough on tour, reaching the semifinals. This time around they will come in as one of the pairs to watch out for, but the surprise element won’t be there any more. They have a tough opening match against seventh seeds Jongkolphan Kititharakul and Rawinda Prajongjai from Thailand, another pair they are yet to defeat.
“That gave the girls a lot of confidence. That on their day, they can beat anybody. Now they know. They are always focussed in tournaments,” Arun Vishnu added.
The only seeded entry from India in Birmingham, Chirag and Satwik will hope to hit the ground running on their return to the tour. Malaysia showed that their form had been intact after a memorable 2022. The luck of the draw originally pitted them against former world No 1 pair Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo. But the Minions withdrew due to illness to the latter and were replaced by Indian pair Krishna Prasad Garaga/Vishnuvardhan Goud Panjala, giving us an all-Indian opening round.
But men’s doubles has been a really wild rollercoaster ride in the last year. Sample this: the surprise winners of 2022 All England Muhammad Shohibul Fikri/Bagas Maulana haven’t reached another final since. The world championships gold was won by Aaron Chia/Soh Wooi Yik, Malaysia’s first ever. China has produced a couple of exciting young duos. Indonesians as always dominate rankings but good luck predicting who will be the final four at All England this year.
Sindhu, Prannoy, Sen and Srikanth Kidambi will lead India’s charge in singles and all four of them will be facing tricky opening tests.
Sen’s match against Chou Tien Chen has already been touted as the pick of the opening round. Chou has won both their previous meetings while Sen comes into the tournament as the finalist from last year. The Indian has to find his best from the word go. Prannoy, in the same quarter as Sen, takes on Wang Tzu Wei in the opening round (4-3 H2H). Srikanth takes on Toma Junior Popov.
For Sindhu, 2023 has started with a parting of ways with coach Park Tae Sang. A decision on who will be her long-term coach hasn’t yet been taken, with the double Olympic medallist seeking some fresh inputs into her game before the Olympic qualification cycle begins. She takes on Zhang Yi Man of China, who won in their last meeting. This is the one major event that has not witnessed the best of Sindhu consistently and it is going to be tough for her again in a high-quality field. But in what used to be once an unpredictable category, anything other than a An Se Young vs Akane Yamaguchi final will come as a massive surprise.
Saina Nehwal has withdrawn from the event.
The All England Open, considered the world’s oldest badminton tournament, is now in its 113th year. The tournament is a Super 1000 event on BWF World Tour.
Withdrawals from the tournament:
MS: No withdrawals
WS: Saina Nehwal
MD: Man Wei Chong / Kai Wun Tee, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon / Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo
WD: Benyapa Aimsaard / Nuntakarn Aimsaard
XD: Ishaan Bhatnagar / Tanisha Crasto
Daily schedule of matches will be available here. Court 1 matches will be streamed on JioCinema and outer courts will be on BWF TV YouTube.