K Srikanth and B Sai Praneeth will face off in the quarterfinals of the Australia Superseries in Sydney on Friday.
In the past, an all-Indian encounter at this stage would have seen the fans rejoice as it would mean that India would guarantee one spot in the semifinals. Instead, the underlying feeling now is that such a clash so early in the competition is probably robbing India of another spot at the business end of a tournament.
The feeling of being short changed is understandable given the performance graph of India’s men’s shuttlers in the last 12 months.
Since the Rio Olympics, Indian men have won three Superseries titles and recorded two runners up finishes with at least one or two players consistently making it to the last eight stage. Add to that a sizeable number of Grand Prix level titles and runners up finishes and one can safely say that the days of Indian men primarily being looked as journeymen on the international circuit are long past.
It’s not to say that Indian men haven’t won titles in the past. Srikanth bagged two Superseries crowns back in 2015 while the likes of Aravind Bhat, P Kashyap, Ajay Jayaram and even Sameer Verma had Grand Prix gold titles to show for their effort in the past.
However, most of these podium finishes were looked at as one off triumphs and the consistency to challenge for the big titles was missing. But India has won the last two Superseries titles and had HS Prannoy converted a match point in the second game of the semifinal against Kazumasa Sakai, both would have seen an all-Indian summit clash.
So what exactly has changed for the men since PV Sindhu came back home with an Olympic silver from Rio?
It’s not like the men have found a magic potion that has helped them transform from being talented shuttlers into champions. Though Saina Nehwal and Sindhu would take the limelight with their performances and titles, the men had been showing the depth in numbers for the last few years with at least half a dozen breaking into the top-100 and at least a couple of them making it to the top-20 world ranking positions consistently.
Currently India has six shuttlers in the top-35 and will have four of them in the World Championship in August. And the competition is just getting intense among the Indian men with youngsters like Sameer Verma, Harsheel Dani, Lakshya Sen pushing the established stars for a place in the national team.
But what has really changed in the last two years thanks to the success of Nehwal and Sindhu is the hunger to win titles and not just be satisfied with rankings and team selections. This has meant that the players are prepared to take a break and train harder after returning from injury or even in case of slight niggles.
Sai Praneeth did not play a single tournament for almost seven weeks after suffering a shoulder injury just before the senior nationals in February and though it did take him time to hit the ground running on the international circuit, he was the first to credit his improved fitness levels for the Singapore Superseries title.
The other catalyst for the suddenly rising performance graph is the arrival of Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo and his assistant Hariawan at the start of 2017. The coach of former World and Olympic champion Taufiq Hidayat came in at a time when chief national coach Pullela Gopichand was struggling to do justice to the ever increasing demand on his time and body with the expanding group of performers.
“We had Indonesian coach Mulyo along with Hariawan. Also the likes of Siddharth Jain and Amrish Shinde have been spending more time at the camps and that has ensured that all the top players are getting more attention,” Gopichand says explaining the changing system at the camp.
While Gopichand now concentrates on the bigger picture and works with individual players depending on their needs, Mulyo takes care of the overall planning and sessions. The Indonesian has tweaked the training program quite a bit with sessions getting longer with a focus on playing long matches.
However, it wasn’t as smooth as it looks now. There were players, including Prannoy, who felt that the system was not working for them and the coaching staff had to make changes to suit individual players need.
“Mulyo is very open to changes despite being such a successful coach,” says Gopichand, adding the partnership is still evolving and should lead to a lot of success in the future.
All we can say is that the shuttle has taken flight but whether it regularly ends up on the podium or not will depend on how focussed the players can remain.