It is hard to refute the sentiment that India is a cricket-crazy country. History of Indian sport is filled with instances of hockey and football bringing thousands of fans to stadiums but in recent decades, there has been dominance from the one sport that has pervaded the living rooms of crores in the country. Cricket became an obsession, and cricketers worshipped.
Slowly but surely, however, Olympic sporting disciplines have found their footing among the sports-loving public since the turn of the century. More access to events, better exposure through media, coverage and path-breaking international achievements have paved the way for that.
In that regard, it’s hard to look past badminton as the sport that has grown the most in terms of impact on the Indian sports fan. Alongside shooting and wrestling, the shuttlers from India have been the most successful at the international level consistently in the 21st century.
Moments that redefined a sport
There have been plenty of great moments for the sport over the decades, but here’s a subjective list of the most significant ones:
Prakash Padukone’s proud moment (All England Open, 1980)
An Indian conquering the world at Wembley Arena in England. It was as good as it got in 1980 when Prakash Padukone defeated two-time defending champion Liem Swie King to win All England title, the game’s most coveted title back then.
As we wrote on these pages earlier about that iconic match, the summit clash against King was a tactical affair. The Indonesian star had skipped the European tour to focus on his preparations for the All England and just like Padukone had not dropped a game before the final. King relied on his speed and banked on his big smashes to win points while the 24-year-old Indian, famed for his touch-play, delighted the crowd with an exhibition of delicious strokes at the net.
The result: recorded as 15-3, 15-10 scoreline for Padukone; the impact: unprecedented.
Padukone (rightly) regarded it to be the turning point for the sport in the country.
“...if you talk of Indian badminton you could say 1980 was the hallmark; it was pre-1980 and post-1980. So that’s probably how important I think the the 1980 all England was.
“Before 1980, Badminton was being played but it was what I would call a minority sport, a minor sport. There was not much coverage, nobody knew what badminton was. Only the players who played knew, their parents knew, there were not many facilities, not much money, there was not much international exposure, nobody knew who the players were. But post 1980 all that changed, whatever was not there, that changed. It became a major sport.”— Interview with Scroll.in
All England organisers recently released footage of the 1980 final and it is well worth your time, to have a glimpse at moments that changed Indian badminton forever:
Glory for Gopichand (All England Open, 2001)
Saina Nehwal was trailing in the final of Indonesia Open 2009; indeed, she looked exhausted against Wang Lin. She needed inspiration. Her mind went back to 2001.
“He won the All-England Championship in 2001 and although he was tired, he fought hard and won the match. That’s what I remembered in the Indonesian Open final. When I lost the first game, I got tired. But he inspired me, I remembered his feat and won the title,” Nehwal said about her first Superseries triumph.
He was, none other than, Pullela Gopichand. He was, of course, Nehwal’s coach when she won the title in Jakarta (more on that shortly). He was the man who put Indian badminton on the path to glory (as a player first, as a coach afterwards). He was the All England champion in 2001, a feat that spoke volumes not just about Gopichand’s talent on the court but also about his will and determination off it.
The final itself was a relatively breezy affair for Gopichand as he beat Chen Hong 15-12, 15-6 (and he did not drop a game in the entire tournament) but the path to get there was anything but.
When Gopichand was a picture of delight, with his hands held up in the air, the commentator summed up the winning moments: “Who would have thought at the start of the week the player ranked No 10 in the world would be the champion. But Gopichand has played with such composure, great skill...a masterful tactician.”
It was the win that gave Indian badminton the much-needed belief again.
Saina’s first Superseries triumph (2009 Indonesia Open)
One could write an entire “greatest moments” article just with the many firsts of Saina Nehwal’s career. Of course, the moments that immediately come to mind are her bronze medal at 2012 London and how, in 2015, she became the first Indian woman to reach the world No 1 ranking.
But the moment that showed the world for the first time that Nehwal was not just a talented Indian shuttler but a gritty woman who can outlast her opponents and win titles at the expense of the Chinese: Indonesia Open final, 2009.
Nehwal scripted history on June 21, 2009 when she became the first Indian to win a Super Series tournament with a superb victory over third seed Wang Lin in Jakarta. The then 19-year-old Indian star staged a superb comeback and won a thrilling final that lasted 49 minutes, 12-21, 21-18, 21-9.
Having lost in the previous tournament (Singapore Open Super Series) to the same opponent, sixth seed Nehwal was on the backfoot early on. But she dug deep, to level the match in a tight second game before going all out in the decider. From 7-7 in the all important game, she raced to the finish line winning six straight points from 15-9. And with a body smash that did not return, Nehwal won the title.
Her reactions said it all:
In his column for Outlook India, coach Gopichand picked the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games performances as highlights of Nehwal’s career. But, even in his words, Indonesia was crucial for what Nehwal was trying to achieve. He wrote that Nehwal’s wins at Indonesia Open (2009, 2010 and 2012) were “very big and very special” and added:
“To win consistently when the Chinese were on top of the world was a superb achievement. She showed to people across the world how the Chinese wall could be broken. It was, in fact, Saina versus China. The moment Saina could break in, other countries, whether it was Japan or Thailand or Spain or Denmark, many of them started to find ways to breach the Chinese bastion.”— Gopichand via Outlook India
As Nehwal said in 2009, “They (shuttlers from China) are like machines. That’s the reason I’ve made myself like a machine. I want to better the Chinese.”
It would not be an exaggeration to say that Indonesia Open final in 2009 played a huge rule in how Nehwal’s career shaped up to be one filled with milestones.
Silver for Sindhu (2016 Rio Olympics)
PV Sindhu had already build up a reputation. Two bronze medals at the World Championships in 2013 and 2014 meant she was a force to reckon with at the biggest stage. But at Rio 2016, Nehwal was still the big Olympic medal hope. However, injury ended her dream of bettering the bronze from 2012.
Now, all eyes were on Sindhu as she entered the knockouts.
The ninth seed had to beat Tai Tzu Ying (eighth seed) in the opening round (straight games), then second seed Wang Yihan (straight games) and then sixth seed Nozomi Okuhara (straight games). The world got to witness Sindhu’s big-game mentality at the biggest stage as she overcame higher-ranked players in each of the knockout rounds to reach the final.
Carolina Marin, the hot favourite coming into the tournament, proved to be one hurdle too tough for the Indian. But by the time she went across the net after the final moments to put a shoulder around a tearful Marin, she had not just won the Olympics silver medal (the first Indian woman to do so): she had won millions of hearts.
Sensational Sindhu (2019 World Championships)
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Sindhu’s silver in Rio had set the bar high. And the expectations were that she will bring home titles for fun. Sport, however, doesn’t work that way. The opponents exist for a reason and for Sindhu, the challenges got harder. First, there was the epic 2017 World Championship final against Okuhara that no one who saw it can ever forget. Then there were silver medals at CWG and Asian Games. Then, there was another silver at Worlds in 2018.
Ridiculously, at times, her caliber was questioned because she was winning ONLY silver medals, that she was only second best at the big events; as if that is some joke. By her own admission recently, it did, however, impact Sindhu. How can it not?
And in Basel, that off-court desperation to win the gold medal was met with the decisiveness on court. She did not just win, she blew her opponents away on her way to the top of the podium.
Rio Olympics silver medallist was now World Champion PV Sindhu, the first Indian ever to achieve that distinction in the sport. In this writer’s book, that has to be Indian badminton’s greatest moment till date.
Sometimes, it is easy to forget Sindhu achieved all this before she even turned 25.
It was a tough decision to leave out Jwala Gutta and Ashwin Ponnappa’s 2011 World Championship bronze, that ended India’s 28-year wait for a medal at Worlds. That medal kick-started India’s ongoing run of returning with a podium finish from the World Championships. Nehwal’s 2012 Olympic Games bronze was also an iconic moment but, given her pedigree at the time, bronze was perhaps the least she could have achieved. Padukone’s Worlds medal in 1983 was also important but not quite as iconic as the 1980 win. Srikanth Kidambi’s record-equalling fourth Superseries title in 2017 (he was only the fourth player after Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long to win four or more SS-level tournaments in a calendar year) was also a contender to feature in this list.
Agree with this list of five greatest moments? What would your list be? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet to us at @thefield_in.