Gopichand: ‘This is the real World Cup…proud of team’

THE MOST heartening aspect of India’s Thomas Cup team today was watching Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy beat Mohammad Ahsan-Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo. All the previous times that our boys have faced Kevin Sanjaya, they have lost 11-0. It was as individuals. Today, they had Team India backing their efforts, planning and rooting for them. It makes a difference, and this was a first where India played as a unit. Earlier, if Saina was playing, Sindhu wouldn’t be there. And if Sindhu played, Saina wasn’t around. If the doubles team played, the singles players weren’t really invested. This was truly Team India’s victory and I was so happy that Satwik-Chirag gave it back to the Indonesians.

In my mind, I knew this was possible when you do the calculations. But whether it will actually be possible depends on individual players, and today they pulled it off perfectly, which was wonderful to watch. When we speak of Indian team sport at the highest level, this is the real World Cup that India has won in a game spread globally and with fancied powerhouses. I am proud of being a badminton player today. This was coming for years, but things fell into place now. I might even believe in the magic of our players.

Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Denmark will be in shock tonight, wondering how India won. This will be reported for years. In Malaysia, they still recall stories of how they won a title in 1991 with the Sidek brothers, and they earned Datukhoods (similar to knighthoods) and acres of land. Legends were born. Mind you, the Indonesian and Malaysian teams, the moment they lost, are going to be wondering ‘Can I go back home?’. You’ll hear ‘change the coach, change the association’ calls in the aftermath. That’s how much the Thomas Cup means to those badminton-crazy nations. Coaches fear for their jobs, and players get shredded. If you had told half the guys in my association the day before that India is winning the Thomas Cup, even they wouldn’t believe it. But the players did.

In my time, we’ve lost 1-5 to Sri Lanka and 2-5 to Pakistan even. For us to qualify for the 16-team elite event used to be mighty, and when we beat Korea and Japan to qualify for that Thomas Cup and Uber Cup (for women) in 1999 Delhi, we thought that’s great. Both Prakash (Padukone) sir and I used to play both singles and doubles, we didn’t even have doubles specialists then. We would be given two Yonex T-shirts and we would be on our way to these events. So you can understand where we started and the enormity of this.

India’s depth has been outstanding. And if there were five more singles, India would have still won. You shouldn’t keep fretting about the big gold medal not coming in the Olympics, instead of keep pushing in team events. Badminton Association of India, Sports Authority of India and the Government helped us in plans to push 10 players in Top 25 to build more depth. We didn’t build this depth in the women’s team. The women players would play their own matches and not care for the rest of the team. Saina and Sindhu didn’t take the team along, we should have built that culture in the Uber Cup. That’s the difference between bronze and gold.

This win comes from HS Prannoy and Kidambi Srikanth not taking their places for granted, also Srikanth and Lakshya Sen fighting for that one spot. But credit to the boys, they competed while helping each other. That’s a huge generous quality. They’ve each had debacles — lost at Olympics, not qualified for Olympics, not been centrestage, lost big matches. That fire to prove a point has baked them a little more, which showed in their grit.

Opponents have begun to read Lakshya, and make life difficult for him. He was struggling at the corners, but he stood there and fought like a gladiator. That’s character. Srikanth put incredible pressure on Jonatan Christie. It was the same in doubles. Our guys were fighting to be heroes; they were avoiding being labeled as “villains” in their countries.

It’s been tough for India’s male players with unfair comparisons with Saina and Sindhu. The Indian women raised the bar so much that a Super 500 win for the men barely registers now — getting into the Top 10, semis, quarters will never be big headlines. If they had lost the final today, all the excitement would have subsided. Lakshya made the All-England finals, but only winning it will put him on the same pedestal as Sindhu or Saina. So it’s been tough.

There are players who get the chance and pounce on it, like Saina, Sindhu, Jwala (Gutta), and there are those that are not brave enough to make the most of the opportunity. Prannoy, Satwik Chirag, Srikanth, Lajshya proved they are brave enough to take that chance. Winning a final is being brave.

I will celebrate this win with my family tonight, but the real party will be at the academy tomorrow. But I’m going to wake up, and wonder ‘What next?’ These boys showing they can win the biggest title means I have to start thinking about the next difficult target.

I remember, Satwik’s mother had come to me when he was young, she spoke of how she always dreamed of playing singles. Convincing the likes of Satwik, Dhruv, Krishna or even Gayatri that you can be a decent player in singles but a great one in doubles took effort. This title is validation that big things can happen in doubles. If these men don’t clutter their minds with thoughts of money or count medals or become celebrities on social media, stay in the moment, play smart and aggressive, then great things will happen. It’s not a dream India dreamt actively, but now the country will live the dream with these amazing players.

(The writer is a Sydney Games Olympian, All England champion and national badminton head coach. He spoke to Shivani Naik)


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