New Delhi: P V Sindhu struck gold just in time to shake off the choker’s tag, Saina Nehwal’s second coming kept getting better and Lakshya Sen was the proverbial one for the future in Indian badminton’s continuous onward march globally even though the title count took a hit.
In a year when the world body (BWF) introduced a new tournament structure, under which events were graded on stature based on prize money, Sindhu dominated the headlines with silver medals in all major events before a World Tour Finals crown. Five silver medals would count for success in most books but not in the case of Sindhu, who faced criticism and pressure for finishing runners-up way too often after putting in the hard yards to make the finals. She finally redeemed herself with the World Tour Finals gold.
On the other hand, Saina, whose recovery from a career-threatening knee injury began with a World Championship bronze last year, also produced some impressive performances this year.
The highlights were without a doubt the gold and bronze at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games respectively. The CWG gold that came after an epic clash with Sindhu in the finals was in fact tribute to her determination. She also reached the finals at the Indonesia Masters, Denmark Open and Syed Modi International, besides winning bronze medals at Asia championship and Asian Games.
The trailblazer also embarked on a brand new personal journey after tying the knot with fellow shuttler Parupalli Kashyap, a 2014 CWG gold-medallist. In the men’s circuit, Sameer Verma raised the bar with three titles — Swiss Open Super 300, Syed Modi International Super 300 and Hyderabad Open Super 100 event.
A semifinal finish at his maiden World Tour Finals propelled him to a career-best ranking of world no 14. The prodigal talent of 17-year-old Lakshya gave the belief that Indian badminton is in safe hands. He clinched the Asian Junior Championships title and silver and bronze medals at the Youth Olympic Games and World Junior Championships respectively. The year ended for him with a title at the Tata Open India International.
However, the unprecedented number of titles that Indian shuttlers won last year couldn’t be matched this season as star shuttler Kidambi Srikanth looked a pale shadow of his past self, failing to lay claim to a single title even though he made the quarters and semifinals regularly.
For Srikanth, who clinched as many as four titles in 2017, the highlight of 2018 was the individual silver at Commonwealth Games. He also helped India win historic team gold at the Gold Coast event. He reached the world no.1 ranking for a brief period but as the year progressed, his standing dipped to 8th.
Sindhu, on the other hand, was consistent throughout the year. The 23-year-old, who won two titles and three silvers last season, scooped silvers at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Championship besides runners-up finishes at the India Open and Thailand Open. But her failure to cross the final hurdle fuelled criticism which she answered in style by becoming the first Indian to win the season-ending World Tour Finals, snapping her run of seven consecutive finals losses starting last year.
In the process, she also tamed the indomitable world no.1 Tai Tzu Ying, who tormented the Indian and her colleague Saina for the most part this season. ‘”The year has ended on a beautiful note. Next year will be an Olympic qualification year and we have to keep ourselves fit and strategise on which tournaments to play,” Sindhu said.
In doubles, Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy reached greater heights, becoming the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win a silver at CWG, besides winning the Hyderabad Open Super 100 and finishing runners-up at the Syed Modi Super 300 tournament to stay inside the top 20. Ashwini Ponnappa too continued her love affair with the Commonwealth Games, adding a bronze medal to the gold (2010 edition) and silver (2014 edition) medals with her women’s doubles partner N Sikki Reddy.
The duo also finished runners-up for the second successive time at Syed Modi. Sourabh Verma too returned from injury to claim a place in the Asian Games team after winning a domestic tournament. He later won the Dutch Open Super 100 event in October. Subhankar Dey had a breakthrough year as he claimed his maiden international title with the SaarLorLux Open Super 100 event.
Kashyap also continued his bid to regain form and fitness and won the Austrian International. “For us the target this year was the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships and I am happy that we have done well in all of them. Next is a fresh year and the All England will be the target,” national coach Pullela Gopichand said.
There were also controversies and court battles over the selection of the Indian team for the Asian Games when the national federation picked two additional women’s singles players. One of them happened to be the daughter of Gopichandand was picked over a third doubles pair, prompting doubles specialist Aparna Balan to move the Kerala High Court challenging her omission from the squad.