2019 has not been a happy year for Indian badminton. The latest disappointment came at the Sudirman Cup, the world mixed team championship, where India crashed out in the first round after defeats to Malaysia and China.
National coach Pullela Gopichand is of the opinion that the downturn comes due to the fact that the players had to go through a rather hectic 2019 with the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Championships. "Last year was a very tough calendar and we hardly had any time for preparation," Gopichand told IANS.
Gopichand said that first lot of preparation for the Olympics will start in June and July following which he expects a better performance from the players. "It is the first time where we get about five to six weeks with the players and that's when we hope that we will be able to reverse this run," he said.
Gopichand also said that this period of training was planned well in advance and the players' performances won't cause any changes to it.
Back to the Sudirman Cup, with Kidambi Srikanth not being able to take part in the men's singles, India lost 3-2 to Malaysia in their first match and the second was a 5-0 whitewash against China. India had reached the quarterfinals in the previous edition of the biennial tournament, where they lost 3-0 to China.
However, this exit is only part of a trend for Indian shuttlers this year. Saina Nehwal is the only Indian to have won a title in 2019. This came in the form of the Indonesia Masters in January after her opponent in the final, Carolina Marin, twisted her knee midway through the match and had to pull out. Marin was dominating the game before that.
At the All England Championships, Saina was ousted in the quarter-final by Taiwanese world no. 1 Tai Tzu Ying while she crashed out of the Malaysia Open in the first round.
P.V. Sindhu ended 2018 with a historic win at the BWF World tour finals, but has been unable to carry that momentum into 2019. She has faced defeats in all four matches she has played this year against top-10 opposition.
Her year started with a quarter final defeat to Marin after which she ended runner-up to Saina Nehwal at the National Championships. She then gave the German Open a miss to prepare for the All England Championships. But, the world no. 5 ended up losing to South Korea's Sung Ji-Hyun, against whom she had a favourable head to head record. The disappointment that defeat could have been somewhat erased had she lived up to expectations at the Indian Open, where she started off as a firm favourite but lost in the semi-finals to China's He Bingjao. She played the Malaysian Open and the Indonesian Open next before the Sudirman Cup. In Malaysia she lost to Sunh Ji Hyun again, this time in the second round and exited at the quarter-final stage in Indonesia.
In his six outings thus far in the year, Srikanth failed to make it past the quarter finals of all individual tournaments except at the Indian Open, where he lost to Danish star Viktor Axelsen in the final. He has now dropped to ninth in the world rankings.
Sameer Verma, the highest ranked Indian behind Srikanth, was the latter's replacement at the Sudirman Cup. He was the favourite in the match-up against Indonesia with 20th ranked Lee Zii Jia at the other end but ended being humbled 21-13, 21-15. However, he was impressive in the next match against Olympic gold medallist Chen Long. In what was a highly entertaining match, Long eventually won 21-17, 22-10. His performance was in stark contrast to his teammates' in the tie.
Before the Sudirman Cup, Verma, who had reached the final of the Hong Kong Open last year, reached the quarter finals in Singapore and at the Badminton Asia Championships.
The slump in form for the major stars comes at a rather awkward time with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics around the corner. The team's failure at the Sudirman Cup also casts a shade over their impressive win at the Commonwealth Games where they beat Malaysia 3-1 to secure gold.
Doubles Form Also a Concern
In the men's double, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty started their season late due to the former recuperating from a shoulder injury he sustained before the Premier Badminton League. However, it has been a promising start for them as they won the Brazil International and followed it with a semi-final finish at the Li-Ning Denmark Challenge.
In Rankireddy's absence, Shetty had teamed up with Pranaav Jerry Chopra at the senior national championships and the Swiss Open. While they won the former, the pair reached the quarter-finals in Switzerland.
Rankireddy's injury also meant that Ashwini Ponnappa's mixed doubles season started only at the Sudirman Cup, before which she played seven tournaments with women's doubles partner N. Sikki Reddy and reached the quarter finals in two of those