Historic win propels India into first Thomas Cup finalMay 14, 2022
India will line up against 14-time Thomas Cup champions Indonesia on Sunday after a historic 3-2 semifinal victory over Denmark in Bangkok.
Indonesia is to shuttle what Australia used to be to cricket in the 1990s — defending champions and relentless at the prestigious team event, having won the most titles. But then, this unheralded Indian badminton team resembles the 1983 World Cup cricket squad in sheer audacity — and the belief that they could make the finals of a tournament that powerhouses Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Japan and Denmark have prioritised over every other event.
It’s a belief that runs deep in the players, as well as the coaches who have been with this bunch for long. Before Friday, India had never made the semis before in this format.
This time, seasoned and technically sophisticated strokes, polished over years of playing, finally got coupled with excellent planning and strategy as the stars aligned to propel India into the top echelon of badminton. India have had several individual titles, but in the world of shuttle, it is the Thomas and Uber Cups that unofficially certify a country’s credentials as gold-standard.
The poster boys of Indian men’s badminton — Kidambi Srikanth and H S Prannoy in singles and, crucially, the country’s best doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty — once again stood up to be counted. All of them have been in the Top 10 and made it to circuit finals. But nothing puts the stamp of a bonafide hero in badminton like helping the country into a Thomas Cup final.
Against Denmark, Lakshya Sen, India’s top singles player, absorbed the attack of Olympic champ Viktor Axelsen while going down in straight sets. But just like the quarterfinals against Malaysia on Thursday, the doubles pairing of Satwik and Chirag dragged India into contention — the bobbing, bouncing yellow headbanded figure of Chirag exploding on the front court.
The sheer intensity shown by Chirag, the Mumbai lad, ensured that a 20-18 second-set lead that they frittered didn’t puncture their chances. Fondly known as “Google” for staying up-to-date with information from the search engine, Chirag had the snappier racquet angles than Astrup-Christiansen, and the louder roars. He eventually got Satwik to bring out his own booming game as they won the decider.
But even as India’s second doubles pair went down, Srikanth and Prannoy shouldered the responsibility of taking out the two crucial singles matches against opponents ranked higher than them — Antonsen and Gemke. The singles wins relied on two sets of games where the aggression of strokeplay was tempered by the poise of two experienced 29-year-olds.
More than anything, Friday’s performance will count as the win of India’s united squad, not embittered by the usual Hyderabad-Bangalore-Mumbai rivalries and factionalism — the players get along famously, bonding over PubG and street style dancing.
The support staff included Vimal Kumar who has dreamt of a Thomas Cup final, hearing tales from friend Prakash Padukone. There was also Mohammad Siyadatullah, an affable coach from Gopichand’s academy who has accompanied Srikanth and Prannoy and Satwik-Chirag since their teenage years, and was courtside today for the crucial singles. Also forming the planning team were veteran coach Vijaydeep Singh and the younger Arun Vishnu, who has shepherded the doubles players.
“Right from the beginning, it was made clear to the players that we have a very balanced team and each one, whether in singles or doubles, has beaten the best. Hence we needed to firmly believe that we were on par with any of the best nations that had won the Thomas Cup before,” Vimal Kumar said.
“Before and after the group matches, coaches and players would meet and openly discuss the composition of the team we would be fielding. The coaches ensured that players were given time to prepare well for their matches by taking into consideration the strength and weaknesses of the opponent,” he said.