The pace of Olympic qualifications has gathered momentum and Thursday’s cut-off date for badminton showed that India will have a record seven players at the Rio Games in August.
It could have been eight if the the 2014 Glasgow Commenwealth Games gold medallist Parupalli Kashyap had not pulled out following a delayed knee surgery last month.
Kidambi Srikanth is the lone singles player and he has worked his way up with some sensational play in the last couple of years. Though he may not be among the medal prospects, he should go a fair distance if he gets a favourable draw.
In the last Games four years ago at London, India had five players and much of the credit for the phenomenal growth should go to arguably former All-England champion Pullela Gopichand whose academy in Hyderabad’s Gachhibowli is now a centre for excellence.
Over the years, outstanding men and women players came from Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bengal, Bombay and Hyderabad and the national championships had great flavour.
None of the great stalwarts had the good fortune of playing at the Olympics as the sport debuted at the Games only in Barcelona in 1992, though it was a demonstration sport way back at the momentous Munich Games in 1972.
Then 29-year-old Vimal Kumar, now Saina Nehwal’s coach, and Deepankar Bhattacharya, 20, were the only players to play in the men’s singles and at 27 Madhumita Bisht is the first Indian woman to play at the Olympics.
Bhattacharya, who was ranked ninth at that time, did well to win two rounds before losing to China’s Zhao Jianhua and Vimal lost in the first round. And would you believe it, China did not win any gold medal, Indonesia and South Korea dominating the events, though they had swept the major titles at the world championships before the Games.
As things stand today, only Saina appears to be a good bet for a medal, and P.V. Sindhu, the second women’s singles player in the Olympic draw for the first time, could have been in a better shape if only she had not cracked her ankle and stayed out of the game for a long spell. Now that she has qualified she is determined to push ahead.
Sain has recovered from both her psychological issues as well as fitness problems after splitting with her long-time coach Gopichand. Vimal has done well with her to give the confidence to become World No.1.
Anyone among the top eight can beat any other on a given day and Saina, notwithstanding her none-too-inspiring record against the Chinese, can still pull it off.
If she could reach semi-finals and final regularly on the circuit, she is in good shape and can get physically fit by the time the Games get underway.
After winning back-to-back bronze medals at the World badminton championships, international coaches predicted a phenomenal rise for India’s second singles player Pusarla Venkata Sindhu and a potential to be a world beater.
At least one Malaysian coach thought the Hyderabad girl would surpass her more illustrious citymate Saina Nehwal. Over two years ago, one of the famous five Sidek brothers, Razif saw in Sindhu great physical attributes to go with her enormous talent.
Whether she stands is 5ft.10 ½ inch or 11 inch, her height is Sindhu’s major advantage. Suddenly, she finds she has to adjust her movements and footwork on court to to pick dropshots and low smashes. She feels she has to think of negotiating her shorter opponents and that she cannot do with only her speed.
Sindhu is no day-dreamer. The day she saw Saina return to Hyderabad to a huge reception after winning the bronze at the London Olympics, the 16-year-old daughter of professional volleyball players, in her own words, was determined to be there at Rio Olympics and possibly come back with a medal.
Razif, a top-notch doubles player in his time, was pleasantly surprised to find six Indians among the top 50 men players in the world rankings at that time, but he was unhappy that the country was not paying enough attention to the doubles play.
Talking of doubles, India will have a men’s doubles pair at Rio in Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy, while Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa will be playing in their second Olympics women’s doubles.
(Veturi Srivatsa is a senior journalist and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at [email protected])