Padukone, Gopichand, Nehwal, Sindhu - Who is the G.O.A.T of Indian badminton?
Responsible for bringing glory to Indian badminton, who is it that leads the G.O.A.T debate among the the quadruple set of Padukone, Gopichand, Nehwal and Sindhu?
Much has been said and written about the rise of Indian badminton over the last few decades as it has shown a meteoric rise - in both popularity as well as success. Shooting to the top echelons of the sport, Indian shuttlers have been stepping in up on the court - both on the global as well as the Olympic stages. Shuffling the batons quickly but steadily from Prakash Padukone in the 1970s-80s to Pullela Gopichand in the 90s and early half of the 21st century, badminton transferred its power to the Indian women soon with Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu storming into the picture.
A couple of title wins at the world's oldest badminton championship - the All England Open, to a plethora of World Championship medals of every hue and a golden crown glistening right at the top to another strew of Commonwealth Games and Asian Games medals to a couple of Olympic medals- a bronze and a silver adorning the loot, Indian shuttlers are plundering the badminton circuit and how!
For a sport that had its partial origins in India, it was expected that the country would produce champion shuttlers sooner or later. Like flint stones taking a while to get the fire started, badminton in India first became the talking point of the nation when Prakash Padukone, all of 23, won his first major international honour as he bagged a gold medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in men's singles.
Padukone, who was to become the Father of Indian badminton in the coming decades, was the original pioneer of the sport in India before Pulella Gopichand came under his wing and learnt the ropes to success and carved the feisty champions - Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu.
Placing the G.O.A.T's on a scale
Just like tennis adds new points and stats with every match the Big Three - Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic plays and refreshes the ever-elongating G.O.A.T debate, closer home, Indian badminton weighs its scales carefully.
While the parameters for judging the Big Three of tennis are more balanced, Indian badminton does not enjoy that privilege - evolved as it has over the decades. Yet, certain constants definitely do remain here as well. Being one of the fastest racquet sports in the world, badminton has been long-since dominated by the Asians and this command has only strengthened over the years - China, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Chinese Taipei call the shots and somewhere along, Spain and Denmark have also emerged as badminton powerhouses.
First, let's talk about Prakash Padukone - the man who can be held responsible for the growth of the sport in the country. With a gold at the 1978 CWG to picking up 2 bronzes at the Asiad to winning the prestigious All England Open title in 1980 after defeating Indonesian badminton legend Liem Swie King and a bronze at the 1983 World Championships, Padukone was the torchbearer of Indian badminton. Soon after hanging up the racquet, Padukone began the Prakash Padukone Centre for Excellence in Bangalore - which was one of the first state-of-the-art badminton academies of the nation.
Padukone took a talented Pullela Gopichand under his wing and decided to train him for unparalleled success. Despite a glorious beginning - adorned with bronze and silver medal wins at the 1998 Asiad and becoming the second Indian to lift the All England Open title, in 2001, Gopichand's career was peppered with injuries. Unable to continue for long and achieve the full extent of his glory, Gopichand switched seats from being on the court to being the man behind the players on the court as he took to coaching. This single shift and the creation of the Pullela Gopichand Academy is singularly responsible for the sporting success we see in badminton today.
Perhaps the G.O.A.T argument will find more base if we were to only compare Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu. Nehwal, a former World No. 1 and a bronze medallist at the 2012 London Olympics made the Indians dream of success at the Olympics with her phenomenal run on the BWF circuit. However, it was PV Sindhu, lanky and lithe who redefined the sport all over again - winning 5 World Championship medals, including the crown in 2019 and a glistening silver at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the former World No. 2 is one of the best shuttlers the country has ever seen.
With Saina Nehwal failing to make the cut for Tokyo, all hopes are pinned on PV Sindhu as the 26-year-old will head to the Japanese capital with a lot of expectations on her shoulders. Not unfamiliar to big matches and the dangers of pressure, PV Sindhu, has the slight upper edge in winning the GOAT debate, if there has to be a victor, at all. A second medal at the Olympics, paired with her World Championship crown, will be enough to guarantee her the pole position in this tricky debate.
Who can win the G.O.A.T debate?
Much has changed in the world since Prakash Padukone lifted the racquet for the first time in the 1960s. Badminton back then and the badminton we come to see right now varies in great degree - the competition has increased in intensity, the roads to success filled with more thorns than ever and media attention has become intertwined with the once-remotely-covered sport.
During the heydays of Prakash Padukone, badminton was not a part of the Olympic roster. It was only at the 1992 Barcelona Games that badminton was included in the fold and it was an Asian whitewash almost with Susi Susanti, Alan Budikusuma, Ardy Wiranata, Bang Soo-hyun ruling the roost.
The arrival of Haryana's Saina Nehwal and Hyderabad's PV Sindhu on the scene, however radically transformed badminton as we knew it. Earlier Indians would be apprehensive about shuttlers making it past the qualifying rounds of BWF tournaments and the Asiads and CWG's and the Olympic dream was too sacred to be even nurtured in the eyes. Yet, with mere 10 days remaining before the Tokyo Olympics begin in full swing at the Japanese capital, India has one of their strongest medal hopes pinned on PV Sindhu - who will be eager to upgrade her Rio silver to a Tokyo gold. Things indeed have changed and what was once a daring dream is now a thing of tangible reality.
The quadruple set of Prakash Padukone, Pullela Gopichand, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have worked like clockwork to fashion one of the country's best examples of how champion athletes and Olympic medallists can be moulded. If badminton were to have a family tree, then Padukone would be its Don Vito Corleone - Godfather-like sitting at the helm, while Pullela Gopichand would be its rightful Michael Corleone, calling the shots and helping carve a Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu and routing them for glory.
Each of the players have contributed immensely in constructing the structure we have of badminton right now - embellishing it every now and then with a title, a trophy or a medal win. To crown any particular player as the Greatest of All Time - the ultimate G.O.A.T wouldn't be the fairest of judgements. Perhaps, it is really the victory of badminton here for India more than anything.
If Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand lit the flame for Indian badminton, it was Nehwal and Sindhu who kept adding the timely wood to the pile and ensured that it soars and burns bright - inflamed with hope. However, If PV Sindhu does go on to do the impossible at the Tokyo Olympics - winning a second medal at the Olympics and if she triumphs in upgrading the colour to gold, history will remember as the Indian G.O.A.T, all hands down.