Tough chance for Sindhu, Satwik-Chirag will be dark horses at Tokyo Olympics - Manjusha Kanwar
Dissecting the growth of Indian badminton in recent years, 10-time National Champion Manjusha Kanwar analyses the medal prospects of Sindhu, Sai Praneeth and Satwik-Chirag at the Tokyo Olympics.
Indian badminton, over the past three decades, has undergone sharp changes that have proven effective in seeing the nation step out of the shadows and produce shuttlers capable of conquering the Olympics, World Championships and the regular BWF titles and even be, World No. 1's. Ranging from Pullela Gopichand during the fin de siècle to Aparna Popat, V Diju, Jwala Gutta and finally to the trio of Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth - Indian badminton has been growing in leaps and bounds.
The reasons behind it are several and with the Tokyo Olympics around the corner, The Bridge had a free-wheeling chat with veteran badminton player Manjusha Kanwar, who has collected 10 National Championship titles during her heydays in the 90s. Currently, Manjusha, a silver medallist at the 2004 South Asian Games, remains actively invested as the DGM of Sports Coordination at the Indian Oil Corporation.
Having seen Indian badminton through its highs and lows from incredibly close quarters, Manjusha has an expert eye and points out, "The major reason why badminton began to do so well in India is because of the change in the scoring system when it came down to 21 points. It is because of that badminton really opened up for India, players started doing better," she notes.
Moreover, badminton in India has gained proper international traction over the last few years and coaches are now more readily available. "The variety of international coaches we have right now is incredible. During my days, we hardly got such chances. Perhaps we'd get to practise with a Chinese coach sometimes...but that too for a month at most. Right now, there are more opportunities for training under Asian coaches who are very skilled. The overall exposure of badminton has increased manifold," Manjusha sieves out.
Fair enough, the changes have been drastic and highly positive for Indian badminton over the years and the road ahead is only a climb. "Back in my days, even if you were just reaching a quarter-final, you were doing well and nothing more. There was no knowledge as such. Slowly people started understanding thanks to more tournaments, more money and the coverage by the media," the Sports Coordinator at IOC says. "Every victory can be highlighted now unlike before when you had to be World No. 1 or you were nothing, it seemed. The media has played a key role here and even players feel motivated to see their wins being talked about, celebrated, it inspires them to do better," Kanwar reasoned.
Kanwar, who along with her contemporary players, have reached a stage in life where they are ready to give back and hopes that the Badminton Association of India (BAI) starts coordinating more with them and a proper structure is established. Manjusha feels that badminton in India can scale greater heights by constructing more regional academies, national coaching centres and focussing on the grassroots and having a set of different people looking after each stage, all of it leading up to the centre like a pyramid structure.
Tough road ahead for both PV Sindhu and B. Sai Praneeth
The world is struck by a pandemic and that hasn't spelt the fortunes well for anybody and even players have been a victim to its effects. The COVID-19 pandemic managed to tamper with life as we knew it as normalcy was disrupted and subjected to utter chaos - spiking worries in the mental health sector of athletes.
A grave period of uncertainty loomed in the year for much of 2020-21, the Tokyo Olympics got postponed and tournaments began to get slashed, drastically reducing the number of match-practice they could get before the Games. Manjusha feels, "In a way, nobody has really stood to gain from this. Everybody is at a disadvantage here - there is equality in that aspect. So, in Tokyo, it will be tricky and it could be anybody's game," she reassures.
Going into the Tokyo Games with a lot of hopes pinned on their shoulders will be 2016 Rio Games silver medallist PV Sindhu and 2019 World Championships bronze medallist B. Sai Praneeth along with the World No. 10 doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. With former World No. 1's and Olympians Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth failing to make the Tokyo cut, all the pressure will be once again targeted mainly at the 2019 World Champion, PV Sindhu.
"Oh, it will be very difficult and tough for her," Manjusha promptly replies when asked about the chances of Sindhu medalling once more. "You see, we've always seen her doing well. She has been training hard for the last 3-4 months under her Korean coach, Park. So, she is definitely looking confident and will be very close to medalling at the Olympics," Manjusha mentions.
Like many others, Manjusha too believes that Rio Games gold medallist, Spain's Carolina Marin's unfortunate absence from the Tokyo Games will act as a major boon for PV Sindhu. However, there will be World No. 1 Tai Tzu-ying, Chen Yufei and the Japanese girls - Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi to give PV Sindhu a tough time.
"Being extremely lithe, the Japanese girls can make you run all around and cost you a lot of energy. Plus, with the Games being held in Tokyo, both Okuhara and Yamaguchi will have a clear home advantage. It will be really difficult for Sindhu. But she is a seasoned player and these are familiar opponents - if she gets a good draw, she stands a chance to at least go till the semi-finals," Manjusha realistically puts.
For B. Sai Praneeth as well, this will be his debut outing at the Games and once again, there will be a lot of roadblocks he will have to cross. The likes of World No. 1 Kento Momota, 2016 Rio bronze medallist Viktor Axelsen, Chinese Taipei's Chou Tien Chen are most likely to throw up difficult challenges for Praneeth as they chase their individual Olympic glory.
"A good draw is what can only help Sai Praneeth. As far as going all the way concerns, if he plays really well, yes, he does have the potential. He might make it to the quarters and cause a few upsets - but there's just so much competition in the men's side, it will be difficult," Manjusha analysed.
A new era in men's doubles in India with Satwik-Chirag
The youngest and the most dynamic duo to enter the Tokyo Games from India will be the pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. Both in their early 20's, Satwik and Chirag are touted as India's future in men's doubles and they have shown the signs for it - picking up majestic wins at the 2018 Hyderabad Open, 2019 Thailand Open and being a silver medallist at the 2018 CWG.
"They were World No. 7 and are World No. 10 right now, it's incredible for men's doubles. It's sad how they haven't received a lot of media attention yet. When they get going, they are a force to reckon with. In the last few years, they picked up the game and started playing really well. They would be the dark horses at the Tokyo Olympics. They will go in as the underdogs and people will have zero expectations from them, I think so. On their day, they can just about beat anyone," Manjusha gushes, the excitement surging in her voice.
Throbbing with a lot of talent and potential, Satwik-Chirag will hope to make a dashing outing at the Tokyo Olympics, where they will debut. Although there isn't a lot of pressure on them as they are first-timer's at the Games, both Satwik-Chirag are miracle-workers and with Danish coach, Mathias Boe onboard, they will be a formidable force in Tokyo.
Adding a message for Satwik-Chirag, the veteran shuttler goes on, "If I had the chance I would tell them - You just play your best, play fantastic badminton. You have the capability to surprise anyone. Enjoy the whole Olympic atmosphere and give your best, the entire country will be rooting for you..." she trails off, "I'm just thinking, they might just reach the semi-finals if it's their day, quite incredible," Manjusha says, the hint of apprehension all too apparent in her voice before she warmly signs off.