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Indian badminton in 2021: Srikanth, Lakshya revive mixed year

'All's well that ends well' was Indian badminton's adage for the year.

Srikanth and Lakshya

The pandemic-affected year of 2021 was an extraordinary one for global badminton in that both the BWF World Championships and the Olympic badminton tournament took place in the same calendar year for the first time in history. The majority of international tournaments were cancelled or postponed in the first half of the year. Once the pandemic situation improved, players were compelled to participate in a glut of prestige tournaments held at very short intervals. Starting with the Sudirman Cup in late September and ending with the Worlds in December, the lopsided scheduling caused a spate of injuries and withdrawals but did allow newer names to emerge.

From an Indian perspective, Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen’s podium finishes at the World Championships sweetened a year that saw no major tournament wins by an Indian individual or team. Many of the problems mentioned back in January 2020 still remain even though the outlook isn’t as dire as it was a few months ago. More importantly for the BAI and it’s social media teams, India’s record of winning at least one medal at the Worlds or Olympics since 2011 still stands.

Here we look back at how the big names from India fared in 2021.

Men’s Singles

Kidambi Srikanth

Kidambi Srikanth

Kidambi Srikanth is the man of the moment in Indian badminton. From failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics to becoming the first Indian male to win a World Championship silver, Srikanth’s 2021 season had all the familiar beats of a sports biopic.

A Worlds medal was not on the forecast of Srikanth-watchers in the early part of the year when loss after loss piled up in the few tournaments that did not get cancelled. Factors such as dearth of quality coaching and mental burn-out were mentioned as possible reasons for the former World No.1’s downfall.

Signs of a resurgence in finally appeared in November through semi-final appearances in the Hylo Open Super 500 and Indonesia Masters Super 750 competitions. The subsequent World Championships at Huelva saw Srikanth qualify for his first final of any tournament in nearly two years. There, the Guntur-based shuttler beat Chinese Thomas Cup finalists Li Shifeng and Lu Guangzu in consecutive matches, scored an easy win over Dutch Mark Caljouw in the quarters to ensure a first-ever medal and defeated compatriot Lakshya Sen in an exciting semifinal contest to achieve a historic feat. He only lost in the finals to the juggernaut that was Loh Kean Yew.

The one criticism that still applies to Srikanth is that barring a win each against Ng Ka Long Angus and Jonathan Christie, he did not look close to beating Top 10 players or even upcoming names such as Kunlavut Vitidsarn. His performances as a senior team member in the Thomas and Sudirman Cups were also less-than-inspiring.

Lakshya Sen

Lakshya Sen

Not since the emergence of PV Sindhu in 2013 has any Indian youngster impressed as much as Lakshya Sen. A World Championship bronze on debut and a maiden World Tour Finals appearance seem to justify the hype surrounding the 20-year old.

Though the opponents Lakshya beat at the Worlds might not at present be as illustrious as the ones Sindhu had to face during her breakthrough run in 2013, it was the manner of the wins that indicate Lakshya is meant for bigger things. In the quarter-finals, Lakshya was match point down at 19-20 against China’s Zhao Junpeng but turned it around to win 22-20 and get the all-important podium. He had earlier defeated the seeded player Kenta Nishimoto in three games and Olympic 4th-place finisher Kevin Cordon to get to the quarters. The narrow semifinal loss to Srikanth only served to demonstrate his potential.

For all the positives of the Worlds though, it must be remembered that Lakshya (like contemporaries Vitidsarn and Li Shifeng) is still very much a work-in-progress. Throughout 2021, he suffered defeats to lower-ranked players in some tournaments and got easily out-classed by the likes of Viktor Axelsen and Kento Momota in others.

He was also sorely missed in the Thomas and Sudirman Cup campaigns and will likely be among the first names selected for the next edition.

HS Prannoy

HS Prannoy

2021 could well prove to be the turning point in HS Prannoy’s career. The 29-year old registered wins against higher-ranked players Ng Ka Long Angus and Rasmus Gemke on his way to a best-ever World Championships quarter-final finish. Earlier at the Indonesia Masters Super 750 he defeated reigning Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen, the first Indian player to do so since 2017.

Prannoy by his own admission has battled years of injuries and illnesses. While he suffered first-round exits throughout 2020 and the first half of this year and was no where close to Olympic qualification, the last two months have seen him return to the kind of form that helped him defeat Lin Dan multiple times. If he can combine this new-found second wind with a string of consistent results, 2022 could be the year when he finally gets his due on the international stage.

B Sai Praneeth

B Sai Praneeth

Sport can be fickle. B. Sai Praneeth was one of the top Indian shuttlers at the beginning of 2021 and the only Indian MS representative at the Olympics. But the 29-year old endured such a torrid time at the Games and beyond that questions over his future in the sport will certainly be raised.

At Tokyo, Praneeth tamely lost to lower ranked opponents Misha Zilberman and Mark Caljouw to crash out in the group stage itself. A poor showing in the Sudirman and Thomas Cups and a Round of 64 exit to Caljouw at the World Championships followed, as did a number of other first-round losses.

Quarter-final appearances at the Indonesia Open Super 1000 and Swiss Open Super 300 were the only silver linings in a disappointing 2021 for Praneeth. He is in desperate need for a career revival and need not look further than Srikanth and Prannoy for inspiration.

The Rest

Indian MS players in general struggled against the big teams in the Team Championships. India lost 1-4 to China in the group stages and 1-3 to Denmark in the quarter-finals of the Thomas Cup, neither of the two wins coming through MS.

With Praneeth running out of steam, Sameer Verma established his credentials as someone who should be further in the pecking order of Indian MS shuttlers. Though he did not win any titles, Sameer defeated Top 10 players on the way to quarters finishes at the Super 1000 Thailand and Denmark Opens.

Kiran George won the Polish International and reached R16 of the Orleans Masters Super 100 tournament. He was also a member of the Thomas Cup team.

Women’s Singles

PV Sindhu

PV Sindhu

PV Sindhu has set such high standards that a year that saw her win an Olympic medal is considered a disappointment. The Sindhu Express showed signs of slowing down through much of the year in the face of Tai Tzu Ying and An Se Young. But the 26-year old put together a typically clutch performance at Tokyo 2020 to clinch bronze. She became the only the second Indian and the first woman to win two individual Olympic medals.

The opponents she beat at Tokyo included Akane Yamaguchi in the quarterfinals and He Biangjiao in the bronze medal match. More recently her semifinal win against Yamaguchi in the World Tour Finals was one of the best matches of the year.

Apart from these results it was a rather sedate year for Sindhu. She lost in both the tournament finals she contested in and a World Championship quarter-final loss to Tai meant that she would go medal-less for the first time in a World event since 2015. With Carolina Marin expected to make a comeback in 2022, Sindhu will have her work cut out for the next season.

The Rest

Saina Nehwal spent most of the year in injury and could not qualify for the Olympics. A semifinal appearance at the Orleans Masters Super 100 was all she could muster in 2021.

With Saina injured and Sindhu choosing to opt out, the Indian Sudirman and Uber Cup campaign gave fans a glimpse of a world beyond the two celebrated shuttlers. Aditi Bhatt, Tasnim Mir and Malvika Bansod showed sparks of talent but the gulf between them and the world’s best WS shuttlers is far too stark at the moment.

Men’s Doubles

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty

Satwik and Chirag were unlucky in 2021. Their best performances went unnoticed due to factors beyond their control while their maiden World Tour Finals appearance had to be cut short due to injury.

The team beat eventual gold medalists Lee Yang and Wan Chi-Lin in the Tokyo 2020 group stages but could themselves not progress to the next round. They had to miss out on the Sudirman Cup due to Chirag’s injury. However they were the sole Indian winners in the Thomas Cup matches against China and Denmark. They also made it to three tournament semifinals in the but are still searching for the big breakthrough tournament.

MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila won a Sudirman Cup tie against Thailand but that remains their sole high point of the year.

Women’s Doubles

India’s top Women’s Doubles team of Ashwini Ponappa and N. Sikki Reddy put up decidedly average performances throughout the year. They beat a Chinese pair on the way to a R16 finish at the Worlds and reached the semis of the Orleans Masters earlier in March. They also made it to the finals of the Denmark Masters and qualified for the World Tour Finals. On the other hand they lost their Sudirman and Uber Cup games and failed to make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics.

The other Indian pair of Rituparna Panda and Tanisha Crasto fared slightly better in the Team Championships and came second to Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly in the India International Challenge.

Mixed Doubles

The top ranking Indian team of Satwik and Ashwini had decent results in the beginning of the year including a semi-final appearance at the Thailand Open but could not qualify for the Olympics. The team’s momentum was further derailed by Satwik’s injuries. The unheralded duo of Sikki Reddy-Dhruv Kapila beating the top Indonesian pair of Praveen Jordan and Melati Oktavianti in the Indonesia Masters Super 750 was the only other notable XD result of the year for India.

In a bizarre move Indian selectors opted to go with singles specialists Srikanth and Praneeth instead of a fit Satwik for the Sudirman Cup XD competition; the decision expectedly backfired as India crashed out in the group stages.

Overall 2022 in Indian badminton could see more emphasis on MS and the duo of Satwik and Chirag with Mulyo Handoyo and Tan Kim Her coming back. WS will still be dominated by Sindhu while WD and XD will continue to play second fiddle.