Sudirman Cup could herald India’s entry into badminton’s powerhouse club

India cannot be called a bonafide badminton powerhouse till it medals – and medals big – at the Sudirman Cup this summer.

Sure, there is much to boast of in India’s badminton history – in PV Sindhu, there’s a world champion, there’s Olympic and World Championship medals at every edition of the last decade. There’s a bunch of Tour titles, though those have dried up since the pandemic. There’s even a Thomas Cup crown, a source of infinite and enduring pride, perhaps India’s greatest shuttle moment. But nothing carries the stamp of overall dominance, of depth and development like the mixed team event of the Sudirman Cup.

The enchanting trophy – shaped like a shuttle with the likeness of the Borobudur temple engraving on top – has been won by China a dozen times. In fact, so massive is the Chinese stranglehold that only Korea have managed to break it twice since 1995. Japan made the last two finals, but finished a distant second in final scorelines.

Winning the Sudirman Cup needs a country to compete over the complete set – men’s and women’s singles, both doubles and mixed doubles. And China seem to summon the right personnel for this trophy every time.

Realistically, India can dream of a bronze, though who would have once thought that a Thomas Cup win was possible? If an ambition for the Sudirman Cup is brewing amongst players, let no one tell them it’s impossible. There’s a generation of shuttlers – Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy, Satwik Sairaj Rankireddy, Chirag Shetty, Ashwini Ponnappa along with youngsters Treesa Jolly, Gayatri Gopichand and Lakshya Sen wanting to paint the town a merry gold with their combined legacies. And India has even bid to host the Sudirman in May, should Suzhou in China not find itself ready to hold the team event.

It could all start with the Asian Mixed Team event this upcoming week at Dubai – a dress rehearsal of sorts for the Sudirman in a few months. Rarely has India even ventured to feel this wave of confidence regarding their mixed team credentials at the topmost level, as they do now. The Thomas Cup win ignited a tiny flame of team spirit in this highly individual sport. And there are scores that need settling – like that lost gold in the team event to Malaysia, from the Commonwealth Games last year. There’s an opportunity in the group stages at the Asian mixed team event this week to reverse that score.

Significance of team events

Tennis has its Davis Cup. But the sport of badminton prizes its three team events – Thomas & Uber Cup as well as the Sudirman Cup – above any Tour event, and places them almost on the same emotive level as the Olympics. It’s also why doubles is rated on par with singles in badminton, given three of the five events in team face-offs are paired events.

Players have been known to be pulled out from the circuit and deployed on national duty for the South-East Asian Games. And the likes of Malaysia, Korea, Japan, and China of course, prepare heavily in anticipation of the team championships.

India sniffs a chance this year because like the Thomas Cup, there’s reasonable depth across the five events – as well as faith in Sindhu and Satwik-Chirag being capable of beating anyone in the world. You need to win three of the five, and with India’s men’s singles looking stronger than ever with all of Prannoy, Lakshya and Srikanth more than capable, a dream has sprouted about the hitherto never-dreamt of Sudirman Cup.

Mixed doubles might be a slight lacuna, though Ashwini can be formidable in team events. But with Treesa-Gayatri improving by the day, it could be a second straight summer of a pioneering effort in another team event for Indian badminton.

It wasn’t this optimistic earlier. India simply never had a bunch of players to pull out a clump of wins – all in contention at the same time. Singles players inevitably played doubles. Either the doubles specialists weren’t good enough to compete at that level, or the singles players would scrimp away their ambition to focus solely on their event and volunteer to become scratch pairings to facilitate a slightly better order-of-play permutation. Saina Nehwal and Sindhu or Sindhu and Ashwini would oftentimes be paired up just to ensure a preferable match-up and playing order for India. India’s team events never had the full set available in terms of doubles specialists – something that’s changed over the last two years.

There were Thomas Cup teams that lost to Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the past, so even qualifying for the 16-team event was once an almighty big deal. Sudirman was even more elite with 12 teams then. Given a pair of sponsor tee-shirts, the team would be on its way happy solely to make the cut.

All of that changed with doubles coming to the fore. In fact India won its first World Championship men’s doubles medal last year, and first ever Commonwealth Games team gold in 2018, earning the quiet respect as a complete contingent, not just one-off individual champions.

When Jwala Gutta-Ashwini and Saina were competitive, the men’s singles and doubles weren’t quite ready to challenge the best. And Sudirman pits the absolute best only, unlike Thomas & Uber with their three singles and two doubles.

Strength in depth

Badminton invests a lot of significance on team events, believing the sum of all five events holds greater importance than individual gold medals. A cursory look at the top shuttle nations points to not many countries actually possessing the sort of breadth and depth across the five events. China, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and Denmark do, and Korea always punches above its weight in team events. But India can fancy its chances, if they play it smart and nail the quarterfinal.

The Malaysian team noted earlier this week that even if it lost the Asian Team Championship group game to India, it could still bounce back with two teams going ahead. It was the clearest admission of India now being considered a dangerous team, the Thomas Cup having spooked others plenty and forced them to take note.

Perhaps the biggest acknowledgement came from equipment major Yonex, a Japanese company, expanding its manufacturing facility near Bengaluru to cater to the demands of more sophisticated racquets, for club players. Earlier, racquets made at their India-based factory were good enough only for beginners. But the Thomas Cup victory would change perceptions, as the manufacturer tipped its hat to the newest champions in town. Nothing spells respect like broadening commerce. And Tsutomu Yoneyama, the Yonex chairman, would confess the team World Cup triumph was his cue to accept that India was ready to be called a powerhouse.

Of course, India has a long way to go, and is several steps behind the likes of Thailand and Japan in all-event development, especially doubles which is only just taking off. Results on the circuit are encouraging, but the titles are not quite there to label them straight-up top contenders. Yet the mere attempt at focusing on the Sudirman Cup realistically is exciting as a nation. The Thomas Cup has ensured no one will take them lightly now at the Asian mixed team event.

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