Doubles a missing link in Indian badminton (Column: High Toss)

Saina Nehwal and Pusarla Venkata Sindhu are two Indians among the top-10 ranked women in world badminton. Add to it eight men in the top-50 and the country’s performance graph zooms to impressive heights.

If some doubles pairs could join the ranks of the singles players, India would be among the world’s best in a sport of high skills and stamina.

In the last decade or so, India’s singles players have been creating waves. They have won major Super Series and Grand Prix titles, matching the best in the business, including the Chinese.

Saina, Sindhu, Parupalli Kashyap, Kidambi Srikanth are the names that are taken seriously by top shuttlers of the world.

It all started with Saina, at 18, becoming the first Indian to win the World Junior Championship. She followed it up with the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold and the historic Olympic bronze in 2012. By now she appeared exhausted, injuries did not help her cause and her form dipped drastically.

As if to make up for Saina’s slump, the new kid-on-the-block Sindhu stepped in and straightaway created history by becoming the first Indian woman to win a World Championship singles medal, a bronze.

Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa joined the party, clinching the 2010 CWG gold in New Delhi and following it up by taking the 2011 doubles bronze at the World Championships, the first for the country since the legendary Prakash Padukone won 28-years-ago in 1983.

When they were riding high, Jwala-Ashwini had the highest doubles ranking of 13. After the London Games, Jwala decided to go on a sabbatical and by the time she returned to the circuit to again pair up with Ashwini, the world had changed. Their loss of form and ranking made India’s position difficult in team events.

Come to think of it, there is no Indian pair in the top-35 of men’s doubles while Jwala and Ashwini are the highest ranked Indian women’s doubles combine at No.60. In mixed doubles, Ashwini and Tarun Kona are the top Indians at 35.

The absence of good doubles pairs will hurt India in the prestigious Thomas and Uber Cups, to be played in India for the first time May 18-25. Though India has a forgettable record in the two events, they should try and put up a good show since the tournament is being played in the national capital.

India nearly reached the Thomas Cup final twice in the 1950s. Despite some good individual players, the team has lacked good doubles combinations to provide the depth and seriously challenge world beaters for the Cups.

How far are the Indian coaches responsible for the neglect of doubles? The easy way out is to blame chief national coach Pullela Gopichand. But that would be unfair to a man who has done so much for Indian badminton.

Gopi’s hands are full with singles players. The former All-England champion also has to take care of his ultra modern academy in Hyderabad. Moreover, he was a competent singles player and not a doubles specialist in his playing days.

Danish Olympic silver medallist Carsten Mogensen had told IANS that if India is concerned about the poor standards of their doubles combinations, they should seriously consider getting a permanent overseas doubles coach.

The Badminton Association of India (BAI) keeps hiring foreign doubles coaches for several academies and camps but no coach has been hired on a permanent basis to look after the national doubles teams.

England head coach Jakob Hoi and former Malaysian great Rashid Sidek had told IANS that they don’t see much growth in Indian doubles players, with Rashid adding that India’s focus is only on singles.

Rashid’s brother and 1992 Thomas Cup champion Razif told IANS in January that if India ignores doubles, they will pay heavily in the Thomas and Uber Cups.

If BAI seriously wants to make progress in doubles, it will need to hire specialist doubles coaches for the national team. Whether they come from abroad or use former Indian players, the process should start at the earliest.

After all, three of the five categories in badminton belong to doubles play.

(Sandip Sikdar is the IANS badminton correspondent. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at sandip.s@ians.in)

IANS