World association

P Gopichand writes: ‘This is the real World Cup…proud of the team’

The most encouraging aspect of India’s Thomas Cup squad today was seeing Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy beat Mohammad Ahsan-Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo. All the times our boys have faced Kevin Sanjaya, they have lost 11-0. It was as individuals. Today, Team India supports their efforts, plans them and supports them. It makes a difference, and it was a first where India played as a unit. Earlier, if Saina was playing, Sindhu wouldn’t be there. And if Sindhu was playing, Saina was not there. If the doubles team was playing, the singles players weren’t really invested. It was definitely Team India’s win and I was so happy that Satwik-Chirag gave it back to the Indonesians.

In my mind, I knew it was possible when we did the math. But whether that will actually be possible depends on the individual players, and today they nailed it perfectly, which was wonderful to watch. When we talk about Indian team sport at the highest level, it is about the real World Cup which India won in a game spread all over the world and with fanciful powers. I am proud to be a badminton player today. It was coming for years, but things are falling into place now. I could even believe in the magic of our players.

Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Denmark will be in shock tonight wondering how India won. This will be reported for years. In Malaysia, they still remember stories of how they won a title in 1991 with the Sidek brothers, and they won Datukhoods (similar to knights) and acres of land. Legends are born. Remember, the Indonesian and Malaysian teams, when they lose, are going to be thinking ‘Can I go home?’ You will hear calls “change coach, change association” in stride. That’s how much the Thomas Cup means to these badminton-crazed nations. Coaches fear for their jobs and players get shredded. If you told half the guys in my association the day before that India are winning the Thomas Cup, even they wouldn’t believe it. But the players did.

In my time, we lost 1-5 to Sri Lanka and 2-5 to Pakistan itself. For us, qualifying for the elite 16-team event was powerful, and when we beat Korea and Japan to qualify for the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup (for women) in 1999 in Delhi, we thought that was great. Prakash (Padukone) sir and I used to play both singles and doubles, we didn’t even have doubles specialists back then. We would be given two Yonex T-shirts and we would be on our way to these events. So you can understand where we started and the enormity of that.

India’s depth was exceptional. And if there were five more singles, India would still have won. You shouldn’t keep worrying about the big gold medal not coming to the Olympics, but instead keep pushing in the team events. Badminton Association of India, Sports Authority of India and Government helped us to push 10 players into Top 25 to win deep. We haven’t built that depth in the women’s team. The players would play their own games and not care about the rest of the team. Saina and Sindhu didn’t take the team, we should have built that culture in the Uber Cup. This is the difference between bronze and gold.

This victory comes from HS Prannoy and Kidambi Srikanth who do not take their place for granted, as well as Srikanth and Lakshya Sen who are fighting for this only place. But credit to the boys, they competed while helping each other. It’s a huge generous quality. They’ve each had debacles – lost at the Olympics, not qualifying for the Olympics, haven’t been in the limelight, lost big games. That fire to prove a point cooked them a bit more, which shows in their courage.

Opponents have started reading Lakshya and are making life difficult for him. He struggled around the corners, but he stood there and fought like a gladiator. It’s the character. Srikanth put incredible pressure on Jonatan Christie. It was the same in doubles. Our guys were fighting to be heroes; they avoided being called “bad guys” in their country.

It has been difficult for Indian male players with unfair comparisons to Saina and Sindhu. The Indian women have raised the bar so high that a Super 500 win for the men barely registers now – getting into the Top 10, the semis, the quarters will never make headlines. If they had lost the final today, all the excitement would have died down. Lakshya made the All-England final, but only his victory will put him on the same pedestal as Sindhu or Saina. So it was hard.

There are players who get the chance and jump on it, like Saina, Sindhu, Jwala (Gutta), and there are those who are not brave enough to take full advantage of it. Prannoy, Satwik Chirag, Srikanth, Lajshya proved they were brave enough to take this chance. To win a final is to be brave.

I will celebrate this victory with my family tonight, but the real party will be at the academy tomorrow. But I’ll wake up and think, ‘So what?’ These boys showing they can win the biggest title means I have to start thinking about the next tough target.

I remember Satwik’s mother came to see me when he was young, she told me that she had always dreamed of playing singles. Convincing Satwik, Dhruv, Krishna or even Gayatri that one can be a good singles player but a great doubles player took effort. This title is validation that great things can happen twice. If these men don’t clutter their minds with thoughts of money or count medals or become social media celebrities, stay in the moment, play smart and play aggressive, then great things will happen. It is not a dream that India has been actively dreaming of but now the country is going to live the dream with these amazing players.

(The writer is a Sydney Games Olympian, All England Champion and national badminton head coach. He spoke to Shivani Naik)