Title Triumph Not Far Away, Says Nehwal

Thursday, April 25, 2019
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO

India have a modest record in team events, but women’s singles ace Saina Nehwal believes the country is on track to win a major team event in the near future. A strong Indian team is headed to the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2019, and Nehwal is hopeful of the team making an impact.

Nehwal celebrating her Commonwealth Games women’s singles victory.

The veteran of many a battle, who has a particularly good record in team events, is enthused about the improvement of Indian doubles, which she says gives India an edge at events like the Sudirman Cup.

“Over the last four-five years we can see the change in Indian badminton,” said Nehwal. “We are not yet a badminton powerhouse the way China is. But obviously, I see India doing well in team championships over the next ten years, and I can see them even winning it. It’s possible. Because you see Indian doubles is doing extremely well, they have changed so much. So overall if the team is strong, there’s a chance to win the tournament.”

Nehwal has good reason to back her claims. While India’s singles tends to grab most of the attention, the doubles pairs – in all three categories – have become more competitive and consistent. Pairs like Satwiksairaj Rankireddy/Chirag Shetty, Manu Attri/Sumeeth Reddy (men’s doubles); Ashwini Ponnappa/Sikki Reddy (women’s doubles) and Rankireddy/Ponnappa and Pranaav Chopra/Sikki Reddy (mixed doubles) have given the team a certain solidity. A sign of their all-round prowess was the mixed team gold medal at the Commonwealth Games 2018 – the first in India’s history.

“Team matches are going to be tough and it’s not easy in doubles as well,” said Nehwal. “If we can manage the singles, things can turn. In doubles I can see Satwik and Chirag doing well, and I’m really surprised to see Ashwini and Sikki playing extremely well against the Koreans and Japanese. We have our chances.”

India are in Group 4D with China and Malaysia. While Nehwal is conservative about India’s chances against China, she believes the tie against Malaysia will decide qualification to the knockout round (quarterfinals).

India achieved a historic team triumph at the Commonwealth Games 2018.

“It’s about beating Malaysia. If Lee Chong Wei plays, it will be tough for us. The doubles will be crucial. I would give us 40-60. If we make it, it will be a great achievement.”

Nehwal has numerous individual achievements to her credit, but an often-overlooked fact is her performance in team competitions. She led India to the semifinals of the Uber Cup in 2014 and 2016 and the Commonwealth Games 2018 mixed team gold. In the Sudirman Cup, however, the team does not have a significant record; their best at the last three editions was reaching the quarterfinals in 2017.

She believes that India’s Sudirman Cup story is likely to change.

“There’s a good group now. There’s a lot of improvement and a lot of belief. Everyone’s believing now, in singles and doubles, that we can beat any player.”

Players like Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (right) and Chirag Shetty have delivered in doubles for India.

The two-time Commonwealth Games champion is aware though that team events pose a different challenge, especially for those who are unused to the pressure:

“It’s different, because we aren’t used to playing team events. When you sit in the dugout you cheer for the team, but since it’s about individual matches you focus on your own match. The team cheering for you adds to the pressure, because you’re playing for the team, not for yourself. Of course I’ve been playing extremely well in team championships, whether the Uber Cup or the Sudirman Cup, I’ve a very good record of winning many matches, but it’s difficult for a lot of players to handle the pressure.”