How India scaled Mt. Thomas peak: From a team of badminton champions to a champion team
Despite India having individual champions and Olympic medallists in badminton - the team hurdle always stayed, until the Thomas Cup triumph which is a success tale of strategy than an overnight miracle.
Growing up in the early 1980s in Malleswaram locality (Old Bangalore), a few blocks away from Canara Union Community Club, the sport of badminton was in the air around me. I would often hear about the timeline partition in Indian badminton history - “Before and After Prakash Padukone won the All-England title.”
A predominantly individual sport, badminton is usually about the twin peaks – an athlete winning the All-England title and becoming World No.1. However, once badminton made its debut as an Olympic sport in Barcelona (1992), the pursuit of the gold medal became another mountain to scale for athletes. Amidst all these individual moments of glory, the team championship events - Thomas Cup (men’s) and Uber Cup (Women’s) were considered even more challenging since only 16 teams qualify for this event, held biennially.
Moreover, unlike individual events, this format needs multiple match-winners working together cohesively in singles and doubles. Until 2020, only five countries had won the Thomas Cup title in its 73-year-long history. The latest entrant into this elite group is India, which won the prestigious event a few days ago.
And so, what did it take for the Indian team to scale Mt. Thomas peak? Was it just sheer serendipitous luck or decades of work culminating in this moment of glory?
The tale of three decades Ever since the Thomas Cup began in 1949, India had qualified in just 13 of its 32 editions. Although we had two All-England Champions in Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand, the depth and bench strength required to win Thomas Cup was massive. In the 1990s, India hadn’t qualified even once for the tournament. The 2000s were better, where India made it to the quarter-finals twice in 2006 and 2010, respectively.
The former Olympian badminton player U. Vimal Kumar, who was the Team Coach for India at the Thomas Cup, assessed how the script has evolved from individual sporting success to overall team performance.
“We always had good players, but the priority was individual players and tournaments. Of course, Prakash and Gopi winning All England, Sindhu winning, all great achievements, but as a team, what we have done, we couldn’t deliver earlier,”
said Vimal Kumar in an interview with PTI.
Several moving parts began to align, especially after India’s overall performance in badminton at the 2010 Commonwealth Games (New Delhi) and 2012 Olympics (London) and eventually in the 2018 Commonwealth Games (Gold Coast), where the team spirit was palpable.
HS Prannoy was the first badminton player supported by GoSports Foundation back in 2012. And that opened the doors to supporting more badminton players such as Kidambi Srikanth and Sai Praneeth,
said Deepthi Bopaiah, CEO of GoSports Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting athletes and para-athletes
Doubles, the differentiator The tendency to focus on singles players is what most countries work towards early on. However, that strategy goes only so far. Since badminton is an intense and competitive sport, the expectation that highly ranked two singles players can combine to win doubles is easier said than done. Not to mention the risk of injuries incurred by singles players due to increased workload playing in both formats. Although the women’s doubles team of Ashwini Ponnappa and Jwala Gutta won several accolades for some time, the same had not quite happened on the men’s side. Specialist doubles coaches had to be brought into the system to bolster the players’ performance to compete with countries like Indonesia, Denmark, China, and Malaysia. And the results started to trickle in the past five years, beginning with the 2018 Commonwealth games.
It was a conscious decision to nurture doubles players since I remember our advisory Pullela Gopichand mentioning that singles players alone cannot help win team championships like the Thomas Cup. Keeping this in mind, we inducted Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty as part of the GoSports Long Term Athlete Development scholarship programme in 2017. The rise of Satwik and Chirag, starting from the 2018 CWG up to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, has been exceptional. Moreover, the gold medal (team event) won by India at the 2018 CWG held at Gold Coast (Australia) was a validation of our strategy in developing doubles specialists,
said Deepthi, who witnessed India’s performance at the stadium during her visit to Gold Coast for the CWG event.
Vimal Kumar, who currently coaches India’s latest badminton sensation Lakshya Sen at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy in Bangalore, occasionally, was particularly impressed with the doubles pair. “In each match, what the doubles players have done is amazing, earlier we were dependent on singles, but Satwik and Chirag pulled out all the pressure matches, so a lot of credit to Lakhsya, Srikanth, and HS Prannoy, for they delivered when it mattered,” said Vimal Kumar in his interview to PTI.
After the 2016 Rio Olympics, there has been one noticeable change in the Indian sports ecosystem, in the last half-decade. Teamwork amongst diverse stakeholders. For success to be delivered by athletes on-court, there is a greater need for successful partnerships off-court. In both government and private sectors, several layers of experts have aligned to work towards a common goal. The long list includes administrators, academies, coaches, sports science experts, sponsors, and managers. The excellent performance by Indian athletes at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics is proof of the coordination between several sports entities across India.
“It is evident that all stakeholders, namely Government (BAI, TOPS), the Academies (Gopichand Academy, Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy), along with non-profit private organizations (GoSports Foundation, Olympic Gold Quest), have seamlessly worked together for this historic triumph. Badminton players usually travel alone on the BWF tour, unlike players in a team sport like cricketer or football. Therefore, the Indian men’s team camaraderie was critical in an event like the Thomas Cup,” reiterated Deepthi. The pressure is high on every badminton player now but in a good way. Indian fans expect nothing short of a podium finish every time an athlete steps into the badminton court. “It is an achievement of pure team spirit which I haven’t seen in the past.
It was a fantastic team effort. Coaches worked hard, so overall, this is a fantastic effort. And this performance will spur the players to do well in the upcoming major events such as the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games.” said Vimal Kumar, who believed that Team India could carry forward the winning momentum in the upcoming world events. With constant support and encouragement from the key stakeholders within the ecosystem, it is also equally important to build the pipeline of next-generation players.
“With this win now on the table, we at GoSports Foundation are excited to deepen our support in badminton towards both Olympics and Paralympics. We currently support the next generation of players like Malvika Bansod, Samiya Farooqui, Treesa Jolly, Gayathri Gopichand, and Sankar Muthusamy. “We are fully aware that both singles and doubles players are equally important to excel at the world stage long-term,” signed off Deepthi Bopaiah, with plenty of optimism, as she looks forward to India consolidating their position further in world badminton.
From a team of champions to a champion team, has the Indian badminton team finally turned the corner? It certainly looks that way.