Badminton: Beyond Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, Cracking India’s Women’s Singles Puzzle

15 April 2018. Saina Nehwal executed a tactical masterclass to get the best of number one seed PV Sindhu in an all-Indian final at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, thus completing the first 1-2 result for India in women’s singles at this event.

Cut to CWG 2022 and PV Sindhu won her first singles gold medal… but it ended up being India’s only medal in women’s singles in Birmingham.

So, in four years, why hasn’t India seen another player, or two, join Sindhu to compete at the highest level in women’s singles? Why has India still failed to find a true successor to Saina and Sindhu? How long can India continue to trust them?

At the recently concluded National Games, Aakarshi Kashyap defeated Malvika Bansod to clinch the women’s singles title. The Chhattisgarh player has been a constant force on the national circuit for a while now, dominating the qualifying tournaments and even the selection tests earlier this year to make it to the CWG team and Uber Cup. Bansod has also been a regular in going deeper. in tournaments at the national level and began the year defeating a Nehwal who was certainly not in top form.

But the results at home have not yet translated well on the international circuit. At 21, though they have time on their side, they are both part of the crop of players who should already be making their mark against the biggest names in the sport.

So, in this column, we will try to analyze the single women scene at the moment, and also look at what the current generation of young Indian women can do to get that big performance and break into, say, the top 20 in the world.

First of all, what makes Saina and Sindhu special?

Nehwal is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, badminton athletes in the world. Throughout his career, he has consistently risen to the challenge. To think that she started the badminton revolution in India and is still giving players a chance, with all the injuries her body has suffered over the years, shows her mental toughness. Tactically she is one of the best and on top of that she is probably the best Indian player to understand and deal with drift.

Sindhu, on the other hand, is physically one of the best athletes in the world, blessed with a tall yet extremely mobile physique. This combination has led her to become one of the most powerful attacking players the sport has ever seen. Take for example the 2019 World Championship final, where she beat Nozomi Okuhara 21-7 21-7.

But what do Saina and Sindhu have in common? A crucial factor is that neither of them play predominantly at the back and don’t play the recovery game consistently. Instead, they are always trying to bring the game to their opponents by taking calculated risks from time to time.

Move away from passive style of play

Let’s review some footage from Sindhu’s Syed Modi India International Super 300 win over up-and-coming Bansod in the final. Bansod played well but never really put Sindhu under much pressure.

On this move, Bansod picked up the pace and landed a good finish from the top corner, before coming in with the body shot that Sindhu barely managed to fend off. Bansod then gave away the attack from well inside the midfield and Sindhu then punished her with a drive down the line from the right side. The best players don’t let their opponents off the hook that easily.

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Similarly, when Aakarshi Kashyap faced Thailand’s Busanan Ongbamrungphan at the 2022 India Open, he played a really good first game but lost 24-26, before losing games in a row. Like Bansod, Kashyap was taking the initiative from the front court, but from the back court, for the most part, he would just punt or play the drop shot and that allowed Busanan to get back into the rally.

There were a few times when Kashyap wasn’t passive from the back of the floor. As you can see in the frame below, she took the lead from the frontcourt with a nice push to the backhand backhand, with Busanan trying to survive. She then shows anticipation and dashes under the shuttle and hits a hard smack down the line that Busanan has no answer for. But unfortunately, Kashyap does not have the physical ability to maintain this level and falls in the second game.

What it takes to be the best

The beauty of women’s singles in badminton is that you don’t need any specific style to be the best. The variety is brilliant. The power of Sindhu, the cunning of Tai Tzu Ying and Ratchanok Intanon, the industry and agility of Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi, and the sheer ruthlessness of Carolina Marin…there’s room for a variety of skills to be among the best and that should be a source of inspiration for young Indians.

Let’s look at one aspect of what it takes to be among the best.

Here is a still image of current World No.1 Akane Yamaguchi at the 2020 Uber Cup against Malvika Bansod.

Look at how early Yamaguchi went under the shuttle and used his leg strength to jump up and carry the shuttle as high as possible. And since he’s playing with a jumper, Bansod is already under pressure. What makes Yamaguchi special is that he does this almost seven times out of 10 from the baseline. One of the main reasons Yamaguchi and Okuhara have had great success over the years is that, after playing a shot from behind, their movement towards the center of the court is faster than that of almost any player. of the world.

For example, check out this still from Okuahara at the All England earlier this year.

Okuhara gets caught on the opening clearance, but her movement to midfield is so quick that Tai Tzu Ying doesn’t get a shot down. Instead, Tai goes for a backhand punt to which Okuhara plays the crossover half shot over the court to win the point. But the important thing here is not the ability to make shots in both situations, it is that her movement towards the center of the court is fast. This is something that all top ranked players do on a consistent basis.

Transition from juniors to seniors

BWF Junior Rankings (Women’s Singles) as of October 4, 2022

At the time of publication, in the BWF World Junior Rankings, India has four female singles players in the top 10 (which includes Nos. 1 and 2), six players in the top 20 and eight in the top 30. This is the most by any country, which, including the caveat that junior rankings aren’t always the most definitive, means there’s certainly no shortage of talent.

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And if you add in players who recently finished their youth careers, like Malavika Bansod, Aakarshi Kahsyap, Ashmita Chaliha, Purva Barve, Aditi Bhatt, Tanya Hemanth, Samiya Imad Farooqui and a few others, it gives a solid core group of at least 15 players who have fewer 23 years old and can become long-term prospects for years to come.

The only crucial aspect in Lakshya Sen’s successful transition is how his body changed from a skinny teenager to a strong elite athlete in his early 20s. It’s crucial that young midfielders have a similar transition physically, but that also comes down to coaches and support staff. Lakshya had that outfit since she was 11 years old and one can only hope that this group of young women will also find the right outfit around her.

Another aspect of Lakshya’s successful transition was planning for her tournament. For the most part, he entered the Super 500 and above after establishing himself at the international challenge tournaments and at the Super 100 and 300 level, which meant that he played at a higher level only after gaining confidence at the Super 100 and 300 level tournaments. lower.

Finally, having the experience of playing in high-pressure matches is key. A season in one of Europe’s leagues would be the perfect way to gain some exposure. India has had the likes of Ajay Jayaram, Anup Sridhar and more who have had stints in the French League, even Lakshya had a successful stint in the Danish League in 2021.

Indeed, there is great potential in India’s current crop of young women’s singles players, with Tasnim Mir giving us a reminder recently in Raipur and Unnati Hooda doing in Odisha earlier in the year. It all comes down to their respective teams to help them take the next step.

The only advice I would give to all youngsters should be to move away from the standard passive game and add more flair to their game. They all have very good touch from the front, but very few athletes have the height advantage of Sindhu. They should start developing more weapons from the back of the court, which comes down to having explosive leg strength. They must be able to get quickly under the shuttlecock to take a jump and also move quickly towards the center of the court.

I think the talent is there and we have a lot of potential in our current generation of young women’s singles players. If this collective improvement occurs, hopefully the success of the Uber Cup is not far off.

Shlok Ramchandran is a former Indian doubles player, who reached 32nd in the world rankings for men’s doubles, the highest of his career. Having recently retired from the highest level of the sport, Shlok is currently head coach at Triangle Badminton & Table Tennis in North Carolina, USA You can read the other pieces in his column, Transport Zone here.

Screenshots in the article are courtesy of the BWF TV YouTube channel and are used solely to illustrate some of the technical points.

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