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Thomas Cup 2024: India’s badminton stars seek a winning encore

Two years after one of the most brilliant wins in Indian sporting history, the Thomas Cup holders get ready to defend their title

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty in action.(Getty Images)

By Deepti Patwardhan

LAST PUBLISHED 24.04.2024  |  07:00 AM IST

Of all the incredible moments that India scripted at the 2022 Thomas Cup, the one that became definitive of the odds-defying, history-making team, was of the players bouncing up and down, arm in arm on the podium. Joyous, victorious.

Team celebrations can generate that kind of hopped-up energy on the podium that individual triumphs lack. Away from the fiercely individual pursuits on the tour, the Thomas Cup had given the players a cocoon of camaraderie—of common goals and collective ambition. India’s badminton stars had channelled it perfectly to clinch the Cup, known as the men’s world championship, for the first time.

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On 27 April, when India begin their title defence in Chengdu, China, they will be hoping to recreate that team magic yet again. The team WhatsApp group, which was formed ahead of the last edition of Thomas Cup, is full of chatter again. Meetings and team dinners are being scheduled.

“During the Thomas Cup, we also want to go out there and have fun, enjoy the whole process of being with the team," says H.S. Prannoy, who is India’s No. 1 singles player going into this Thomas Cup. It was seniors Prannoy and Kidambi Srikanth who had stressed upon, and helped create, a thriving team atmosphere at the last edition.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have anything like a team camp. We don’t have that culture like some at places like Indonesia or China. Here the players have to take initiative and make sure that we at least spend little bit of time together before we go for these tournaments," says Prannoy.

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Indian badminton star Kidambi Srikanth. (Getty Images)

“When it comes to a normal tour event, you have your dinner, you go back to the room, you are all by yourself and sleep according to your match schedule. But in a team event, you have to spend that extra hour or so with your teammates, be it having dinner with them or doing some team activity. I am really excited about it."

The Indian players will have to believe in the collective now more than ever. They were merely the dark horses the last time around; they now go in as the defending champions.

The core of the team remains the same: Prannoy, Lakshya Sen and Srikanth are the leading singles players, while Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty will be the No. 1 doubles team. In Priyanshu Rajawat and Kiran George give them some serious talent in singles reserves. M.R. Arjun and Dhruv Kapila will be the team’s second doubles pair, with Sai Pratheek as the reserve.

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A Thomas Cup tie consists of five matches–three singles and two doubles against ranking counterparts (No. 1 vs No. 1 and so on) of the rival team. “I think winning the Thomas Cup was one of the biggest achievements in Indian badminton," says Sen. “As a kid I used to watch China or Indonesia lift the trophy. When I played my first Thomas Cup (2018) against China, just to see their men’s singles line-up was a bit shocking to me—there was Chen Long (reigning world champion), Shi Yuqi (All England champion at the time) and the third singles was Lin Dan(five-time world champion, two-time Olympic champion). At that time, I hardly ever imagined that we can have such a strong team and win the event."

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All you need to know about Thomas Cup.

India had never won a medal at the event before 2022, didn’t have the serial winners that China possessed in their golden age, but there was enough talent—and belief in each other—to pull off the heist.

India defeated Malaysia in the quarterfinal and got the better of a star-studded Denmark (including World No. 1 Viktor Axelsen) in the semi-final. In the final, they clinched the tie against 14-time champions Indonesia in the first three rubbers. Sen set the tone with a battling three-game win over Anthony Sinisuka Ginting. Satwik-Chirag saved four match points to defeat Mohammad Ahsan and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo 18-21 23-21 21-19, before Srikanth wrapped up the tie by beating Asian Games gold medallist Jonatan Christie in straight games.

H.S. Prannoy in action. (Getty Images)

Prannoy, who had won the deciders against Malaysia and Denmark, wasn’t needed to repeat the heroics on the final day. But the Thomas Cup triumph sparked a career revival for him. Ranked No. 23 during the last edition, he was thrown into the high-pressure, deciding fifth matches in 2022. But since then, Prannoy has won a World Championship bronze (2023), an Asian Games men’s singles bronze and was also part of the Indian team that won a silver at the 2022 Asian Games—the country’s best performance at the continental event. He is now ranked No. 9 in the world and, at 31, has secured Olympic qualification for the first time.

“These kind of team wins give you that extra happiness, that extra confidence also," he says. “If you are able to play well in that particular tournament, you can do well in individual tournaments as well. 2023 was one of the best seasons on the tour for me, not just because of the medals but also a lot of consistent performances, a lot of quarterfinals, a lot of semi-finals and a couple of finals as well."

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Indian Badminton star Lakhsya Sen. (Getty Images)

Prannoy will be hoping that a good performance in the Thomas Cup can get him going in 2024 as well. Having played through a back injury at the Asian Games, he missed a few weeks in 2023 to recover and recuperate. But Prannoy hasn’t put his best foot forward yet—he suffered four first-round exits in the six tournaments played this year. A semi-final finish at the India Open in January is his best performance of 2024 so far.

In Chendgu, Prannoy will be India’s top-ranked player and will be entrusted with giving India a strong start. With the up-and-coming Rajawat in the reserves, India might be tempted to shuffle the line-up and test the bench strength, at least in the group stages. They have been drawn in Group C along with Thailand, England and Indonesia.

Not so long ago, India’s tennis teams used to assume a 1-0 advantage at tournaments because Leander Paes-Mahesh Bhupathi were guaranteed to win a point in doubles—and they did so for more than a decade. In Satwik-Chirag, the Indian badminton team has a similar bankable doubles pair who can turn the tie in their favour.

India’s biggest title threat at the elite 16-team event may still come from one of China, Denmark, and Indonesia (the most successful team in tournament history). The tournament may also act as a springboard for young talent like Indonesia’s Alwi Farhan, the junior world champion, Panitchaphon Teeraratsakul of Thailand and Magnus Johannesen of Denmark. Meanwhile, it will be the swansong for former world No. 1 Kento Momota, whose career never fully recovered after a car accident in 2020.

“There are way too many strong teams out there this time for Thomas Cup," says Prannoy. “Whenever you get into the first tie, there is a bit of tension around. It is important for us to get that first round, first day match to be getting into the right space of mind, getting some good wins under the belt. It’s not going to be easy at all, but I think we have the belief that the team which has done that in the past and is equally motivated to go out there and do it again." Indian badminton’s dream team is chasing an encore.

Deepti Patwardhan is a sportswriter based in Mumbai.

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