In recent years, Olympic medallists Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu have scripted the narrative for Indian badminton. But the men’s team added to the laurels earlier this month when they won the Thomas Cup, known as the World Cup of badminton.
Punching above their weight, the Indian team defeated Denmark in the semi-finals and stunned 14-time champions Indonesia 3-0 in the final, on 15 May, to win the Cup for the very first time. While Kidambi Srikanth and H.S. Prannoy were undefeated through the tournament, the doubles pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy gave India the edge. Lounge caught up with Prannoy, 29, to talk about the Thomas Cup journey. Edited excerpts.
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It’s been a few days since India clinched the Thomas Cup. How do you look back on that win?
This is one victory that we never expected to happen as such, but we always believed that this team can get to the podium. We never thought it would be a gold, obviously. The one big learning was, when you get to a team event, how you play or how you conduct yourself to get that atmosphere going and eventually get that result.? Every year we came into Thomas Cup or any other team event saying, “let’s give it a shot”. But this time we got that correct mindset, and now we know what we need to go and win a team event. Everybody could feel that there was something different inside the team. We all wanted that medal back home.
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Indian players travel together for tournaments most of the time. Why was it so difficult to get the team spirit right before this?
We play ninety-five per cent of the tournaments individually. We rarely get to play a team event. It is always tough to switch. During individual events you are only looking after yourself, your game, your preparation. But when it comes to a team event, everything, including your sleeping time, goes for a toss, because you are doing everything for the team. There are some things you need to sacrifice. Say something like (making time for) a team dinner. It might seem like a very small thing. But we took these things seriously from the first day. By the third day, it was clear to everyone that this team of 10 men are here to win. No one was shying away from doing their bit.
As one of senior players, along with Srikanth, did you have to lead by example and make sure that the team stayed together?
Somebody had to step up. We knew that this (team spirit) is not something we have naturally. We had to create this kind of atmosphere where juniors felt that this is the team I want to be a part of. Nine of us train in Hyderabad, so we knew each other really well. The only guy who was not from Hyderabad was Lakshya (Sen) but it was very easy to get along with him. We have been travelling together for tournaments. I have even shared a room with him the last few tournaments.
When we got into the team meetings, Srikanth and I made sure was to make every player had the turn to speak his mind. Everyone has different opinions, different issues they are facing. In the first few days, only some of us talked in the team meeting, the rest were shy. Eventually it got better. Just before the final, before we got on to the court, Satwik spoke for a good five minutes. So these kind of emotions started to run.
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Beating such teams like Denmark and Indonesia must have made victory much sweeter for you?
In an event like Thomas Cup, from the quarterfinal onwards, every team is strong. It definitely gives us a huge boost to beat Indonesia 3-0, because no one expected that to happen. That gives a different kind of energy to the players who have pulled off those matches.
Lakshya, the way he fought, he didn’t give in till the last point. He was also very keen to go out and get that win for the country. Even though he had lost a couple of matches, the talk inside the camp was very positive. We were not worried about how he had performed because we knew that when it mattered he will give us that win.
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You played two crucial deciding matches, against Malaysia and against Denmark. How did you handle the pressure?
When it came to my match, it was a do-or-die situation. But every match was a pressure match. The pressure that Chirag and Satwik played under was immense. We knew that getting the first doubles win was very crucial for us, because Lakshya was not firing initially. It was important to have that tie at one-all rather than being 0-2 down. Chirag-Satwik stepped up very well.
Srikanth also went out there and delivered every day. He didn’t have easy outings. He had to play (Denmark’s) Anders Antonsen, and (Jonatan) Christie (of Indonesia). To beat these players back-to-back was a commendable feat.
For me, it was an opportunity to prove that I’m still good, and that I could take the pressure when it mattered. Two matches were tough, mentally more so than physically. You just have to be very strong to be calm, but at the same time be aggressive and finish things off. I think I did pretty decent.
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For Indian men’s badminton, does this victory mean a lot more after a disappointing 2021, when you were dealing with injury, and Srikanth couldn’t qualify for the Tokyo Olympics?
Indian badminton needed a win like this. The last three years have been very tough. Covid also took out a lot of energy from all the athletes. We knew we were training but didn’t know what for. I was in that kind of zone. To come out of that and win the Thomas Cup was important. Wins like these give a boost to the entire eco-system.
Neeraj Chopra gave us big gold at the Olympics. That gave a huge boost. It’s the same with the Thomas Cup win. Gopi Sir (badminton coach Pullela Gopichand) has been working hard for the last ten years to produce these many players back-to-back. Eventually we got a team that could win the Thomas Cup. This win is an indication that what we have been doing for the past 10 years, not just in badminton, but in Indian sports in general, is working.
Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance sportswriter based in Mumbai.
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