The finish line was in sight. After defying the odds all week, India, and Kidambi Srikanth, were in a position of strength. Against Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie, Srikanth had pocketed the first game 21-15, but the second hung in balance. At 7-7, the talented Christie, trying to get a toe-hold in the match, had seemingly got the better of the net dribbles and jumped into position to finish off the point with a smash right at the net, at point blank range. Srikanth looked stranded on the left side of the court, but instinctively took a split step and just about got the racquet to the shuttle. It flew into the open court, much to the disbelief of the Indonesian.
There are some days when you just cannot lose. The Indian men’s badminton team, which had started the tournament as underdogs, rose to the occasion on Sunday. Lakshya Sen started the day with a battling 8-21, 21-17, 21-16 win over Anthony Ginting. Then Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy saved four match points against doubles legends Mohammad Ahsan and Kevin Sukamuljo to prevail 18-21, 23-21, 21-19, while Srikanth provided the finishing touches with a 21-15, 23-21 win over the previous edition’s hero, Christie.
By defeating Indonesia 3-0, India not just beat the defending champions, but a team that has won the Thomas Cup 14 times, most successful team in the competition. What makes the achievement even greater that this was India’s first ever Thomas Cup final as well, a tournament that is known as the World Team Championship of badminton. It will take a lot of repeating, of emphasizing, of celebrating before the magnitude of the victory sinks in.
Shock and awe, the Indian team evoked both, during their title win in Bangkok. They had an encouraging run in the round-robin stage, finishing Group C in second position, and losing only to Chinese Taipei. The wave started building with a 3-2 win over Malaysia in the quarterfinal on Thursday. In the semi-final, they overcame Denmark 3-2, a country that has three singles players in the top-15, including World No. 1 Viktor Axelsen. It crested in the final as India refused to be daunted by neither Indonesia’s pedigree nor their potential.
Going into the tournament, India knew they had a good squad, three singles players of repute—Lakshya Sen, Srikanth and HS Prannoy—and a cracking doubles pair in Satwik-Chirag, who made their Olympic debut at Tokyo last year. But what no one had anticipated was the fire and the team spirit. “It’s the bond. The top two players, the oldest is Prannoy who is nearing 30. Then there’s Srikanth who is 29. I give them a lot of credit because of the way they were interacting,” Vimal Kumar said in the aftermath. “When the players firmly believe that we can do something of this sort, then it just clicks. It’s that feeling, that confidence, how they motivated themselves, that’s what gave us this result.”
This was sweet redemption for two Indian players. Prannoy had endured three torrid years, battling illness and injury. Meanwhile, Srikanth had to swallow the disappointment of not qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. Kumar revealed that Sen, who had reached the final of All-England Badminton Championship this year, had suffered from food poisoning on reaching Bangkok and was unwell the first few days. But Srikanth and Prannoy led by example and rallied till Sen regained his fitness and form. While Srikanth won all six matches that he played in the tournament, Prannoy was unbeaten, and clinched the deciders against Malaysia (beating Jun Hao Leong 21-13, 21-8) and Denmark (beating Rasmus Gemke 13-21, 21-9, 21-12), despite slipping and hurting his ankle during the match.
With Indian fans absent for the first few matches of the tournament, the Indian team created their own atmosphere. They would scream and shout from the sidelines, in a show of raucous bonhomie like Indian badminton had never seen before. After every win, they ran in from the dugout onto the court, dancing, screaming, huddling—delirious scenes of celebration more common to a cricket or football ground.
“This might sound a little dramatic. But you know, after those trials, when the team got announced, we created a (Whatsapp) group titled ‘It's coming home’,” Srikanth told the official tournament website. “This happened a week before the tournament started. So yeah… we always thought we are capable.” That tagline has usually not aged well in sports. But not for this Indian team; not this Thomas Cup.
Deepti Patwardhan is a Mumbai-based sportswriter.