The new A-list
Saina Nehwal clinched the world no 2 spot last week. Here are the sports stars who made us proud this year. Indraneel Das writes.india Updated: Dec 19, 2010 01:35 IST
Had it not been for the exploding scams, this would have been the year of sports in India — beyond cricket, that is. So many sportspersons made us proud with their world-beating performances in 2010 that they became our real-time action heroes, the faces of a new India.
The diversity of the sports stars who gave us a record haul at this year's Commonwealth Games reminds us of the many Indias they represent. Milkha Singh, who won India's first Commonwealth gold in athletics way back in 1958, says, "It took 52 years to win another gold... But with so many successes in other sports such as boxing, wrestling, badminton and tennis, I hope we will win more medals at the London Olympics in 2012."
There were dozens of success stories. We picked 10 who have been on or near the top of the world consistently, or have jumped rungs to get us higher-than-ever on the global rankings of a major sport. Many others did us proud this year but couldn't make it to this list because of the criteria. We hope to see them here in the new year.
Shooting (double-trap), No 3
Penultimate day at the Guangzhou Asiad. Visibility at the shooting range was low because of cloudy weather. The Indian shooting contingent's only hope for gold was riding on the 31-year-old. He won it and salvaged some pride after the Commonwealth record haul.
2010 haul: World Cup gold at Lonato, and Cup Finals gold at Izmir, Turkey.
Sunny Thomas, national coach: "At the Asiad, he came from behind to clinch the top position, which is what makes his achievement even more praiseworthy."
Boxing (75 kg), World No 1
By the end of 2009, he had made it to the top of his boxing category. Yet a gold had eluded Vijender. He broke the jinx this February at the Commonwealth Championships. At the Guangzhou Asiad, he fought the final with a broken thumb and won another gold.
2010 haul: First gold at a major event (Commonwealth Championship). Gold in Asiad, bronze in Commonwealth.
GS Sandhu, national coach: "He has the temperament of a champion... Right now, he can't do anything wrong in the ring."
Discus throw, World No 11
Mother, player, trend-setter. Hers was the track-and-field gold at this year's Commonwealth that broke the 52-year dry spell since Milkha Singh's. With support of her husband and coach Virender Poonia, she has focused on the sport that has brought her fame, money and even a catwalk in bridal finery.
2010 haul: Gold at Commonwealth, bronze at Asiad. Arjuna award
Seema Antil, team-mate: "Being a mother, she has sacrificed a lot. But she's never let the team down."
Tennis, World No 108
This year, the 'boy who would be king of Indian tennis' broke into the top 100 league of his sport, though he slipped down again from the personal high of 94. The 25-year-old also ensured that India beat Brazil at the Davis Cup, after trailing 0-2.
2010 haul: Gold at Commonwealth Games, gold at Asiad.
Leander Paes, winner of 12 Grand Slam events: "He is the one for the future. He has tremendous work ethic. That is what differentiates him from the rest of the tennis players."
Tennis, US Collegiate No 1
The Chandigarh lad delayed his stint in pro tennis to hone his skills and complete his formal education at the University of Virginia, US — the school Somdev attended, too. The Somdev-Sanam duo is the new hope of doubles tennis in India after Paes-Bhupathi. A star for the future.
2010 haul: Gold in doubles at Asiad.
Leander Paes: "I am really impressed with his ability to spot the ball early. In the recent past he has been really working on his legs and that's showing. Great hands plus great legs equals winner."
Archery, World No 25
A cousin of national football captain Bhaichung Bhutia, the 26-year-old took up the sport as a young boy and has not looked back since. Medals at the Asian Grand Prix and the Asian championships earned him an early Arjuna award in 2005. This year, the whole recurve team was world no. 1, thanks to Tarun's team-up with Rahul Banerjee and Jayanta Talukdar.
2010 haul: Silver at the Guangzhou Asiad, the first Indian to win this medal in recurve archery. Gold at SAF Games, Dhaka.
Limba Ram, national coach: "India is improving every year as a team. But what Tarun achieved individually at Guangzhou will give a lot of confidence to the younger archers."
Wrestling (66 kg), World No 1
Never complains, never utters a word more than necessary, and never wilts under pressure. That's the combination which has made Sushil Kumar a favourite of his fans. It shows what he manages to pull in from the crowds — from loud in-stadium support to gifts such as sports cars.
2010 haul: Gold at World Wrestling Championships, Moscow, gold at Commonwealth Games, New Delhi.
Yashbir Singh, coach: "The way he is performing now, he can surely bring back a gold from the London Olympics."
Golf, World No 125
Instinctively an attacking player, Atwal, 37, has learnt the value of patience on the demanding American courses. Despite good finishes in 2005 and '06, he struggled. This year came the breakthrough: a USPGA tour title. He also became the first 'Monday qualifier' in 24 years to win on the highly competitive tour.
2010 haul: Wyndham Championship title, 3 top-10 finishes on USPGA tour.
Digvijay Singh, professional golfer: "To be down and out and bounce back with a win, that's Arjun Atwal for you. Hats off. It speaks volumes of his character."
Badminton, World No 2
This was the year Saina seemed to have scaled the Great Chinese Wall. In December, she fought back at the Hong Kong Open final to beat China's Wang Shixian, who had beaten her the month before at the Asian Games. In fact, she has come back from down under to trounce her opponent several times this year, showing grit that wowed other sportspersons too.
2010 haul: Indian Open grand prix, Singapore Open Super Series, Indonesian Open Super Series, Commonwealth Games gold medal, Hong Kong Open Super Series.
Pullela Gopichand, coach: "Saina has the hallmark of a champion. Though she used to be vulnerable against the Chinese earlier, but now, with the win in Hong Kong, even that psychological disadvantage will be gone."
Shooting (air rifle), World No 4
His is a story of a self-confident calm in the face of pressure. The genial Hyderabadi arrived with a bang in 2003 with a gold at the inaugural Afro-Asian Games in his hometown. The 2008 Olympics marked a lean patch. But this year was his best yet.
2010 haul: Bronze at World Championships in Munich. Four gold at Commonwealth Games, 2 silver at Asian Games.
Sunny Thomas, national coach: "I have high expectations from Gagan, especially after the Commonwealth Games. Though he failed to bag a gold at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, one should understand that no won can remain in top form all year round."