Historic Thomas Cup title in year of highs
Satwik-Chirag’s bronze in world meet, CWG gold and Sen’s showing made 2022 memorable
A day before India began the knockout rounds of the Thomas Cup finals, the team was far from confident. The 3-2 defeat against Chinese Taipei in the last league game had let doubts creep in.
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty had lost to Tokyo Olympic champions Yang Lee and Chi-lin Wang in the tie and it was left to Vimal Kumar, the former international and manager of the team, to encourage the squad.
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“I told the team how the Chinese Taipei pair had regrouped after losing to Satwik and Chirag in the group stage at the Tokyo Olympics. It was the only loss they suffered and went on to become Olympic champions. A similar effort was needed from every player in the knockouts and it was possible,” said Vimal.
In the next three ties, India showed such tenacity and temperament that they beat powerhouses Malaysia (3-2), Denmark (3-2), and 14-time champions Indonesia (3-0) in the final to win the Thomas Cup for the first time since the prestigious tournament, regarded as the world team championship, began in 1948-49.
Over the past five years, Indian men have been creating waves on Tour. The likes of Kidmabi Srikanth, HS Prannoy, the doubles pairing of Satwik/Chirag were making heads turn and winning titles. Enter Lakshya Sen in 2021 to fill the gap in singles (a tie comprises three singles and two doubles matches) and make the team formidable.
Still, the crucial aspect missing was the bonding required to focus on the collective to create magic. That last piece of the jigsaw came together in Bangkok.
“I have never seen such level of commitment from the players,” said Vimal.
“This team has been shaping up since 2017 but earlier there was a bit of a reluctance from the players to give priority to team championships. The Tour is tough and they were focused on individual performances. This time they all came together, they believed they could do it. The team atmosphere was great and they all backed each other. “
Together, India showed grit, bounced back from losses and won cliff-hangers. It helped that India had a seasoned campaigner in Srikanth. The former world No.1 was showing signs of resurgence and reached the final of world championships last year. As captain, Srikanth led from the front winning all his six matches and mentored the team well.
HS Prannoy was brilliant in closing out the deciders. Against five-time champions Malaysia (India won 3-2), Prannoy defeated Leong Jun Hao to win a thrilling quarter-final. It was Prannoy again who was sensational against world No. 13 Rasmus Gemke of Denmark in the semi-final. He braved ankle pain to post a famous victory.
In the final Sen, till then had been laid low by a stomach infection, joined the party beating Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Anthony Ginting in the opening tie. Satwik and Chirag came back from a game down to beat Indonesian duo of Muhammad Ahsan and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Srikanth sealed it with a win over Jonatan Christie.
"I think this victory has established India at the top as a badminton powerhouse," said Vimal. "The younger lot will be inspired. The current players are already giving some exceptional performances."
Carrying on from the Thomas Cup's triumph, Indian players have raised the bar on the Tour and at Commonwealth Games. Chirag and Satwik have evolved into a formidable team. They became the first Indian men's doubles pair to win a medal (bronze) in world championships and then clinched the title at Commonwealth Games.
Sen continued on his hot streak of form from previous year and made it to the final of All England, beat Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen to claim the German Open title and won the Commonwealth Games title. He is among the most feared opponents in world badminton now.
However, it was 30-year-old Prannoy who has revived his career this year. He may not have a individual title to show for but beat Ginting, Sen, Loh Kean Yew and Axelsen and is in the best phase of his career.
PV Sindhu had a quiet year by her standards despite ending her long wait for a singles title at the Commonwealth Games and winning her maiden Super 500 title at Singapore Open.
One of the heart-warming moments of the year was when young Priyanshu Rajawat was asked to lead the Thomas Cup winning team to the podium. Towards the end of the year, Sankar Muthusamy emerged new star making the the final of junior world championships.