India are in unchartered territory. Never before have they been in medal rounds, leave alone the final, of the Thomas Cup, or the World Men’s Team Championships. But a strong team with unwavering belief has achieved incredible victories over badminton powerhouses and former champions Malaysia and Denmark in the knockouts, which has catapulted them to their first final, in the 32nd edition of the biennial event.
Now comes the real David versus Goliath battle. India face the most successful team in the history of the tournament, 14-time winners Indonesia, the defending champions. Boasting of two top 10 players—No 5 Anthony Sinisuka Ginting and No 8 Jonatan Christie—and No 24 Shesar Hiren Rhustavito, their singles battery helped down former champions, China (3-0) in the quarter-finals and Japan (3-2) in the semi-finals. Ginting won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics while Christie is the Asian Games gold medallist and won silver at the Asian Championships this month.
But it is their doubles combinations that rattle oppositions. One half of the world No 1 pair Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo (partner Marcus Fernaldi Gideon is not playing), No 2 Hendra Setiawan/Mohammad Ahsan, No 7 Fajar Alfian/Muhammad Rian Ardianto and No 20 Muhammad Shohibul Fikri and Bagas Maulana comprise multiple Olympic and world championships medallists. Such is their confidence in doubles that they have regularly shuffled their combinations in the tournament.
“We now play Indonesia in the final on Sunday after a day’s rest. Our first doubles has been outstanding in both the quarter-final and semi-final and that turned things around. Srikanth was really good and Prannoy’s performance stands out. He played very cleverly, especially after the fall. It’s tough to play in these conditions but Prannoy is coping really well. One more to go,” said selector and former chief coach U Vimal Kumar, who is travelling with the team.
India have depth in their squad but beating Indonesia at the Impact Arena in Bangkok on Sunday will be a near miracle. All England finalist Lakshya Sen—India’s top singles player—
hammered Max Weisskirchen in the 5-0 thrashing of Germany last Sunday, but the world No 9 has had to endure three successive losses since then. The 20-year-old is likely to face Ginting in the opener and can take heart from the fact that he beat the Indonesian the only time they played—at the German Open in March.
Star doubles pairing Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who got India off the mark in the quarters and semis, will await the Indonesian management’s decision on which combine it opts to field against the world No 8 pair. The result of Shetty and Rankireddy’s match could tilt the tie in favour of one team or the other.
Srikanth will likely go up against old rival Christie against whom he has a 4-5 win-loss record. But the world No 11 lost both his matches against the Indonesian this year.
The Indian team management will have its task cut out to decide which pair to field for the second doubles rubber, which has been the weak link as Krishna Prasad Garaga and Vishnuvardhan Goud Panjala lost both their matches against Malaysia and Denmark. Will the team persist with the winning combination or bring back MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila, who played during the round robin, remains to be seen.
HS Prannoy, whose otherworldly nerves propelled India to the final, will unquestionably play the final singles rubber. There were doubts over the availability of the world No 23—he hurt his ankle in an awkward fall early before winning the deciding rubber on Friday night—but Srikanth confirmed he will play. “Prannoy is fine. Everyone is extremely motivated to do well. We will try to do our best in the final,” the world No 11 said. Prannoy, who required treatment after the fall, showed in the last two ties that it is all about playing percentage badminton and keeping calm under intense pressure. He will most likely face Shesar Hiren Rhustavito, who like him kept a calm head to help Indonesia beat Japan in the deciding fifth rubber.
“The body was responding to the support. Mentally there were a lot of things going on. After the slip it was hurting a lot, more than usual. I wasn’t able to lunge properly and was wondering what to do. I was always thinking I should not give up and just try what I can do, just see how it goes and praying the pain doesn’t aggravate. The pain started to reduce towards the end of the second game, and in the third game I was feeling much better,” said Prannoy, who was ranked as high as world No 8.
UBER CUP CHAMPIONS
South Korea beat China 3-2 in the final on Saturday to lift the Uber Cup, the World Women’s Team Championships, for the second time.