As he saw the incoming call from Prakash Padukone on his phone, Vimal Kumar tried half heartedly to shush the pack of youngsters celebrating raucously around him late Friday night at Bangkok’s Nonthaburi stadium. There was only so much Kumar, the coach of India’s men’s team at the Thomas Cup could do in that boisterous atmosphere and honestly he’d have wanted them to have this time. After all, just a few minutes ago, those brash young’uns had scripted one of the greatest moments in Indian badminton history.
Earlier in the day, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had hit the most impertinent of flick serve winners to secure alongside Chirag Shetty a win against the Danish doubles pair of Mathias Christiansen and Kim Astrup. Kidambi Srikanth had then played out the most nerveless of final games to beat former world silver medallist Anders Antonsen before H S Prannoy proved to be grit personified as he braved a dodgy ankle whilst coming back from a set down to beat Rasmus Gemke in the deciding tie of the Thomas Cup semifinals.
India beats Denmark 3-2, reaches first-ever Thomas Cup final
They’d beaten Denmark 3-2 to make the finals of the Thomas Cup – the first Indian side to do so in the tournament’s 73 year history. They’d earned the right to prove on Sunday that they are the very best men’s badminton team in the world. Through the laughter and cheers, Kumar cheekily teased India’s first badminton World Champion on the other side of the phone call. “43 years ago these guys beat you all. We took revenge on your behalf, Prakash!”
The ghosts the current team exorcised were at least that old. Back in 1979 – the last time they had made the semifinals of the Thomas Cup — the Indian team helmed by Padukone and featuring Syed Modi, Leroy D’sa, Suman Mishra and Partho Ganguly had also played a Danish side for a place in the final. Back then, the Indians would be outplayed, coming out on the wrong end of a 7-2 beatdown.
Chip on their shoulder
In the decades since then, it would be a challenge even to make it to the last four. There were flashes of individual brilliance but no team possessed the kind of depth of field needed to actually put a dent dent at the ultimate test of badminton team strength that is the Thomas Cup.
“Years ago we would wonder whether we are good to even qualify for the Thomas Cup,” recalls Pullela Gopichand. “Even if we did, we would usually be eliminated in the group stage. I remember just how much of a struggle it was,” says India’s former national coach and the last Indian man to win the All England Championships.
The teams and players would mostly be relegated to the shadows of India’s super achieving women’s shuttlers – who would go on to win two medals in recent editions of the women’s version of the team Championships – the Uber Cup. But through it all, the men had been polishing their skills, learning from their losses until finally on Friday, the final pieces of the puzzle snapped into place.
This was a victory whose time had come, delivered by a generation of players that’s probably unmatched in Indian history. It’s hard to overstate just how monumental this win is for Indian badminton. “This is such a significant moment,” says Gopichand. “The Thomas Cup is the biggest tournament in team badminton. Making the finals means you stand eye to eye with the best nations in world badminton. The magnitude of an Indian team reaching the final is what I’d imagine the team that made the cricket World Cup finals back in 1983,” he says.
How it came to be
There’s a self belief that this team prides itself on in this tournament. It didn’t matter if their opponents on Friday had made the last four stage in each of the last three editions. It doesn’t matter if their own team’s best player – All England finalist Lakshya Sen – was bullied off the court in straight games by Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen. In other years this would have spelled the beginning of the end. On Friday, all it did was give the doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty more purpose. “You can’t do what you did without a world class doubles pair like Satwik and Chirag. That doubles option gives a depth to the side that we didn’t always have before,” Gopichand says.
AS IT HAPPENED |
India beats Denmark 3-2 to reach maiden Thomas Cup Final, HIGHLIGHTS
The duo would live up to their billing. Against a scratch Danish doubles pair they pulled off an at times heart stopping 21-18, 21-23, 22-20 win. There was more than a fair share of jangling nerves. Three match points were burned by the Indians in the second game which eventually went to the Danes, then another two in the decider which saw the scores level at 20-20.
In the past, the Indians have often gifted away leads. But just as it seemed as the match was slipping from their grasp – and Astrup and Christiansen leaned in eagerly for an expected timid serve from Satwik, he surprised everyone by looping the shuttle over their heads with a plucky flick serve. He’d tried it twice in the previous game and hit the shuttle long on both occasions. It was the ultimate high risk high reward option – one a different generation of players might have baulked at. Not this one. “The thinking was simply, ‘Lets see what will happen if I do a flick serve,’” Satwik would say later.
The tie leveled 1-1, it was brought up Kidambi Srikanth against the current World number 3 Anders Antonsen. Relegation to number 2 in the Indian ranks might potentially be hurtful to a players self esteem but at least India’s case having a former World number 1 as a second singles player has proved to be a bonus. While Srikanth is more than capable of producing silky strokeplay and bewildering errors within the same match in recent times but on this day it was mostly the former version that took to the court. Despite a near customary blip in the second game, Srikanth delivered where it mattered, took the match 21-18, 12-21, 21-14 and gave India the lead.
Srikanth’s win would be crucial after the young pair of Krishna Prasad Garaga and Vishnuvardhan Panjala lost their reverse doubles tie. It was ultimately up to HS Prannoy to bring things home. Prannoy had been picked to the side without having to compete in a selection trial and although it was a call that raised eyebrows when it was made, it’s proved to be an inspired choice. As India’s third singles player, the 29-year-old has proved to be team’s missing puzzle piece over the course of the tournament winning every match he’s competed in. But although it was understood the World number 22 would have it tough against World number 13 Gemke, few would have expected him to have to dig through the reserves of fortitude he had to.
HS Prannoy secures for India, a medal of his own
Lunging for a shuttle at 4-10 down in the opening game, he landed awkwardly on an already taped up right ankle and collapsed in a heap on the court. Prannoy would get up and call a medical timeout but grimaced every time he gingerly put weight on the joint. A lesser player might have called it a day but the 29-year-old showed he was made of sterner stuff. “After the slip, it was hurting a lot more than usual, I was not able to lunge properly. I was wondering what to do, thought I will try to manage somehow. In the mind it was always that: ‘I should not give up.’ Just tried whatever I could, praying that the pain doesn’t aggravate,” he would say after the match.
Watching from the stands, Vimal says he could only marvel. “He definitely had issue with his leg. And he was already down at that point. But he simply found a way to work through his issue. He was struggling until then but used that break to figure out what to do,” says Kumar.
As Prannoy worked through the pain, Gemke found his task getting harder. While the Dane struggled with the drift on the court and struggled to find any sort of rhythm, Prannoy kept things simple, focusing on getting the shuttle on the court while keeping Gemke off balance by making the odd attacking play.
Ahead of the decider, perhaps just on adrenaline, Prannoy felt the pain had subsided enough. “I knew the first 11 points would be crucial. So I just decided to give everything I had,” he would say later after concluding a 13-21, 21-9, 21-12 win.
The damage Prannoy has done to his ankle isn’t insignificant and he’ll only know the extent of it later on Saturday. As they line up against 14 time champions Indonesia, India will hope to have every possible advantage on court. Purely by record, it’s the ultimate mismatch. But you’d have to be a brave person to bet against an Indian side that’s left powerhouses, Malaysia and Denmark in their wake. “They are happy but even now they don’t realise the enormity of what they’ve achieved,” says coach Kumar. “They will realise that eventually. All I tell them is that they aren’t finished just yet,” says Kumar.