It was as recent as the India Open in March this year that male shuttlers from India were struggling for form, fitness and fervour. The likes of Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy and B Sai Praneeth were nowhere close to their best, and their spot in the Indian team was being questioned. But there was one man, Pullela Gopichand, the head coach of the team, who had unwavering faith in them, and still tipped them to be in top form, in just a few week's time. Gopi sir, as he is fondly known, is nothing short of being a soothsayer while predicting a player's success and his prediction came true again.
From having just one male player in top-20, Ajay Jayaram, India had as many as four entrants in the list by May, courtesy some great finishes at the tournaments that mattered. All the top singles players churned out noteworthy performances, especially Srikanth and B Sai Praneeth, the former making it to three successive Superseries finals. That performance was just a glimpse of what these boys were capable of doing.
Srikanth, hailed by many, the best Indian singles player in the modern Era, won his third Superseries Premier title, after he beat Lee Hyun Il of South Korea 21-10, 21-5, to pocket the Denmark Open. This win is a testimony of the gradual, yet largely visible growth that the Hyderabadi has made in the recent few months.
But for these players it is the process of achieving their targets, that is really close to their hearts. They did not get bogged down by the failures after the 2016 Olympics, and took it in their stride.
"Honestly, the way things were going last year, we were short on confidence. We were losing out in the first round itself. It had come as a big blow. Different players react differently to these situations. So it had taken a bit of toll on me personally and some others," India no 2 Prannoy said.
"But then this year was a complete change. We guys started out by winning some Grand prix tournaments and then we progressed to the Superseries' of course. What I make of the whole situation that was before us during the slump is, you don't stop working hard. Then things did change for good. Now we have the belief that if one player can do it, why can't we."
"Earlier, maybe our approach wasn't the best. We used to play only handful of tournaments. But now the competition is such, that you're always on your toes, and give it your best, whenever you're on the court. There are a lot of juniors who can totally take our place," he added.
While for the easy going and carefree Srikanth it was just another phase that was going to pass. "I'm not bothered about the rankings. If I play well, I can make way to the top once again. Right now my focus is on doing well at the future tournaments," Srikanth said.
Now the situation is such that the numbers in the top league is increasing by the day, and Indian men's singles team boasts of as many as five players inside the top-20 rankings—Srikanth, Prannoy, Praneeth, Sameer Verma, and Ajay Jayaram. What this means is that the bench is as strong as ever and there is no shortage of players who can get country a medal at any given tournament.
To go with the rankings, Indians did win a whole lot of competitions, that also resulted in the rankings coming up. Prannoy clinched the US Open Grand Prix beating P Kashyap. Then came Sameer Verma, who has a Syed Modi Grand Prix title to his name.
But as they say, there is no shortcut to success, the men's team followed a well-planned route to glory. Experts from all over might have different reasons for this drastic improvement. But if SM Arif, former India head coach, is to be believed, this performance is no miracle, but is a result of tenacious effort put in by these boys in their training. A big part of the credit for this goes to Indonesian coach Mulyo Handoyo, who joined the Indian team early this year.
"You see the problem with these boys was they were lacking quality physical training that is an imperative in competitive sport these days. As a result they were getting injured often. A professional player cannot get injured every two months and then perform in tournaments."
"So the new coach Mulyo has worked really hard on the fitness of these boys. So now you see the performances coming. But I still think this is a temporary phase, where of there is a gap in training, our players could again start crumbling under pressure," former coach of Gopichand told News 18.
The expert coach further went to the extent of classifying fitness in three different categories—match-to-match fitness, recovery after the match, and recovery after the tournament. All of these play an important role. but it is the recovery after a tournament that brings the consistency in a player, and Arif believes that has been a game changer for these boys.
"One of the biggest reasons why we are able to see our boys making it to the finals or winning tournaments is that they are now recovering better after each and every tournament. This is only a slow process that is starting to show results now, but players like B Sai Praneeth and HS Prannoy are yet to peak. I would again say, we need to invest a lot more in them to see them win more and bring laurels for the country."