India has 25 Commonwealth Games medals in badminton, including seven gold, since the sport made its debut in the event in 1966 in Kingston. With badminton action starting at Commonwealth Games 2022 in Birmingham on Friday, the question is fairly straightforward: Will India, the reigning mixed team champion, sweep all six gold medals on offer? It appears a stretch.
While the Indian team will back itself to win gold in men’s and women’s singles as well as the mixed team events, the going is likely to be a lot tougher in doubles.
The fact is that the talk of Indian shuttlers sweeping medals is itself a testament to the country’s giant leap in the sport. India wasn’t always considered the favourite, with just two gold medals coming in men’s singles in the 1978 and 1982 CWG, and then taking 28 years to win the third and fourth ones (Saina Nehwal in women’s singles and Jwala Gutta-Ashwini Ponnappa in women’s doubles in New Delhi in 2010).
Mixed team event
Despite the success at home in 2010, India needed another eight years to clinch the mixed team gold. The wait ended in Gold Coast 2018 when Saina Nehwal won the women’s singles gold and powered India to its maiden team gold. PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth, and the men’s doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty won silver. The women’s doubles combo of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy bagged a bronze medal as Indian badminton produced its best ever CWG performance.
In Birmingham, the 10-member Indian squad is powered by two-time Olympic medalist Sindhu and will eye a strong showing in all six events.
Times have changed. England, with eight mixed team gold medals, is no longer seen as the favorite. None of its shuttlers is currently in the top 10 of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.
That leaves Malaysia, the five-time mixed team champion in CWG, as India’s biggest threat. Recently, however, India has upstaged Malaysia in top events. In the 2018 Commonwealth Games, for instance, India beat Malaysia to win the mixed team gold. In May 2022, the Indian men defeated the Malaysians on their way to a historic Thomas Cup gold.
With a win in her most recent competition – the Singapore Open Super 500, Sindhu, who lost to Saina in Gold Coast, is eyeing her maiden individual CWG gold. As the top seed, Sindhu will be the favorite to clinch the women’s singles title. Her toughest rival, Michelle Li of Canada, has lost to her six times in a row since the 2014 CWG.
In men’s singles, with Malaysian top seed and the highest-ranked Commonwealth shuttler Lee Zii Jia pulling out, a final between two Indians is likely. World Championships silver medalist Kidambi Srikanth and bronze medalist Lakshya Sen will be expected to make the most of the moment. Loh Kean Yew, the reigning world champion, will be a potential threat. The Singapore player, however, is not invincible. Lakshya enjoys a 3-2 head-to-head record against him, with his most recent win coming in the India Open final.
If India can win all six events, that will be a massive achievement. Still, it could be tricky as Malaysia will be desperate to reclaim the mixed team title.
— Dipankar Bhattacharya, Olympian
Olympian Dipankar Bhattacharya is upbeat about India’s chances. “As Lakshya Sen and Kidambi Srikanth have won the Thomas Cup, they can definitely make it. Sindhu has been in great form. Also, our men’s doubles team is very strong. India can certainly dominate the singles and men’s doubles events. Lee Zii Jia’s absence is also an advantage for Lakshya and Srikanth. But they should be careful of Loh Kean Yew,” says Bhattacharya.
Former Commonwealth Games women’s doubles gold medalist Jwala Gutta has thrown her weight behind Lakshya for the men’s singles gold. “Both Srikanth and Lakshya are equally good, and gold medal prospects for India. I feel Lakshya will have an edge over Srikanth as he is coming into the Games fresh. It is also his first Commonwealth Games,” she says.
India’s performance in the doubles events will be critical, not just for the prospect of the gold medals, but also for the mixed team event.
Satwiksairaj and Chirag, ranked world no. 8, head to Arena Birmingham as the CWG second seed in men’s doubles. They are in fine form, having played a crucial role in India’s Thomas Cup win in May. The biggest threat for the Indian pair could be Malaysia’s world no. 6 pairing of Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik. The Indians have never beaten them in four matches.
Jwala, though, holds out hope. “Satwik and Chirag have been in great form. Since the last Commonwealth Games, their games have changed a lot. They almost won last time. This time they will be more prepared and motivated after the Thomas Cup win,” she says.
In women’s doubles, India has fielded a young pair of Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly, both 19. They became the first Indian women’s team to make the All England Open semifinals in March, beating two higher-ranked teams. In the CWG, however, world no. 39 Gayatri-Treesa’s biggest threat will be Malaysia’s world no. 11 duo of Pearly Tan and Thinaah Muralitharan.
Like in all doubles events, India has decided to go with one pair in mixed doubles. B. Sumeeth Reddy is partnering Ashwini Ponnappa. They will eye India’s maiden mixed doubles medal. The path, though, will be tough, with Malaysia fielding two teams — world no. 9 Tan Kian Meng-Lai Pei Jing, and former Olympic silver medalist Chan Peng Soon, who will partner Cheah Yee See.
Satwik and Chirag have been in great form. This time they will be more prepared and motivated after the Thomas Cup win. For mixed doubles pairing, it is a little tough.
— Jwala Gutta, Olympian and CWG gold medallist
Asked about her former partner Ponnappa, who will be competing in mixed doubles at the CWG for the first time, Jwala says, “India has been doing well in the Commonwealth Games since 2010. This time we have a balanced team. I hope India will also retain the mixed team title, but I am not confident about the mixed doubles pair. Ashwini and Sumeeth are not consistent on World Tour events. There have been isolated match wins. Not being able to convert performance into a tournament win is also an issue with them. So, it is a little tough for them.”
Bhattacharya expects “four to five” gold medals, including the mixed team gold. “If they can win all six events, that will be a massive achievement. Still, it could be tricky as Malaysia will be desperate to reclaim the mixed team title.”