Indian Badminton’s Youth Brigade Will be World-Beaters Soon

The charge of the young, teenage brigade is literally changing the very landscape of Indian badminton. The new taketh over the old as the proverb goes. And the ages of 16, 17 and 18 are really magical. This is when the player makes a breakthrough to the senior world ranks and carves out a memorable career. Of course, by then she / he must have put in, for many years, real toil and labor on the court and the track.

Let’s take the case of Prakash Padukone who won the junior and senior national championships by the time he, was, 17, and the same year he was a Thomas cupper, making waves internationally.

Madhumita Bisht played for India at the age of 13 at the Asian badminton championships in China in 1978. This prodigy won a mind-boggling 29 National championship titles in all age groups, including five continuous triple crowns at senior levels. I don’t think this record will ever be broken. “If you want to make a name at the international level you must make a breakthrough at the senior national level by 16 or so. And to do that you must always dominate the next age. group, not just yours, “says Bisht.

Saina Nehwal is the player who had literally changed the outlook of our shuttlers and brought in a paradigm shift in Indian badminton. At the age of 16 she was good enough to win a 4-star BWF event, the Philippines Open, and in the process defeated the then world number 2, Wu Huawain of China in the finals. The rest of her career is indeed historical.

PV Sindhu, training at the same center thought if Saina can do this, why not her? All it required was focused training with just that one thought in mind, ‘I will also be a world-class player. By the time she was 17, she had already won the Asian junior title, a very difficult championship to win. In the same year, Sindhu shocked the world badminton scene when at the China Masters, she accounted for the 2012 London Olympics gold medalist Li Xerui in three hard games. And she was a top 20 ranked player at age 17.

But now, Saina, 20, is well past her prime and is finding it difficult to cross the initial rounds; she lost to 20-year-old Malvika Bansod recently at the India Open. And since Sindhu has not been able to win any titles for the past two years, barring the Swiss open last week, it is time for the young brigade to take over. The top women doubles pair of Sikki Reddy / Ashwini Ponnapa are also past 30 and finding it increasingly difficult to move past the initial rounds. Time for the new order to take over. And they are announcing their arrival at the world scene in real style.

Welcome the new brigade, led by the sensational Lakshya Sen. This dynamite of a player has had a remarkable journey in world badminton. As a junior he was extraordinary, scalping players in higher age group with glee. He started playing international championship at the age of 16 and reached quarterfinals of the Vietnam and Belgian Open. Aged 15, he was reaching semifinals of major tournaments in Asia. In 2017, he reached the quarterfinals in Vietnam again and the very next year, took a game off the legendary Lin Dan of China, in the New Zealand open, eventually losing 21-15, / 15-21, 12-21. Remember, he was just 17 at that time.

Lakshya announced his arrival as a serious player who is very ambitious and who is not afraid of big names. And that he plays to win. In 2019, at age 18, he won four international titles – the Belgian, Dutch, Saarlox Open in Germany and the Scottish Open. Then came the 2021 blitzkrieg which saw him play nine tournaments in a row – culminating in a bronze medal at the World Championship in December. I remember congratulating him on his performance. “Arre sir, but I lost the silver,” he said almost teary-eyed. In 2022, he won the India Open and reached the finals of the German Open and was runner-up at the All England.

But for me, what he told me when I congratulated him after getting the bronze was illuminating, eye-opening and astonishing, all rolled into one.

The Next Big Thing: 13-year-old Naishaa Kaur Bhatoye

The young players of the country are always thriving to be world-class, nothing less. They are putting hours daily in training and coaching and are not in awe of big names or experienced opponents. I will start with two games of the teenage brigade who are making waves in the senior age groups. These are 14-year-old Unnati Hooda from Rohtak and Mumbai based 13-year-old Naishaa Kaur Bhatoye. Naishaa incidentally played the young teenage Saina in the biopic of the Indian star.

It is a delight to talk to the chirpy Naishaa, soft-spoken and decently mannered, always smiling. Except when she is on the court demolishing all and sundry. “I like to be aggressive on the court, play with controlled aggression. I don’t like to play the defensive games as it bores me, “she says. Naisha started playing at the age of seven under coach Jitesh Padukone who really has a shining diamond in his hands.

Naishaa has been under her tutelage for the entire period, except the year she was at Gopichand Academy in Hyderabad. She was selected under the talent scouting scheme of IDBI bank and the Gopichand Academy.

“She does three hours of intense training daily. I push her really hard and she never says no to hard training. She has great focus and is a delight to coach. And she is always wanting to play against age groups higher than under 13, “says Jitesh.

In fact, I had seen her play once when she was 11 years old and she was absolutely fantastic. I was stunned at seeing her backhand toss from her baseline to the baseline of the opposite court, an extreme rarity in one so young.

In Maharashtra, she had made waves in state-level events, winning under 15 titles and also upsetting the applecart of some under 17s also. Is she not afraid to play against much older opponents ?. “No sir, not at all. I play to win and I don’t bother who am I playing. It is their problem but I will play my game. I don’t get nervous at all, “says a confident Naishaa.

She won the ladies’ title at the greater Mumbai district championships recently in a field that had some really good and experienced players. This is apart from winning the under-17 title as well. In the ladies’ singles finals, Naishaa crushed a seasoned Riya Arolkar 21-3, 21-14.

She also won the national under-15 championship at Panchkula. But what has made the badminton fraternity wake up to her astounding talent was when at the recent All India senior event held in Chennai she got a game of the current world no.1 from India, Tasneem Mir. Naishaa wants to play only senior age groups of 17 and 19 and senior open events. This year she is slated to go and play in the Belgian under-15 and -17 international championships. Mark my words, Naishaa Kaur Bhatoye, is a name you are going to hear a lot of in near future. And no one will be happier than the serious group of veteran players at the most prestigious club, led by former state champion Ayaz Bilawala and former veteran national champion Gautam Ashra, the Bombay gymkhana where she goes often to play singles.

Unnati Hooda Making Waves

Unnati hailing from Rohtak in Haryana, also prevailed over world no.1 junior ranked Tasneem Mir, sped fast to defeat Malvika Bansod, who had defeated Saina Nehwal in the India Open. Unnati means progress and what a way she has shone progress. A very mature head on her shoulder, she lives, eats, and breathes only badminton. Says her coach Pravesh Kumar, “We train twice a day, sometimes three times at our center in Rohtak. She just likes to be in court all the time. Of course, school is there and she has to give exams. But apart from school time, it is badminton that she is crazy about. Unnati has almost the same body build as Saina Nehwal, same game style and same thinking. She just doesn’t bother about who is across the net. She moves well on the court and chases the bird as if there is no tomorrow. Though long rallies do not bother her, still she likes to bring in smashes as early as possible.

Unnati idolises PV Sindhu and wants to win a medal at the 2028 Olympics, but her short term goal is to play as many senior BWF events to improve her ranking, as she can. The way she is going we will not be surprised if she wins the senior nationals this year itself. She has great confidence in her ability and her fitness. “She came to my coaching center when she was seven years old. I have taught her everything from holding the racket to court training, whatever is required in the game. We entered her in a tournament in Delhi in under-11 and she won it. She has not looked back since. Unnati won the under-13 nationals, and is ranked no 1 in under-15 in India, ”says Pravesh.

Her greatest qualities according to Pravesh are her discipline, her punctuality and patience. “She will not leave the court unless she learns how to play the stroke. I am teaching her.” The coach says their main goal is to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Unnati has already arrived at the big stage in the country while being only 14 years old. Ranked 418 in world rankings she defeated Smit Toshniwal who is ranked 128. And Malvika Bansod is currently ranked 67th.

While Naishaa and Unnati are still being groomed, it is the 18-20 year old who are slowly, but steadily, gaining in experience and maturity to enter the world arena, some names according to junior national coach Sanjay Mishra, and already making waves are Arushi Kashyap, Aditi Bhatt, Tanisha Crasto and Malvika. Along with Tasneem, any of these girls can step into the shoes of PV Sindhu.

Now that he is going to take over as general secretary of the BAI, he will be a tough act to follow as the national junior coach. Lakshya has good company. Men singles players are doing well and there are many exciting prospects. Kiran George is the frontrunner amongst the new names.

Promising talents in Doubles coming up the ranks

In men’s doubles too, Satwik Sai RankiReddy and Chirag Shetty are in a great class and in a zone of their own. But NR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila are doing well and both these pairs will be around for some time. Men’s doubles is in safe hands. Youngsters like Ishan Bhatnagar and Hemansgendra Bapu are lurking around the corner to get into the Indian team. There is good talent now in all the doubles.

In the mixed doubles, for example, Tanisha and Ishant are doing really well. Runners-up in the Scottish Open last year, they combined very effectively to win the title at the Syed Modi Memorial Badminton tournament in Lucknow. They are the best currently in mixed doubles for India.

In women’s doubles too, a couple of really exciting pairs are coming up the ranks. Ashwini and Sikki have been great over the years, but age is really catching up to them and they may find it difficult to compete with the likes of Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly, who showed great composure and made history by being the first Indian pair to reach semifinals of the All England this year.

On the way, they defeated a couple of very good pairs including the 2nd seeds from Korea in the quarterfinals. While Gayatri controls the net and works the shuttle around, she also creates an opening for Treesa who provides unlimited firepower to wear down the opponents. This pair also deftly converts defense into attack and is not afraid of taking on the best in the world.

Simran Singhi and Rikita Thacker are two girls who play the doubles in the correct style and understanding. Quick to attack and defend well when required they have a good sense of rotation. The great thing about them is they are always looking for a chance to rush to the net, control that area and create smashing opportunities for the partner at baseline. Indian badminton will soon see new but accomplished faces everywhere. As followers of the sport, we have some exciting times ahead.

Amazingly all these teenage shuttlers and ones who are just getting past their teen years have one common thread, and that is their self-belief, supreme confidence in their abilities, and never being overawed by any opponent. What a change from when I used to play for India. We used to see if we are clashing with any Chinese, Indonesian, Korean or Malaysian opponent. Because that meant a quick exit from the tournament

Nowadays, the rest of the world looks at the draw to see if they have been drawn with an Indian player because that means trouble.

This is how this new breed of Indian players are. They go for the win. If they have to be selfish on the court so be it. They are not looking for brownie points. Their eyes are glued to a podium finish. Nothing less.

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