Hurtling nowhere

The badminton circuit needs to be reworked to attract mass interest

By Dev S Sukumar

IT WAS in February 2006 at Jaipur that badminton saw the announcement of revolutionary measures to spice up the game. Punch Gunalan, then all-powerful Deputy President of the International Badminton Federation (IBF), announced at a press conference some dramatic changes: a new scoring system, a ‘Super Series’ circuit of tournaments, and a new-look international federation, to be called Badminton World Federation. Gunalan wanted a ‘new’ badminton, a sport distanced from its English legacy, and he saw himself as its architect. Nearly three years since those changes were announced, it’s ironical that the architecture remains, but not the architect.

And so there is that slightly disorienting feeling while examining badminton, a feeling that one is on a train that’s hurtling way off track, but it cannot change course because the driver has been ejected off it.

Gunalan was upstaged in a coup in Jakarta in May, but the new administration hasn’t shown any evidence of charting a new course. The circuit goes on, a little confused. There isn’t a larger vision for the game; most countries are content just fighting for the prizes on offer. Despite the pompous promises of 2006, badminton really hasn’t climbed into the league of tennis or F1 as a sport that the masses follow.

2008 will be a significant year in modern badminton; it was the year when Gunalan was upstaged after nearly two decades of controlling the sport. He had orchestrated the move of the IBF headquarters from England to his home base Kuala Lumpur. He created a Super Series that was modeled on tennis but has none of its vibrancy – while the ATP Circuit has four Grand Slams, Gunalan created an unwieldy twelve. While tennis has always flaunted the rich traditions of Wimbledon, Gunalan allowed his bias against England to show, undermining the All England and putting it on par with the other Super Series. The result is that winning the All England carries as much importance as winning any of the other 11 Super Series tournaments, and it has ceased to be the classic event it once was. Every sport needs a marquee tournament, something that can be identified with it. Gunalan did everything to undermine the All England, and badminton has all the feel now of being an unwanted orphan child – shorn of its European parentage, and no caretaking by its surrogate Asian parents.

Meanwhile the circuit rolled on in 2008.

Having won three of the five gold at the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese are in for an overhaul, and that should give the other teams an opportunity. The Olympics marked the last hurrah of several overachieving Chinese players. Several champions bade farewell – two-time Olympic gold-medallist Zhang Ning, the legendary Gao Ling (11 All England, two world and two Olympic titles!), two-time Olympic women’s doubles champions Yang Wei and Zhang Jiewen and three-time Thomas Cup winner Chen Yu. These retirements will hurt China severely, for they were the pivots on which the country’s success over the last decade was built. Most of their rampant sweeps in team and multi-sport events have come about because these players were nearly unbeatable, and even the Chinese conveyor belt will find it hard to supply products which match their worth. Their situation is not unlike the Australian cricket team, on the decline after the retirement of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.

It will be interesting to see their replacements. China has won the last six Uber Cups and 11 of the last 13, and perhaps for the first time, there are cracks in the edifice. Three-time All England winner Xie Xingfang is still in the top-5, but her heart doesn’t seem to be in it, for she has frequently talked of marriage to her boyfriend Lin Dan. That leaves several others, like world champion Zhu Lin, Lu Lan, Jiang Yanjiao, Wang Lin and Wang Yihan in the singles, while the doubles will see the ascendancy of Zhao Tingting/ Zhang Yawen and the new pair Shu Cheng/ Zhao Yunlei. All are in their early twenties, and not-so-experienced for the highest level.

While each of the singles players is good enough to be in the top-10, they have not yet shown the consistency of their predecessors, the ability to soak it all under pressure. Zhu Lin is a case in point. Expected to take over the mantle from her seniors, she seemed on course when she won the World Championships last August, but she has hardly been visible since then.

The Chinese retained their Thomas and Uber Cup titles, but the men and women faced stern tests against Malaysia and The Netherlands respectively. The other main event of 2008, the Beijing Olympics, went as expected with three gold medals for the home team — Zhang Ning retaining her women’s singles gold, Lin Dan claiming the one big singles title that has eluded him, and Du Jing/ Yu Yang taking the women’s doubles.

Indeed, the Summer Olympics was a pointer to the power equations within badminton. Korea has emerged a doubles powerhouse, and they walked away with the mixed doubles gold. The Indonesian men’s doubles pair of Markis Kido/ Hendra Setiawan have had a rollicking time since they won the World Championships in August last year; they have even beaten the Chinese in their own den at the China Masters and claimed four Super Series titles, apart from the Olympics gold. Their consistency has meant that Indonesia, while it struggles to find good singles players, can still salvage titles in the doubles.

The ones who stole the show at Beijing and caused an explosion of media interest in Korea was the pair of Lee Yong Dae and Lee Hyo Jung, winners of the mixed doubles. Yong Dae, of boyish good looks, has become a media darling in Korea, and it is likely that this country will provide China its sternest tests in 2009, for it has a couple of good singles players in the top-10 as well.

Tine Rasmussen of Denmark had a great start to 2008, winning the Malaysian and the All England Super Series, but her graph dipped in the latter half of the year. No other challenger from Europe is likely, and Rasmussen will have to carry the burden in 2009.

This is the year Saina Nehwal cracked the top10 after a post-Olympics surge. So what can we expect in the new year? Saina has come of age, she will consistently challenge for Super Series titles, and is a contender for every one of them including the All England and the World Championships in Hyderabad. It’s likely that she will come away with a couple of the majors, and end the year in the top 3.

The one person who thwarted Saina this year was world no.1 Zhou Mi of Hong Kong. Zhou has shown tremendous consistency despite being the wrong side of 30, winning three majors and losing the finals of three others. She and her compatriot Wang Chen have bedeviled the best-laid plans of the Chinese – and it must be especially irritating to them, for both were former Chinese internationals!

With no.1 Zhou Mi, no.2 Rasmussen and no.6 Wang Chen being over 30, the long-term challenge to Saina in the top ten narrows down to Malaysian Wong Mew Choo, a handful of Chinese and the odd Hong Kong or Indonesian player.

In the men’s singles, Lin Dan had a strangely subdued year, partly because he had to ‘throw’ his All England final to compatriot Chen Jin to enable the latter to qualify for the Olympics. Still, the great Chinese world champion brooked no resistance in the events that mattered, such as the Olympics, the Thomas Cup and the China Masters. Malaysian challenger Lee Chong Wei, All England winner Chen Jin and Dane Peter Gade split most of the other titles.

In the men’s, expect strong performances from the young Malaysians and Danes and of course India. The Indians now have a solid blend of youth and experience; their only problem is that the defunct national circuit is not throwing up the numbers for a strong second-string.

Badminton needs to turn a corner, and India can provide the base for a global badminton revolution, just as in cricket. Indian success can be used to leverage the sport; Saina is already hugely popular. But the administration needs to reconnect with the game’s European connections; the romance of the All England and other older tournaments must be rekindled, and the Super Series reworked. The packaging cannot be sold instead of the content. Badminton has not been allowed to fulfill its global potential. Will 2009 be different?

(Published in All Sports magazine, January 2009)

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About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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