Time of possibilities

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Dev S Sukumar

Saina Nehwal’s title victory at the Indonesian Open Super Series is the kind of event that can revolutionise the sport in India, in ways that may not be immediately apparent. It pitches an Indian woman in the top echelons of world badminton – a world of super-human specimens, models of power, speed, high technical skill, and immense composure. It took Saina more than three years of competing at international tournaments to crack the code, as it were: the task of beating Chinese players on successive days, and in the final of a Super Series event.
What does the title mean for India? For one, it raises the bar for Indian women players. It will evoke interest especially among little girls. It also means public attention will shift to badminton – there could possibly be higher prize money, more sponsorship, and greater media space.
If Saina can continue to win more titles over the next few years – and there is no reason why she can’t – she will play a role in the self-imagining of the Indian sportswoman – and by extension, of the Indian woman. Saina does not play a feminine brand of badminton – she is all hustle and power; she can match the very best in the world on their terms. Unlike Indian women players of the past, she is no graceful, arty player who loses on account of fitness. Like the unheralded world boxing champion MC Marykom of Manipur, Saina has risen to the top of a very physical sport.
But while Saina’s success sweetens the taste of Indian sport, it has to be remembered that Indian badminton continues to be in crisis. A title victory is just one indicator of the health of a sport; on many other counts, Indian badminton continues to languish. At the junior level is a chronic problem – that of players competing in categories below their own age groups, thanks to fudged age certificates. Several of the country’s top junior players are proven offenders. The Badminton Association of India has done little to address this problem, which threatens to wipe out junior talent across the country.
It is not all that difficult to translate Saina’s title – and there will be more coming up – into success for Indian badminton, and Indian sport in general. India can be a badminton superpower, fit to compete against the likes of China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Korea. Those feats are not built on individual brilliance, but rather on systems and processes. Indian sport is not large-hearted enough to accommodate that.

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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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