Is the All England just another port of call on the badminton Tour?

The draws for Indians at the All England starting mid-March are fraught, with tricky Round 1s slated for the celebrated names. But when has a title ever been won without winning tough match-offs?

With India’s wait for an All England champion entering its 22nd year now, and successes coming via other tournaments, the question once again arises if the prestigious tournament is viewed as just another port of call on the badminton Tour by the Indians.

There’s a nice ring of sequence to hopes of when the next Indian — could win. After Prakash Padukone won in 1980, Pullela Gopichand lifted the trophy in 2001 twenty one years later.

A decade on was too soon – India was still to win an Olympic medal in 2011 — now they have three. But a score of years later in 2021 were the first murmurs of a proper lament of who next.

2022 rolled in, and Lakshya Sen was on a roll until Viktor Axelsen stopped him in finals. But with 21 years gone, an arithmetic progression was in play, and an opportunity – albeit a difficult one – had passed Indians by.

In 2023, we are now in proper Fibonacci territory as far as sequences go, as now 22 years have gone by. The question mark though keeps getting bigger and more pressing with each passing year.

It’s all the more intriguing because most other possible titles have been box-ticked. Olympics medal. Check (though gold will be nice). World Championship gold. Check. World Championships every edition for the last nine times. Check. Thomas & Uber Cup. Gold check & check. World Tour Finals. Check. Asian & Commonwealth Games. Check. Indonesia at Istora. Check. World No 1s. Check. China. Check. Malaysia notoriously remains elusive. But the All England lack of encore bothers more.

As things stand, there are four tournaments of equal worth on the Badminton World Federation pyramid structure. Besides the All England, Indonesia, China and Malaysia are all ‘Super 1000’ tournaments, with a total prize kitty of USD 12,50,000, that’s around 72.5 lakh INR for a singles winner for the Big Four of Tour events.

Badminton remains a humble second-best for prize purse in racquet sports for its top drawer tournaments – the Wimbledon singles winner might make over INR 1.99 cr.

Yet the diminishing in India of the All England couldn’t possibly be due to prize kitty, which is what it is, and same for all the Big Four. There is little doubt that shuttlers pitstop at the Birmingham Arena, try their best but leave with a shrug if they know they can try the next year. The primacy that the All England enjoyed when Padukone or Gopichand won it, is a tad faded now with so many other events on the calendar and in the boxes to tick.

Padukone speaking at the opening of the Nationals this weekend, opined that while it’s still held in high esteem, maybe the players are not as committed towards winning it as they used to be in times when there were no other ways to measure who was the best. Now with so many tournaments and an official World Championship, the All England has indeed acquired a second tier placing. Chirag Shetty though would offer an insight into minds of players, saying it was on par with the World Championships, but a notch below the Olympics. Remember, badminton got into the Olympics only in 1992.

With a World Championship and two Olympic medals, will it really matter to Sindhu’s legacy that there isn’t yet an All England on her roll-call of honours? It is unlikely to diminish her credentials as India’s greatest. Though when she lines up against Zhang Yiman in Round 1 or Tai Tzu Ying in quarters, you would hope she can end the long wait, simply because she is easily the best equipped to. The All England will bring a completeness to the circle – and might only be bettered at this stage of her career by the Paris gold.

Lakshya Sen vs Viktor Axelsen Lakshya Sen’s dream run at the All England Championships ended with a heartbreaking straight-game loss against world number one and Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen. (AP Photo)

Lakshya Sen’s fine run into the finals last year had raised hopes just as much and that would have completed another sort of a circle of 42 years on since 1980, though it wasn’t to be. Yet, when he meets Chou Tien Chen in Round 1 this time, one can expect his team to accord the tournament the greatest importance, and prepare accordingly, given how much Padukone and Vimal Kumar respect that heritage and tome of gilt-edged history.

Her form is nothing to write home about currently, but Saina Nehwal made finals for the first time since Gopichand in 2015, and when she plays Han Yue in her opener, she could turn back time for a one-off match, or as much as her recovery allows.

But you suspect someone like Kidambi Srikanth, who’s been under the radar, and is slated to play Toma Jr Popov, might well have an almighty go at it this time, given the initiative he showed to go train in Indonesia for a short stint. With all the attention on Prannoy and Sen, the timing is perfect for Srikanth to sneak up dodging the radar. He has Lu GZ and Lee Zii Jia in his quarter, but might well fancy his chances of a good run.

Yet, purely on form and consistency, it is the doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who might well trap down the All England, given how pin-pointedly they’ve been chasing it down, and preparing.

In Mathias Boe, a two-time champion (2011 & 2015) and four times finalist (2010 & 2018 runners up), the Indian doubles pairing have a seasoned All E pro, to steer them along. The Indians are staring at a 0-11 head to head history against Marcus Gideon/ Kevin Sanjay Sukamuljo. But no better place than the All England to reverse that result for the first time and take out the Minions with a blitz, when fresh in the first round. Yet, would it hurt awfully if they didn’t win?

The breakneck pace of moving on from tournaments these days, though, means that even if the All England goes by, there’s the Swiss the next week. And Sudirman Cup two months on. And a bunch of other tournaments to win, with the headlines equally gushing. You suspect an Indian will need to win All England for the realisation to hit that it does indeed stand a little taller than all other tournaments.

Perhaps the way Gopichand or Padukone prepared for the All England exclusively and with an arrow-point focus on the target, in the absence of so many opportunities, might be now difficult to mimic, given the plethora of tournaments.

A bigger problem in badminton, though its hardly a problem if you consider the egalitarian commitment of players, is that unlike tennis, the whole bunch of 32 in a draw – more or less – travel to most tournaments. It’s not uncommon to see the top names at a Super 1000 and then a Super 750 next week and a Super 500 a week thereafter, which levels out the pre-eminence of the All England even if it doesn’t diminish it entirely. Prestigious is an abstract entity, though everyone acknowledges the humongous history of the tournament – it was virtually the World championship equivalent before the World championship rolled in. But with everyone playing everywhere, and playing so much, the anticipation has watered down a tad unfortunately.

Perhaps it suits the players to not burden themselves with expectations and cram all hopes into that one week. It’s the most realistic way to cope with the already heightened pressure of winning. Yet, ask any player and they would accept that the All England has a different ring to it. The Chinese definitely prioritise it over other tournaments, and tend to arrive peaked for the mid-March event with an extra layer of ceremony.

Maybe that’s how Indians ought to approach it: All-in for the All E.


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