Women’s badminton is in rude health, with several talented players making the field as competitive as ever. Gruffudd Owen speaks to PV Sindhu on the state of the women’s game, as well as the increased interest in women’s badminton following her exploits at the Rio Olympic Games
The annals of the Premier Badminton League (PBL) will tell you that 2017 belonged to the Chennai Smashers, a 4-3 final series win over the Mumbai Rockets securing the franchise’s maiden title in the fledgling league’s second season.
But it is not always the case that a final proves to be the abiding memory of a sporting event. During the two-week long Premier Badminton League, it was at the penultimate stage that the tournament witnessed its defining moment.
PV Sindhu’s defeat of Saina Nehwal last week – the former representing the Smashers, the latter playing on behalf of the Awadhe Warriors – was significant not just because of the all-Indian nature of the tie, as a capacity crowd lit up New Delhi’s Siri Fort Complex.
This encounter between two of the sport’s biggest names – and the enormous amount of attention it received – was also a compelling indicator of the strength of women’s badminton today, with Sindhu very much at its heart.
Many regarded the 21-year-old’s gold medal match against Spain’s Carolina Marin at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games as a watershed in the women’s game, showing the world that the ‘Great Wall’ – a term used to describe the dominance of the Chinese in the sport – could indeed be breached.
And with such a competitive field comprising players from a number of different countries – many in their early twenties or even younger – women’s badminton is now in the midst of a golden generation, something Sindhu is excited to be a part of.
“The women’s game is getting so much more popular,” she explains.
“Before it was only the Chinese, but now there’s Spaniards, Koreans, Japanese and Indians.
“I think women’s badminton has got a very good recognition within the sport, and the sport in general is growing very quickly too. The intensity has improved a lot.
“It’s very good for the sport. The top 20 players are equally as strong; each one has a different style of play and different strokes, so it’s very important that even if you play against a lower-ranked player or higher-ranked player, you need to play your best game.”
Sindhu was speaking during December’s season-ending World Superseries Finals in Dubai, a tournament that did much to reinforce the view that women’s badminton is currently enjoying an unprecedented period of competitiveness and unpredictability.
Marin – so dominant on her way to Olympic gold in Rio – crashed out early having lost all three group games, while Sindhu herself was eliminated in the semi-finals.
Meanwhile, China’s He Bingjiao and Akane Yamaguchi – who are both just 19 years old and have been tipped as future stars after impressive performances during the regular season – failed to progress to the knockout stages.
Ultimately, it was up to Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying – who had recently replaced Marin as world No. 1 – to clinch the title, although she will surely realise that holding onto the top ranking in 2017 will be a formidable challenge given the number of talented shuttlers on the women’s circuit.
As for Sindhu, she will still look back on 2016 with great fondness despite falling short in Dubai.
The Hyderabadi’s silver medal in Rio saw her make history as the first Indian badminton player to reach an Olympic final; more than anything, Sindhu is delighted that this achievement has strengthened the sport’s already-considerable following in India.
“Badminton’s profile has definitely increased,” she says.
“Thousands and thousands of people watched the match between me and Carolina, and everyone was wondering what would happen because things were quite equal in the third set. Even though it was a tough match, they appreciated my efforts.
“The image of badminton has really improved, and the younger generation of Indian badminton now wants to capture that spirit. Everyone wants to play badminton and join badminton clubs, and wants their kids to join badminton clubs.
“The quality of the sport has improved a lot; everyone in India has been talking about badminton.”
Already a major figure in her country, Sindhu’s profile reached stratospheric levels during the Olympics – particularly on social media – with a number of famous personalities tweeting their support.
Cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar was a notable fan, so much so that he subsequently became actively involved in badminton by investing in PBL franchise the Bengaluru Blasters prior to the 2017 season.
Others to get behind Sindhu included the current Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli, as well as women’s doubles world no. 2 Sania Mirza in the world of tennis.
“It meant a lot, because they really motivated me in their own sporting exploits when I was growing up playing badminton,” Sindhu reveals.
“The fact that they watched my match, congratulated me and wished me good luck was a great honour for me.
“They are great in their respective sports, and seeing them tweeting about me on social media gave me a lot of confidence. It made me feel very happy.”
And with a PBL medal to now add to her list of honours, there’s no reason why Sindhu can’t maintain this feelgood factor in what is set to be another vintage year for women’s badminton.