Year Ender 2021: In a Hectic Year, Lakshya Sen Shines Brightest for Indian Badminton

The Covid-hit year 2021 was a real topsy-turvy one for Indian badminton. India sent huge contingents to play the Thomas and Uber cups, and the Sudirman cup. These three team Championships, were rapidly followed by 9 BWF tour events, which included the tour finals at Bali and the world championship in Spain. All above championships were crammed in a space of three months, and were mentally draining and physically exhaustive. Many players carried injuries right through, and some like world number one Kento Momota had to withdraw from the world championships.


Indian badminton had a disastrous Thomas, Uber and Sudirman cup involvement. We had lots of supporting staff in terms of coaches, physios and sparring partners and big number of players. In fact barring PV Sindhu, who had opted out of both Uber and Sudirman cups, and the men’s doubles duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who was nursing an injury, every other shuttler worth her/his name was present. But the selection committee of BAI had bungled big time by not selecting the sensational Lakshya Sen due to a frivolous reason, for Thomas and Sudirman Cup events. And if Chirag Shetty was unfit, there was no reason to leave out Rankireddy from mixed doubles in Sudirman.

The result was laughable as singles specialists Kidambi and Sai Praneeth were drafted by team management to play the mixed doubles. Obviously India lost this paired event every time we stepped in the court. In any case both Srikanth and Sai played listless and lacklustre singles.

However,  all was not lost as the second ranked doubles pair of Dhruv Kapila/ MR Arjun made most of the opportunity and played extremely well in the event. Credit also to veteran Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy who had a good outing in women doubles. And with Sindhu not available, Saina Nehwal beset with injuries, it was left to the next generation players at step into the mighty shoes of above named legend’s. The likes of Malvika Bansod, Aditi Bhatt, Gayatri Gopichand, Rutuporna Panda, Tanisha Crasto, Tasneem Mir and Theresa Jolly benefitted immensely as they were thrust into the boiling cauldron to be bloodied; to rise up to the occasion, which they all did. The experience will surely do them good. The answer to the forever-asked question: “Who after Sindhu/ Saina?” It may well be answered from the above names.

Women’s doubles team of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy (Twitter)

The tossing and turning was a recipe for disaster and it was proved by our results in the team events. Still there were some positives BAI can take back to India and work upon new generation of shuttlers as they have to take over the reins from Saina, Ashwini, Srikanth Kidambi, Sikki Reddy etc. The Indian shuttling caravan then moved onto the 9 open events which were played over 12 weeks. We definitely have improved a lot in last few years. Our players are now running shoulders with the very best and coming out trumps in many occasion. But rest of the badminton world seems to have improved much more than us.

Despite having a huge contingent playing, and despite having numerous foreign coaches on the job, India did not win a single title. We had three finalists, Lakshya at Dutch open, Sindhu at year ending finale and Kidambi at world championships. But no winners, not once was the national anthem played after the prize distribution ceremony. And yes, there were 4-5 semifinal places. In a sense then as far as Indian badminton is concerned, the year belonged to the 20-year-old from Almora. He achieved the goals he had set out for himself. He crash landed in the top 20 club and as we await the latest rankings this week he is bound to be around 14/15. No doubt he had a tough year and missed out one or two chances to move ahead then his peers, like at the All England where he lost to Mark Caljous of Netherlands, clearly a player he should have defeated without any hassle. This was a quarter final match.


But in later part of the year, Lakshya came into his own, improving every time he stepped on the court. He reached finals of the Dutch open but lost to Loh Kean Yew 12-21, 16-21. In later events he faced a rough patch losing to Olympic champ Viktor Axelsen thrice and to world ranked 1 player Kento Momota twice. In one match he led 18-14, coming tantalizingly close to win the game, but lost 21-23. This was a clear signal to the world that he can’t be taken lightly, or trifled with.

He reached the semifinals of the year ending World tour final, crashed out to Dene Vicktor Axelsen, but earned a handsome 30,000 dollars for his efforts. And then literally came into his own, showing great fighting spirit, resilience, awesome defence and court coverage, innovative strokes and patience in attacking. In the world championships his first test was against Nishimoto of Japan which he won 22-20/15-21/21-18. Another test if character came against top Chinese Zhao Jun Peng in quarterfinals, where he hit some brilliant net taps to cage in Zhao and run away with a scintillating but hard fought victory 21-15/ 15-21/ 22-20.


And then came the semis which will be remembered for a long time as he played his heart out to a resurgent Kidambi Srikanth but lost the 68 minutes fast paced marathon 21-17/14-21/17-21. Kidambi Srikanth looked jaded and listless most of the time. Nothing seem to be going his way in each event he played in from the Sudirman till the world championships. But suddenly he came into his own against Lakshya in the semis. Delightful net play, getting the openings and then hammering away with his signature smashes which buried the shuttle all over the opposite court.

Kidambi Srikanth won a historic silver at the World Championships. (Twitter)

He carried this tactics to the finals but as the entire country watched, Loh Kean Yew of Singapore snatched the title 21-15/ 22-20. Kidambi actually led 18-16 and entire country held their breath hoping he gallops away with the game. But it was not to be as he lost 4 points in a row to finally lose out 20-22. Srikant still has that fire in him which propelled him to no 1 rank in April of 2018. He will still be a force to reckon with in 2022. Saisatwick Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty did not win any title, or even reach the finals of any tournament, but they played well within their shell to remain a force to reckon with, when the next season comes around. Dhruv Kapila/Arjun combined well to upset a couple of applecarts. They will only get better.

And the very fact that in mixed doubles Kapila and Sikki Reddy could upset world no. 5 from Indonesia Praveen Jordan/ Melati 21-11/22-20 shows that we can do really well in mixed doubles also, an event that traditionally we have neglected. Veterans Ponnappa and Siki Reddy did well enough to qualify for the year ender finale in the women doubles. But clearly they have to work on their speed if they have to do well as a pair next year. Maybe time has come to specialise in mixed doubles where movement is not as fast.


Finally what about PV Sindhu, how did she do, where did she err. The elegant indian badminton queen so used to lift big titles across the world has to pause and think what did not go right for her. She skipped the prestigious Uber cup and Sudirman cup, hoping to come relaxed for the 9 tournaments extravaganza. But alas and woe, Sindhu could reach only one finals, the year ending World Tour finale.

But a new nemesis emerged for her in shape of Ahn Se Young, a Korean teenager, who out maneuvered, outran, out hit and out smashed the hapless Indian who simply did not know what to do. Ahn drew circles around a bewildered Sindhu who did not know what stroke to play. In the tour finals she lost to Ahn Se Young 16-21/12-21 and in the Denmark open ahn had pulverized her 11-21/12-21 making Sindhu look like a pedestrian who looks lost at a crossroads. The young Korean, before her 18th birthday had already defeated Carolina Marin, Yamaguchi, Tai Tzu Ying, and Sindhu. Ahn is extremely agile, dives all over the court to retrieve impossible looking shots, combined with superb deep lifts and half smashes which date not land outside the lines.

The Indian ace told BWF in frustration,” Ahn is an all-rounder. She dives a lot and just when you think shuttle is down on the floor but somehow she picks it up. She puts enormous pressure—I have to just let it go. It is over for now.” In the Indonesian Masters Akane Yamaguchi demolished Sindhu 13-21, 9-21 in just 32 minutes of one-sided domination. And then old tormentors too joined in. Tai as usual defeated Sindhu easily in qf of the world championships and Thailand’s legend Ratnachok Intathon came back from injury to defeat the tall Indian in one of the Bali events but in three games. It may well be that Sindhu goes back to the drawing board now and starts afresh, a career which seems to be in problems.

So the year of 2021 could have been better. The think tank of BAI should break heads and analyse what went wrong, because next year is full of major events like the CWG and Asian Games, Thomas and Uber cups and the world championships. We are capable of doing much better and we will if we plan out things properly. So in ending let me bring out which was the victory of the year for Indian badminton. And a quote from Lakshya Sen which sums up the great determination of our shuttlers. The best victory was HS Prannoy defeating the Olympic champion Axlesen in the Indonesian open super 1000 event. And the best observation came from young Lakshya Sen, which shows the mindset of our players. On the bronze medal at world championship he said,” It is ok I got a bronze, but I am upset that I did not reach the finals to fight for gold. From now onwards I will go for the gold every time I play.”

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