From Prakash Padukone to PV Sindhu: The best of Indian badminton
The decade gone by has brought about a revolution in Indian badminton, which has carried the sport to unprecedented heights.
The journey of the previous decade has made players like Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu household names in the country while Parupalli Kashyap, Kidambi Srikanth, B Sai Praneeth, Jwala Gutta, and Ashwini Ponappa have all made important contributions along the way.
Here, we take a look at the best Indian badminton players of all time, in no particular order:
The first superstar of Indian badminton, Prakash Padukone was a pioneer in more ways than one.
After creating waves in domestic Indian badminton circles – winning junior and senior national titles in the same year – Prakash Padukone laid down the marker internationally by winning the men’s singles gold at the 1978 Commonwealth Games.
Padukone topped that achievement just two years later when he took home the All England Open crown, considered one of the most prestigious tournaments in badminton, in 1980 beating Indonesian legend Liem Swie King in the final.
It was a historic moment for India, who until then were not thought to produce badminton champions.
Prakash Padukone also opened the doors to Europe in 1981 by playing for clubs in Denmark, a decision which, by his own admission, was a calculated risk in order to become the best badminton player he could be.
The Indian badminton legend was also one of the first sportspersons to open up an academy called the ‘Prakash Padukone Centre of Excellence’, where the high-class facilities make it one of the sought-after destinations to learn badminton in India.
Pullela Gopichand is a name now synonymous with Indian badminton.
A disciple of the famed ‘Prakash Padukone Centre of Excellence’, Gopichand won his first national title in 1996, before going on to win the next four in a row.
He was a steady performer in international competition, winning silver with the men’s team at the 1998 Commonwealth Games and bronze in the singles, before another bronze at the 2000 Asian championships.
The crowning glory of Pullela Gopichand’s career came in 2001 as he became only the second Indian badminton player to win the All England crown, which included a win over then world No. 1 Peter Gade in the semis.
Multiple injuries and surgeries to his knee brought a relatively early end to Gopichand’s playing career but it led to the first steps of what is now widely credited with revolutionising Indian badminton.
He opened the famed ‘Pullela Gopichand Academy’ in Hyderabad in 2004, overcoming a lot of financial struggle and ill-wishers, and imparted his knowledge to young kids who wanted to learn the sport.
The institution has produced numerous stars since then, with each of the three following names being a product of the academy. Gopichand has even been recognised by the International Olympic Committee for his contribution to the development of the game.
After ruffling feathers with a fearless campaign at Beijing 2008, she rose steadily in international competition. Saina Nehwal became the first Indian to win a BWF Super Series title in 2009 and in 2010, she went on to win gold at the Commonwealth Games.
At just 22 years old, Nehwal was shaping up to be the country’s star shuttler and at London 2012, she displayed immense grit to reach the semi-finals before losing to top seed Wang Yihan.
However, fortune smiled on her in the bronze medal match, where Wang Xin retired with an injury after Saina Nehwal had pushed her to the limit, giving Indian badminton a taste of history.
The 2012 London Olympics also brought more personal joy – her now-husband Parupalli Kashyap also became the first male Indian badminton player to reach the Olympic quarter-finals, where he was halted by the legendary Lee Chong Wei.
Saina Nehwal added another cap to her feather, becoming the top-ranked women’s singles player in the world in 2015, making her the first Indian to achieve it.
If Saina Nehwal dared Indian badminton to dream, PV Sindhu made that dream a reality.
A talented kid with fiery shots, PV Sindhu burst onto the scene in 2012, winning the junior Asian championships title before clinching bronze with a superlative performance at the 2013 badminton world championships.
Another bronze at the 2014 world championships established her as one to watch out for and PV Sindhu showed her spirit when she recovered from a back injury just in time to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
It brought about arguably the best moment of her career thus far. As an unheralded 20-year-old, PV Sindhu downed big guns like Tai Tzu Ying and old rival Nozomi Okuhara to set up a pulsating title clash with then world No. 1 Carolina Marin.
It was an epic match that had the world hooked, as Marin drew on her experience to outlast the energetic Indian badminton star, but the Olympic silver medal was one to cherish for the ages.
PV Sindhu built on that platform in the years to come, winning two silver medals at the world championships before winning the inaugural BWF World Tour title in 2018
PV Sindhu then produced one of the most dominating performances in history to down Okuhara and win a historic BWF world championship title in 2019, making her the first Indian to win the crown.
After a challenging year disrupted by the COVID pandemic, PV Sindhu won the women's singles bronze at Tokyo 2020 to create another slice of history. She became the first Indian woman to win two individual Olympic medals.
A name slightly less heralded but an important cog in the journey of Indian badminton nonetheless is Kidambi Srikanth.
Srikanth won his first national title in 2013, beating senior pro Parupalli Kashyap in the final and went on to become the first male Indian badminton player to win a BWF Super Series title with the 2014 China Open crown, where he upset Olympic champion Lin Dan in the final.
Kidambi Srikanth lost out to Lin Dan in the quarter-finals of Rio 2016 but used that as a springboard for success, winning a record four Super Series title in 2017 and rose to become world No. 1 in 2018, becoming only the second Indian to do so after Saina Nehwal.
A serious knee injury curtailed his progress thereafter.