Padukone, Saina, Gopichand: A look back at India's best at the All England Open Badminton Championships

Prakash Padukone was the first Indian to win the men's single title in 1980
By Samrat Chakraborty

The All England Open Badminton Championship, the world's oldest badminton tournament, is one such competition where heritage and excellence shake hands. The maiden edition was held in Guilford in 1898, and following its roaring success, it was shifted to London's Horticultural Halls in 1899.

It was considered as the unofficial World Championship of badminton until the International Badminton Federation came up with its own championship in 1977.

In 2021, the prestigious event (now a Superseries tournament) will commence on March 17. The Badminton World Federation (BWF) on Tuesday released the draw for the Super 1000 event in Birmingham, England.

Indian shuttlers have been participating in the All England Open for a long time. Let us look at some of the best performances by Indians in the prestigious tournament.

Shri Prakash Nath (Runner-up, 1947)

In 1947, the championship resumed after it was paused due to World War II. The seeding took place based on performance before the event was halted. India had two entries in the tournament in Praksh Nath and his fierce rival Devinder Mohan. Nath won the 1946 nationals beating Mohan and the Indian federation decided to send both the players to gain international experience.

The organisers put them in the same quarter of the draw which meant that only one of them had the opportunity to reach the finals.

In the very first round, Nath was up against defending champion Tage Madsen of Denmark. In front of a 25,000 strong crowd, the favourite won the first game 15-7.

Nath however managed to get the better of Madsen and nicked the second 15-12. All eyes were on the deciding third, and Nath blew away his more illustrated opponent 15-3.

In the second round, he beat Tod Majury 15-7, 15-11 in straight games.

But in the quarterfinals, he was to face his dear friend and fierce rival Mohan. To the surprise of the England crowd, the duo agreed not to cross swords with each other and the winner was decided by flipping a coin. It was unprecedented and the England press lapped up the story. Fortune favoured Nath as he called it right and progressed to the next round.

In the semifinals, Nath came up against local lad Radford. The native gave him a stiff fight in the first set but was overwhelmed in the second game which paved the way for Nath to become the first Indian to seal a berth in the finals.

In the grand finale, he faced Denmark's Conny Jepsen. But Nath who had a fabulous tournament so far kept struggling to find his rhythm and lost in straight sets 15-7, 15-11 at the Harringay Arena.

Prakash Padukone Credit: Deepika Padukone Twitter

Prakash Padukone (Winner 1980, Runner-Up 1981)

At just 24, Prakash Padukone created history and became the first Indian to win the All England Open at Wembley Stadium on March 23, 1980.

He was in his prime and went on to win the championship without dropping a single game. In the Round of 32, he clashed against Malaysian Suffian Abu Bakr. With little trouble, he swept him aside 15-7, 15-12.

In the next round, he went up against Indonesian Hadiyanto. He humiliated his opponent as he went on to win the first game 15-0. He won the second 15-10 to progress.

His exquisite gameplay meant Padukone became a crowd favourite and in the quarterfinals, he continued his imperial form and went on to win against his Swiss opponent Pri 15-4, 15-4.

In the last four, he faced another Swiss in Frost Hansen. Pri's compatriot suffered the same fate and surrendered 15-8, 15-10 to Padukone who hardly put a foot wrong.

In the finals, he locked horns against Indonesia's Liem Swie King, who was equally in a rich vein of form and had blown away every opponent he faced till then without dropping a game. He was the two-time defending champion and was gunning for his third straight title.

But to the surprise of everyone, Padukone bagged the first game 15-3. King showed some resistance in the second but was no match to the Indian's deception and spin as he lost 15-10.

In 1981, Padukone faced the same opponent in the final and the world had its eyes on what was set to be one of the most anticipated matches ever.

King wanted to avenge his previous loss and fired on all cylinders right from the word go, building a 9-0 lead early on. But Padukone came back from behind to win the game 11-15.

But the gargantuan efforts he put in to recover sapped him of his energy. The rallies got longer in the second and third games and the Indian kept dropping points to ultimately lose the match, 15-11, 4-15, 6-15.

Pullela Gopichand

Pullela Gopichand (Winner 2001)

Pullella Gopichand was not at all a favourite to win the crown in 2001. In fact, he was seeded in the 9-16 bracket and the tournament was being hosted on a concrete surface, much to the displeasure of the Indian shuttler.

However, in the domestic circuit, he was hitting the right notes and was in good form.

In the Round of 32, he beat local lad Colin Haugton with ease in straight games 15-7, 15-4. In the Round of 16, he was up against one of the tournament favourites Chinese Ji Xingpeng. He was an Olympic champion and was dominating the international circuit at that time.

But Gopichand produced an upset to beat the Chinese 15-3, 15-9. The fashion in which he brushed aside his much more illustrated opponent saw Gopichand get noticed by pundits.

In the quarters, he continued his rich vein of form and beat Anders Boesen 15-11, 15-7 without much trouble.

However, in the semi-finals, his limits were tested by Swiss international Peter Gade. It was an intense battle as both players went toe-to-toe. But Gopichand held his nerve in the tiebreakers of both the games and won the match 17-14, 17-15.

In the final, very few bet against him when he went up against Chen Hong of China. His adversary was not one of the best but was having a wonderful tournament. But his best was not enough against a marauding Gopichand who won the match 15-12, 15-6 to become the second Indian to win the All England Open.

Saina Nehwal.
Picture by 2015 Getty Images

Saina Nehwal (Runner-Up 2015)

Saina Nehwal was the third seed going into the All England Championship in 2015. Hence in the first round, she got an easy draw and was up against Bellaetrix Manuputty of Indonesia. She defeated her comfortably in straight games with a scoreline of 21-8, 21-12.

In the second round, she faced Kim Hyo-Min of South Korea and once again had little trouble in beating her 21-15, 21-15.

However, in the quarterfinals, she had to fight against the fifth-seeded Wang Yihan of China. It was a close fight in the first game, but she maintained her composure to win it 21-19. In the second, Nehwal took her game a couple of notches higher and beat Yihan 21-6.

In the semi-finals, she faced another Chinese shuttler in Sun Yu. The Indian ace did not have to break a sweat to get the better of her and won the match 21-13, 21-13.

The attention on Saina was at a crescendo going into the final as she was knocking on the doors of history. She was just a win away from becoming the first Indian woman athlete to win the All England Open. Her adversary was the sixth-seeded Carolina Marin of Spain.

She went off to a brisk start and pocketed the first game 21-16. However, her movements on the court became slower and she ended up losing the final two games 14-21, 7-21.

“The first game was quite good. I started off very well. But I think she was also in good form and she gave me a tough time after that. Finally, it is a game so obviously, it would be challenging,” expressed Saina after returning to India.