Rubbing shoulders with the best

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Rubbing shoulders with the best
Mary Kom won India's only gold medal at the Asian Boxing Championships

Indian players demonstrate grit and determination in the world of sports

By Rituraj Borkakoty

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Published: Thu 25 Jan 2018, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 26 Jan 2018, 1:00 AM

Mary Kom, the 34-year-old mother of three whose fairytale story of boxing triumphs inspired the world of Bollywood as well as former American president Barack Obama, hit back at naysayers.
The epitaph writers were ready to send her into the history books after she had failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. But the five-time world champion and 2012 London Olympics bronze medallist had the last laugh as she won the Asian Boxing Championship title in the 48 kg category in November.
"I am really happy and would like to dedicate this victory to all those who have supported me, even though the world had written me off. I would like to thank my coaching staff who worked hard with me over the last few months," said the girl from the remote north eastern state of Manipur, after winning the fifth Asian Boxing Championships gold in her medal-laden career.
That was India's only gold medal at the continental championship in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, ironically from a boxer who had been written off after the Rio heartbreak.  
PV Sindhu, an affable girl from Hyderabad who became the only Indian female athlete in history to win an individual Olympic silver medal at the Rio Games in 2016, continued to show the world why she is among the greatest players in modern badminton by acquiring the runner-up position in the World Badminton Championships in Glasgow.
She then followed her Scotland heroics with another second-place finish in the season finale in Dubai - a highly prestigious event where only the top eight players in the world can compete.  
The World Badminton Championships was not all about Sindhu alone. The smile was back on Saina Nehwal's face. The trendsetter in Indian women's badminton feared for her career after a serious knee injury led to a disappointing show at the Rio Olympics.
Few expected her to go deep into the Glasgow World Badminton Championships, her first major tournament after recovering from the career-threatening knee injury.
But the 27-year-old shuttler made a memorable comeback in Glasgow, earning a bronze. The former world number one lost a compelling semifinal battle to the eventual champion, Nozomi Okuhara. The Japanese star produced a riveting battle in the title-decider with Saina's compatriot Sindhu, before clinching victory in 110 minutes in what was the longest women's singles match in the history of the World Badminton Championships.
Saina, whose ranking had fallen to 16 in June 2017, has started to climb back slowly to the upper echelons of world badminton. Now back in the top 10 of world rankings, Saina aims to replicate her glory days this year.
Coach Pullela Gopichand believes his pupil has what it takes to dominate the sport again.  
"I think we will have areas to work on - both on the physical side and technical side, in terms of strokes I mean. She is a player who has contributed a lot and I believe that she still has a lot more to offer," Gopichand told Khaleej Times in a recent interview.
"She can continue to contribute to the growth of Indian badminton and win many more international titles. As a team, we will give our best shot and God willing, she will win some big tournaments again."
During this interview, Gopichand also revealed what he would tell Sindhu if the 22-year-old player gets another chance to play title-deciders in the Olympics and the World Championships.
"If she plays another big final, I will tell her the same things that I've said to her before the two finals in Rio and Glasgow: if you get a slight chance, grab it with both hands. I will tell her to give everything she has on the court. But when I look back at the entire journey of Olympics and the World Championships, it gives me satisfaction. Yes, she didn't win the gold, but she has won silver and lost to worthy opponents," he said.
The next World Championships will be played in 2018, and Sindhu and Saina will not be the only Indian stars rubbing shoulders with the world's best in the mega event.
There will be huge pressure on Kidambi Srikanth, the world's number three athlete, who became the fourth player in badminton history to win four Superseries titles in a calendar year in 2017.
"The last eight months have been the best phase of my career. I started to believe that I can really play at the highest level for a long time and win big matches. I think that really helped me change my whole strategy and the whole idea about the game," the 24-year-old Srikanth told Khaleej Times in a recent interview.  
HS Prannoy, the world's number 10, is another player that has made remarkable progress in men's badminton.
Both Srikanth and Prannoy train at the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad.
"They are not far from a big win because they have started to play well in premier tournaments now. They are on the right track and the next three to four years will be key for them. Most of them are in their early or mid-20s. And that's definitely a big advantage. If they can keep improving the way they have in recent years, I am sure they will win many titles in international tournaments," Gopichand said.
The year 2017 also saw India's debut as a FIFA Under-17 World Cup hosts. While the home team lost all three of their group stage matches, the championship was a glorious success, drawing massive crowds to the stadiums. And, FIFA, the world football's governing body, was so impressed that they may ask India to bid for the Under-20 World Cup in the future.
The hockey team clinched bronze in the world league finals in Bhubaneswar and the star-studded cricket team finished the year on top with another home series win over Sri Lanka.
But Virat Kohli's men lost the first Test of the new year in South Africa. After having enjoyed remarkable success at home in the last one and a half years, the world's number one Test team will face their biggest hurdles in South Africa, England and Australia in 2018.
If they fail to replicate their success abroad, the likes of Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu could continue to push them out of the front pages!
- rituraj@khaleejtimes.com

PV Sindhu won a silver medal at the World Badminton Championships
PV Sindhu won a silver medal at the World Badminton Championships
Saina Nehwal clinched a bronze at the World Badminton Championships
Saina Nehwal clinched a bronze at the World Badminton Championships
The U17 Football World Cup in India drew massive crowds to the stadiums
The U17 Football World Cup in India drew massive crowds to the stadiums


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