Just as Kidambi Srikanth’s cross court jump smash landed in Jonathan Christie’s court to help India create history by winning the Thomas Cup title for the first time ever, the entire team rushed to pounce on him in celebration.
The chair umpire continued to request Srikanth to first acknowledge his opponent before walking off but he was completely crowded by his teammates to find space for pleasantries.
The last couple of days had been nerve wracking for the Indian camp as they twice registered 3-2 wins, first over Malaysia in the quarterfinals and then Denmark in the semi-finals, to make it this far in the tournament very few people expected they would.
The tension that built up with every point won or lost was palpable. The players had been carrying the weight of expectations that had been building for over a decade as the team showed potential but, more often than not, failed to find the desired result.
That was probably the reason why the team had maintained a low profile in the run-up to the tournament, despite the country’s top three singles players enjoying a consistent run over the last six-seven months and hence, everyone knew that this was going to be India's best chance to end the medal drought at the prestigious Thomas Cup.
But then nothing is as simple as it looks from the periphery. The Badminton Association of India’s decision to select singles specialist HS Prannoy directly in the team on form despite not being in the top-15 world ranking did not go down well with some players. One also wasn’t sure about the level of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who were without a doubles coach since the Tokyo Olympics.
However, the team was motivated, and the players and the coaches had already started putting together a bonding system in place. They knew very well that the dynamics of playing a team event was far different than preparing for any individual event on the BWF circuit, and that the pressure of performing for the team can outweigh any player of repute.
BAI had decided to conduct extensive trials this April to select the team for the Thomas/Uber Cup and also the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. According to the rules formulated by the Selection Committee, players in top-15 in BWF World Ranking were given a direct entry into the team while others had to compete in the trials.
However, selectors felt that Prannoy was in good form and needed rest to prepare for such a major tournament after being on the road for the last few months and made an exception for him. They, however, asked Saina Nehwal to play the trials and did not consider her for selection after she opted out. Saina didn't make the cut and has since been left out of all teams for this year.
This discrepancy had led to few murmurs among the players about selective treatment to some but Prannoy decided to shut out the noise and focused on his own mental training aspect that he had been working on, along with becoming a bridge between all the singles players by virtue of being the senior-most member of the squad.
Still without a coach, doubles stars Satwik and Chirag then made a trip to Mumbai on their own to train with Danish legend Mathais Boe. The pair had worked with Boe in the run up to the Tokyo Olympics and had been in touch with the Dane even after he returned to Europe. Malaysian coach Tan Kim Her was then supposed to rejoin the team as the doubles coach but his deal fell through while in talks with the BAI, and the players desperately needed someone to guide them.
Boe was in Mumbai then for personal reasons and Chirag and Satwik decided make the journey to train with him. In the meanwhile, BAI and SAI also signed the former Olympic silver medallist to help the doubles players ahead of the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.
The Indians knew that they had the ability to win four of the five matches against any team on their day if all of them stayed fit and injury free. But a bout of food poisoning to Lakshya Sen after arriving in Bangkok threatened to derail that confidence. However, other members of the team simply decided to take more responsibility till he recovered completely.
Thankfully, the first two group matches didn’t really test the Indians but they received a wakeup call when they lost 2-3 against Chinese Taipei.
But as they say, fortune favours the brave. The Indian team knew that if they could win one of the first two matches in any of the rubbers, their second and third singles players would start favourites, and Chirag-Satwik did just that when it mattered the most. Winning their men's doubles matches against Malaysia in the quarter-final and then defeating Denmark in the semis.
More than the tactics and the combinations, it was the self-belief of the Indian players and the determination to give their all for each other that was the key to their performance. Chirag and Satwik were a testament to that as they put behind the loss of five match point opportunities in their match against Denmark before levelling the scores, and eventually winning the tie 21-18, 21-23, 22-20.
That same spirit was also evident in the way HS Prannoy decided to push through despite hurting his ankle in the opening game against Denmark’s Rasmus Gemke in the semi-final.
The team simply carried the confidence of those two close wins in the final, knowing well that the 14-time championships and holders Indonesia would be under pressure to retain their crown.
Sen, Satwik-Chirag and then Srikanth kept their nerves under trying situations to ensure that they stood atop the podium for the first time ever.
(Abhijeet Kulkarni has been a journalist for over two decades and has been covering sports since 2003. He has also written a book on the rise of the sport since the turn of the century titled, ‘The Gopichand Factor’)