Knowing how the previous two ties had progressed, HS Prannoy was getting ready, warming up for his match, the decisive fifth rubber. The hero of India’s 3-2 victories over badminton powerhouses and former champions Malaysia and Denmark in the quarters and semis, the 29-year-old was prepared to face his opponent, Shesar Hiren Rhustavito, at the Impact Arena in Bangkok on Sunday.
It never came down to that as against all odds, Lakshya Sen, the doubles pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Kidambi Srikanth delivered impeccable performances to ensure a 3-0 hammering of overwhelming favourites and 14-time champions Indonesia in the final to win the prestigious Thomas Cup for the first time.
Before Sunday, India had never even stood on the rostrum in the previous 31 editions of the World Men’s Team Championships. That changed as India dethroned the reigning champions for possibly the greatest achievement in Indian badminton.
“We only needed to play to our potential, and when it really mattered, they all did. That was the key. I can also say the next couple of years we have another good group of young players who are doing really well and we should look at defending our title the next time,” an ecstatic Vimal Kumar, former chief national coach and the team manager, said from Bangkok.
Lakshya finally rises
Down on confidence after three successive defeats in the previous rounds, India’s top ranked shuttler Lakshya Sen needed to deliver if India were to get a strong start against the most successful team in Thomas Cup history. Things didn’t go according to plan at the start. Playing with the drift, Sen was given no chance in the opening game, losing 8-21 to world No 5 Anthony Sinisuka Ginting. But change of ends and now playing against the drift, Sen found the spring in his step, winning the second game 21-17 and pushing the match into the decider.
The singles rubber turned out to be a game dominated by the air-conditioning drift as Ginting led 12-8 while playing from the advantageous end, against the drift. Once the ends changed in the middle of the third game, the contest turned in favour of Sen. He took advantage of the conditions and his solid net game to win the first match 8-21, 21-17, 21-16 in 65 minutes to give India the lead. A much needed result, it was Sen’s second straight victory against the Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist.
“I was going to play from the better end the last 11 points so I was pumped up. Being 3-4 down at that point didn’t really matter because from the better end I could play my game and open up and play, and he will be under pressure. I am happy I pulled out a win. This one is for the team and they have been backing me throughout. I played well but couldn’t get a win (earlier).”
The doubles contest between Rankireddy/Shetty and Mohammad Ahsan/Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo was going to be virtually the deciding contest. Though a scratch pair, Ahsan and Sanjaya are one half each of the world No 1 and 2 pairing in the world; significantly the Indian pair beat them the only time they had met previously and they prevailed yet again, but in as dramatic fashion as it could be.
Having lost the first game, the world No 8 pairing was down four match points in the second. Shetty and Rankireddy incredibly saved them to eventually win the game and force the decider.
The third game kept drifting from one pair to the other but from 18-all, Rankireddy used all his energy to hammer down a flurry of smashes to put India 2-0 ahead with a 18-21, 23-21, 21-19 victory in 73 minutes.
Before Sunday, former world No 1 Srikanth had lost both his meetings against Asian Games champion Jonatan Christie in 2022. But form was with the experienced Indian. A dominant and aggressive show saw Srikanth win the first game, putting India on the verge of victory. The second game though turned out to be a cliff-hanger with the lead switching constantly. In another exciting finish, Srikanth saved two game points to eventually clinch the contest 21-15, 23-21 in 48 minutes as the Indian camp ran on to the court to hug the most experienced member of the contingent.
“Individual events are always different to team events. We hardly get to play team events and Thomas Cup finals are the biggest of team events. So, to win such a big event is a really big moment. It will actually take a while before you know what has actually happened. I will rate this as one of my biggest wins and I am happy that everyone played extremely well. I don’t think this is one individual’s win, it is about all 10 players, everyone stepped up when it mattered,” said Srikanth.
“In any major event, be it Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Thomas and Uber Cup, world championships, none of them have prize money. But when you win in this tournament, this is for the country. After we won, people said India won Thomas Cup, it was not Srikanth or Prannoy, so it itself is a special feeling.”