October 3, 2022
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To find the next Sindhu, Mirabai, focus on technique, increase exposure

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How to create more PV Sindhus? What’s the route to reviving Indian tennis? How can we build on Mirabai Chanu’s Olympic medal? To mark National Sports Day, we continue our look at the state of play of India’s top (non-cricket) sports, with some targets and roadmaps.

On national sports day, focus on “national”

BADMINTON

State of play

Badminton is one of the most successful sports in India, having had traditional markers such as Olympic medals, world championship titles, No 1 ranked players. The systems are all in place, from a national age-group structure to coaching and funding all over the country. But there is also room for more improvement for India to become a dominant and consistent force globally.

What needs to be done?

Build bench strength, especially in the women’s section. It’s been a decade since Saina Nehwal’s breakthrough but she and PV Sindhu remain the only outliers in singles who have broken into the BWF Top 15. As India’s first-ever Thomas Cup this year showed, the true test of a country’s potential is down to how good your third-best ranked player is.

How to do it?

In simple words: Keep at it. As Lakshya Sen – who was scouted at 11 and moved from Uttarakhand to Bangalore – proved, the talent has to be identified and built on early. In specific words for women’s bench strength, a lot of it comes down to age-old factors: having more young girls continue with sport, focus on fitness with physically-intense training and conditioning for power hitting, find the finishing touch with the right coach and academy.

However, it’s still largely an individualised process, with the work probably having to start much before players reach the national camp. It will take time but eventually there will be a pool of female players challenging the best regularly, just like the men are.

– Zenia D’Cunha

WEIGHTLIFTING

State of play

Once again, India’s weightlifters impressed at the Commonwealth Games (CWG). This time in Birmingham, India won 10 medals, including three gold medals. Since the turn of the century, India have won more than 50 weightlifting medals (including para powerlifting) at the Commonwealth Games. Now compare that with the Asian Games, where the sport’s top nations compete – India haven’t won a single medal since 1998. At the moment, Mirabai Chanu is the only lifter of world class quality and she proved it at the Tokyo Olympics where she won a silver medal.

What needs to be done?

Bridge the gap at the Asian level and avoid complications like doping.

How to do it?

India have been producing good weightlifters over the decades but they haven’t been able to make the next step. Only Mirabai and Karnam Malleshwari have won world championship gold medals since 1990.

Talent identification is one part, but another crucial thing is to make the best resources available to them. In a sport like weightlifting, technical coaching has to be integrated with sports science. To achieve the right technique before the Olympics and reduce her back and shoulder problems, Mirabai worked with strength and conditioning coach Dr Aaron Horschig in the US.

Young and upcoming weightlifters should also get the same support in India. Making them understand body mechanics early on and helping them with correct training methods can make a huge difference in terms of performances and reducing injury risk. Weightlifting also has a notorious reputation of doping so another key aspect is to provide proper guidance and education on the matter. Not only to the athletes but also to the coaches.

– Anish Anand

BOXING

State of play

Three bronze medals at the Olympics, a clutch of medals at the World Championships (courtesy Mary Kom) and a truckload of medals at the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games: Indian boxing has made steady progress over the last decade. A powerhouse in Asia for certain, India still has scope to grow to further establish its position at the world level.

What needs to be done?

There is a need to create a more diverse pool of talent that comes from across the country with a heavy emphasis on grassroots development.

How to do it?

First things first, the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) needs to get its house in order: all boxers must go through the same selection process irrespective of their past accomplishments. And they must all have equal access to resources and coaches, one athlete should not be given special dispensations.

That said, the BFI has a five-year plan in place that aims at making India the best boxing nation by the 2028 Olympics, but a lot of work is required to realise that goal.

For starters, the Federation has launched “Fight Nights” in the numerous Sports Authority of India’s National Centres of Excellence which present an opportunity for lower-ranked boxers to compete against the top ones. This concept has been adapted to the national camps as well, which, as coaches believe, will motivate the lower-rung boxers when they face their established counterparts.

The Federation is looking at more events: it hosts the annual India Open tournament and is now also looking at hosting an invitational event to give more exposure to fringe athletes. The most foolproof way to nurture talent, that has already been filtered and brought to the national camp, is to give them exposure and the apex body is attempting to do the same.

More exposure for the lower-ranked boxers would in turn elevate their skillset, increase the level of competition within the national camp, and thereby create a more dominant talent pool. Sounds easy, but it may not be as easy to execute.

The Federation could and perhaps should focus on developing women’s boxing more: it has won India two Olympic medals, after all.

– Shyam Vasudevan

TABLE TENNIS

State of play

Indian Table Tennis is on an upward curve. Two consecutive Commonwealth Games where India have topped the medal tally in the sport and two maiden medals at the last Asian Games are a testament to (slow but steady) growth. Plus Sharath Kamal appears to have some company at the top of Indian table tennis now.

What needs to be done?

Challenge China. No, seriously.

How to do it?

On the face of it, this is one of the most impossible tasks in world sport — since TT was inducted into the Olympics, China have won 32 golds. The next closest is Japan, with 3. But if beating, and then becoming, the best isn’t your goal, are you really aiming high enough?

Mimicking China may be too basic, and too unrealistic, but there are aspects of what they have done that India can take: starting out very young and concentrating on this one sport from the off, focusing on technique over ability at that time, ensuring availability of experienced coaches at every level of the journey, having a solid network of continuous domestic competitions that expands into exposure internationally (which is being done in a small way now and is already helping), having governmental support across all levels. Plus… patience. No such plan will see results happen in the short-term; but they do last a long-time once it starts coming in.

– Anirudh Menon

TENNIS

State of play

Not good. At the ongoing US Open, there is only one Indian playing and that’s 43-year-old Rohan Bopanna. Three Indians lost in the men’s singles qualifying and there was no one even close in the women’s. Sania Mirza, who is playing her final season, withdrew with injury. At next month’s WTA Chennai Open, the Indian entrant needed a wildcard, just like at the ATP Maharashtra Open, both only 250s.

What’s next?

A basic target would be to make Grand Slam main draws, which would be being ranked in the top 100. This will bring regular chances to qualify for ATP / WTA tour events, instead of the lower tier ITF or Challenger events that most Indians play currently. Consistent performances on tour is the only way to get the ranking high enough. Indians have done it even after the time of Amritraj, Paes-Bhupathi and Mirza (think Yuki Bhambri, Sumit Nagal) but it has been very erratic.

How to do it?

In a pro sport like tennis, the effort will have to be a mix of private entities and the Indian sports administration. Tennis is one of the more expensive sports to pursue and funding is directly for a player and not an association, which usually means only the more affluent can afford it. There are no national camps, it’s indivisualised with most Indians training abroad as youngsters and having to fund their own travel for tournaments spread across the globe. One way to help players at the grassroots level would be to host more tournaments in India, which means less travel and more opportunities for ranking points. This is where private enterprises can play a big role. Several former Indian players are also involved in coaching or set up academies in India and the hope is that soon these in-house centres can produce results.

– Zenia D’Cunha



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