Number theory: The decade that shaped India’s Thomas Cup win
It has taken India 13 attempts and 73 years to reach the pinnacle of team sport in men’s badminton. India were far from favourites for this year’s 16-team Thomas Cup finals. What they brought along, and used to fashion this tall achievement, was a multitude of threads that have been stitched together for a decade or so now.
In contemporary badminton, Indian women had their breakout moment earlier, first with Saina Nehwal starting around 2009 and then with PV Sindhu, while the Indian men hung on the fringes of top-draw competition. But as badminton in India gained in popularity, and as a well-oiled coaching structure toiled away, Indian men kept chipping away. Over the past decade, they managed to build firepower at the top end and depth in the middle end, both in singles and doubles, to crack the unique Thomas Cup finals format.
The Thomas Cup finals features 16 countries. Each tie between two countries is a best-of-five format, comprising three singles and two doubles matches. Thus, it requires a country to be proficient in both disciplines, and have quality and quantity walk alongside.
Usually, elite badminton tournaments, which are not a country-based affair like the Thomas Cup, have a draw of 32 players. Allowing for some leeway for injuries and scheduling, this effectively means a top-50 ranking player is playing against the best in the world on the circuit. For the last three years, India has had 6-8 male players in the top 50, which is a credible number. This is almost twice the count that India had between 2010 and 2012. This time around, India also had a top-10 male player in Lakshya Sen, and another three in the top 25, the most ever.
The improvement on the doubles side since 2010 is sharper. Historically, doubles has been a weak spot for India in the Thomas Cup. In the last three years, however, India has had a top 10 pair in Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. Beyond them, in both 2020 and 2021, another three male Indian pairs have been ranked inside the top 50—the most since 2010. This means these pairs are getting top competitive exposure, which augurs well for a high-pressure tournament and format like the Thomas Cup.
The philosophy of having a specialist doubles coach as a default and structured option gained credence during the past decade. While Denmark’s Mathias Boe was the coach for Indian doubles pairings during the Thomas Cup, Malaysian Tan Kim Her, who bought together and shaped Rankireddy and Shetty during a stint between 2015 and 2019, is now back for another stint till 2026.
Rankireddy and Shetty have welcomed the appointment of Tan Kim Her, as it was under him that they first blossomed. They have been playing together for a few years now, and have made a steady ascent up the world rankings: from 68 in 2016 to 16 in 2018 and 8 in 2022. In the last three years, they have also won five tournaments.
The stability and performance this crack duo brought was a big reason for India’s Thomas Cup success. They won five of the six matches they played in this tournament. Delivering a point in the second match of a tie time after time eased the pressure for the players that followed. And, most importantly, they plugged one of the fragile spots in India’s Thomas Cup blueprint.
While the Thomas Cup has around 50 countries competing, only 16 make it to the finals. The burst of gains registered by Indian male badminton players in rankings also coincides with India becoming a regular feature in the Thomas Cup finals, which are held every two years. Since 2014, India has always qualified for the finals.
The 2014 edition was also the first time that the Thomas Cup finals format was expanded from 12 countries to 16 countries. India was one of the beneficiaries of this expanded format. In the seven editions between 1990 and 2002, when it was an eight-team event, Indian qualified for the finals only once. In the next five editions, when it became a 12-team event, India qualified twice. Between 1990 and 2020, India had never progressed beyond the quarter-finals. By winning it all, and with a strong pipeline of talent and ambition, India’s stock in the Thomas Cup has risen to a new high. And it was the decade preceding it that shaped it.
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