With the World Championships starting next week, it is an opportune time to look at how India's top badminton players have fared in 2019. At first glance, Indians have won only two titles on the World Tour this year: Saina Nehwal winning the women's singles title at the Indonesia Masters and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty winning the men's doubles title at the Thailand Open.
"Definitely, the brightest achievement this year has been Satwik and Chirag winning the Thailand Open. They did brilliantly against the Chinese guys in the final,'' says former national champion Arvind Bhat.
So other than these two titles, are India's top badminton players having their worst year in recent times in 2019, particularly compared to far more profitable previous years?
We decided to compare their performance in 2019 with how they fared in 2016, 2017 and 2018. For the sake of parity in comparison, we have only looked at India's performance in those years until the beginning of the Olympics (2016) and World Championships (2017 and 2018), the biggest events in those years.
2016: Average, until the Olympic silver
PV Sindhu's silver at the 2016 Olympics heralded a new age for Indian badminton but before Rio, Indian badminton had a pretty ordinary year. Saina was the only Indian to win a title in six Superseries events in 2016 before Rio.
In fact, Saina's win at the Australian Open was the only final appearance by an Indian in those six Superseries events. Moreover, India had representation in only four semi-finals across all five events in the Superseries events until Rio. Saina reached the last four at the India Open and Malaysia Open besides the Australian Open, where she was joined in the semi-finals by Kidambi Srikanth. While Sindhu's silver at the Olympics changed India's results in the last five months of the year, they had been fairly average until that point.
2017: Year of unparalleled highs
Just like 2016, India's year got off to a fairly sedate start but the one big highlight was Sindhu's win at the India Open, where she defeated the reigning Olympic and world champion Carolina Marin in the final. But other than that, there were no semi-final appearances for Indians in the first three Superseries events of the year.
The big turnaround came at the Singapore Open as B Sai Praneeth and Kidambi Srikanth made the most of a draw missing the names of Chen Long, Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan to contest the first-ever all-Indian Superseries final, with Praneeth emerging victorious.
However, it was Srikanth who went on an unstoppable run from there, winning the Indonesia Open, where HS Prannoy was the only other Indian to make the semis in any of the events. Srikanth then won the Australian Open the following week, where he was the only Indian to reach the last four. So, as in 2016, India had six semi-final appearances in Superseries events until the Worlds but the big difference was that they also had four titles from those six semis, unlike in 2016.
Three titles in the first seven months was extremely impressive and the year only got better as India won two singles medals at the World Championships, with Srikanth adding two more Superseries titles to his kitty besides Sindhu winning the Korea Open.
2018: Close, but no cigar
The Superseries format was replaced by the World Tour format ahead of the 2018 season. It meant that there were eight major (World Tour 500 and above) tournaments before the World Championships.
Unlike 2016 and 2017, India's year had a much better start but they had no silverware to show. They made up for it at the Commonwealth Games in April, where they topped the badminton medal tally with six medals, including two golds in the women's singles and the team event.
In the eight major World Tour events, they had eight semi-final appearances, with Sindhu leading the charge by finishing runner-up at the India Open and Thailand Open. Saina also finished second at the Indonesia Masters.
The significant improvement was in the doubles events as Rankireddy and Shetty reached the semis at the Indonesia Masters, and Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy reached the mixed doubles semis at the India Open.
The other semis appearances came through Sindhu at the All England Open and Malaysia Open, where Srikanth too made the semis.
The last five months of the calendar were full of success for the Indians though as they medalled at the World Championships and Asian Games besides Sindhu winning the World Tour Finals.
2019: India's worst year in recent times? Not really.
There have been nine major tournaments leading up to the 2019 World Championships and India have had 10 semi-final appearances in these.
Sindhu finished runner-up at the Indonesia Open and Srikanth lost in the final of the India Open. Saina made the semis at the Malaysia Masters while Praneeth made the semis at the Japan Open. Sindhu also made the semis at the India Open and Singapore Open, which easily makes this one of her best years in terms of results in the first seven months of the season.
India's best display came at the India Open, where Parupalli Kashyap also reached the semis along with the men's doubles pair of Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy.
What do the Indian players think of their 2019? "There have been some steady performances from all the top players and there's still four months to go. A lot of good results can come in these four months but it is not going to be an easy task as we also have the Olympics next year," says Kashyap.
"We have three players in the top 10 in the rankings and they have stayed there throughout the year and we also have a couple of players just outside the top 10," Kashyap says that even players like him and Sourabh Verma have done well. "Sourabh did well in the recently held Hyderabad Open. He has been an improved player in the last couple of years and has won a couple of tournaments in the Netherlands and Russia."
Kashyap, Sourabh and Shubhankar Dey are all on the verge of entering the top 30 in the world rankings "We have a good group of players and the top three players have been doing decently. Sai has gotten some good results and Sameer [Verma] and Srikanth have also made a few quarters, and Srikanth also reached the finals of the India Open," Kashyap says.
Kashyap believes Sindhu has been "the most consistent" among the women across the year. He says Saina is "almost" back to full fitness "after having issues with her body" through the year. "The remainder of the year will be good for her. She is getting back into shape slowly. It has been a steady year and there are still six major events besides the Worlds and the World Tour Finals."
The 10 semi-final appearances are India's most in the last four years -- and mean that at least one Indian has made the last four in each of the major tournaments, for the first time.
The other heartening aspect is as many as nine different Indians have reached the semis this year, which is easily their best, the next best being seven in 2018.
That is also down to the improvement made by the doubles teams. "I think Satwik and Chirag are a revelation. It was coming, they were having very good performances over the last two years and had been challenging all the top players in the world. I always felt that a World Tour win was just around the corner and they proved everyone right that they could go on to win a big title. They beat the world champions and it is a great result for them. Even the other doubles teams are doing really well," Kashyap says.
Kashyap thinks that most of the Indian players are capable of getting to the round of 16 at the World Championships. "I think all the players are capable of doing well and they have got decent draws as well. Sindhu will be among the favourites considering her recent form. I think the draws are favourable until the quarterfinals. You need to score two big wins, that's how it is in the World Championships. Basically the pre-quarterfinals and quarterfinals are the most important and if you clear those, you get to the medal rounds. From there, you are assured of a medal and anyone can win the title," he says.
India have generally done the heavy lifting in the major tournaments in the last three years and if that is any indication, the World Championships might well be the beginning of even better results and greater success.