India Open: Badminton world’s greatest stars gather for country’s biggest event

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You have seen their football fans and teams do it: pick after themselves, collect the trash, the remnants of sporting revelries and leave hallowed playing places in pristine conditions as they had first found them. The philosophy extends to Japan’s shuttlers at the India Open Super 750 in KD Jadhav arena too.

Nozomi Okuhara – perhaps India’s first acquaintance with a World Championship final from 2017 when she beat PV Sindhu who beat her back for the title in 2019 – isn’t exactly badminton royalty currently, no longer in the Top 10 even. But after a tiring practice session of multi-shuttles at the IG Stadium alongside Kento Momota, a day before a potentially stressful Round 1 faceoff with Carolina Marin, Okuhara would take a breather, collect all the bottles of water she had sipped from, and go looking for a dustbin to chuck them into. Then she would collect all the shuttles she had whacked to pulp, neatly bunch them separately, and leave the side practice court tidy as before.

Washed-out stars superseded by younger compatriots – Akane Yamaguchi and Kodai Naraoka. Former world champions now in a career freefall: Nozomi Okuhara and Kento Momota had all the reasons to turn into grumps. But the two popular Japanese, who get cruelly asked at every pitstop about what happened to their wonder-years and where to vamoozed that once-upon-an-invincibility, found joy in their games, training with teammates, sticking to routines and ensuring their training courts were spic and span ready, for the next team to follow.

Momota, whose form has turned on its head, for the worse, was hardly sullen or sulking. He would joke around and train with Kanta Tsuneyama, feed sparring shuttles to Okuhara, and then complete shuttle run relays, grinning away and panting exaggeratedly, ahead of his stiff opener against Rasmus Gemke.

Earlier on the same courts, Saina Nehwal training with Guru Saidutt would pick the wiping mop and clear the court of slippery droplets – part of badminton routines usually before stars hit the big time.

It was, like the two Japanese, whose practice sessions were lessons in humility and patiently dealing with the frustration of an injury ravaged waning career, which they hope will witness one last blast of sparkling fireworks. Okuhara and Momota have both had to make peace with their broken bodies not quite being able to keep pace with their keen minds – suffering defeats at the hands of even some rank unknowns. But the badminton fire burns piercing the cold chill of irrelevance.

Both have admitted at different points in time – as the wins dried up – that they aren’t foolishly seeking to go back to their old-dominating selves, for that is a promise that the patched up knees and the back and ankles won’t permit them to keep. What Okuhara and Momota are looking for is to rediscover their glee in this sport they once lorded over.

The skills in training looked sharp as ever. Momota still picks the shuttle in defense, inches off the ground and his control on the bird especially on his backhand can seem so absolute. Okuhara still strikes those long range tosses, hitting the shuttle with the close-faced racquet frame like a sword scything away.

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The dry Delhi cold promises ultra-slow shuttles, which might even favour the two Japanese and their typical game styles. Okuhara plays the other famous soul on the mend, Carolina Marin. The future has been, not so quietly, creeping upon these names in the form of new winners. The watching world will always be smitten by the new names bouncing about, upstarts carving their careers out of the unsureness and insecurity of seasoned players wary of snapping their broken bones. But a bunch of matches on Day 1 of the Delhi Super 750 will pit old crowd favourites against each other, fighting to stay in the mix.

The big names – Viktor Axelsen and Yamaguchi, looking thoroughly unbeatable, and An Se Young and Naraoka were yet to reach India after playing the Sunday finals in Malaysia. But there was enough quality on the training courts – for anyone interested in rejuvenation and rediscovery, the two things Momota desperately covets. His run of poor results has convinced him he must find newer ways of winning, and that alone makes his matches intriguing, to figure out what new tricks he can bring to the court. It’s almost the same for Okuhara, who was cut out of the national program but continues playing independently, and marching to get own beats.

Television cameras can do no justice to badminton’s pace and the outrageous angles summoned by the champions. It’s why a Momota on TV and Momota in real seem so different. Unlike cricket nets, badminton’s practice sessions – every country gets hour slots to train in – tend to also serve as unwinding moments in the familiar comfort of country mates, which makes them not so intense and with much goofing going about as shuttlers experiment artistry and crazy strokes as training winds down.

The titles might’ve dried up for Momota and Okuhara, but with the spotlight firmly away from them, they seem to have rediscovered love for the sport, where winning is prized, but losing isn’t a trigger for self-punishment any more. Okuhara made history for Japan as their first ever World Champion. At this stage of her career, she is proving that she can both rewrite history, and wipe slates of pressure and reputation clean to start over once again.


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