Badminton stars throw Gold Coast party to remember

Susan Ninan in Gold Coast4 Minute Read
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Kidambi Srikanth refused to admit that he had it easy against Lee Chong Wei. That would have been bordering on blasphemy. Instead, he stuck to the staid 'not wanting to commit simple errors' line.

It's understandable. Srikanth, after all, had just beaten a three-time Olympic medalist, someone who had held the No.1 position for 199 consecutive weeks. He had defeated a player who had been honored with the 'Datuk' title and who had recently sat down to watch a movie on his own enduring legacy with his family and thousands of fans at the Bukit Jalil stadium in Kuala Lumpur.

"Whenever you play someone like Chong Wei you don't expect it to be straight games," Srikanth said with the heartiest smile after his win over Chong Wei in the mixed team event final.

"It's not that I didn't allow him to play his game. He has been the No. 1 for so many years so definitely it's not on the opponent to allow him to play his game. I'll say I played well. I don't think I want to comment on his game."

This was Srikanth's first win over the Malaysian in five matches. Later, it was to be India's night out, with a 3-1 win over three-time champions Malaysia.

Carrying a wiry frame and an unaffected air, Chong Wei didn't mind admitting that he struggled to catch up with a player who was blessed with younger limbs and quicker reflexes: "I think the pace at which Srikanth played today was slightly fast for me. He was the better player today no doubt."

Once the chants for Chong Wei quietened as the match wore on, it was an Indian party in the stands: Flags, cheers and not the most appropriate of Bollywood numbers on the PA system. Srikanth settled in early and leveled at 7-7. He got Chong Wei lunging at a delicious cross court smash to open up a handy 14-9 lead.

Six points on the trot for Chong Wei after that soon saw the two locked at 15-15, but Srikanth fought back to open four game points. After wrapping up the game with a cross-court smash, he walked up to coach Pullela Gopichand with the contentment of a school boy who had cleared his first-term exams.

Throughout the match, Srikanth was quick on his feet and judicious in reading shots close to the line, while Chong Wei used up his challenges liberally, which barring one occasion, all went against him. He hit into the tramlines often and sent lifts long, his unforced error at 18-12 getting the entire Indian team sitting in the sidelines to leap out of their chairs in celebration.

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A 2-0 lead for India was in and Srikanth was only grateful to Ashwini Ponnappa and Satwiksairaj Sankireddy for offering him a cushion through their mixed doubles win in the first match. It wasn't one they went into as favorites against the Olympic silver medalist duo of Soon Huat Goh and Shevon Jamie Lal.

"It is a very proud moment. To beat Malaysia is amazing," Gopichand said. "To win the mixed doubles and to get the first point was important. Chong Wei's match was more in his favor when he got in as Srikanth had not beaten him in this format. But once we took the 1-0 lead, there was bit of added pressure on Chong Wei. Srikanth really responded well and upped his game."

Gopichand went on to clarify that PV Sindhu didn't take the court for the team matches through the week because of the injury she sustained during practice just before the team flew in to Gold Coast.

"Also, Saina has had a very good week so we didn't see any pressing need to get Sindhu to play." The singles is up next and both the top Indian girls could play each other in the final.

What seemed like a formality rapidly turned into a tense, three-game match for Saina against the unknown Soniia Cheah as the crowd grew antsy for the medals to be given out. Malay supporters who had turned up armed with flags, placards and chants didn't know what to do with them, quietly putting them away and loading up on snacks. Outside, the coffee and beer counters ran full. Badminton is not really a sport the locals follow closely. The stands were largely Indian-Malay dominant with a smattering of locals who had probably turned up to see what the the fuss was all about.

To the beats of the lively medal ceremony track, indigenous sounds fused together with contemporary orchestral elements, the Indian team in flaming red jackets and tracks, blended in with the almost-identically attired England team who came into collect their bronze medals.

Holding up their gold medals and blue stuffed Koalas, the India team formed a huddle, wrapping their arms around each other. This win was eight years in the making after their loss to Malaysia at the Delhi Games. You could tell from Gopichand's smile that this was about more than just the medal. It was the journey they'd made together to get there.