MUMBAI, India (Reuters) - India’s top badminton player Anup Sridhar is ranked only world number 32 but knows that if he can reproduce his form of last season he could grab India’s first individual Olympic gold medal in Beijing since the country officially entered the Games in 1928.
The 25-year-old had a breakthrough 2007, reaching the last eight of the world championships in Kuala Lumpur and the semi-finals of the Asian championships and the German Open.
Sridhar, who hit a career-high ranking of 24 in March, gave world champion Lin Dan a big scare in Kuala Lumpur where he led 20-19 in their quarter-final before losing 22-20 21-9.
Earlier in the tournament, Sridhar had beaten Indonesia’s Olympic gold medalist Taufik Hidayat and former All England champion Hafiz Hashim of Malaysia.
“At the worlds I had to win three rounds to get there (to the quarter-finals) and two of them were really big matches. The same thing at the Olympics would mean reaching the semi-finals because almost everyone will have a bye in the first round,” Sridhar told Reuters.
“It does mean that I have a good chance but I need to produce the same kind of form that I showed at the worlds. I am working towards that,” said Sridhar, who has recruited personal coach Tom John in the lead-up to August’s Olympics.
No Indian shuttler has made it past the second round at the Olympics since the discipline debuted as a full medal sport in 1992 in Barcelona, but Sridhar’s form has raised hopes in the country’s badminton fraternity.
“I wouldn’t straightaway say we will win a medal at the Olympics. But I won’t be surprised if we do well and reach the medal-round stage,” national coach and 2001 All England champion Pullela Gopichand told Reuters.
“At the Olympics, unlike the rest of the top tournaments where you have half a dozen and more Chinese playing, entries are restricted. Maybe only 10 or 12 of the world’s top 20 will be playing there.
“The field may not be as strong as a Super Series event because of that, allowing weak areas in the draw.
“It will boil down to winning two big matches to be in the medal round. Sridhar has shown he is capable of winning those matches.”
India have won only four individual medals, none of them gold, since their 1928 debut. The men’s hockey team, which won the country’s last gold medal in Moscow in 1980, failed to qualify this time.
At this year’s All Englands in March, Sridhar, who trains under 1980 Birmingham winner Prakash Padukone, took a game off China’s Lin before going down to the world number one in the first round.
In the Swiss Open the following week, the Indian defeated higher ranked Japanese Shoji Sato before a foot injury put him out of action for two months.
Sridhar kicked off his final preparations for the Olympics this month playing in the Super Series event in Singapore, where he made an early exit, and was due to play in Indonesia this week.
“I’ve been doing a lot of physical conditioning work to get my fitness levels up. I feel that’s the right way to prepare — work hard physically for a few weeks and then get more on court, said Sridhar.
“I feel I am in better shape than I have ever been in my life. I should be quite hard to beat in the Asian tournaments.”
The biggest asset he says he will be carrying into the Olympics is the confidence gained from the world championship and his improving performances against Lin.
“I had come close to beating them (top players) before, but I had not gone all the way and won. To put that across, it makes a great deal of difference.
“If you look at the last four or five matches I have played against him (Lin), I have started off maybe not very well, being beaten quite easily.
“But that got closer and closer (and I) came close to taking a game off him at the world championships (last year) and actually took a game off him at the All England.
“This is how my career has always been, always one step at a time. I am not able to make any big jumps, however much I try. Maybe better fitness and a couple of more tries and hopefully I can.”
Editing by Dave Thompson