Saina, Sania lead the charge

Looking back: Indian sport enjoyed a bright season, setting them up for a challenging year

Saina, Sania lead the charge

The success of Saina Nehwal and Sania Mirza headlined a memorable year for Indian sport that witnessed several breakthrough moments in an encouraging lead up to the 2016 Olympic Games.

If Saina broke the Chinese hegemony to become the first Indian woman shuttler to achieve World No 1 ranking, Sania achieved the feat in women's doubles in tennis. Their simultaneous achievements left the nation in a state of awe and euphoria.

It was a year when Saina reinvented herself. Whether it was winning her maiden India Open title, reaching the final of the All England and World Championships, Saina made new inroads in her career.  She became World No 1 at home after the India Open triumph and held on to it for 13 weeks although not at a stretch. It wasn’t all roses for Saina as she lost crucial finals to Spanish sensation Carolina Marin in both Worlds and All England.
Much like Saina, Sania scripted history for Indian tennis.

  Her partnership with Swiss great Martina Hingis worked so well that the two ended up sweeping nine titles, including two Grand Slams in Wimbledon and US Open, to end the year with an astonishing 55-7 record. Her achievements fetched her highest civilian award, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in August. She and Hingis were named World Champions in women’s doubles by the International Tennis Federation to cap a fantastic year.

Yuki Bhambri provided more cheers by cracking top 100 in the men’s singles while Leander Paes, 42, showed he still has the firepower by winning three Grand Slam titles in mixed doubles with Hingis.

The year was to witness more glimpses of women power with the Indian eves hockey team making it to the Olympics for the second time. The first was in 1980 albeit through an invitation. The fifth-place finish at the Hockey World League semifinals in July resulted in India clinching the historic berth. The men’s team, who had qualified for Rio Games last year, too, ended the year on high by winning the bronze medal in World League Final in Raipur. India, in a commendable performance, beat the Netherlands via a shootout.

Earlier in July, Dutee Chand shook the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) by challenging its guidelines on ‘hyperandrogenism’ at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The CAS, in a landmark ruling, suspended ‘hyperandrogenism’ rules, which would be scrapped if the IAAF could not provide new evidence within two years to back its rules. The 19-year-old was banned last summer after failing a hormone test.

It was a watershed year for Indian golf, highlighted by Anirban Lahiri’s stupendous success. The Bangalore-based golfer won two European tour titles and conjured a fifth place finish at a Major (PGA championships) in a memorable season for him. He then went on to qualify for the prestigious President's Cup, clinched the Asian Tour Order of Merit and achieved a career-best ranking of World No 34 among others.

While there were ups and downs for India on the cricket field, the year would be best remembered for Virat Kohli taking over the baton of Test captaincy from Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Despite a poor show in the one-day series in Australia, India impressed in the World Cup Down under in February-March but couldn’t defend the title, losing the semifinals to eventual champions Australia. The high moment for the Indian team, though, came in Sri Lanka, winning a Test series in the island nation for the first time in 23 years. That success was followed by a 3-0 win against South Africa on rank turners at home.

Also stealing the spotlight was Pankaj Advani, who notched up three world titles this year to continue his amazing run in cue sports.

In a forgettable year for wrestling, Narsingh Yadav was the lone bright spot, winning a bronze at the World Championships in the 74kg class.

While the boxing scene continued to be sordid, Vijender Singh sent shockwaves by turning professional. The Bhiwani pugilist, however, buried the scepticism with three successive wins.

It turned out to be a groundbreaking year for Indian basketball as well. Satnam Singh Bhamara, a 19-year-old from the small village of Ballo Ke, Punjab, became the first Indian-born player ever to be selected in the NBA Draft. His achievement came less than three months after the Canadian-born 22-year-old Sim Bhullar became the first player of Indian descent to sign an NBA contract and appear in an NBA game.

India’s best medal hopes in any multi-disciplinary event lies in shooting and the country’s shooters lived upto the hype bagging eight quota places for the Olympics through Jitu Rai, Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang, Apurvi Chandela, Gurpreet Singh, Prakash Nanjappa, Chain Singh and Mairaj Khan.

Come 2016, the progress of Indian sports would once again be under scanner, more so with Rio knocking on the doors. Regardless, 2015 has been an exceptional year.

Vijender’s stunning move

Boxing

Vijender Singh’s stunning professional plunge and Shiva Thapa’s World Championships medal lifted the gloom to an extent for the rudderless ship called Indian boxing in 2015.
Vijender (pictured left), the country’s first ever Olympic and World Championships medallist, took the boxing fraternity by surprise with his decision to turn professional during, what was called, a training trip to the UK.

He wasn’t the first Indian to try his luck in the more lucrative world of professional boxing but Vijender’s move was the most talked-about given that none before him had accumulated the achievements that he did in the amateur ranks.

So, to turn pro just a year before the Olympics, where he was seen as a medal contender in the middleweight category, was met with some applause, some criticism and a lot of scepticism. But he managed to prove the naysayers wrong, notching three wins so far.

Thapa (56kg) became only the third Indian boxer ever to win a medal at the World Championships. The 22-year-old Assamese also won a bronze at the Asian Championships. No boxer could fetch an Olympic quota place in the year while the national federation was suspended for the second time in three years.

In women’s boxing, L Sarita Devi, returned from a one-year ban with some good performances in a training-cum-competition trip to China.

Setting a strong platform

Shooting


India’s shooters warmed up for the Olympic year, winning a clutch of quota places for the Rio Games this season at various championships.

Often considered the weakest discipline in Indian shooting, skeet, also took a step forward with Mairaj Ahmed Khan securing the country its maiden Olympic quota in the category.

Under the tutelage of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold medal winner Ennio Falco, India’s skeet shooters are gradually overcoming the lack of technical proficiency and have been able to deliver results.

So far, India have won eight quotas for the Rio Games, through Gagan Narang, Abhinav Bindra, Apurvi Chandela, Gurpreet Singh, Jitu Rai, Prakash Nanjappa (pictured left), Chain Singh and Mairaj.

However, many established names like London Games silver medallist Vijay Kumar, former world number ones Manvjit Singh Sandhu and Heena Sidhu, Sanjeev Rajput, and Ayonika Paul are yet to secure quotas.

The Asian qualifying championships, to be held in New Delhi from January 25 to February 3, will be the last chance for them to secure quota places. The tournament came into the schedule after the International Olympic Committee scrapped the qualification status of the Asian Championships in Kuwait in November after that country refused permission for an Israeli official to take part in the meet.

Narsingh’s bright season

Wrestling


Narsingh Yadav (pictured left) was the star of the Indian wrestling scene in 2015 while the launch of the Pro Wrestling League and rise of a few young guns were the highlights of the year.

Narsingh sealed an Olympic quota for India, winning a bronze at the World Championships in the 74kg class but immediately, that triggered a debate on who should represent the country at the Olympics in the category.

Double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar also competes in the 74 kg after a change of weight categories. Since the quota place goes to the country and not the wrestler, speculation was rife, with even the possibility of a contest between Yadav and Sushil being mooted to select the candidate.

Sushil had pulled out of the trials before the World Championships at the last minute owing to an injury while Narsingh has been in good form and won a bronze at the Asian Wrestling Championships in Doha and a gold medal at the International Wrestling tournament. The Wrestling Federation of India  has maintained silence over the matter.

Another Olympic medallist Yogeshwar Dutt was bogged down by injuries for a major part of the year. His pulling out of the World Championship due to a knee injury drew a lot of criticism, besides leaving the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) red faced.

The PWL, launched at the end of the year, showcased some good talent but is yet to become a hit with the fans.







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