Reigning world champion Pramod Bhagat claimed an historic gold medal in the men’s singles SL3 class while Manoj Sarkar bagged a bronze as Indian badminton players dished out an impressive performance to continue the country’s medal rush at the Tokyo Paralympics on Saturday.
World No 1 Bhagat, who is also the Asian champion, humbled Great Britain’s Daniel Bethell in the summit clash while Sarkar defeated Japan’s Daisuke Fujihara in the third place play-off.
In SL3 classification, athletes with lower limb impairment compete.
With badminton making its debut at the Paralympics this year, Bhagat became the first Indian to win a gold medal in the sport.
The top seed showed great mental fortitude as he prevailed 21-14 21-17 over second seeded Bethell in a thrilling final that lasted 45 minutes at the Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo.
“This is very special to me, it’s my dream come true. Bethell really pushed me but I just kept my calm and played to my strengths,” said Bhagat after wining Indias fourth gold medal in the Games.
“I would like to dedicate this to my parents and to everyone who has supported me throughout. Im glad I could make India proud.”
Bhagat said he had a strategy in place for his rival. “I played the same opponent in Japan two years ago and I lost. That was a learning opportunity for me. Today it was the same stadium and the same environment, and I devised a strategy to win. I was very determined.”
The 33-year-old from Bhubaneswar also remains in contention for a bronze medal in mixed doubles SL3-SU5 class.
Bhagat and his partner Palak Kohli will meet Japanese pair of Daisuke Fujihara and Akiko Sugino in the bronze medal play off on Sunday.
They had lost the semifinals 3-21 15-21 to Indonesian combination of Hary Susanto and Leani Ratri Oktila.
Bhagat, who contracted polio when he was four years old, picked up the sports after watching his neighbours play. Initially, he competed against able-bodied players before getting into competitive para badminton in 2006.
He eventually emerged as one of the best para shuttlers in the country with 45 international medals under his belt, including four world championship gold medals and a gold and a bronze in 2018 Asian Para Games.
He also had started his career as a badminton coach but took a break in 2019 to focus on Tokyo Paralympics qualification.
In 2019, he received the Arjuna Award and Biju Patnaik Award for Excellence in Sports in India.
The 31-year-old Sarkar, whose right leg was affected after he contracted polio at age one, displayed great resilience during his 22-20 21-13 win over Fujihara.
Sarkar had lost his semifinals against second seeded Bethell, going down 8-21 10-21 in SL3 class. But he recovered quickly from the defeat to produce a superb show to claim the bronze.
Sarkar had taken up badminton at age five but it was the passion to win against his elder brothers which led him to play the sport seriously. He played inter-school competition against able-bodied players till the 11th grade before starting to compete in para badminton in 2011.
He won a gold medal in the SL3 singles at the 2016 Asian Championships in Beijing.
In 2018, he received the Arjuna Award and a year later, he was named Para Sportsman of the Year at the Sportstar Aces Awards.
In the gold medal match, Bhagat conceded a 3-6 lead early on but he soon worked his way back into the game, moving to 8-6 . He engaged Bethell in long rallies and waited for his opponent to commit errors.
A body smash gave Bhagat a 11-8 advantage at the break. The Indian used his array of strokes and also changed his pace during the rally to outwit his rival.
Leading 15-9, Bhagat conceded a few points but kept his nose ahead before grabbing six game points when Bethell went long. An attacking return earned the Indian the bragging rights.
In the second game, Bethell produced a superb rearguard action to jump to 11-4 lead.
However, Bhagat scripted a remarkable recovery, winning next six of the seven points to cut down the deficit to 10-12. He eventually turned the tables at 16-15. A error in judgement put Bhagat 18-16 ahead before he unleashed a flurry of attacking smashes to grab three match points.
With Bethell committing another error, Bhagat dropped his racquet and jumped into the arms of his coach Gaurav Khanna in celebration.
More medals are in store for India as Suhas Yathiraj and Krishna Nagar also sailed into the men’s singles finals of SL4 class and SH6 class, respectively.
Tarun Dhillon too stayed in contention for a bronze after losing his semifinals earlier in the day.
In SL4 class, Suhas outwitted Indonesias Fredy Setiawan 21-9 21-15 in the first semifinal.
The 38-year-old, who has an impairment in one of his ankles, will face top seed Lucas Mazur of France in the final on Sunday.
A computer engineer, Suhas went on to become an IAS officer and has been posted as a district magistrate of Noida since 2020, a role that saw him at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 pandemic.
On court, he has won gold medals at 2017 BWF Turkish Para badminton championship in mens singles and mens doubles. He also won gold in 2016 Asia championships, besides a bronze at 2018 Asian Para Games.
Krishna, seeded second, outplayed Great Britains Krysten Coombs 21-10 21-11 in the SH6 class semifinals. He will cross swords with Hong Kongs Chu Man Kai in the final on Sunday.
Krishna, who has a short stature, started playing the sport seriously only four years back. She won a bronze at Para Asian Games before claiming a bronze and silver at 2019 World Championships in singles and doubles.
In SL4 class semifinal, Tarun went down narrowly 16-21 21-16 18-21 to Mazur. He will face Setiawan in the bronze medal play off.