Indian wrestlers made 2019 a memorable year with the established names living up to the expectations, for the most part, however, the rise and rise of Deepak Punia grabbed the spotlight amid the decline of Olympic trailblazers Sushil Kumar and Sakshi Malik.
This year, at a point when Indian wrestling witnessed a steady fall in the fortunes of the big names, five medals, and four Olympic quotas made the World Championships an unprecedented one.
Bajrang Punia (65kg) and Vinesh Phogat (53kg) delivered podium finishes along with 2020 Tokyo Olympic places but failed to move past their bronze medals.
Deepak (86kg), who was crowned junior world champion earlier this year, was the biggest takeaway from the worlds with silver and an Olympic quota in his kitty. Though he could have easily pulled off gold, his ankle injury came in the way when he had to forfeit the final.
The sportsman, who was named the junior wrestler of the year by the sport’s governing body United World Wrestling (UWW) towards the end of the year, if clinched the first position would’ve been the first since the iconic Sushil Kumar’s path-breaking gold back in 2010.
Deepak’s achievements add to the long list of stories that depict the path of limited-means-maximum-success in Indian sports.
The Haryana-based milk sellers son, who first rose to prominence in 2016 with a cadet world championship gold, in 2018 managed to get just one medal at the senior level. However, he pocketed two bronze and a silver before landing the biggest second-place finish of his career in Nur Sultan.
Deepak’s smooth transition from junior to senior circuit and the fact that he is world No.1 now has raised expectations from the wrestler as a medal prospect going into the Olympic year.
The more established Punia won every tournament he entered till the worlds. The gold medals came from Dan Kolov, Asian Championship, Ali Aliev and Yasar Dogu but his already-exposed leg defence was sorted by his rivals by the time the world event came along.
His unbeaten run was halted by Kazakhstan’s Daulet Niyazbekov in Nur Sultan and it came as rude shock since he was the favourite to win the title as world No.1.
Bajrang cried foul after the loss, complaining that the judging favoured the home wrestler, but what was undeniable was also his tendency to concede early leads.
Against Niyazbekov, Bajrang trailed 2-8 at one stage in the bout.
Nevertheless, Bajrang consolidated his position as an undisputed star at the global stage with his supreme stamina and attacking style.
Currently ranked second in the world, Bajrang has already started the work on sorting out his vulnerable defence and has hired a new sparring partner in Russia’s Viktor Rassadin at his training camp in Sonepat.
Another wrestler emerging from a humble background was 22-year-old Ravi Dahiya. His rock-solid technique, strong defence and above all, temperament, make him a strong contender for an Olympic medal.
His bronze medal at the worlds came as a surprise to many but he had shown his potential at the Pro League. In cool-headed Ravi, India can hope for more than one medal from its male grapplers in Tokyo.
Rahul Aware added to India’s tally with a bronze, albeit in the non-olympic 61kg category.
In a sport dominated by Haryana, the diminutive wrestler from Pune is trying to carry forward the legacy of the great KD Jadhav, who was independent India’s first athlete to win an Olympic medal.
Vinesh Phogat further fuelled the rising Olympic medal hopes from her by claiming her first ever medal at the World Championship. In one of the most competitive Olympic categories, the fiery Vinesh overpowered not just opponents but also a few demons in her head to gain confidence.
She showed that she can be at par with the best in this division with wins over top wrestlers, including then world No.1 Sarah Ann Hildebrandt, en route a bronze in Nur-Sultan.
However, for double Olympic-medallist Sushil Kumar and Rio 2016 bronze-winner Sakshi Malik, the year was a battle to stay relevant.
Both competed at the worlds after winning national trials but neither of them could last more than a round. The questions being asked of Sushil, 36, and his future are louder compared to the ones being posed to a much younger Sakshi, 27, who has been mostly underwhelming since her Olympic bronze.
But the future is looking increasingly bleak for her after she was dropped from the government’s flagship Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) due to less-than-flattering performances this season.
The year ended only slightly positively for Sakshi when she claimed the national title in the 62kg category.
(With inputs from agencies)