Indian sports year in review: Boxers punched hard, tennis served aces and hockey turned the corner

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, individual sports like table tennis and wrestling saw some sterling performances as Bala Devi made football history.

By Naveen Peter ·

In a year when most of the sporting events were called off or deferred due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a few sportspersons stood up and delivered in the limited opportunities to bring cheer to millions of fans in India. 

As we count down to another new year, here’s a look at some of the biggest Indian sporting moments in 2020.

Sania Mirza returns in style

Having stayed away from the court for over two years -- initially due to a knee injury and then due to the birth of her son with former Pakistan cricket team captain Shoaib Malik -- Indian tennis queen Sania Mirza was back doing what she does best at the Hobart International WTA event in January.

Teaming up with Ukraine’s Nadiia Kichenok in the women’s doubles, Sania Mirza capped off her return with a title win before injury forced her to miss the Australian Open.

Up against the Chinese second seeds -- Zhang Shuai and Peng Shuai -- in the final, Sania Mirza and Nadiia Kichenok recorded a nervy 6-4, 6-4 win for the title.

Though Sania Mirza was hoping to build on the good run with the Olympics approaching, the pandemic meant that the Hyderabadi was once again restricted to her house.

Historic first for Indian Fed Cup team

The season also saw Indian women make the Fed Cup (now called the Billie Jean King Cup) play-offs for the first time in history.

Competing in Group I of the Asia/ Oceania zone, the Indian team finished second behind China to gain entry into the play-offs scheduled in April 2021.

The Indian Fed Cup team, led by Sania Mirza, were in control as they beat South Korea, Chinese Taipei, Uzbekistan and Indonesia, losing only to China at the Aviation Club Tennis Centre in Dubai.

India will take on Latvia in an away tie on April 16-17, 2021 with the winners making their way into the qualifying round for the 2022 edition.

Bala Devi makes Indian football history

The year also saw one of Indian women’s football team’s leading players, Bala Devi, sign an 18-month contract with Scottish football giants Rangers Women’s FC. Bala Devi thus became the first Indian woman to pen a professional contract overseas.

Bala Devi’s move to Scottish League giants Rangers FC has inspired Indian women footballers to think big. Photo: Rangers FC

Though she was a bit slow to get into her groove in a foreign set-up, the 30-year-old Bala Devi grew in confidence with time and is a key member of Malky Thomson’s team that sits atop the Scottish Women’s Premier League.

An influential striker, Bala Devi scored her first goal for Rangers in their dominant 9-0 victory over Motherwell Women FC earlier this month. The moment made history as it was the first goal scored by an Indian in Europe.

Indian hockey team shines in FIH Pro League

When the International Hockey Federation (FIH) rolled out the FIH Pro League in 2019, the Indian hockey teams absence was palpable.

But in the second edition, the Manpreet Singh-led side ensured that it left a lasting impression, even though the campaign was halted midway due to the pandemic.

India kicked-off the FIH Pro League with a resounding 5-1 drubbing of world No. 3 the Netherlands before inflicting another 3-1 loss in penalty shootouts the following day.

Indian hockey team began its 2020 season with a thumping win over the Netherlands. Photo: Hockey India

India rode on the momentum as they hosted world champions Belgium in their next set of ties. While they registered a hard-fought 2-1 win in the first match, the Red Devils won the second 3-2.

After losing their next match against Australia 4-3, Graham Reid’s boys struck back with a resounding 3-1 win via penalty shootouts against the Kookaburras.

India will be keen to replicate similar form when they begin their Olympic year in the coming months.

Indian boxers punch Tokyo tickets 

Also taking the Indian sporting world by storm this year were the boxers. They were on top of their game as nine Indian boxers punched their tickets for the Tokyo Olympics at the Asian Olympic Boxing Qualifiers in Amman, Jordan.

Led by the legend MC Mary Kom (51kg), the Indian boxing contingent at Tokyo 2020 includes the world championships silver medallist Amit Panghal (53kg), Manish Kaushik (63kg), Vikas Krishan (69kg), Ashish Kumar (75kg), Satish Kumar (+91kg), Lovlina Borgohain (69kg), Simranjit Kaur (60kg) and Pooja Rani (75kg).

See how Mary Kom qualified for Tokyo 2020

'Magnificent' Mary Kom saw off the tough challenge of the Philippines' Iris...

The numbers could rise if India manage to bag qualification in the remaining four weight divisions at the World Olympic Qualifiers next year.

Sharath Kamal ends 10-year wait

In a year when Indian table tennis players found it difficult to get game time, Achanta Sharath Kamal made the most of his opportunity and ended a decade-long wait for a world tour title.

Caught in two minds whether to travel for the Oman Open in March, a period when COVID-19 was at its peak, the veteran Indian table tennis player chose to fly down to Muscat for the final event of the tour before the pandemic forced events to be called-off.

In Muscat, the 38-year-old Sharath won his first singles title since the Egypt Open crown in 2010.

In the final, Sharath Kamal beat world No. 26 and top seed, Marcos Freitas of Portugal 6-11, 11-8, 12-10, 11-9, 3-11, 17-15.

Sumit Nagal makes a Grand statement

The pandemic meant the tennis calendar had to be rejigged. While the Australian Open went ahead as planned, Wimbledon was called off while the US Open and Roland Garros were moved to a later date.

At the US Open, Sumit Nagal came up with an inspired show to record his first main draw win at a Grand Slam.

His 6-1, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win over Bradley Klahn of the USA was the first by an Indian in the singles at a Grand Slam since Somdev Devvarman beat Slovakian Lukáš Lacko in the opening round of the 2013 US Open.

Though the Haryana boy bowed out of the competition with a straight-sets loss to eventual champion Dominic Thiem in the second, Sumit Nagal impressed many with his attitude and hunger to succeed. 

Despite his run, Sumit Nagal -- ranked 136th in the world -- couldn’t hold on to his status as the top-ranked Indian player on tour as Prajnesh Gunneswaran, backed by some solid performances in the ATP Challenger circuit, leapfrogged him to the 129th spot on the rankings. 

Anshu Malik succeeds following the break 

Indian wrestlers were not to be left behind as most of the big names started the 2020 season on a fine note with medal-winning performances at the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series in Rome and the Asian Wrestling Championships at home.

But one grappler who stood out was 19-year-old grappler Anshu Malik.

Competing at the Individual World Cup earlier this month, the Madhya Pradesh-born wrestler barely showed signs of rust as she brought her ‘A’ game to the fore to clinch a silver medal in the 57kg weight category.

Despite featuring established names like Sakshi Malik, Narsigh Yadav and Deepak Punia, Anshu Malik was the only Indian wrestler to make the gold medal bout at the Belgrade event.

Losing the jewels of Indian sports

In a year that saw the passing away of sporting legends like Kobe Bryant*, Diego Maradona and Paolo Rossi,* India too lost a few jewels.

Balbir Singh Sr, a three-time Olympic gold medallist in hockey, passed away on May 25 following his long battle with various ailments, while Indian football greats Chunni Goswami and PK Banerjee too breathed their last this year.