When selecting the winners for the ESPN India Awards 2018, I looked for world-beating performances in the calendar year that puts these athletes into medal contention at the Olympics in Tokyo next year. What I also looked at were 'firsts' -- Indians who have broken into a sport dominated by other countries.
For Sportsperson of The Year (Male), I couldn't look beyond Bajrang Punia and Neeraj Chopra. Bajrang is World No. 1...need I say more? This puts him in gold medal contender status for Tokyo, provided he can maintain his form for one more year. Javelin has been dominated by the Nordic countries for the past few decades, and for Neeraj to reach World No.4 with all his wins makes him a serious Olympic medal contender for 2020 as well.
For the Sportsperson of The Year (Female) I had to go for the World Tour Finals winner PV Sindhu. Silver at the Asian Games and at the Commonwealth Games completed a very strong year for her, and she is clearly another strong contender for an Olympic gold. For me, Sindhu just edged out Mary Kom -- another World Championship gold at the age of 35 puts her in a superlative category among Indian sporting greats -- and Manika Batra. Manika became the first Indian to win gold at the Commonwealth Games, that too two of them, medal at the Asian Games and crack the top-50 in the world table tennis rankings.
Not surprisingly, my Coach of The Year has to be Massimo Costantini. He took Indian table tennis to new heights in 2018. Gold medals at the Commonwealth Games -- men's team, women's team and women's singles -- and silver in doubles and bronze in men's singles, all a huge improvement on no medals in Glasgow four years before. An unprecedented 13th in the world team championships, bronze medals at the Asian Games in men's team and mixed doubles, ITTF pro tour wins for Sathiyan Gnanasekaran, and both he and Achanta Sharath Kamal in the top 50 at the end of the year. Indian table tennis never had it as good as it did last year.
I introduced the men's national team in table tennis as an additional entry in the Team of The Year, and I give them joint-best status with the women's team. The former for Commonwealth gold, first Asian Games medal ever and their world championships finish, and the latter for breaking the Singapore monopoly in the Commonwealth Games. Imagine, Singapore had never lost before!
Bengaluru Bulls also stood out for their Pro Kabaddi League win. Coach Randhir Singh, captain Rohit Kumar and star player Pawan Kumar Sehrawat came together with the entire team for a great win.
And Saina Nehwal had the best comeback year in Indian sport for me -- Commonwealth Games gold for a second time, an Asian Games bronze and a top-10 finish in the world rankings was remarkable for a sport like badminton, where injuries get exposed easily and makes any comeback that much harder!
(As told to Debayan Sen)