You can be forgiven for staring longer and harder at the team sheets for the upcoming Premier Badminton League season, as you try to look for the usual names in men’s singles that have dominated the sport. You still won’t find them. It’s a depleted line-up that the exhibition tournament has managed to garner this time, with the likes of Lee Chong Wei, Lin Dan and Chen Long deciding to give it a miss.
The women’s field, though, is a show-stopping affair. And it will indeed be the clashes in the women’s singles category that will be the standout rubber of each tie.
Imagine, a repeat of the Olympics final between Carolina Marin and PV Sindhu, on the opening day of the tournament itself. And then the clash between the two best Indian players, Saina Nehwal and Sindhu, 10 days later.
Yet the stature of the women’s game commands attention even in international tournaments, especially given the line-up it presents. A new generation of players has emerged in women’s badminton, bringing a renewed vigour in competition.
“You have Tai Tzu Ying, who is world number one, and is 22. You have Marin who is 23, and a bunch of other players. Sun Ji Hyun, Ratchanok (Intanon), (Akane) Yamaguchi are all in their early 20s,” explains national coach Pulella Gopichand. “I think world’s women’s singles badminton is a very challenging event, with lot of different nations and very young and exciting players dominating the scene, with various types of games as well,” he adds.
Lodged firmly in the tussle for dominance is an equally young and prominent Sindhu, and it’s been an impressive season for her in her bid to reach the higher annals of the game.
So much so that India’s sporting 2016 has indeed been the year of Sindhu – all symbolised by the historic silver medal she won at the Rio Olympic Games.
“I think the year has been fantastic. The way she qualified for the Super Series Finals was also credible because she had to win and she had to play the finals. In the last three performances, she’s had one win, one runner-up and a semifinal finish. So I think that’s good performances and I’m happy with the way she’s played,” explains Gopichand, of the world number 10.
And there’s still more to come from her, asserts the coach. The 21-year-old boasts a 41-19 record for the year, which includes the title at the China Open Super Series, and a semi-final finish at the recent Super Series Finals, along with her exploits in Rio.
“I’ve always maintained the fact, even when she won in 2013 and 2014, Sindhu is still sometime away from being her best. I maintain that even now, that she has potential to be even better. She needs to adapt to different styles of play, different court conditions, different experiences,” he mentions.
Along with Sindhu, lined up in the PBL is world No.2 and Olympic gold medallist Marin, world No.5 Sung Ji Hyun, and the original golden girl of Indian badminton Saina Nehwal.
Ranked ninth in the world, Nehwal’s return has been unexpectedly quick, given that she got back to competitive badminton just under three months after the knee surgery she required immediately after the Rio Games. And Gopichand, too, has praised her return.
“It’s wonderful to see her come back and give some good performances. The fact that she’s played three back-to-back tournaments means that she has recovered very well. Of course the fitness element will take time, the match sharpness and the court fitness. It’ll take time to come, but it’s a matter of time. I’m sure that the coming days will show us an even better Saina,” he concludes.