They say bags are typically not allowed at the All England seating arenas, with qualifiers and title contenders alike undergoing intense screening of their racquet and kit holdalls year after year. It’s one of those maddening English security dictums but shuttlers tend to shrug it off once inside the precincts of badminton’s most traditional congregations. Heading into the year’s first big badminton event, the All England Premier Super Series, Indians Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu will gladly leave behind baggage of past years too as they mount the country’s strongest challenge ever.
Two women’s singles contenders in Top 10 is swell news, of course – Sindhu at a career-best No 5. But never has the marquee $600,000 All England looked this gettable since Pullela Gopichand’s 2001 triumph – a tactical coup pulled off by one of India’s canniest sportspersons. A whiff of injuries to opponents is in the air again — Carolina Marin pulled out of the German Open Grand Prix final last week, and will start at not her fittest here. Both Indian women have gone into badminton’s equivalent of a boot camp this last month – adding pace to their hand speeds, and bounce to their legwork, refining angles on strokes and adding stamina to fuel barrels. In what’s a chuckling throwback to 2001, Australia’s cricket team’s in town at the same time and India under yet another feisty captain, have yet again begun their comeback from being a match down. Now, for some winning tidings on Sunday in Birmingham.
Sindhu, prior to being crowned Olympic silver medallist, carried the baggage of anonymity at this hallowed tournament till last year. For most times, first round exits were not even frowned upon, as the teenager took her time to piece together a game that could rattle the world. It ofcourse all came together on a glorious Rio noon as Indian badminton recorded its finest moment with a silver medal. Six months on, Sindhu has grown in immense stature and commands louds proclamations of expectations of a title – no longer hopeful whispers. Her’s is the easier baggage to shed – she’s one Indian athlete flying on confidence.
Saina Nehwal — on her 10th year on the circuit, and having conquered other modern day coliseums and has two important medals in England; bronze at the London Olympics and a silver at the All England two years ago. But she doesn’t have the All England title. Nehwal’s meltdown against Carolina Marin in the 2015 finals – that scourge who also denied Sindhu the Olympic title – is a painful memory, should the 26-year-old summon it, and though she claimed on her return that she had moved on, Nehwal would like to continue to prove that she can win whatever her predecessors (and now even successor Sindhu) have won.
While the chatter this whole week will be about who gets closest to India’s most-wanted trophy in shuttle – with a steady peppering of a spicy rivalry that could get played out in the semis on Saturday should both reach that far – longtime watchers are excited by the fact that to the world, Indians could finally seem to be hunting in a pack – not just on numbers but in stark quality of contention. Like the Chinese and Japanese and Indonesians and Danes, there’s now two Indians sharing the pressure.
Nehwal starts against Japanese Rio bronze medallist Nozomi Okuhara – a rally machine of a particular stubborn disposition, who won here last year but has since served out a layoff owing to injury. Her last full match was in October. There’s little to no mystery to Saina Nehwal’s game after a decade on the circuit, except her strong mental make up. It amazes opponents every time, though you can never really prepare for a player who refuses to give up. That her most public disintegration happened here against Marin would be quickly forgotten should she rally back strongly from the injury-trauma that set her back at the Olympics last year. Nehwal’s known to have worked on her high speed training since the Malaysia GP title, and has travelled with a three-member support staff including coach Vimal Kumar who himself would be keen to erase memories of the 2015 final when his ward couldn’t do justice to her game in the face of a blitzy Spanish left-hander.
Still, 2017 is shaping up to be a glorious Sindhu year – she’s fit, she’s motivated and she soaks up pressure responding with a firecracker of a game that can best anyone. There’s Dane Mette Poulsen at the outset, but her first tricky step could be the quarters against World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying. The Taipei touch artist can weave webs alright, but it’s down to the Indian to pick every shuttle thrown at her and thwart the 5’3″ girl’s wizardry before she brings out her booming big game. It’s always going to be a tough encounter – but the Olympics proved that it was imminently possible to best her. As such, Sindhu is Tai Tzu’s biggest threat. Nehwal, Sung Ji Hyun or Nozomi will park the truck, but if there’s one player who can be trusted to bulldoze through barricades it is PV Sindhu – who with Marin’s dicey injury status, will quickly be annointed the favourite. The tall Indian is crystal clear about her targets – and her stated Top 3 shouldn’t be tough since she’s No 5 now. Winning the All England, though, sounds like a better nursed ambition for this sophomore year.