Dynasties were born, rose and fell in Nanjing the last 1,000 years, and as the Badminton World Championships get underway on Monday, there is enough intrigue over who the newest claimants to the global title could be in this ancient seat of power that served as the Ming capital. Midway through the Olympic cycle, though, contenders have been shy about staking claims — starting with holders in singles, Nozomi Okuhara and Viktor Axelsen, who after dealing with injuries have both bashfully retreated to the box of “challengers” rather than champions guarding their crowns, despite their Glasgow triumphs last August.
The form players — Tai Tzu Ying in women and Kento Momota in men, have never won a world title or Olympic medal before. While Olympic champs Carolina Marin and Chen Long, strangely, would start at Nanjing as dark horses, after two years of dawdling results, making them the most reticent of royalty from the quadrennial. In this mix, go the Indians — a bunch accustomed to big headlines, but oddly quiet since the Commonwealth Games earlier in the year. 2017 gave India its first double-medals when both PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal got onto the podium. But noone had any doubts heading into 2018 that the Asian Games, in three weeks’ time, would cast a shadow on the tightly bunched World Championship, when managing workloads. While the focus will be obsessively on Sindhu to see if she can angrily reclaim what was denied to her narrowly by Okuhara last year, Indian badminton can consider itself lucky that there’s more than one name capable of the coveted World’s medal.
Prannoy: Due for medal
The tall, strong shuttler with the big backhand game evokes more frustration about the absence of a notable title / medal to his name than even Kidambi Srikanth. And that takes some saying because Srikanth himself is an exasperating mystery of how the best of talent can go medal-less for this long. But even a sport that has patiently nursed this wistfulness over Lee Chong Wei never grabbing the big gold, looks bemused when Prannoy packs up his bag with battered injuries and bemoaning disappointments at 19-all junctures, and exits tournaments. 2018 Nanjing isn’t looking forward to any of those encores. “Prannoy has more big wins than any other Indian but he has squandered some of the biggest chances too,” says former international Aparna Popat while noting that while the 26-year-old looks hungry to prove a point, he’s never inspired confidence in being able to go the distance of a title run. But taking out a few and charging into semis would suffice for a medal.
Scalping at Nanjing would require getting past 6th seed Chou Tien Chen and then possibly China’s most reliable shuttler Shi Yuqi. If Nanjing was all about starting dynasties, the home boy Shi had won the Youth Olympics at the historic city in 2014 and promised a new reign. He would himself need to get past Lin Dan, but should Prannoy run into him, reputation hardly has the Indian quaking in his boots. “Prannoy is due a medal, and this tournament is where he could explode,” international Aravind Bhat adds, with the “if fit” rider. Like a contestant on WipeOut, Prannoy looks perennially on the verge of a break out performance, till the moment he lands with a splashing thud.
Sindhu: Big-prize hunter
India’s highest ranked contender, the 3rd seed, has had a quiet year by her standards. But Sindhu is known to save her best for the big ones. A final at Thailand against potential Worlds quarterfinalist Okuhara last week means the 23-year-old Indian has had a good workout, and she is aware no title is won without beating the top names. Starting with Indonesian Fitriani and then Sung Ji Hyun — the hard running tall Korean, Sindhu can expect her usual tough start. “Sindhu likes to play these tough matches early when she’s under tremendous pressure,” Bhat says. A pedigree player whose silences are to be interpreted as hard backroom work being underway, the 5’11” is expected to come out guns blazing. “She plays freely early on and works doubly hard, so the draw is good I’d say,” he adds. It’s always good to remember that an unheralded Sindhu beat Okuhara, Tai Tzu at the Olympics and could down Chen Yufei at World’s last year. Not daunted by expectations, Sindhu would reckon that she too is due one, even if a pair of Japanese stand in her way to a repeat final appearance.
Saina: Flourish or flounder?
Playing the smartest badminton of her career where she’s sharpening her strokes, and trying to keep matches short, Saina Nehwal looks more liberated in her game than ever. “Everything after the injury is a bonus,” Popat says adding that depending on how astutely she plays it, Nehwal “is capable of silver or of going out in pre-quarters.” Nehwal isn’t one to play out the long-winding marathons, and might not be up to playing two back to back hour-plus matches. But she’s honed her game to snap rallies short, and reads opponents better than most. In Intanon Ratchanok, the Thai with the stroke-frothing game, Nehwal, now 28 and 10th seed, has a tough pre-quarters. But noone expected her to be still in the mix after all these years and a knee that underwent a ligamentary churn. The bronze medal last year stunned most, so noone takes Nehwal lightly, least of all Carolina Marin, a potential quarter final match up, who has vocally stated that Nehwal is forever trouble.
Praneeth-Sameer: Another surprise up their sleeve? The Merry and Pippin of Indian badminton, who manage some surprise results out of the blue, before they get snatched away in Orc-raids and are lost to the pages. Sai Praneeth, one of India’s prodigiously talented former juniors who also has a Super Series title to his name, has botched up a fair share of World Championships. Game, fitness and tactics rarely combine for this luckless lad, though he’s had a bit of a fortune rub this time with his first round opponent Korean 4th seed Son Wan Ho and possible second round speed bump Kazumasa Sakai both withdrawing. He can earn himself a chance to fight highly-fancied Kento Momota from thereon, and work some merry magic. Sameer Verma – always in the shadows of Sam and Frodo, as it were – gets a shy at Lin Dan in pre-quarters to shock the legend with his whippy defense and zingy game. He was criticized last Worlds for eating up an opportunity (Prannoy missed out in rankings despite a good run), but noone’s worked as hard at overcoming limitations of a fragile body as Verma.
Srikanth: A shot at glory
India’s top men’s singles shuttler, seeded fifth here has seen a path open with Malaysian Lee Chong Wei withdrawing from the tournament. This opens up the lower quarter for Srikanth to surge through. But like all the times in the past, the 25-year-old can build himself a nice little obstacle course out of the remaining characters and send his fans into annual mourning. There’s Momota in the semis by which time a long-awaited medal will be assured but that right must be earned, and in the way stand two dangerous Indonesians – Jonathan Christie in Round 3 and Antony Ginting. The two are capable of tripping up India’s best on an off day for the moody player. “Srikanth is a momentum player and needs results for his confidence. But training beats everything and if Gopi has planned on him peaking here, then he might waltz through,” Bhat says. Mulyo Handoyo had slapped Srikanth’s career into shape last year, before he stumbled against Son Wan Ho. Putting a couple of Indonesians away might be a good way to say a belated ‘Thank you’ for the coach.
More than anyone else, shuttle speeds matter to Srikanth. Word from China was that courts were on the faster side – and players were happy. Now a happy Srikanth needs the World’s medal to wipe out the grump from his face. Chong Wei’s absence can be happily called start of a semblance of momentum.
The stumbling blocks
Tai Tzu Ying- The player to beat in women’s singles with just one loss and 33 wins this year. The hyper-talented player’s domination has been staggering this year, though experts reckon she can be beaten. A compulsive stroke maker who has matured post the Olympics loss to Sindhu, Tai Tzu has neither an Olympic nor a World’s title. A No 1 without the big titles looks a tad hollow, and after missing out the World’s last year, the Chinese Taipei 23-year-old looks set to claim her glory at last in Nanjing.
Carolina Marin- She’s gone off the boil sensationally after the Olympic title – her speed careened off the top gear and her strokes became predictable. A torso injury means Marin has been hitting away in spurts without any titles to show. But close to fit now, the Spaniard is a dark horse in this edition. Twice a World champion, the seventh seed famously had four match points against Tai Tzu Ying, but couldn’t convert. The title was snatched by Okuhara in an epic semifinal push back, but Marin would be determined to earn back that swag of being the Olympic gold medallist.
Chen Yufei – He Bingjiao China is facing unprecedented challenges in their eternal stronghold : women’s doubles, and would not want it’s home crowd to witness an Olympic podium encore – where no Chinese stepped up in women’s singles. He Bingjiao won the Youth Olympics at Nanjing in 2014, while Chen Yufei has the cleverest ticking brain on the circuit currently, albeit with restricted strokes. Still, Yufei’s anticipation and footwork means the former junior World champion’ll look to do better than her bronze last year, starting with Akane Yamaguchi in quarters. She’s potential quicksand for Sindhu down the week.
The Japanese- Both women and men’s singles boast of strong contenders in Okuhara/Yamaguchi and Kento Momota. But like most other Asian powerhouses, the Japanese will have to temper their energies keeping one eye on the Asian Games – a highly prestigious meet for shuttlers from the continent. Still, Momota, a player blessed with consistency, wheels for legs and a fascinating left-handed game, has returned from a casino gambling ban that saw Japan deny him a chance at the world title last year. But he’s back, with defending champion Viktor Axelsen immediately dubbing him “the complete player.”