PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth will have to ignore their history of slipping on thin ice as they start their Badminton World Championship campaigns in Basel, Switzerland in the next two days. Though, conditions favour the top two Indian contenders, Sindhu needs to be stone cold when faced with the final hurdle and Srikanth can’t afford to freeze at the first sign of life getting a little difficult in the draw.
Srikanth, at 26, is yet to medal at the Worlds which is a travesty. The conqueror of Lin Dan in China five years ago and the dominant player of the 2017 season with four titles has never got going at the Worlds. He got himself into a paralysing stupor in the 2017 quarterfinals when the slow shuttle stupefied him to such an extent that it took him a game and half to wake up and start countering. Thankfully, Son Wan Ho is out injured this time.
But you don’t need to be cornered in a circular room – the round maze of retrieving at lullaby pace woven by the Korean Son two years ago is just one of the challenges that trip up Srikanth. Last year, he lost to Daren Liew in the Round of 16.
Save for his debut Worlds where he was swatted away by Chen Long in 2014, Srikanth has done no justice to his form or finery in rankings, and found fickle ways to disappear out the exit doors.
This time, like last year he starts against Vietnamese Nhat Nguyen and the Indian, ranked 8th, will need to bolster his nerves, thicken the skin and make the most of absences of Viktor Axelsen and Shi Yuqi. It shouldn’t be preposterous to say that Taiwanese second seed Chou Tien Chen will be his first real hurdle, in the quarters. But so uncertain tends to be Srikanth’s stride at the World Championships that even Thai Kantaphon Wangcharoen, seeded 12 and potentially his last 16 opponent, can come across as a puzzle.
At best, the next week is six matches with Chou (beating him fetches a bronze), Chen Long/Anders Antonsen and Kento Momota thrown at him. This will need the top-ranked Indian to be impervious to his usual errors, bad starts and lack of urgency. Nothing this season points to Srikanth being poised for something extraordinary.
But with a year to go for the Olympics, Srikanth would do well to show some solidity and fight, even if there’s no real desperation to win a Worlds medal, only the requirement to stay fit. He’s dawdled on the circuit, shaken his head in dismay at losses and frittered away chances at All England this year. His beautiful game, which has many standalone fans irrespective of its success, needs a thick-skinned resolve that’s missing for longer than even Srikanth would imagine.
There’s no dearth of resolve in Sindhu. If anything, she has lugged her kitbag around longer than most on the circuit even after ticking the box of the World Tour finals title in 2018.
When she skipped Thailand, it was almost a relief because from the Premier Badminton League to India’s senior nationals to east Asian criss-crossings with a jaunt to Australia, Sindhu has played the probability — more appearances, greater the chances of a title. But she looked mentally fatigued going out in Round 1 at All England and in her two losses to Akane Yamaguchi.
Her last two big finals — 2018 Worlds and Asiad within a month of each other, had been straight-game defeats, though as is her wont she raised her levels at the tour finals. This year wasn’t meant to pose tough questions – with the priority being to chisel the game and stay injury-free – and Sindhu showed some mature play and even addition of strokes to her armoury reaching the Indonesia finals.
The 24-year-old would do well to remember Rio-to-Tokyo is the silver she needs to upgrade, not the ones at Glasgow and Nanjing, and pace herself suitably. But she’ll be tempted with the short-term opportunity.
Carolina Marin is rehabbing her healing ACL. Nozomi Okuhara seems to have peaked way back in 2016-17 and ceded the contender’s badge firmly to the blazing Yamaguchi.
Reality, however, of the 2020 Everest starts to sink in when one looks north to the Chinese. They missed the podium at Rio and He Bingjiao and the cerebral Chen Yufei, with four titles this year, are going to come hard at the rest of the world. Cai Yan Yan and Yue Han are also closing in.
Sindhu might have Linda Zetchiri and Beiwen Zhang before she even gets a sniff of the Chinese.
Yamaguchi sits in the top half of the draw, but crouching quietly in Sindhu’s quarter is the woman who’s itching for revenge since Sindhu blitzed her at Rio – Tai Tzu-Ying. The Chinese Taipese, who has similarly never won a Worlds title (in fact no one in this draw except Thai Ratchanok has), will be a real thorn in Sindhu’s flesh coming up in the quarterfinals. You’d think Tai Tzu had her revenge at the Asian Games final, but no amount of poor form will stop her from hitting top gear when she meets Sindhu.
Still, the Indian has tinged her game with some creative strokes and is hardly solely reliant on her power-play alone. Like they say about the Indian rhinoceros bred famously in Basel’s Zoo, the bulging horn might look its weapon of choice, but when rhinos hunt, it’s their subtle incisors that go about slitting and harming enemies. The big power and prolonged stamina will need the additional teeth of Sindhu’s stroke-making.
Who the Indians are up against
Sabrina Jaquet is the local favourite, but she’s the harbinger of medals in Saina’s career. The 28-year-old Indian played Jaquet in her openers at the 2012 Olympics as well as the 2017 World Championships and went on to pick a bronze both times. Should the Swiss miss win her opener against Soraya de Visch Eijbergen, then Saina with a bye on her first could open against Jaquet again. Saina’s barely hung onto her Top 10 rankings this year and though she won a minor title earlier in the year, she’s not been at her fittest to play out the whole season. She has upcoming Mia Blichfeldt in her path and Chen Yufei potentially in quarters.
The big backhand beast is angry about missing out on the Arjuna Award, but he’ll need to be thick-skinned like the Indian rhinoceros commonly bred in the Basel Zoo, 10 minutes away from the venue. Prannoy was Top 10 last season and had a bronze at the Asian Badminton Championships, but has since slipped dealing with health issues and some disastrous losses to rank outsiders. Still, no sight like watching the angry young man, not lose his cool at all, put his head down and get going at slicing massive reputations.
A certain Lin Dan is dangling in his imperious pathway. However, far too often, Prannoy’s career – spectacular to watch but exasperating to follow – has crystallised into giant-kills without going deep into the draw. While he starts against Finnish Eetu Heino, he’ll hope the finish is not imminent against Lin Dan, seeded 11 or Kento Momota, seeded 1. This is his opportunity to kill giants, go deep and slay some demons at home.
B Sai Praneeth
Sai Praneeth has a Super Series title from two years ago and also an Arjuna Award now. His ability to focus on the bird’s eye constantly though is always in doubt. He plays like a dream when winning, but can lose matches that can make you pull your hair out.
Should he negotiate early rounds, there’s Indonesian Anthony Ginting in Round 3. These are two of the most buzzing players to watch — always trying something. Something new this time for Sai could be playing steady and looking to last longer than his previous World Championships. He entertains even when he’s not trying.
The best performer of 2018 – he made the semifinals of World tour finals – has struggled with injury this year. One of the most hardworking shuttlers with his counterpunch style and creative defence, Verma can lull opponents into under-estimating him.
But it’s the clockwork Chou Tien Chen early in third round he could be up against. Should he clear that, he could meet Srikanth in what will be a highly desirable quarterfinal for Indians. His Worlds outings have been aborted by nerves, but Verma can be trusted to give his all and grab at every chance he gets. —Shivani Naik