Updated: January 11, 2022 6:30:41 pm
India Open 2022: Loh Kean Yew received a ‘water salute’ when the men’s singles World Champion’s plane bringing him back from Spain, taxied between two high-powered water tank hoses – the gush forming a welcoming arch for the returning winner at the Changi airport.
Singapore was honouring its first ever badminton world-beater, a rare phenom in a country that loves the sport. After applauding the behemoths from China, Malaysia and Indonesia for years, this was their moment to celebrate by putting up a spectacle.
Later, half a dozen business heads from ‘the little red dot’ city-state set up a trust fund for S$50,000 (INR 27 lakh 30 thousand), after they realised the World Championship carried no cash rewards, to support Kean Yew’s future ambitions. “It’s just a new beginning for me because I’ve been the underdog, but now I’m gonna be one of those that people want to beat….like very badly,” Kean Yew would say at the airport reception.
Delhi’s KD Jadhav hall at the IG Stadium will give the freshly minted World Champion his first taste of those men, waiting to beat him – like, very badly at the Super 500 India Open.
With his goofy grin and easy charm, Kean Yew doesn’t exactly elicit fierce appraisals of a formidable opponent, reserved for those like Kento Momota or Viktor Axelsen – both of whom he’s beaten in the last two months. No matter how much that crown of his slick gelled pompadour pushes him to 6 feet making him a prized scalp, there’s always a polite smile waiting to light up his sunshine face, and take away the menace of his lightning speed that fetched him the world title.
Memories of World Championship final where Kean Yew trumped Kidambi Srikanth are fresh – never mind the change of calendar. Yet, both Srikanth and HS Prannoy whom he set aside on way to the title, will fancy their chances of reversing their scorelines, should they run into the surprise, breakout gold medallist. Lakshya Sen who has beaten him in the last 12 months, while carving his own reputation on debut, won’t be faulted for believing he could’ve gone the distance had he had a shy at the Singaporean in the final.
“I ended the year on a high so it was a good year… Nobody will always win. The pressure is always there. I just hope that I can play the best and I can perform,” Kean Yew told BAI.
Yet, a gold medal is undeniable. Ask Lee Chong Wei, inarguably far more legendary than anyone who made the last 8 at Spain, just how elusive the gold can be. And perhaps the biggest folly of the Indian pack at Delhi – despite playing in their backyard – might well be, in getting too bullish about their own forms, when pitted against the new one on the throne. The right ankle of the fresh regal, was a tad iffy post the World title, so those lunges and jumps might be a little wobbly when stomping. But the draw that might bring him up against Srikanth in the semis, might turn tricky even earlier.
Those wanting to win badly, and taking aim at the scalp, can be rank new names – Canadian Xiadong Shen and Malaysians Soong Joo Ven and Cheam June Wei. A new season will always have the boisterous unknown, upstarts.
For Kidambi Srikanth, who won at Delhi in 2015 and soon became No 1 and also reached the finals in 2018, this season-starter will be about a bunch of unfinished businesses: he’s not won a title for eons – 3 years. The World’s finals miss keeps him famished for title glory. And there’s the Singaporean grinning at him from under his playing mop from across the court, should both line up for the rematch revenge.
Yet, for a first seed, Srikanth has himself some speedbumps – a bunch of ambitious Indians spoiling for flight. Siril Verma in Round 1, Subhankar Dey in Round 2 and Sameer Verma / Kiran George in quarters. Each has an opportunity to overtake the challenger. Targets come embossed on all sizes of torquing backs.
HS Prannoy will have to shrug off rustiness against Pablo Abian, and could run into Mithun Manjunath, a talented Bangalorean, trying to lose the Lakshya Sen shadow. Prannoy – Lakshya going head to head in quarters can be a nice little Friday domestic blockbuster.
Young and strapping Priyanshu Rajawat, rated highly in Hyderabad, will be peppered with a French challenge first up, but can quickly make headlines if he beats veteran Tommy Sugiarto. India’s wily fox Ajay Jayaram, with that bamboozling limby game, missed out on Olympic qualification – albeit at Siri Fort – by a whisker a decade ago. Fitness permitting – and he was in good touch over the European swing, he might want to exploit a gentler bottom half of the draw and surprise the world.
Loh Kean Yew is the world champion. But for a gaggle of Indians, starved of world class competition, this India Open might well be the time to grab the attention of the Badminton world.
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