Updated: March 10, 2020 9:42:12 pm
It’s arguably the weakest and most vulnerable phase for Indian badminton in the last few years, heading into the prestigious All England. There have been consistent headlines by one or the other player in the lead-up to the tournament but over the last decade, other than Saina Nehwal making the 2015 final, nobody really came close to equalling Pullela Gopichand’s last triumph of 2001.
Now, with the pressure of Olympic qualification and the additional dread of Covid-19, India’s disappointing results on the circuit over the last six months are painting a dire picture from Birmingham.
There’s 12,000 points for the winners: something that’ll swell PV Sindhu’s already impressive tally but crumbs of which are life-support for K Srikanth and Saina, who are desperate for points.
Former Olympian Anup Sridhar warns against declaring doom already, though the tough draws are reflecting how difficult badminton looks when rankings go into freefall: Saina is No. 20 now.
“Those two are like dragons no one should mess with,” he says of Sindhu and Saina, whose past results have little bearing on what’s coming up. Sindhu has announced that All England has been a part of her long-term goals, and this might well be the year.
For a five-time Worlds medallist, never sniffing the Birmingham biggie till now doesn’t quite cut it.
She starts out against American Beiwen Zhang (there are two North Americans – Beiwen and Canadian Michelle Li in the Top 15) against whom she narrowly leads 5-4. While the last encounter went to the American, Sindhu can get really brutal against the World No. 14 crowd-funded shuttler, keeping her down to single-digit game scores often. There’s a chance to avenge Sung Ji Hyun for the first-round ouster last year, next, and familiar foes Nozomi Okuhara (quarters) and Chen Yufei (semis) strewn in her path towards finally grabbing that one crown eluding Indian women.
Saina has built herself a nice obstacle path. She is clearly struggling to lock the Tokyo qualification and has drawn the indomitable Japanese Akane Yamaguchi in Round 1. “She’s waiting for people to count her out and come back with a vengeance, she’s badminton’s Nadal,” Sridhar warns. Saina has beaten Yamaguchi only twice, losing eight times and save the thin thread of form she spun in Spain a fortnight back, has nothing to back her as going in as the favourite. “She won’t start as favourite, but can beat Akane,” Sridhar says.
Yamaguchi won the Thailand Masters beating back Carolina Marin’s rampage, but Saina might well want to make the most of what could be her final appearance at the All England, should injuries continue to bother her. Then again, she might stick around just to trash such proclamations about the end of the line. MC Mary Kom is going to Tokyo at 37; Saina can get it into her head she’s not done at 30 (next Tuesday) despite injuries tugging her back.
Two singles shuttlers who’ll go about their business with heads down are B Sai Praneeth, most likely headed to Tokyo and starting against Chinese Zhao Jun Peng, and India’s own rookie Lakshya Sen whose every win will be celebrated with an eye on the future (though he has one eye on Tokyo), starting with Hong Kong’s Lee Cheuk Yiu.
Parupalli Kashyap, technically in with a chance but with a dodgy back, has Indonesian Rhustavito while the rest of the singles brigade has pulled out after weighing the Coronavirus risks.
The festering open wound that no one can ignore is Kidambi Srikanth making heavy weather of Tokyo qualification. His first-round opponent, China’s Chen Long had a Srikanthesque follow-up to his Olympic title: that is, he completely disappeared from podiums. The 31-year-old barely challenged the rising Kento Momota and looks worryingly harmless as a rival though he’s World No 5. He lost three tournament finals in 2019, winning the French though, and Srikanth ought to back himself to take his chances at slashing away at the Chinese – for he desperately needs to defend his semifinal points.
But his form betrays little hope. Srikanth is no dragon but certainly a global mystery — a World No. 1 not many seasons ago, wondering what it feels like to sit on that vantage again. Neither his week-long stay as No. 1 nor his 2017 zone of four titles feel anything like the injury-induced doubts roaming his mind like monsters.
Dealing with corona scare
PV Sindhu has quipped she will stick to Namaskar to avoid Coronavirus infections from handshakes. It’s something common to two other top names – Thai Ratchanok Intanon and Japanese Nozomi Okuhara, who are culturally prone to use the folded- hands greeting. While Okuhara’s four direction joint hands are well known, the Thais too are in the habit of folding hands – aimed at respecting shuttles and the court. Now the rest of the world will add respecting the opponent invariably to that practice, even if handling the same shuttle through a game poses equal risk of transmission.
Of greater impact owing to the Covid-19 restrictions might be a decision by All England to play in front of empty stadiums as the UK mulls barring gatherings of over 1,000 people. The presence (or absence) of audience has a bearing on court speed, with humidity impacting the pace of the shuttle. An empty stadium means faster shuttles that can level things out between a Sindhu and a Okuhara /Chen Yufei/Tai Tzu-Ying. A packed stadium and long hall impeding the shuttle a tad is to Sindhu’s liking though.
Srikanth might like fewer eyes piercing into his back critically, or exhaling and dragging the shuttle. Saina loves noise. Nothing matters to her.