Updated: March 17, 2021 8:41:01 am
With the tournament having no bearing on Olympic qualification, four of the top names in women’s singles have consciously skipped Birmingham, perhaps for the first time in their careers.
Carolina Marin tore her calf muscle in Basel, and it can take six weeks to completely patch back. The Spaniard still inflicted a 35-minute thrashing on Sindhu in the final, but given that she has the All England title from 2015 (beating Saina Nehwal), Marin won’t sweat over the miss in an Olympic year.
Chen Yufei and He Bingjiao are coming off their winter training base in remote Lingshui. In the tropical shade of Niuling mountains, China’s pre-season paradise is back of beyond; though it does boast a fancy resort named Badminton Hotel. The Chinese National Games in April are Chen’s priority – not the All England she won in 2019.
Tai Tzu-Ying is on her own hotel-staycation in Zhongshan, surrounded by teddy bears big and small, nibbling on miniature desserts and big fruit of Taipei – rejuvenating after winning the World Tour Finals. She’s received her new racquet frames recently, minus the strings. And she tried fitting her head through the empty frame for a lark recently. Three All England titles in 2017, ’18 and ’20 afford her the luxury.
The Japanese contingent, with the highly-anticipated return of defending champion Kento Momota, will be in Birmingham. Nozomi Okuhara, who also won in 2016, could potentially fetch up in the finals for Sindhu, depending on where her game is currently.
The Japanese turned back to go home from the airport when headed for Thailand in January, after Momota tested positive for the virus. And Okuhara had posted her wish to return soon to the courts. But the All England isn’t an empty box to tick, given she’s won it already. A stoic, well-prepared Okuhara is not the best options to run into in any circumstances, though their last World title final gives Sindhu the edge.
The Koreans have chosen to stay away citing virus risks, keeping back An Sae Young. Indonesian youngster Tunjung has withdrawn as well – and she was in Sindhu’s path.
That leaves two of the Top Ten stars who will eye the All England trophy intently: Sindhu and Akane Yamaguchi. The two are seeded to collide in the quarters, and while Sindhu leads the career head-to-head, she has lost the last three times to the aggressive fireball of a Japanese.
Yamaguchi, though, might be a completely altered player this time around, given her lower-back troubles in the second half of 2019. The Olympic postponement might actually have helped the Japanese heal for the home Games, but she was in the middle of a nightmarish first-round exit spree when the pandemic shut down sport.
Having recovered, she’s spoken about fulfilling her dream of a Games medal, telling Olympic Channel how she’s thought of little else since nursery school. Still, a gap of an entire year, makes her an unpredictable opponent for anyone up.
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Not unduly fussed over pressure or expectations in normal circuit events where she mixes her lateral running with explosive vertical bursts retrieving shuttles from well behind the head, Yamaguchi can crack like she once did in the Uber Cup.
It’ll be interesting to see if the curved-torso mid-air retrieving persists despite the back troubles. But Yamaguchi told Olympic Channel that she was increasing her speed – both foot-speed and hitting pace, during the pandemic. This could be a different Akane coming up on show two years after she was ambushing everyone on 2019. But not any less lethal.
India’s All E bubble
While the rest of the world sees All England as the mega return to top-flight action or simply a pitstop in an Olympic year, the Super 1000 is a rather emotive tournament for Indians.
It’s been 41 years since Prakash Padukone won and 20 since Pullela Gopichand did so.
While Saina and Sindhu have taken the sport to new heights, the All E is missing from the cabinet – Saina made the finals in 2015 and begins an uphill climb against Mia Blichfeldt – a nice grudge match should the Indian turn back the clock, but heavily tilted in favour of the European, given Saina’s form.
Sindhu, though, starts the tournament as a serious contender. While she is always in the reckoning for any title, this one comes with an additional point to prove: no Indian woman has ever won this crown. Levelling with coach Gopichand on this one metric can serve as a motivation, if she needs any beyond the natural competitive juices flowing.
While her game was not expected to alter drastically when she left for England last October, there was hope that while training at Milton Keynes, Sindhu could get a rough idea of what to expect at Birmingham.
There are Covid bubbles and then there’s India’s own All E pilgrimage every year in a vacuum. The Olympics later in the year won’t colour Sindhu’s quest to go the distance this year. Even with Marin, Tai Tzu and Chen Yufei, Sindhu would still have aimed for the All England with the same focus.
Tough draws for others
Parupalli Kashyap gets the first shot at Momota, the Japanese top-ranked automaton, in Round 1. Given the Indian’s form – he hasn’t completed too many matches – it might be a wincing bloodbath.
But Momota returns after a motor crash that needed an eye surgery, and a Covid infection. If there’s ever a time for the 2014 Commonwealth Games medallist to spring a shock, should a seven-year itch to win strike, this is as good a shot as he could get.
Kidambi Srikanth has tricky Indonesian Tommy Sugiarto to start, and can face the whole might of men’s singles – with Antony Ginting back in the fray and the Danes on a roll in Thailand.
HS Prannoy will need to earn his date with Momota, by beating Darren Liew in the opener. Lakshya Sen has the Thai Kantaphon in front, and memories of a good debut last year to look back at. Sai Praneeth and Sameer Verma could meet Viktor Axelsen and Anton Antonsen early. The doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty have a chance to rattle and dazzle against the top-ranked Marcus Gideon-Kevin Sanjay Sukamuljo.
The men can take inspiration from their predecessors – Gopichand and Padukone – who got the job done with superior planning. For Sindhu, what will count is not who’s missing from the draw, but what’s missing from her trophy cabinet – the All England title.
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