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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

With younger rivals snapping at heels, Saina Nehwal faces uphill race for Tokyo

A decade on, with injuries ravaging her confidence in her game that relies on fitness, Nehwal faces an uphill battle qualifying for her 4th straight Olympics.

Written by Shivani Naik |
Updated: March 2, 2021 9:15:56 am
Chaos as Indian shuttlers in Bangkok go through Covid scare, later cleared to playAt 30 and with most career boxes ticked, it will boil down to just how badly Saina Nehwal wants to be there again at the Games. (File)

Saina Nehwal first claimed the Swiss Open in 2011 – at the peak of her physical prowess where she could shrug off niggles like they didn’t matter. In the lead up to her own Olympic medal at London, she would win the title a second time in March of 2012.

A decade on, with injuries ravaging her confidence in her game that relies on fitness, Nehwal faces an uphill battle qualifying for her 4th straight Olympics. She first hit the headlines as an 18-year-old at Beijing with a fire in her belly to prove herself. 13 years on, she’s a fox on the circuit – her game pickled with wisdom and cunning, but the feet not as fast as before.

Saina is currently 22nd on the Race to Tokyo list from which only Top 16 will sail through. She is chasing to catch up with a bunch of first-time Olympic aspirants – 19th placed Danish Mia Blichfeldt (23 yrs), 14th placed Korean Kim Ga Eun (also 23) and 20th placed Indonesian Gregoria Mariska Tunjung (19). The pack in pursuit of her looking to leapfrog over her has Russian Evgeniya Kosetskaya (26 y.o.), Singaporean Yeo Jia Min (22) and Malaysian Soniia Cheah (27). Those like Sung ji Hyun (29) and Pornpawee Chochuwong (23) are engaged in intra-country races to pip their compatriots.

The result: the jostling for the qualification spots is intense and for Saina, and it is teeming with young, hungry women ready for one right badminton brawl.

Her own fitness and form has been suspect, but noone writes off Saina Nehwal without the humble pie spinning slowly in the re-heating oven. At 30 and with most career boxes ticked, it will boil down to just how badly Saina Nehwal wants to be there again at the Games.

Twelfth placed Busanan Ongbamrungphan is on 51,964 points while Saina (22nd) is a bit away on 41,847. However, with 5 others placed higher than her belonging to countries that have more than the two permitted contenders (Thailand 2 extra, Japan 2 extra, Chinese 1) and 3 of them placed in the Top 16 right now – Nehwal effectively is in a four-way battle with Beiwen Zhang (48,160), Mia Blichfeldt (45,211) and Gregoria Tunjung (45,200) to sneak into the 16.

Having watched the likes of Pi Hongyan, Tine Baum and Wang Chen battle it out on the international circuit, while pushing 30, and having scalped them in her younger 20s, Nehwal is now on the other side of the net, with youngsters fancying their chances of outlasting her, even if the odd ripping smash whizzes past their hips for a winner.
Saina has Thai Chaiwan in the opener, Sung ji Hyun in Round 2 and Mia Blichfeldt in quarters, but will strictly take it a match at a time, and not clutter her mind, while looking for that elusive confidence that comes with downing a TopTenner.

The number crunching may make it seem very far for Saina Nehwal, but it might be nearer than she fears, should she hit a purple patch.

CAN SINDHU QUELL MARIN?

PV sindhu PV Sindhu could face Marin in the final. (FILE)

PV Sindhu returns this week to the site of her greatest triumph – Basel where she claimed the World Championship in 2019. As the qualification process for Tokyo Olympics picks up from where it left (last year’s All England before sport was packed off to twiddling thumbs and worrying over the fate of the Games) Sindhu can take one final look at the courts she lorded over, this time for milder stakes, a Super 300 Swiss Open title. Even as some unfinished business from the World title, fetches up starting Tuesday. Two opponents she didn’t square up against when winning the world title, are in her way to claim more titles.

If international badminton keeps its date with marquee match-ups in women’s singles, then Sindhu will likely run into Carolina Marin – at the Swiss Open finals this week. And in a fortnight at the All England, possibly face Akane Yamaguchi, who was in great form two Augusts ago heading into Basel, but got felled by a bad back, exiting in the other half of the draw, before facing Sindhu. Marin, of course, was still recuperating from her cruelly torn knee. The Olympics will, unlike the World’s, be a full-fledged attendance with contenders primed for their peaks.

Should Marin and Sindhu make the finals at Basel, this Sunday should be the earliest reckoner of where the two Olympics contenders stand early in the 2021 Games season. The World No.7 Indian, who looked like she was only warming up in the three tournaments at Thailand, begins against Turkish world No.29 Neslihan Yigit in Round 1, and could be tested even before the potential Marin clash – in semis, against the Korean marathoner in pointe shoes, Sung Ji Hyun.

There is also that spicy serenade possibility of Sindhu vs Saina, a definite score to settle on international battlefields, should Saina show up beating Sung ji Hyun. The two Indians had looked like clashing at Basel Worlds in semis, but Mia Blichfeldt got stuck into Nehwal, as the latter went out flailing arms and hexes, from match-point. The Swiss Open, in a world that’s changed, but in the fishbowl of Indian badminton which hasn’t, lines up the two superstars on a crackling Saturday. While both have been largely bashful of charging each other head-on, now with Olympic qualification on line, it’s almost a battle of survival.

BUSINESS START FOR SRIKANTH, SEN

Kidambi Srikanth is identically on 22nd in the Race to Tokyo. But he’s not quite in the melee of a peak hour 6 pm, Virar Slow, trying to find a seat at Churchgate.

There’s 6 players placed above him from countries that have more than two in qualification contention, who will drop out of his way. So while he will have to elbow out those engaged in intra-country battles (from Japan, Indonesia and China), he is essentially going to look to parry off Hong Kong’s Lee Cheuk Yiu.

Japan, China, Indonesia, Denmark, Taipei each look like sealing two spots in men’s singles, while India, Hong Kong (Lee Cheuk Yiu, 46,180 pts) and Thailand (Sitthikom Thammasin, 39,637 pts) are attempting to push through their second players. Malaysian Lee Zii Jia looks safely through in 9th place.

kidambi srikanth K Srikanth (FILE)

At the start of resumption of qualification, the last two of the 16 berths are looking to be filled, and Srikanth (40469 pts) is at least 8500 points off that 15th coveted spot at the moment. Sai Praneeth, currently 13th (51,527 pts) would like to put some distance between him and the chasing pack when he starts off against Israel’s Misha Zilberman.
Srikanth himself will need to to stalk the lead pack to earn his berth – his opening round showdown will be with the indefatigable Sameer Verma (he beat Kento Momota there in 2019) at Basel. But the one snapping at Srikanth’s heels might well be Indian Lakshya Sen (39,447 pts) who’s placed 25th right now, but can hop over many places with giant-kills in coming months. Sourabh Verma, Kashyap and Prannoy (37,883 pts) are all tightly bunched up in that points bracket.

In fact Prannoy could well spoil Srikanth’s party in the quarters if he beats Thai Kantaphon Wangcharoen and then goes after his compatriot. The man in red-hot form Viktor Axelsen potentially awaits in semis, pointing to how treacherous the path to the title is, compared to when Srikanth won it six years ago.
Sen too will need to start well against Thai

Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk and a tougher second seed Lee Zii Jia of Malaysia in the second round, before Sai in the quarters. Ajay Jayaram gets first strike at the Thai

Sitthikom Thammasin, who should he progress deep in tournaments, can edge out a second Indian from making it to the Top 16.

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