India shuttlers look to shake off pandemic blues
India shuttlers will take tentative steps as they return to competition after almost a year at the $1 million Yonex Thailand Open starting in Bangkok on Tuesday.
The Badminton World Federation (BWF) halted competitions in March last year after the All England Open due to the Covid-19 outbreak. A restart was halted after only the Denmark Open in October and players globally have had to wait till the three-leg Asia series that will be played in Thailand.
While Indian players other than those who played in Denmark have had to wait for competition since last March, shuttlers in the Far East and Europe have played in domestic or league competitions. “It will be a disadvantage,” says former India international and head coach U Vimal Kumar. “We really don’t know how our players will perform compared to other nations. They have all played domestic tournaments whereas Indians have not had any match practice (for almost a year). Hopefully, they’ll manage; they’re all experienced.”
World champion PV Sindhu and Olympic medallist Saina Nehwal will have a slight advantage. Badminton powerhouse China pulled out of the Thailand events on New Year’s Eve. Olympic hosts Japan followed after world champion Kento Momota tested Covid-19 positive this month. These withdrawals should ease the path of Indians.
“(It’s) an advantage. Even if these tournaments do not have Olympic qualification points, ranking points earned here will help get better seedings and draws in the qualifiers,” says Kumar, under whose guidance Saina had reached world No.1 in 2015. “Whoever is playing is bound to gain.”
India’s focus will be on Sindhu. The Rio Olympics finalist and world No.7 has been based in England for the last two months to focus on nutrition and fitness at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. She trained with the England national team there.
“She’s world champion. At that level, a player’s mental happiness is the key. If they get their workouts, training, support, they are at ease. All these (top) players are much focussed,” says Kumar, a national selector. “It will take time for them to get going, and maybe in the second tournament they’ll peak.”
Sindhu faces Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt in the first round and could meet Saina in the quarter-final.
The men’s singles draw will see Indians run into their compatriots early. World Championship bronze medallist B Sai Praneeth and 2014 Commonwealth Games champion Parupalli Kashyap will clash in the last eight if they win two rounds. Former world No.1 Kidambi Srikanth faces friend Sourabh Verma in the opener with the winner likely to face HS Prannoy and then academy mate Sameer Verma in the quarters.
“Srikanth has a very good chance to do well. He looked good in Denmark; he is slowly coming back and has nothing to lose. He is the dark horse of the tournament; he has beaten the best and can do something special,” says Kumar.
It remains to be seen how Kashyap and Prannoy do, both having recovered from Covid-19.
“It’s a very different kind of illness,” Prannoy was quoted as saying by BWF. “The major problem is psychological. Mentally, you are very stressed for two weeks because you don’t know what’s going to happen and doctors aren’t able to tell you either. My condition never went bad, but you don’t know what it’s doing to your body. I’ve had a weird pain in my ribcage, but everything looks normal on X-ray and MRI. There are side-effects and you are on heavy medication which makes your body weak.”
In doubles, there will be high hopes on Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who have all but qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. Manu Attri-B Sumeeth Reddy and MR Arjun-Dhruv Kapila are the other doubles pairs.
“China and Japan not playing... we can’t say it’s easier,” Shetty, one half of the world No.10 pair, told PTI. “But yeah, 3-4 top-10 players won’t be participating so the competition reduces a bit. “It will affect the competition because there are 2-3 Japanese and Chinese pairs in the top-10, but there are lot of pairs from Malaysia and Indonesia, so the competition is still pretty strong.”
Shetty and Rankireddy had won the Super 500 Thailand Open in Bangkok, which catapulted them to the top echelons of doubles. However, this will be their first outing together since the Malaysia Masters in January 2020.
Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy, the only Indian women’s doubles pair, have a tough opener against Korean fourth seeds Kim Gi-jung and Lee Yong-dae. Satwik and Ashwini, and the husband-wife pair of Sumeeth and Sikki are India’s mixed doubles pairs.
After BWF failed in its bid for a restart in October—the plan was to combine the Thomas and Uber Cups with two World Tour events— it is taking no chances and will hold three back-to-back events in Thailand.
A strict bio-bubble has been created and the matches will be played behind closed doors. “If a positive case is found, the player will be isolated and contact tracing will take place. Any player who has been in contact will also need to isolate,” BWF secretary general Thomas Lund said last week in a virtual conference.