Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth's Tokyo hopes hang by a thread
The hopes of former world No.1 players Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics hang by a thread after the Malaysian government informed the Indian High Commission in Malaysia that travel for the Indian badminton contingent “may not be possible immediately”.
The participation of Indian shuttlers for the May 25-30 Malaysia Open was cast in doubt after the Malaysian government imposed a travel ban on Indians April 28 onwards following the massive surge in Covid-19 cases in the country.
The Super 750 tournament in Kuala Lumpur is one of the last two events—the other being the Singapore Open from June 1-6—that contribute points towards Olympic qualification of shuttlers, known as Race to Tokyo, which ends on June 15.
With uncertainty looming, the sports ministry, through the Ministry of External Affairs, had approached the Malaysian government, requesting them to allow the Indian badminton contingent to participate.
“After the initial request made earlier this week, the Indian High Commission in Malaysia has received information from the Malaysian government that the travel of the team may not be possible immediately,” Sports Authority of India (SAI) stated on Thursday. “However, there are still 19 days to go for the competition and with the dynamic conditions, possibility of travel cannot be ruled out completely just yet.”
All top Indian singles and doubles players like PV Sindhu, Saina, Srikanth, Sai Praneeth, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Chirag Shetty, Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy are due to participate in the $600,000 tournament.
But if Indians are disallowed, it will affect Saina and Srikanth the most. Currently 22nd in the Race to Tokyo rankings, Saina is on tricky ground as she seeks to qualify for her fourth Olympics. The 31-year-old—the first Indian to win an Olympic badminton medal with bronze at the 2012 London Games—must finish the qualifying period in the top-16 to qualify behind Sindhu, who is No.7 in the list. Quarterfinalist at Rio 2016 and at No.20 behind Sai (No.13) in Race to Tokyo, Srikanth has some catching up to do to make the top-16. Doubles pairs of Ashwini Ponnappa-N Sikki Reddy (women’s) and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Ponnappa (mixed) are also in the queue for Tokyo.
“The players have themselves to blame,” national selector U Vimal Kumar said from Bengaluru. “They left it too late. They had their opportunities and could have done better. They should have secured their places long time back. At least Saina has won an Olympic medal. But for Srikanth, it’ll definitely hurt him as he has beaten good players but has just not been able to put things together. Otherwise he could have done really well.”
As of now only Sindhu, Sai and the doubles pair of Shetty and Rankireddy are more or less confirmed for Tokyo, which will be made official on June 15. Qualification chances took a big hit after the May 11-16 India Open was postponed.
As for Singapore, the city-state also imposed a travel ban on Indians April 24 onwards. For Indians to enter Singapore, they have to be in quarantine in a foreign country for two weeks. Alternatively, all players must undergo a three-week quarantine in Singapore.
“Indian nationals won’t be allowed in Malaysia as well as in Singapore, this is already in public knowledge,” Badminton Association of India (BAI) secretary general Ajay Singhania said. “This is why we had written to both the member countries to consider our request as a special case with respect to the Olympic qualification of some of our players. The matter has been taken up with Badminton World Federation (BWF) as well and we are awaiting Badminton Malaysia’s response. Until they decline any possibility we will continue to pursue every opportunity that we have to send our shuttlers.”