Badminton World Championships: For PV Sindhu, perfect chance to defend her crown

As tart as those constant reminders are, of phantom contenders and injured invisible challengers missing from competing for the World Championship crowns, PV Sindhu can be proud of what she achieved at Basel in 2019: a gold. Staying fit, turning up day in-day out, scything through a future Olympic champion Chen Yufei and former World Champion Nozomi Okuhara with (three times out of four) incredulous 21-7 margin scorelines, is nothing short of impetuous dominance over a title. There’s no asterisk, visible to the human eye, to that achievement.

It’s why Sindhu’s title defence in Carolina Marin’s backyard at Huelva, deserves the inveterate pugnacity often associated with the Spaniard. That won’t-let-go stubbornness, the grit of a garrison and the fortitude of a fortress. Just with the other hand — the whiplash racquet in the right, the pumping balled fist on the left. An air of Marinesque menace as Sindhu lopes through her draw, a clarion call issued to her rivals daring them to snatch her crown and the opponents feeling the impending dread. The towering big-occasion regent on the prowl.

Never mind her nonchalance of pressure, or calculations of her relative form. Sindhu pencils in her name for Saturday-Sunday business-ends of tournaments, the moment she lands at the airport – this time at Sevilla.

Monster legacies to match

The greatest women’s singles player in World Championship history is Marin with 3 crowns. Four others, Chinese Xie Xingfang (2005 & 06), Ye Zhaoying (1995 & 97), Li Lingwei (1983 & 89) and Han Aiping (1985 & 87), have won the World title twice.

Sindhu is level with Zhang Ning on the highest number of medals – five. But when honour roll-calls get read out, it will be the gold medals, the title runs, the global conquests that will matter. Bronzes and silvers pale in comparison. Across European Championships, Olympics and World Championships, Carolina Marin has 9 gold. Silvers & bronzes? None.

At the highest level of international sport, titles are the operative currency. Sindhu was denied at the Olympics, and that would hurt. For a truly world-class athlete from India — she’s majestically consistent in striding into big-event finals these last five years — missing out in Tokyo, standing on the third notch of the podium, couldn’t have been easy. The World Championship draw gives Sindhu a rematch against her Tokyo nemesis: Tai Tzu Ying.

Great Wall of Chinese Taipei

For all her form and formidable big-tournament history, PV Sindhu is 26 and wary eyes wouldn’t have missed the onslaught of the young, and the recent landfall of An Seyoung, the teenaged storm in Bali. The Korean, who’s in the other half at Huelva Worlds, won three back to back titles and carries an air of invincibility in slow shuttle courts.

But much before the finals, Sindhu has her own half of the draw to negotiate. What becomes tricky for the Indian is Pornpawee Chochuwong of Thailand in the pre-quarters and then potentially Tai Tzu Ying the next day in quarters.

Chochuwong isn’t easily fazed. She isn’t easily dwarfed — in stature or by the steep Sindhu game. She looks to be scrambling, but has the same sort of Sindhu’s pace and a similar game. She typically can harbour semifinal ambitions, and make good of that intent. So Sindhu will need to be careful of the pre-Tai Tzu speedbump that will come on a blind turn.

Tai Tzu Ying, the Taiwanese, hasn’t played since the Olympics. “We don’t know in what shape Tai Tzu is headed to Spain. She could be rusty, so we need to wait and watch,” says National coach Pullela Gopichand. Having been courtside for Sindhu at the 2016 Olympics and twice at the World Championships when the Indian stymied Tai Tzu’s chances of a medal in a quarterfinal, he reckons all Sindhu needs to do is put her head down, and chip away at the restless Taiwanese woman’s patience. And not get waylaid by emotion. The lull masking the storm. Peak deception.

Rousing Tai Tzu into a joust, with audible aggression, never works out well for her opponents, and neither does walking into her web of trickery — in pace and strokes.

That the Taiwanese is vulnerable — despite winning silver at Tokyo Games — having never gone past quarterfinals in 8 outings at the Worlds, a few courtesy Sindhu, should give the Indian some hope. Though back-to-back Chochuwong-Tai Tzu makes it a tough draw for the Indian. One suspects she’ll need the fortifying confidence of being a World Champion, most, over the Thursday-Friday inquisitions.

Chinese He Bingjiao would be up next, with Akane Yamaguchi – An Seyoung fighting out from the other half.

Men not short on motivation

It is not just the withdrawals of the top seed and the Indonesians concentrated in their half. For India’s four men’s singles players, the sheer drive to make a mark is supremely high this time around, having been kept these last two years.

Sai Praneeth who medalled in 2019 is moving well in training, and, when he’s confident about reaching shuttles, can be a handful. There’s Dutch Mark Caljouw in the opener who dumped him out of the Olympics.

HS Prannoy slated to meet 8th seed NG Ka Long Angus will have found confidence from his victory over Viktor Axelsen last month. There’s a bunch of Top20s in his quarter — Rasmus Gemke and Daren Liew, whom the Indian, if centred on his goals, can defeat before Axelsen in quarters.

India’s biggest hope remains Kidambi Srikanth, who, after facing home player Pablo Abian, can run into Li Shifeng, a tricky next-gen Chinese. But this cuts both ways: Srikanth’s playing style with flair and unpredictability isn’t always the easiest to face for Chinese. A Chou Tien Chen further up though, are real treacherous waters to wade into. Lakshya Sen has Kenta Nishimoto as his earliest challenge.

India’s top doubles pairing will need to play out of their skin to make inroads, given their indifferent form in the run-up.

Gopichand says the withdrawals might well be the rare slice of luck coming the Indians’ way, but they’ll still need to go out and get the wins. Still, it opens up the field giving it a very different complexion. “The last World championship was very positive for India. With the depleted field, I see multiple chances of us medalling,” he says.

The post-Olympic lull hasn’t lifted yet really, though Indians, led by PV Sindhu look primed to pounce on the opportunity that’s sprung up.


Withdrawal mutterings and symptoms of hope

While the Badminton World Federation gave no indication of going through with a redraw after a bunch of withdrawals, the World Championship was left fending a lopsided men’s singles draw that puts the lower half including Viktor Axelsen, Anders Antonsen and Malaysian Lee Zii Jia at a disadvantage.

First, the Indonesians withdrew, and then top seed Kento Momota didn’t fetch up. That left seeds No 1, 5 and 7 vamoosing out of the draw which eases up for the top half a tad.

The implications:

* The top half of 32 places is left with just 5 seeded players, while the bottom half has 8.

* The missing ones in the top half are Momota, Tokyo bronze medallist Anthony Ginting and Asian Games champ Jonatan Christie – all formidable names.

* It prises open the opportunity for someone like Lakshya Sen, who might need to beat Kenta Nishimoto and Wang Tzu Wei, seeded 15 and 10, to get into semis. On the other hand, a Viktor Axelsen has drawn year-ender semifinalist Loh Kean Yew in his opener, and will need to hurdle over players seeded 16, 8/11 and 3-Antonsen or 6-Lee Zii Jia in semis.

* The top Chinese and Indians are all bunched up in the lucki(er) top half, with just Chou Tien Chen of Taiwan a big name that can seem impregnable. The bottom half is stacked – loaded with Axelsens and Jias, but also bustling with the dangerous Top20 floaters.

* With the Daddies not turning up from Indonesia, a wildly obscure bottom quarter of European pairings in men’s doubles sees Austrian and Norwegian pairings progressing double quick before the Danes Astrup-Rasmussen have a go at them. The missing Minions are in the same half as Satwik-Chirag, but there’s enough ammo in the Malaysian Ong Yes Sin-Teo Ee Yi to pose problems.

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