Uphill task at Tokyo Worlds

For most of her career – until recently when she scaled down her ambitions to focussing on winning Super 300 and Super 500 events – PV Sindhu’s performance was draw-agnostic. That is to say, no prospect of running into a particular opponent, A or B or Tai Tzu-Ying – who’s an entire deception alphabet unto herself – just no one could faze Sindhu’s mindset, heading into a World Championship. It’s how she carved her legendary status – by believing no one was unbeatable, and by following through on that belief.

Taken out by injury for the first time since 2013 when she medalled on debut, Sindhu will miss the World Championships.

The rise of Indian men’s badminton – a first-ever Thomas Cup title, first World Championship silver, first CWG men’s doubles title and all the wonderful things that Lakshya Sen conjures – has coincided with the tapering down of Sindhu’s Worlds success. So even if the 2019 World champion returned without a medal in December 2021, Kidambi Srikanth and Lakshya Sen had given India a double podium in a memorable last edition. In 2022 at Tokyo though, the dreaded d-word ‘Draw’ is looming fearfully on India’s campaign at the Worlds, which begin on Monday.

There is nothing the Indian men have done – or not done – in the lead-up to evoke such fear of running into the notable names. But a mix of Commonwealth Games exhaustion and the imminent early run-ins against higher-ranked players, leads to the bubbling of doubts rising to the surface.

There is merit in tempering expectations – unlike 2021, the 2022 Tokyo Worlds are not depleted, and can be said to be near full-strength. Even Kento Momota – who’s pivotal to India’s fortunes because of the draw – is expected to reprise his role as the home favourite – this time without nasty surprises and slumps – after a spectacular flop at the Tokyo Olympics. Viktor Axelsen was too battered by his own brilliance by the end of 2021 to drag out his long limbs for the Worlds then, and Lee Zii Jia took the bold call of skipping the Birmingham CWG to focus on Tokyo 2022.

Chinese Shi Yuqi has managed the impossible – defied suspension from the stern Chinese badminton body, and contrived to enter the World Championships, and that can only mean he comes insanely prepared. It’s why the Indians feel – albeit unfairly – a little lightweight in their prospects, with the CWG success giving them an extra cushion, should things fall apart very quickly at Tokyo.

Though one underestimates the Thomas Cup champions – and the minds that forged that conquest and plotted that heist – at their own risk, and lay out one’s words on the breakfast buffet next weekend to be eaten. They say Sen and HS Prannoy are that tiny blob of wicked Wasabi in badminton’s bento-box, one never knows when they’ll burn down entire tastebuds.

D for dreaded Draw

If Vincent van Gogh sketched pretty shuttle patterns at the net, he would be called Srikanth. Compulsively melancholic and perennially in the middle of a form-crisis, the 29-year-old often gives off the vibe of a forlorn figure standing edgily on the brink of a valley staring into a breath-taking gorge view. He can play beautifully when confident – he even has a silver, the biggest medal by any Indian man, to show from the Worlds. But for someone who dreamt of many World titles and had the game to match those ambitions, the Guntur man hasn’t raked in the medals like Sindhu did.

To top it all, he twice lost to unheralded but upcoming Malaysian Ng Tze Yong at the Commonwealth Games. The Malaysian is floating somewhere in the top half of the draw and is Axelsen’s bother this week. Not that Srikanth doesn’t have headaches of his own.

Irish Nhat Nguyen ought not to quake any top opponent’s boots with a rank of World No. 39. But trust Srikanth to turn the Dubliner into one right leprechaun capable of Round 1 mischief for the 12th-seeded Indian. Or if he gets past him, to allow Zhao Jun Peng to drag him into a decider from a slow start – Srikanth’s proclivity these days. Then there’s the Malaysian ripped muscles, Lee Zii Jia, waiting to avenge the Thomas Cup loss to Indians to compound just the Round 3 challenge.

Past this treacherous terrain, stands Momota (possibly) in the quarters, playing at home. The Japanese has been in more wretched form than Srikanth’s own darkest days pre-Olympics. But the silver lining to the CWG setbacks might well be that Srikanth heads into the Worlds hungrier and angrier than ever.

The easier way to not lose to Momota is by not playing him at all – which would need his comrades-in-arms, Prannoy or Sen, all bunched together in the lower quarter, to take out the Japanese.

On Prannoy’s giantkilling shoulders falls the mantle to continue Momota’s misery, as early as Round 2. Seeded second, the Japanese will curse his luck, because Prannoy fancies these big-name upsets. The 29-year-old lost to Momota in 2019, but had beaten Lin Dan a round earlier. The Indian, however, has never managed one of his scalping sprees at a World Championship, a tournament he didn’t completely warm to until last year’s quarters. But he is the Indian men’s singles player in best form this season.

Sen is sprightly, motivated and fresh off a CWG gold medal. He might find Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus, the ageless Dane to be particularly stubborn in Round 1. Vittinghus is actually 36 though he was prancing around like he’s 16 just last year. Should Momota beat Prannoy, Sen will find himself up against him in Round 3. Srikanth will be the former invincible’s quarterfinals barrier – the third Indian possibly. He nursed his disappointment of not making the Olympics qualification for long, and the Worlds might be a good time to free himself of that regret and reclaim what he believed he was owed – a big medal.

Destiny’s least favourite child though has to be Momota, and so jinxed have been his last two years that the Mexican Lino Munoz might give beating him a good try in the opening round. It’s the Indian trio though whose draw looked immediately doomed when they were slotted to circle around the former World No.1.

One could say B Sai Praneeth lucked out in getting into the top half of the draw, away from the impending Momota menace. But those thoughts immediately perish when the draw plucks out the fourth seed and places him, the Taiwanese Chou Tien Chen, against the 2019 Worlds bronze medallist, in Round 1. Praneeth has torrid memories of Tokyo, when he sleepwalked – with a poorly taped ankle – through the Olympics nightmare, without a proper coach or physio. If that memory can jolt him into setting the score straight, the return trip would be worth it. Jonatan Christie in the quarters doesn’t hold that sort of dread, if he goes past Chou.

Scores to settle

Another pair that returned heartbroken despite giving their all from Tokyo was Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty. They even beat the eventual champions at the Olympics in the pool stage. But here comes another opportunity.

Malaysians Goh V Shem-Tan Wee Kiong (13th seeds) can be tougher than the seedings let on, in Round 3. And All England champs Muhammad Shohibul Fikri-Bagas Maulana or Japanese Hoki/Kobayashi are serious obstacles in the quarters, who can straightaway stop them from a medal.

The CWG campaign has been tiring, but the World Championships are the biggest badminton tournament of 2022, and the India Open winners and CWG champs will back themselves to go all out in Tokyo.

The shocking qualification miss at Tokyo, and equally terrible omission from CWG, means Saina Nehwal has now been away from two Games campaigns. The World Championships, where arbitrary, ignorant administrative decisions don’t dictate one’s fate, is her best shot at redemption, and she will hope she isn’t still a touch too undercooked to face Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi in Round 1.

The 32-year-old’s defeat of He Bingjiao was encouraging, but as India’s first World Championship finalist from 2015, Nehwal knows (and digs) the big wins are the only ones that matter. There’s Nozomi Okuhara possibly in Round 2, and the Japanese who also missed out on a medal at her home Games might prove more pugnacious than she already is. It’s a laborious leap of faith to contemplate Tai Tzu-Ying in the quarters, but no one said World Championship medals were easy. Saina Nehwal knows the drill – she had eight quarterfinals and plenty of emotional turbulence before she won her first medal.

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