For World Championships medallists Srikanth and Sen, Tokyo 2022 will be a tougher challenge

The lull after the storm is upon Indian badminton. And this World Championships starting Monday, might be the first indication of the fading out of a sporting success story of the last decade where an Indian medalled at either the Olympics or World Championships every year since 2011.

In its most dire forebodings, India is staring at possibly its first no-medal finish at Tokyo 2022 World’s in many years.

And on Lakshya Sen’s massively taped shoulders – the trapezius and deltoids, rest the flickering hopes of keeping that streak alive, should he reach the semifinals to assure a medal, and then some more. Any other unexpected surprises will merit raucous jubilation such are the draw-dependent projections.

Tokyo, a year after the Olympics, is also unsurprisingly when the entire gamut of international stars have returned to the field. And it is in their hungry appetites for the biggest title, rather than the bleak projections for Indians, that this World Championship needs to be viewed. Any of the three Indians – Sen, Kidambi Srikanth or HS Prannoy – who can beat Kento Momota, can preen away like a peacock, and strut towards snatching a medal or help a compatriot at the least. But it’s one tournament too many to expect the two-time World Champion from Japan, to falter and fall away, though Prannoy loves those hack jobs immensely.

On the eve of the World’s, Momota told the press that he was still uneasy during matches, though he felt swell in practice. Adding that he was slowly building his confidence, the 27-year-old southpaw stated he was keen to “play in front of Japanese fans, feel their support and enjoy playing in front of them.” A wee hours car accident on the way to the airport, beginning of 2020 that killed the driver in Malaysia and left Momota with a shaken eye socket was the start of his woes.

His home Olympics ended in an early exit, and he tested positive for Covid at the airport, headed to last year’s World’s in December.

First round exits have been common on the circuit as his confidence plunged, and his once-compact game, frayed at every edge. It merits mentioning that no Indian has actually managed to beat him in this aftermath, despite his string of horrors, though Sen nicked a set off him at Indonesia. But Indians aside, Momota has to negotiate Lee Zii Jia or Loh Kean Yew / Kunlavut Vitidsarn before he battles title favourite Viktor Axelsen for his third crown.

Axelsen has rebooted his coaching staff, and arrived in Tokyo where he won the Olympic title, pretty confident. A quarterfinal against the wild, rebellious Chinese Shi Yuqi, wanting to prove a bunch of points, while nursing his pretty game through a federation suspension, might be Axelsen’s first challenge. Though he would do well to not take the likes of Kanta Tsuneyama / Malaysian Ng Tze Yong easy. The 2021 World’s was all about a generational shift, and the young guns like the Malaysian would be keen on forcing the trend. Anthony Ginting and Chou Tien Chen have never won the World title, and will always prove a handful, should Axelsen slip up.

Lu Guang Zu and Zho Junpeng are the dangerous floaters, as China attempts to reclaim a title they haven’t won since 2015. Chinese shuttlers – mostly Lin Dan – won 8 times from 2006, but Momota, Axelsen and Loh have kept them at bay ever since. A world title for Kidambi Srikanth will be as precious to India, as one for Lee Zii Jia with Malaysia searching for its own first.

Return of Marin

Carolina Marin, who has three world championship titles, might not be able to match Zhan Nang, the twice Olympic champion till 2024 fetches up. But she has a good chance to leave the Chinese behind, if she can turn back the years and pick her 4th at Tokyo. Marin missed the Olympics after a horrific ACL in the May before Tokyo Games, and has paced her comeback suitably quietly, to merit a mention among favourites. She even skipped her hometown World’s in 2021, not willing to risk a sub-par undercooked performance.

She brings curiosity to the table, more than anticipation based on her blistering game, this time. And a wistful realisation that the game might well have passed her by, with the emergence of An Se Young and Wang Zhi Yi. But noone brings the big occasion swag to the court, like Marin does. And though she has He Bing Jiao and Akane Yamaguchi waiting to trip her up, the Spaniard will be the most looked forward to comebacks to the global stage at Tokyo.

Another returning contender is Olympic champion Chen Yufei, who surprisingly has never won the World title, thanks in part to PV Sindhu, who will rue missing the chance to go past Zhan Nang’s five World’s medals, after her injury. But Yufei who trained to clockwork simulation in winning Olympic gold at Tokyo, would love a crack at the title – that the Japanese Okuhara and Yamaguchi, plus Sindhu and Marin have denied her all these years.

Standing in Yufei’s way is the other surprise non-winner, Tai Tzu Ying, who just can’t seem to catch a break at the World Championships. She came close last year, but Yamaguchi delivered a masterclass in neutralising deception in the finals.

The other player with a suspect big occasion temperament is Korean sensation An Se Young. When she’s on song, she seems unbeatable. But there have been more than one of quarter/semis botch-ups to question if the teenager can go the distance. She has the persistent Chinese Wang Zhi Yi to counter early, and Yamaguchi (5-7 win loss) and Marin thereafter. As things go, this isn’t a bad draw for her, some might even call it swell.

But women’s singles is forever teeming with smouldering ambitions of talented women. Two former World champions are missing – Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara, and there’s still six genuine contenders for the title. Six. A staggering six bonafide can-beat-anyone warriors.

Fire in the belly, eye on title

A look at the stars primed to prove a point at the World Championships

Kento Momota – He missed out on a good show at the Home Olympics and is badgered by poor form on the circuit. This is shot at redemption, with a 3rd world title.

Carolina Marin – She missed Tokyo Games from a late injury and even skipped the World’s at hometown Huelva. Fitness permitting, the fight is always on for the Spaniard.

Shi Yuqi – He rebelled pointing a foot blister at the cameras after an effective loss in a team event, and the Chinese higher-ups were very unhappy. He never stopped training during the ban. Now he’s back for a title he craves.

Tai Tzu Ying – She has never really gone anywhere, but she’s not won a World title yet, and that’s gob-smackingly shocking in the badminton universe. The one to stop the Taiwanese this time might be Chinese nemesis, Chen Yufei, herself searching for her first.

Kidambi Srikanth – He won silver last time. Only gold will make him happy. He returns to Tokyo, after an Olympic non-qualification, his generation’s finest shuttler without a World title. Yet.

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