India Open: On court, it is survival of the fittest

India Open begins a hectic spell for shuttlers, who will focus as much on staying injury-free as winning. PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal featured at the Indonesia Masters last week, and will be in action at the Siri Fort Indoor Stadium once again.

Spain’s Carolina Marin and PV Sindhu during the pre-tournament event ahead of the India Open in New Delhi on Tuesday.

With the international badminton schedule forcing top shuttlers to commit to at least 12 tournaments in the season, it is no surprise that most players are just focusing on remaining fit and healthy for the biggest events, such as the upcoming All England Championships.

The Badminton Association of India (BAI) may not like to admit it, but with the prestigious competition just over a month away, not many of the top shuttlers would risk injury in the lead-up. That is why only four of the top 10 players in the men’s and women’s singles ranking will be seen in action at the India Open, the main draw of which starts in the Capital on Wednesday.

With the competition being the BAI’s flagship event of the season, it is imperative for the top Indian shuttlers to participate, even though they may not have had the best possible preparation. PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal featured at the Indonesia Masters last week, and will be in action at the Siri Fort Indoor Stadium once again. This despite the fact that Indian players have a heavier schedule than those from most of the other countries.

With the top two players in the world in both men’s and women’s singles absent, Indians are the top seeds in both draws with Kidambi Srikanth and Sindhu in pole position. After defending champion and World No.1 Viktor Axelsen pulled out at the eleventh hour citing injury, Chinese Tien Shen (No.7), Chinese Shi Yuqi (8) and local star HS Prannoy (10) are the main contenders for the title. As the top-seeded Dane withdrew after the draw was finalised, it leaves a big hole in the line-up with Indian shuttler Subhankar Dey taking his place at the top of the draw. In all, there are three players promoted from qualifiers.

The situation on the women’s side is slightly better with Ratchanok Intanon and Carolina Marin providing the star quotient, along with Saina and Sindhu, both former champions as is Srikanth. The two women stars are placed on opposite sides of the draw, and hence an all-Indian final is a possibility.

The tournament begins a hectic few months for Indian shuttlers with the Badminton Asia Championships immediately afterwards. After the All England Championships in the middle of March, the focus will shift to the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, starting April 4. That is not all, the Jakarta Asian Games will be held in August-September.

And unlike the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Indonesians and Europeans, Indians will feature in all these competitions. No wonder then that Saina, fresh from reaching the final in Indonesia last week, said her goal for the season is just to “stay fit.”

“After the Premier Badminton League (PBL), I managed to have just 5-6 good sessions with (chief national coach) Gopi (chand) sir. Whatever we could do in such a short time, we did. I’m happy with my results in Indonesia,” Saina said.

Srikanth also finds himself in a position where he needs to take proper care of his body. “I got injured in November. I had to skip a couple of tournaments before playing in Dubai (Super Series Finals),” said the shuttler who won four Super Series titles in 2017. “I got injured again during the PBL and had to miss the Indonesia Masters. There are a lot of tournaments coming up and I want to stay fit.”

The way the Badminton World Federation has devised the 2018 calendar, along with the team competitions and multi-sport events, most Indian players will have to run from one tournament to another, in various parts of the globe, and have little time to work on technical aspects of their game or their fitness or regain full competitive health if they are laid low. “It is a tough job for the shuttlers and coaches. A lot is expected of the top players. One needs to adapt to the challenges,” coach Gopichand said.

Bogey player missing

The India Open will be a good opportunity for the likes of Sindhu, Saina and Marin to go for the title in the absence of World No.1 Tai Tzu Ying. The Taiwanese girl has had a vice-like grip on her head-to-head contests with most of her rivals. The last time any one of the three girls managed to beat her was Sindhu at the Rio Olympics. However, Ratchanok has managed to get the better of Tai Tzu in their last three meetings.

“I’m not the only one to lose to her. She is a tricky opponent and I have to find the right way to play her. She is the best player out there right now and very consistent. She doesn’t let opponents feel comfortable on court,” Saina, who finished on the wrong side of the result in Indonesia last week, said.

Indians dominate qualifiers

Indian shuttlers Kartikey Gulshan Kumar and Shreyansh Jaiswal made it through the men’s singles qualifiers while Aakarshi Kashyap and Riya Mukherjee did so in women’s singles. All four spots available in men’s doubles and mixed doubles went to Indians while two out of four places in women’s doubles were won by local players. In all, 14 out of the 20 spots available in the main draw of the five events went to Indians.

Today’s key matches: PV Sindhu (IND-1) vs Natalia Koch Rohde (DEN); Sofie Holmboe Dahl (DEN) vs Saina Nehwal (IND-4); Ratchanok Intanon (INA-3) vs Rasika Raje (IND); Mattana Hemrachatanun (THA) vs Carolina Marin (ESP-2); Lee Cheuk Yiu (HKG) vs Kidambi Srikanth (IND-2); B. Sai Praneeth (IND-8) vs Rajiv Ouseph (ENG) Sourabh Verma (IND) vs Shi Yuqi (CHN-4).

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