Badminton instantly comes to mind when we speak of Olympic medals. With Saina Nehwal’s bronze in 2012 and P. V. Sindhu’s silver in 2016, one medal in Tokyo will complete a hat-trick of badminton Olympic medals for India.
`The country’s progression in badminton at the Olympics has been encouraging. Saina narrowly missed out on a medal at Beijing 2008, but she provided that breakthrough in London in 2012 with India’s first ever Olympic medal in the sport. At the latter Games, Jwala Gutta and V. Diju ensured our country’s debut in the mixed doubles event. At Rio 2016, B. Sumeeth Reddy and Manu Atri became the first Indian pair to qualify for the men’s doubles. So, over the last two Games, with qualification in four events each, we managed to cover all five events – men’s and women’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles – in terms of Olympic participation, though the medals came from women’s singles.
This time around, India will be sending a four-member team to Japan that could have been bigger had the Olympic qualification period been slightly more consistent in these extraordinary COVID-19 times. After the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) efforts such as freezing the world rankings and rescheduling qualification tournaments to accommodate those that were not held in 2020, the International Olympic Committee approved a two-phase qualification period. Through this period, the Indian players were slightly more at a disadvantage than most. Extended lockdowns severely affected their practice schedules. The spread of cases in our country didn’t spare some of our Olympic hopefuls, and even after they recovered, the associated confusion and misunderstandings distracted them at tournaments. Towards the end, travel restrictions from India and the cancellation of three tournaments did them in.
India is a serious contender for a medal in men’s doubles in Tokyo courtesy the brilliant performances of the young Olympic debutants Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, currently ranked 10th in the world. – PTI
So, in the BWF Race to Tokyo rankings on June 15 used for qualification, both of India’s former world No. 1 players, Saina and Kidambi Srikanth, found themselves left out. That meant that India can field only B. Sai Praneeth, Sindhu and the pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty.
But, even though India will feature in only three events, our players’ medal chances seem as bright as ever as their credentials and preparation and the absolute support provided to them inspire a lot of confidence.
We hope world no. 7 Sindhu can go just one step further than her silver medal in Rio. Having played two Olympics myself, I can confidently say that the experience gained from previous Games comes in very handy. With the injury withdrawal of reigning Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin of Spain, Sindhu is the most successful women’s singles Olympian in the draw. If Sindhu makes it to the podium, she will become only the second player from the country to win two individual Olympic medals and the first woman to do so. This puts Sindhu under tremendous pressure, but with her track record of scoring big wins at big events, the stage is set.
The field in Tokyo is rich, with world No. 1 and uber-talented Tai Tzu-ying, the dangerous Chinese world No. 2 Chen Yu Fei and He Bing Jiao, and the host nation represented by Akane Yamaguchi and 2016 Olympic bronze medallist Nozomi Okuhara. Sindhu will need to battle hard for a podium finish and reach into her deepest reserves for the gold while using new learnings from her Korean coach, Park Tae-sang, and also her experience as the reigning world champion.
Though Sai Praneeth won a bronze medal at the same 2019 World Championships where Sindhu won gold, the hype over his chances in Tokyo is considerably less. The 2017 Singapore Open Superseries winner has defeated many unsuspecting players in the past, including legends such as Lee Chong Wei and Taufik Hidayat.
Currently ranked world no. 15 and making his debut at the Olympics, Sai could spring a surprise with his court craft and unassumingly deceptive game. With a strong field led by the world’s top three players, world champion Kento Momota of Japan and the Danes Viktor Axelsen and Anders Antonsen, Sai will have to punch above his weight. A strong mind, self-belief and his coach Agus Dwi Santoso’s guidance could lead him to a medal.
`Over the years, in India our attention has been tilted towards the singles events. Moving away from that scenario, we are a serious contender for a medal in men’s doubles in Tokyo courtesy the brilliant performances of the young Olympic debutants Satwik and Chirag, currently ranked 10th in the world. Over the past two-three years, they have become the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win silver at the Commonwealth Games (in 2018) and a World Tour title (in Thailand in 2019). With a career-best world ranking of no. 7 and tantalisingly close matches against the best in the business, they have a shot at a medal. While their lack of experience might hinder them, their energy, eagerness and determination will balance it out. The strategic inputs of their Danish coach Mathias Boe, a former Olympic silver medallist himself, could be the differentiator.
The badminton events at the Olympics will be held at Tokyo’s Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, a multisports complex. The organisers have made efforts to provide court conditions as true as possible. The courts are likely to play slower with less drift, and that will suit the Indians’ style of play. However, the speed of shuttles that will be used will have a significant bearing on the results.
The format of the competition consists of two stages – the group stage and the knockout stage. The singles events will have 14 groups with three players in each, with the group winners moving into the pre-quarterfinals.
In doubles, it will be four groups of four pairs each, with the top two pairs moving into the quarterfinals. Making the semifinals will not guarantee a medal as there will be a bronze medal playoff.
It is difficult to predict the chances of our players as the lack of tournaments means we cannot gauge their form accurately. The preparation phase has been very challenging for all the players, but to different degrees. That might pay a significant role in the outcome of these Games, apart from, of course, who can hold their own on the given day. However, host country Japan, which boasts of a very strong field across events, despite missing out on home-crowd support, will still have the home advantage – familiarity with court conditions, no anxiety of travel during the pandemic and a familiar environment in general.
There was uncertainty as to whether the delayed Olympics will be held at all. But now that all of that is behind us, come July 24, 2021, when the badminton action kicks off in Tokyo, we can look forward to the fastest and fiercest competition on the biggest sporting stage of all.
Aparna Popat is a two-time Olympian and a Commonwealth Games silver medallist.