Kidambi Srikanth, Saina Nehwal given fresh hope following BWF’s extension of Tokyo Olympics qualification race


There is fresh hope that India’s top shuttlers, Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal, could be playing in their second and fourth Olympics, respectively – although the latter’s hopes continue to hang by a thread.

In a somewhat perverse manner, the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic has given both Indian shuttlers a new lease of life, as the Badminton World Federation (BWF) has seen fit to extend the date of qualification for the Tokyo Games to 15 June 2021.

The world body had been forced to suspend the circuit from 16 March 2020, at the conclusion of the All England Championships, to cancel all Olympic qualification events and to freeze all rankings. The Olympic qualification cycle will now resume with a quartet of tournaments in Europe – the Swiss Open from 2-7 March, the German Open from 9-14 March, the All England from 17-21 March, and the Orleans Masters in France from 23-28 March.

Altogether, there will be 19 tournaments carrying ranking points towards Olympics qualification, with the maximum points being available at the All England, where Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen and Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying will be the defending champions. The other big tournaments will be the India Open Super 500 (11-16 May), Malaysia Open Super 750 (25-30 May) and Singapore Open Super 500 (1-6 June).

The following is the calendar of Olympic qualification events over the next four months, under the heads Tournament name, World Tour classification, prize money offered, location and dates:

1. Swiss Open Super 300 ($140,000 prize money, Basel, 3-7 March)

2. German Open Super 300 ($140,000, Mulheim, 9-14 March)

3. All England Open Super 1000 ($850,000, Birmingham, 17-21 March)

4. Orleans Masters Super 100 ($90,000, Orleans, France, 23-28 March)

5. Malaysia Masters Super 500 ($400,000, Kuala Lumpur, 6-11 April)

6. Badminton Asia ($400,000, China TBC, 27 April-2 May)

7. India Open Super 500 ($400,000, New Delhi, 11-16 May)

8. Spain Masters Super 300 ($200,000, Spain TBC, 18-23 May)

9. Malaysia Open Super 750 ($750,000, Kuala Lumpur, 25-30 May)

10. Singapore Open Super 500 ($320,000, Singapore, 1-6 June)

* TBC: Location to be confirmed

The world rankings are being re-opened from the Swiss Open, in the first week of March. “Qualification for the Olympics will now be determined from the Race to Tokyo Rankings published on 15 June 2021. This list will also be used for seedings in the Tokyo Olympic Games,” BWF said in a statement.

“The focus has been to establish cluster tournaments where possible, similar to what we did for the Asian Leg in January in Thailand. We expect to stage a number of tournaments this way to ensure a more feasible tournament programme for the rest of 2021,” said BWF secretary general Thomas Lund.

“The COVID-19 situation continues to provide a challenging environment in which to run international tournaments, and although the hope is that the COVID-19 vaccine may in time create a world with fewer restrictions, BWF expects that the pandemic will still influence tournament hosting throughout the whole of 2021.”

The welcome return to form of Srikanth in the course of the three tournaments held in Bangkok in the second half of January 2021 gives rise to hope that he could improve his current 22nd position in the BWF rankings, and barge into the top 16 by the cut-off date. If he does, and B Sai Praneeth maintains his 13th position, or at least remains within the top 16, India could have two representatives in the Tokyo Olympics men’s singles.

Srikanth played three group matches on successive days at the World Tour finals, and acquitted himself creditably in all three, without having a win in his ledger. The Indian lost at 21-15, 16-21, 18-21 in 77 minutes to third seed and 2019 World Championship runner-up, Anders Antonsen of Denmark; was beaten at 21-19, 9-21, 19-21 after 78 minutes to Wang Tzu Wei of Chinese Taipei; and lost at 21-12, 18-21, 19-21 in an hour and five minutes to Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus.

One common thread ran through all his three performances – a storming start and the capture of the opening game, a regrettable loss of speed, power and concentration in the second stanza, and a propensity to have the decider under control, but the inability to close out the matches, even when he seemed to have his opponent on the mat. However, he did not seem to lack on the stamina front, and appeared fit enough to play lengthy encounters going over the hour mark.

Srikanth will resume his quest for a spot in the Olympic draw with 40,469 points, nearly 8,000 points adrift of Denmark’s Rasmus Gemke (48,310), who presently occupies the 16th position on the charts. Sai Praneeth (51,527) is currently the leading Indian player – in the 13th spot, and more than 11,000 points clear of his Gopichand Academy batch-mate. India is guaranteed one spot in the draw, and can only get in a second player if that worthy can finish in the top 16 by the cut-off date.

What Srikanth needs to do is to play as many tournaments as he can before 15 June, and to consistently make at least the quarter-finals in all these competitions. Semi-final placings in the ‘biggies’ like the All England and Malaysia Open would allow him to close the gap between him and the 16th to 21st positions – Japan’s Kenta Nishimoto (46,243 points), Hong Kong’s Lee Cheuk Yiu (46,180), the just-retired Jan O. Jorgensen of Denmark (43,674), Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto (41,550) and China’s Huang Yu Xiang (40,800).

Hong Kong’s Lee has a strong chance of being his country’s second player, behind Ng Ka Long Angus, to make the Olympic men’s singles draw. However, the other four players on the periphery of the top-16 cannot make it because their respective countries already have two players in much higher positions in the elite 16.

The catch here is that Srikanth cannot take advantage of the ‘technical elimination’ of these four players, and claim an ‘automatically’ improved position in the rankings by four rungs. He has to garner sufficient points to make the top-16 grade on his own steam, else some other lower-ranked player from another nation will be given the Olympic berth.

South Korea’s Heo Kwang Hee (37,807), currently sitting on the 31st position in the rankings, falls in this category, being assured of a quota spot as the highest-ranked Korean player on the world circuit. Singapore’s Loh Kean Yew (34,024) from the 33rd position also qualifies automatically on the same criterion, as does Mark Caljouw of The Netherlands (33,639) from the 36th spot.

On current form, Srikanth has a chance of improving his points tally substantially, but he also needs to keep an eye on the other players who would participate in the qualification tournaments regardless of the fact that they cannot merit a spot in the Olympic draw. It is a tough ask, but by no means impossible.

For Saina, though, the task of making the top-16 assumes imposing proportions; and her recent form does not inspire confidence that she can make up sufficient leeway to join PV Sindhu in the Olympic women’s singles draw. Coincidentally, like Srikanth, the three-time Olympian sits on the 22nd berth in the rankings, with a tally of 41,847 points, and cannot possibly dream of displacing compatriot Sindhu (seventh position in the rankings, with 70,754 points) for India’s quota spot.

Just above Saina, in the positions 17th to 21st, are: Beiwen Zhang of the US (48,160), Japan’s Aya Ohori (46,059), Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt (45,211), Indonesia’s Gregoria Mariska Tunjung (45,200)and Thailand’s Nitchaon Jindapol (43,320). Three of these players, barring Ohori and Jindapol, have been able to grab their respective country’s quota places.

File image of Saina Nehwal. AFP

The two who are in the 15th and 16th spots in the BWF lists, Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun (49,410) and Thailand’s Pornpawee Chochuwong (49,176), could well miss out despite being in the top-16, because two of their fellow-countrywomen each are ranked higher than them – An Se Young (eighth) and Kim Ga Eun (14th) from Korea; and Ratchanok Intanon and Busanan Ongbamrungphan from Thailand.

So high is the level of competition among the women, and so consistent have the top seven been in reaching at least the quarter-finals of the tournaments in which they have participated, that they have opened up a huge gap between them and the rest of the field. More than 6,000 points separate Sindhu from the eighth-ranked An Se Young, with the rest of the competition trailing further behind.

For Saina to make up the leeway, she needs at least two semi-final finishes in the lesser tournaments, and a couple of quarter-finals in the World Tour tournaments above the Super 750 level. With some much younger competition showing her a clean set of heels, and in a situation where another recently married arch-rival like Sung Ji Hyun is struggling to overtake her compatriot Kim Ga Eun to seal her spot in the Olympic draw, the soon-to-be-31 year old has her work cut out for her.

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