Do Indian shuttlers have a chance at All England Open, and does it even matter?

As the All England Open Badminton Championships start on Tuesday, India will hope for its shuttlers to end 22 years of wait for the prestigious title.

Lakshya Sen, PV. Sindhu and men’s doubles pairing of Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy will be among the Indian contenders for the All England Open Badminton Championships 2023.

Lakshya Sen, PV. Sindhu and men’s doubles pairing of Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy will be among the Indian contenders for the All England Open Badminton Championships 2023. | Photo Credit: The Hindu and Getty Images

As the All England Open Badminton Championships start on Tuesday, India will hope for its shuttlers to end 22 years of wait for the prestigious title.

As the All England Open is getting underway on Tuesday, there are two questions of consequence. Does an Indian shuttler have a chance to win, and secondly, does it really matter either way?

Historic Significance

The tournament indeed has an iconic status in Indian badminton. For a long time, the event was considered the unofficial world championship of the sport. With the ‘official’ World Championships of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) still in its early years (the first being held in 1977), it was a hugely significant moment when Prakash Padukone became the first Indian to win the All England Open title in 1980.

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In the absence of any notable results at the Olympics or World championships, it was understandable why Pullela Gopichand’s win 21 years later in Birmingham was still considered a landmark win. That alone carried the relevance of the tournament for a couple of decades. So, in 2022 there was still some anticipation about whether an Indian would lift the trophy in a span of two decades.

Lakshya Sen came close but faltered at the final hurdle losing to Viktor Axelsen last year. But it is hard to argue that that loss – which means that India’s wait is now growing to 22 years – undermined what was an undoubtedly impressive year for the 21-year-old. Indeed Lakshya was part of another historic achievement – a maiden Thomas Cup winning side – and later added a Commonwealth Games gold medal to his achievements in 2022.

Crowded calendar, diminished exclusivity

Part of the reason is the nature of international badminton these days. The All England is not – even according to the international BWF calendar – the most important tournament on the World Tour. That would have to be the World Championships. It is not even the outright second most important tournament on paper – it is classified as a World Tour Super 1000 tournament, just like the Indonesia Open, the China Open and the recently upgraded Malaysian Open.

And while no Indian has held the All-England trophy since 2001, nearly every other box of badminton’s top achievements has been ticked off. Olympic medals have been won as have those at the World Championships. There have been multiple Indian champions in the Indonesia Open. Kidambi Srikanth has even beaten the Chinese on their home turf to win a China Open Super Series.

With that being said, while the All-England might not be the pre-eminent badminton tournament around, it is still a pretty big deal. Indeed some perspective of where All England stands in the mind space of an Indian athlete can be seen in Lakshya Sen’s Instagram bio where he lists his achievements. Lakshya lists the all-England silver medal below his gold medal at the Commonwealth Games and Thomas Cup but above his bronze at the World Championships last year.

Still hard to win

Indeed while the tournament might not be the epitome of prestige as it was in its heyday, it is still massively difficult to win. Indeed, it can be argued that it is harder to win the All England than last year’s World Championships and certainly the Tokyo Olympics.

P.V. Sindhu’s chances in the women’s singles category at Birmingham will explain just why that is. The Tokyo Olympics featured 43 competitors. Yet these were not the best in the world. Only two athletes per country are allowed to compete even though many more would have featured in the top 43 rankings. Of the six matches Sindhu played to win bronze, three were against Ksenia Polikarpova (World Ranking 66), Cheung Ngan Yi (WR 67) and Mia Blitchfeld who had a 1-5 record against the Indian. Sindhu only had three particularly tough matches -- against Akane Yamaguchi in the quarters, a loss to Tai Tzu Ying in the semis and then a win in the bronze medal match against He Bingjiao.

Tricky draws

At Birmingham in contrast there are no easy matches. Sindhu, unseeded despite being ranked ninth in the world, starts against China’s Zhang Yi Man who holds a 1-1 record against her. If she gets past Man, she likely has a replay of the Olympic bronze medal playoff against Bingjiao, who leads the Indian 10-9 in the head-to-head encounter, in the second round. A win here and Sindhu will probably be up against Tai Tzu Ying, who holds a lopsided 17-5 head-to-head advantage. Get past that hurdle and Sindhu still is not in the final. For that, she might have to play either former Olympic champion Carolina Marin or in-form An Sae Young, who has already played four Super Series finals in 2023 and won two. The Korean also holds a 5-0 record against her Indian counterpart.

Things do not look promising for India in other disciplines as well. Last year’s runner-up Lakshya for instance opens his campaign against Chou Tien Chen of Taiwan, who holds a 2-0 record against him. He also has teammate H.S. Prannoy, the always tricky Olympic bronze medallist Anthony Ginting as well as the overwhelming favourite Viktor Axelsen in his half of the draw.

Form and injury woes

While the draw is tough, even where there seems to be a window of opportunity, the Indians might not be best placed to seize it.

While Sindhu always goes in as India’s best prospect owing to her big tournament temperament, she has looked far from her best this year - she made a first-round exit from two events that she played in 2023 - as she comes back from a foot injury sustained at last year’s Commonwealth Games. Add to her recent change of coaches and Sindhu’s preparation for the All-England seems decidedly shaky. Lakshya too seems to be struggling since undergoing surgery for a sinus issue late last year. Lakshya, who was the breakout singles star for India in the last three years is coming off a loss to unheralded Frenchman Christo Popov at the German Open.

Even the doubles pairing of Chirag Shetty and Satwik Rankireddy have been impacted. The pair broke new ground in 2022, winning two World Tour titles - the India Open Super 500 and French Open Super 750, securing the CWG gold, anchoring India’s epic Thomas Cup triumph, and bagging a maiden bronze at the World Championships. They had started 2023 well too with a semifinal appearance at the Malaysia Open but have not played together after Satwik picked up a hip injury at the India Open in February.

Dark horses

Satwik and Chirag would hope to soak up the chances in their comeback meet, especially after their first-round opponents Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo of Indonesia withdrew at the last moment.

It’s not all gloom though. The women’s doubles pairing of Treesa Jolly-Gayatri Gopichand, who was a surprise semifinalist last year, has a tough opening match against Thailand’s Rawinda Prajongjai and Jongkolphan Kititharakul. But while the Indian combo trails 0-4 in the head-to-head encounter, it will be boosted by the fact that it recently overturned a similar 0-4 record against Malaysia’s CWG champions Pearly Tan and Thinaah Muralitharan at the Asian Mixed Team Championships in February.

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There are also hopes from Prannoy, who is back in the top 10 of the world rankings and is capable of big upsets on his day. Also flying under the radar currently is Kidambi Srikanth, who finds himself with a very enviable potential road to the final. Place across the draw from Axelsen, he has a very winnable second-round match against either China’s Lu Guang Zu or the rallying Japanese Kodai Naraoka, the youngster who played the summit clash of BWF World Tour Finals in 2022. And while a potential quarterfinal clash against former All England champion Lee Zii Jia would have seen the Indian as the outright underdog as his 1-4 overall record would suggest, the Malaysian has been in poor form this year with four wins and as many losses.

These hopes are admittedly marginal at best. It would take an inspired performance for an Indian to end the All-England drought. However, as previous years have shown, a dry spell here is not likely to be an indictment of Indian badminton. How Indians do in the second half of the year, which features marquee events like the World Championships and Asian Games, will probably be an accurate assessment of the state of the game in India.

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