For the Indians, Glasgow affords a glow of hope!

It is World badminton championship time again, from August 21, in Glasgow. For once, the Indian team is going as a serious contender for a medal in both singles. It is natural to expect Sindhu and Saina — already medal-winners in the previous editions — to reach the podium. In addition, the recent showings of Srikanth and Praneeth have made India hopeful of a possible medal in the men’s singles.

Kidambi Srikanth (left) and Sai Praneeth have the competitive fire in them.   -  V. V. Subrahmanyam

For a few seasons now, India is being seen as a force in world badminton. The decline of Saina Nehwal has coincided with the rise of P.V. Sindhu. The exploits of K. Srikanth, his recent run of success coupled with the resurgence of B.Sai Praneeth and H. S. Prannoy have reinforced India’s presence in the men singles, too. In the process, the chapter of success scripted by an injury-prone P.Kashyap, the reigning Commonwealth Games gold winner, has been pushed to the background.

Sporadic successes apart, India will be hailed as a world power in badminton only if it does consistently well on the big stage — the Olympic Games and the World championship.

It is World championship time again. Come August 21, in Glasgow, the action begins with the shuttlers from around the world ready to fire.

READ: Sindhu going for Glasgow gold

For once, the Indian team is going as a serious contender for a medal in both singles. That, in itself, underscores the growing confidence of the Indians.

It is natural to expect Sindhu and Saina — already medal-winners in the previous editions — to reach the podium. In addition, the recent showings of Srikanth and Praneeth have made India hopeful of a possible medal in the men’s singles.

Son Wan-Ho of Korea is the world No. 1, but the men’s field is so open that it would be a surprise if even he wins the title.   -  Getty Images

 

From the other Indian entries in singles — Ajay Jayaram, Sameer Verma, Rituparna Das and Tanvi Lad — not much should be expected. Even in the three doubles, India is certain to be among the also-rans, with none of the three pairs in each section ready to make an impact.

Though Sindhu and Saina have not done much in the recent months to inspire confidence among the home fans, their track record against the rivals in the fray raises visions of a medal or two.

It must also be remembered that unlike in the past years, this time there is no clear favourite for the singles titles.

Ironical as it may sound, should the men’s World No. 1 Son Wan-Ho justify his seeding in Glasgow, he will be seen as a surprise winner. After all, the Korean lost twice in a week to Srikanth this June in the Indonesia and the Australia Opens.

P. V. Sindhu, India's best bet in the women's section, has worked on her physical strength and endurance. - PTI   -  PTI

 

If Son managed to reach the summit, one of the reasons was the absence of some of the regulars due to injuries. If the 29-year-old has held the No. 1 spot for 11 out of the last 12 weeks, it is mainly because no super series tournaments were scheduled after late June, owing to the ensuing World championship.

In fact, Lee Chong Wei, looking for the elusive title, appears more a favourite than what his second seeding suggests. Moreover, with Jan O Jorgensen away due to injury, third seed Victor Axelsen is the lone Danish contender in the fray.

China will depend on World and Olympic champion Chen Long to retain the title. Though Chen Long is seeded five, one behind compatriot Shi Yuqi, the former remains the man to beat.

Interestingly, from the Indian perspective, it is encouraging to note that in his last two outings, in the Indonesia Open and the Australia Open, Chen Long lost to Prannoy and Srikanth. Likewise, it must also be remembered that the reigning Asian champion also has two victories this year over Lin Dan and Srikanth.

Coming back to India’s medal-prospects in the men’s singles, Srikanth is clearly the one to watch out for. After being ranked 15th at the start of the year, Srikanth slipped to as low as 31 in March but bounced back with back-to-back titles in Indonesia and Australia, not to forget his runner-up finish to Praneeth in Singapore.

Srikanth’s comeback to the elite bracket is mainly due to the improvement in his defensive skills, better on-court endurance and rising self-belief.

For long, Srikanth was known to be an all-attacking player, relying mainly on powerful smashes to finish off a point. But he realised that at the highest level, smashes do not necessarily bring points.

Saina Nehwal has fallen away, mainly because of injuries, but this is a good chance for her to redeem herself.   -  PTI

 

The ability to consistently retrieve the shuttles, coupled with the use of flicks and deft-touches at the net, often proves more productive. Thanks to the travelling support staff, he has been able to recover faster from long matches and give off his best day after day.

After nearly a two-month preparatory phase before the World championship, Srikanth should be able to reproduce the form that gave him two back-to-back super series titles in June. Moreover, the World No. 8 is drawn to play Son in the quarterfinals. Currently, Srikanth and Son share a 4-4 head-to-head record. In Glasgow, another close encounter could be expected.

Praneeth, winner of the Singapore and the Thailand Opens, is keen to make up for the time lost owing to injury. After a series of early exits from superseries events late last year, Praneeth started 2017 by reaching the final of the Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold in Lucknow where he lost to Sameer Verma.

Seeded ninth in the event, Praneeth nailed, among others, Srikanth in the semifinals. In fact, at present, the World No. 19 holds a 5-2 record against Srikanth!

In Glasgow, Praneeth finds himself in the third quarter of the draw with the formidable trio of Victor Axelsen (Denmark), Chou Tien Chen (Chinese Taipei) and Ng Ka Long Angus (Hong Kong), seeded three, six and nine, in that order.

Looking at the unpredictability of the leading male players, Praneeth has every reason to fancy his chances of reaching the semifinal.

Should he exceed all expectations and reach the last four stage, his likely rival could well be either Lee Chong Wei or Chen Long.

The ladies draw looks no less competitive and challenging for the two Indian medal aspirants. Even before the draw was made, both Sindhu and Saina had a common reason to feel relieved. For them, the absence of World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying meant a worry less to deal with.

Not many are aware that the Chinese Taipei girl leads Sindhu 7-3 and Saina 8-5 in head-to-head encounters. Sindhu, who beat Tai in the Rio Olympics has lost all three encounters since then. Worse, Tai has beaten Saina in their last six matches, including the last two in straight games.

No wonder, the decision of the 23-year-old to skip the World championship and represent the host nation in the Summer Universiade (World University Games) pleased Sindhu and Saina alike.

Sindhu, seeded four, is placed in the second quarter of the draw where she is drawn to play 13th seed Cheung Ngan Yi (Hong Kong) in the pre-quarterfinals. Her quarterfinal rival could be either fifth seed and China No. 1 Sun Yu or Spain’s Beatriz Corrales.

Considering Sindhu’s 4-5 record against Sun Yu, it could well be anybody’s match in Glasgow. In fact, the Chinese has beaten Sindhu three times in last four showdowns, including the last one in the BWF Superseries Finals in Dubai in December last year.

This year, Sindhu’s form has been inconsistent. On the brighter side, she expectedly beat a weak field in Lucknow to win the Syed Modi Grand Prix title and went on to achieve the year’s biggest triumph till date — winning the India Open in New Delhi.

Successive victories over Saina Nehwal, Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun and World and Olympic champion Carolina Marin gave Sindhu much to cheer about.

Akane Yamaguchi of Japan is the top-seed in the women's section at the Worlds. The World No. 1, Tai Tzu Ying, is not taking part.   -  Getty Images

 

However, since that memorable week ended in early April, Sindhu has not reached a single semifinal in five events she appeared in. Of these five defeats, three have come against lower-ranked players.

In the two months prior to the World championship, Sindhu has done extensive physical work, apart from sharpening her strokes. Her coach and mentor P.Gopi Chand maintains that unless Sindhu is able to pack more punch in her strokes, she will not be able to produce her best.

No wonder, the hard training to gain strength is visible as Sindhu has built muscles. Her shoulders and arms look stronger. Care has been taken not to compromise her swift court-coverage. Her defensive strokes look more assured while she looks eager to ‘kill’ the shuttle at every opportunity. Her net-play has been her strength. In fact, among the leading ladies, Sindhu clearly has the edge when playing close to the net.

Unlike Sindhu, who is looking for her third medal from the championship — remember she won bronze medals in Guangzhou (2013) and Copenhagen (2014) — Saina aims to improve upon her runner-up finish in Jakarta (2015).

Going by Saina’s fitness and form of the past year, since the knee-surgery after her premature exit from the Rio Olympics, she has been a pale shadow of her best years.

In January, Saina easily dominated a weak field in the Malaysia Masters and then took time off to prepare for the All England Championship in March.

After two easy and expected wins, Saina lost to third-seeded Korean Sung Ji Hyun in two close games. What followed was another straight-game quarterfinal defeat, this time to Sindhu in the India Open.

First round exits from the Malaysia Open and the Asian championship further dented Saina’s confidence. As the second seed in the Thailand Open, she lost in the semifinals to fourth seeded Thai Busanan Ongbamrungphan for the first time in four encounters.

She did start her campaign in the Indonesia Open with a bang by upsetting former World champion Ratchanok Intanon in three games but then suffered her first loss to another Thai, Nitchaon Jindapol, in eight encounters. In the Australia Open, Saina upstaged Sung Ji Hyun but lost in three games to Chinese sixth seed Sun Yu.

In Glasgow, Saina can possibly run into Sung Ji Hyun, seeded two in the pre-quarterfinals. Against the Korean, considered among the most consistent players on the circuit, Saina holds an impressive 7-2 record, winning three of the last four encounters.

Should Saina continue her dominance of Sung, her quarterfinal rival could be sixth-seeded Chinese He Bingjiao, whom she has not played before. The winner of this match is drawn to play defending champion and third-seeded Spaniard Carolina Marin.

Therefore, it will be a testing run for Saina all the way. Unless Saina reproduces the form and fire of old, it will be tough for her. More than the men singles, the inconsistency of the ladies players makes the lesser-known players hopeful of a strong finish. Though Akane Yamaguchi is seeded one, the other three Japanese Nozomi Okuhara, Sayaka Sato and Aya Ohori, seeded seven, 10 and 11, also fancy their prospects.

The Japanese brigade is clearly making an impact since the Chinese challenge ceases to be the same. With names like former Olympic champion Li Xuerui, former World champion Wang Yihan, former Asian Games champion Wang Shixian making way for younger players after the Rio Olympics, young aspirants like Sun Yu, He Bingjiao and Chen Xiaoxin will take time to take the legacy forward.

It is this phase of transition in ladies badminton in China that has seen other nations claim a bigger slice of the pie. That’s one of the reasons why the World championship is without a firm favourite.