Come December, the badminton lovers around the world turn their attention to the Dubai World Superseries Finals. Eight of the best-performing players and doubles pairs in the Superseries circuit during the year battle for the million-dollar prize money.
Interestingly, with every passing year, players of more nationalities are marking their attendance in this elite league-cum-knockout event. This year, in the men's and women's singles, players from seven countries, in each category, are forming the field. If China has managed to push a second player in men's singles, Japan has done the same in the ladies' section.
This is a clear reflection of how various countries, not just China, are contributing to the creamy layer of the sport. The way the Japanese, in particular, are preparing to clutch a handful of medals when they host the 2020 Olympic Games is hard to miss.
From an Indian perspective, K. Srikanth and P. V. Sindhu had long sealed their spots in their respective fields. Srikanth made it in style by winning four Superseries titles — twice winning in back-to-back weeks — in five final appearances. Sindhu, the World championship runner-up, may not have matched Srikanth in terms of success measurable through statistics during the year but had her moments.
In August-September, Sindhu won the Korea Open at the expense of Nozomi Okuhara after having lost the final of the World Championship to the Japanese girl. She ended the Superseries circuit by reaching the Hong Kong Open final.
However, Saina Nehwal and H. S. Prannoy narrowly missed the bus. The two, winners of singles titles in the National championship at the expense of Sindhu and Srikanth, could not do enough in the year’s last two Superseries events to be among the top-eight players.
Looking at the prospects in Dubai, it is quite ironical that in a sport where consistent performances are increasingly becoming a rarity, defending champions Viktor Axelsen and Tai Tzu Ying return to the desert destination ranked No. 1 in the world.
Some players have questioned the bunching together of Superseries events that makes it difficult for them to perform week after week without a break. In this context, Srikanth’s triumphs in successive weeks in the Indonesian Open and Australian Open and later in the Denmark Open and the French Open stand accentuated.
Winning 10 matches, besides travelling, in two weeks is far from easy. Improved fitness of the players and the use of shuttles designed to stay alive longer in the rallies have contributed to the degree of difficulty involved. No wonder, fitness is playing a decisive role in the consistent performances of those in the elite bracket.
Fortunately for the Indians, the players from the Gopi Chand Academy know full well the importance of fitness and that’s the reason why the results are there to see.
Srikanth, once known to be a fiercely-attacking player, has changed his approach to stay fitter to retrieve more. The focus to sharpen the retrieving abilities, leading to building endurance to last longer in a rally and the match, has borne the desired results. In terms of competition, the men's singles looks more unpredictable.
Though World champion Viktor Axelsen and former World No. 1 Son Won Ho are around, there is no clear favourite. Not many are aware that these players, who took turns to hold the World No. 1 spot, have lost more to the current Indian players than any of their predecessors in badminton history.
The presence of the far more accomplished players, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia and Olympic champion Chen Long of China, adds a new dimension to the title-chase in Dubai. Both returned from injuries and eventually hit peak form at the fag end of the Superseries circuit.
Chen Long, languishing in the 20th spot in the Destination Dubai rankings, won the China Open and lost the final of the Hong Kong Open to Lee Chong Wei. His sequence of winning 11 straight matches and gate-crashing into the top-8 has become the talking point of the badminton world. In fact, the Chinese holds a 10-2 head-to-head record against Axelsen, the man who dethroned him for the World title this year.
Also in the mix are young Chinese Shi Yuqi, Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen and Hong Kong’s Ng ka Long Angus. Depending how the groups are decided, these players could well be targeted by the more experienced and the more accomplished.
Srikanth has a good record against Axelsen and Son Won Ho, leading to a rise in confidence since the last edition of the event. He will have to be wary of Chen Long or Lee Chong Wei, whosoever he finds in his group. He wisely skipped the China Open and Hong Kong Open to recover from an injury suffered during the National championship in Nagpur. Hopefully, he will be fit to deal with the challengers in Dubai.
Among the ladies, Tai Tzu Ying is a clear favourite. Winner of five events this year, Tai conquered the likes of former World champions Ratchanok Intanon and Carolina Marin (twice), apart from Akane Yamaguchi and Sindhu in these finals. Her conquests during the year began with the All-England championship and ended with the Hong Kong Open.
Yamaguchi, the proven nemesis of Saina this year, is the other serious contender for the title. The World No. 2 topped the Superseries rankings with some steady performances and she will be watched seriously.
Ratchanok has been too inconsistent following her return from injury. Sung Ji Hyun will have to find a way to win titles despite her consistent runs in various events.
The chances of Sindhu will depend much on how she deals with Tai Tzu Ying. The Indian has not won against Tai Tzu Ying in four meetings following the victory in the Rio Olympics. No doubt, Sindhu has the game to win but somehow, Tai Tzu Ying has looked far superior. Having won just one game out of the last nine played against Tai Tzu Ying, Sindhu knows she has a tricky puzzle to crack.