The premier event at home helped Indians to firm up their Olympic spots. However, much work needs to be done if the Indians are to turn from mere participants to medal contenders in the Olympics, writes Rakesh Rao.
This year's India Open badminton was more significant than any of its preceding editions. Being the last on the list of events to be considered for determining the qualifiers to the London Olympic Games, the field was rich in quality and the battles were fought with great intensity.
As the plot unfolded in New Delhi's Siri Fort Indoor Stadium, it was clear that the “favourites” still had some work before the Games in July-August. From the Indian perspective, Saina Nehwal was the only one clearly assured of qualification. Ranked fifth in the world, Saina was attempting to continue the momentum following her win in the Swiss Open. She was looking to improve her record against the leading Chinese girls in the field. But as it turned out, Saina made a premature exit and left the court in tears.
On the brighter side, P. Kashyap unexpectedly landed in the semifinals and the points he gained during the week helped him overtake Ajay Jayaram in the ranking list. By virtue of being the top-ranked Indian — 24th to be precise as on the cut-off date of May 3 — Kashyap booked his berth to London.
Kashyap played his heart out but gained hugely due to a certain sequence of results that helped him sail through the crucial quarterfinals without hitting a shuttle.
Though in men's doubles, the Indians were never in serious contention of a place in the Olympics, the host ensured its presence in the women's doubles and mixed doubles event in London. World championship bronze medallist and Commonwealth gold winner, G. Jwala and Ashwini Ponnappa, un-seeded here, did enough to reach the quarterfinals. The progress helped the duo to raise their world rankings to 16 and make the cut for the Olympics, where 16 pairs form the field in doubles.
In mixed doubles, Jwala and V. Diju lost in the first round but that did not hamper their chances of participating in London. The 14th ranked pair made the grade.
No doubt, it was a matter of pride for Jwala to qualify for two events and for Kashyap to deservedly win back the tag of the top-ranked Indian from Jayaram. But still the form of the players, even at home, was a cause for worry.
Saina, looking slimmer and swifter after having been on a regulated protein diet for the past few weeks, looked good in the opening round but came a cropper against Korea's Youn Yoo Bae. Playing before a vociferous audience that had come mainly to support her, Saina's display was a dampener. She was sluggish on the court and her strokes lacked power and placement, particularly in the second game during her 19-21, 10-21 loss.
What disappointed the fans was her lack of will to fight. It appeared as though she was looking at her prospective quarterfinal clash and not the dangerous and well-prepared Korean. The defeat was a throwback to the first-round loss Saina suffered in the same event last year.
Though Saina, trying in vain to hold back tears of disappointment, was quick to leave the arena following a quick “sorry” to the waiting media persons, National coach P. Gopi Chand remained optimistic of his protégé's ability to bounce back.
“We have a month to prepare before the two super series events — Indonesia Open and Singapore Open — and iron out the flaws. After we return from these events, we will be training for another month before the Games begin. So there is no need to be pessimistic,” was how Gopi chose to put it.
Saina will now have to ensure that she remains the strongest non-Chinese in the world rankings before the draw for the Games is made in July. This would mean that Saina will not be required to face a Chinese rival till the semifinals.
Unlike Saina, her good friend Kashyap made the most of the opportunity at home. He started the event as World No. 31, four places behind Jayaram in world rankings, and eventually attained the goal of overtaking his roommate during the week.
Jayaram's journey expectedly ended in the pre-quarterfinals when he ran into World No. 1, Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei to whom he lost 16-21, 21-15, 5-21. This meant, Kashyap had to at least reach the quarterfinals, which he did by saving two-match points against Thailand's Boonsak Ponsana in an absolute thriller.
During his memorable 15-21, 21-14, 22-20 victory, Kashyap came up with a dramatic, diving retrieve just when Ponsana was threatening to close the match. At one stage, Ponsana's tap at the net seemed to have finished the match but Kashyap's evasive action, with the face of racquet sending the shuttle back in play, turned the course of the match. Kashyap hung in there and won when Ponsana sent the shuttle long.
What followed was a sequence of events that eventually helped Kashyap move past the quarterfinals against the recently-crowned Asian champion Chen Jin without playing. Chen Jin's withdrawal from the quarterfinals, citing a wrist injury, followed the surprise loss of Peter Gade to eventual champion and un-seeded Korean Wan Ho Shon. It must be remembered that Chen Jin and Gade were ranked 5 and 4 in the world rankings when the event commenced. The Chinese was trying to dislodge the Dane from the fourth spot since the rules allow a country to field three players should it have a minimum of three players among the top-four ranked players.
Gade's early exit meant he could not protect the ranking points gained by reaching the final of the Indian Open last year. Once it was confirmed that Gade would lose ranking points and Chen Jin advance to the fourth spot — behind teammates Lin Dan and Chen Long — in the latest rankings, the Chinese pulled out.
This resulted in Kashyap picking up additional ranking points for making the semifinal. This gain of points eventually saw Kashyap overtake Jayaram
Shon, ranked 17th, overpowered Kashyap 21-14, 19-21, 21-16 in the semifinals to reinforce his Olympic spot that he had gained by upstaging Gade. What more, Shon went on to pull off the biggest victory of his career by stopping favourite and defending champion Lee Chong Wei 21-18, 14-21, 21-19 in a fitting finale to the singles competition. The Malaysian was playing his first event after a shoulder injury had forced him to withdraw from the All-England final in March.
Even the women's singles saw a series of surprise results with German Juliane Schenk making the final after getting past two Chinese rivals — top seed and world No. 3 Wang Shixian and dangerous qualifier Xiao Jia Chen. In the final, Juliane raised visions of scalping a third Chinese in succession but Li Xuerui, seeded two, raised the bar after a poor start to win 14-21, 21-17, 21-8.
Overall, this premier event at home helped Indians to firm up their Olympic spots. However, much work needs to be done if the Indians are to turn from mere participants to medal contenders in the Olympics.