Sometimes, an act of bravado can land one in a seriously questionable situation, no matter how well it was pulled off.
The hosting of the India Open badminton in New Delhi was one such act by the Badminton Association of India (BAI) that raised eyebrows from the moment it decided to go ahead with the twice-postponed event in the face of the rising third wave of Covid.
To begin with, the field in all five sections was the weakest ever in India’s flagship event. No participation from China, Japan, Chinese Taipei and Korea, among others, meant the field was predominantly Indian. For an event that offers $400,000 in prize money, the decision to go ahead with the competition that attracted such poor field across sections lacked rationale.
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By the time the event ended with the last two finals producing Indian winners — Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty and Lakshya Sen — the Badminton Association of India had reasons to be joyous. It was simply a case of the end justifying the means.
Before moving ahead, it is important to consider the background. The Badminton World Federation (BWF) had decided to hold back-to-back events in certain countries, like India and a few others, to cut down on travel and mandatory quarantine periods for all concerned. As a result, India was to host events for three consecutive weeks in Delhi, Lucknow and Cuttack in January.
However, the global rise in Covid cases late in December made it challenging for the BAI. Understandably reluctant to host, BAI looked at the Delhi Government to impose restrictions so that it could convince the BWF that it was not possible to host the India Open. However, no such ‘help’ came from Delhi Government and BAI had no choice but to go ahead with the event.
“The BAI could not have cancelled the event on its own because that would have meant inviting the displeasure of BWF,” said a BAI official on condition of anonymity and continued, “It was possible that the BWF would not have allotted events to the BAI in future or denied them World Tour events for at least another season. BAI did not want that.”
So in this background, the India Open went ahead as per schedule. Daily RT-PCR tests at the hotel where the players, coaches, officials were staying and then a daily Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) was mandatory before one entered the venue, the K. D. Jadhav Hall at the Indira Gandhi Stadium.
Even before the first shuttle was tossed in the competition, news came that at least five Indian players had tested positive for Covid and were awaiting another test report before departing for Delhi. News from Hyderabad was that a cook at the Gopi Chand Academy had tested positive and that possibly triggered a chain reaction.
Not surprisingly, men’s second seed B. Sai Praneeth opened the casualty list. After the first round, top seed K. Srikanth, doubles specialist Ashwini Ponnappa and a few others joined the list of Covid-driven withdrawals. Those considered primary contacts of these players were also made to withdraw.
The withdrawals continued until the semifinals when a Russian doubles pair tested positive.
On the brighter side, the finalists were not affected. If one comes to the on-court action, it was indeed an opportunity for a large number of lesser-known Indian players to garner ranking points from this event. This apart, P. V. Sindhu and K. Srikanth were looking to break their World Tour title-jinx. Sindhu, the 2019 World champion, has not won on the Tour since 2018. Srikanth is without a title since 2017.
However, things did not go the way of these two top seeds. If Covid struck Srikanth, a shock defeat in the semifinals to a little-known Thai Supanida Katethong ended Sindhu’s campaign.
Before that, Saina Nehwal’s struggle with form and fitness continued. Nursing a knee-injury and looking out of match-practice, Saina surrendered rather tamely to the up-and-coming Malvika Bansod, who in turn lost to India No. 3 Aakarshi Kashyap in the quarterfinals.
Bright news awaited India from the men’s singles and doubles.
Lakshya, already dubbed as India’s best prospect for a men’s singles medal in the 2024 Paris Olympics, handled the pressure of expectations very well. Although he admitted not having trained as well as he would have liked to, Lakshya rode on the confidence of winning an unexpected World championship bronze and went all the way.
The victory over H. S. Prannoy in the quarterfinals truly did a world of good to Lakshya’s confidence. During this match, Lakshya displayed tremendous self-belief and showed that he was not intimidated by Prannoy. And it was this confidence that he carried to the three-game victory in the semifinal over Malaysia’s Ng Tze Yong and eventually in the final against World champion Loh Kean Yew.
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In fact, Loh was the saving grace of the competition after most top players showed no interest in travelling to India. This young Singaporean is looking to prove his consistency in World Tour events and it was for this reason he chose to be in Delhi. Therefore, the World number 15 was expected to be a little circumspect as he carried the pressure of expectations in his first tournament appearance as a World champion.
Lakshya, who shared a 2-2 head-to-head record against Loh before the final, nosed ahead with a straight game victory. Given the conditions at the playing hall, the slowness of the shuttle suited Lakshya more than Loh. The speedy Singaporean, very light on his feet on the court, had to rally more than what he usually does and that worked in favour of Lakshya. Eventually, Lakshya deservedly won.
A little earlier, Sairaj and Chirag gave India a title that was not expected. The second seeds upstaged three-time World champions, current World No. 2 and top seed Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan after saving five game-points in the second game.
The thrilling finish gave a much-needed title for the World No. 10 Indian duo. Winning the big points in the final against such a legendary pair should help Sairaj and Chirag to look ahead with added confidence. After all, in the two previous encounters against the Indonesians, the Indians failed to pull off a single game. But on this day, the plan of tiring off the ‘Daddies’ of world badminton just about worked.
In the end, the home fans are going to remember this edition of Indian Open for the two first-time Indian winners. Pushed firmly in the background was the huge risk BAI took in going ahead with the event that could have ended prematurely.
Final results (Indians unless stated):
Men: Lakshya Sen bt Loh Kean Yew (Sgp) 24-22, 21-17; (Doubles): Satwiksairaj Rankireddy & Chirag Shetty bt Mohammad Ahsan & Hendra Setiawan (Ina) 21-16, 26-24.
Women: Busanan Ongbamrungpham (Tha) bt Supanida Katethong (Tha) 22-20, 9-21, 21-13; (Doubles): Benyapa Aimsaard & Nuntakarn Aimsaard (Tha) bt Anastasiia Akchurina & Olga Morozova (Rus) 21-13, 21-5.
Mixed doubles: Hee Yong Kai Terry & Tan Wei Han (Sgp) bt Chen Tang Jie & Peck Yen Wei (Mas) 21-15, 21-18.