All eyes on the girls at the All-England Championships

Though P. V. Sindhu and Saina Nehwal have achieved a lot, their relentless hunt for an All-England title continues. And, they are still India’s best bet to find glory in London.

The presence of husband P. Kashyap, former Commonwealth Games champion, in her corner might help Saina Nehwal in her quest for the All-England title.   -  Ritu Raj Konwar

Every March, the badminton followers in the country get excited about India’s prospects at the prestigious All-England Championships.

The game’s oldest competition, steeped in history and tradition, was considered the benchmark to ascertain the “world champion” till the official world championship began in 1977. Started in 1899, with only the doubles competition, the All-England continues to enjoy prominence ahead of events offering higher prize-money on the BWF World Tour.

Prakash’s triumph

The triumph of Prakash Padukone in 1980 is part of Indian badminton folklore. Much later, in 2001, P. Gopi Chand brought home the title and went on to rekindle the belief in the potential of Indian shuttlers in singles.

Though P. V. Sindhu and Saina Nehwal have achieved a lot, their relentless hunt for an All-England title continues. Presently, among the Indians, Saina has the best record at the Championships. Finalist in 2015 and semifinalist in 2013 and 2010, Saina was closest to realising her dream after taking the opening game of the title-match against Carolina Marin. However, the following two games were surprisingly dominated by the Spaniard and the eventual score-line of 16-21, 21-14, 21-7 left an exasperated Saina staring at more questions than ever before.

The Tai Tzu dilemma

This year, Saina’s progress beyond the second round depends entirely on how she deals with World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying. The Chinese Taipei girl has been the most dominating player in the past year during which she stretched her career head-to-head score against Saina to 14-5.

It is interesting to note that Saina won their first four encounters between 2010 and 2011, but since then her lone victory came in the 2013 Swiss Open. In the last 12 encounters that Tzu has won since 2014, Saina has managed to win only four games!

During this five-year win-less sequence, including a whopping six times in 2018, P. Gopi Chand and Vimal Kumar have been in the chair for Saina. This time around, husband P. Kashyap is likely to be courtside perhaps with Gopi, to help Saina find a way past Tzu.

Family support

Kashyap, the 2014 Commonwealth champion, did excel in the new role as Saina’s coach during the Indonesia Masters. The icing on the cake was of course Saina returning with the trophy, after world and Olympic champion Carolina Marin unfortunately suffered a knee-injury in the final and withdrew.

In fact, Carolina’s withdrawal from the All-England, following a knee-surgery that is likely to put her out of action for six months, helped Saina gain the eighth seeding. As per the badminton rules, the top eight seeds do not face-off before the quarterfinals, but the ninth ranked player, as Saina currently is, could face any of the top eight seeds even in the first round!

Throughout 2018, Saina paid the price for not regaining her place among the top-eight ranked players. More than once, she ran into Tzu in the initial rounds and lost. These early exits also resulted in the poor inflow of vital ranking points for the veteran Indian. One hopes an upbeat Saina, after taming Sindhu in their third straight encounter while retaining the National title, manages to turn the tide against Tzu. After all, Sindhu managed to beat the World No. 1 on her way to the year-ending BWF World Tour Finals title in December and ended a frustrating sequence of six straight losses.

P. V. Sindhu holds the silver medals at the Olympics, World championship, Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games and wears the winner’s crown of the cash-rich BWF World Tour Finals.   -  Ritu Raj Konwar

 

Can it be Sindhu’s year?

Sindhu, who enjoyed her best showing in 2018 by making the semifinal, has the firepower to go all the way. When it comes to the prestigious events, Sindhu has shown amazing consistency over the past few years.

Sindhu holds the silver medals at the Olympics, world championships, the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games and wears the winner’s crown of the cash-rich BWF World Tour Finals.

Both Sindhu and Saina have learnt to deal with the ‘drift’ in the Arena Birmingham where the All-England is being played since 1994. Reading the flight of the shuttle in a huge multi-discipline facility was a challenge to most Indians who played this championship. Increasing familiarity with the venue has surely helped Saina and Sindhu overcome this glitch.

Inconsistency plagues the men

Unlike the two ladies, the men have shockingly, performed very inconsistently in the premier championship. Indian spearhead K. Srikanth has lost twice in the second round and thrice in the first. In fact, in over a decade, only H. S. Prannoy (2018) and P. Kashyap (2013) have reached the quarterfinals.

This year, one Indian is certain to be in the second round. Prannoy, returning from injury, meets B. Sai Praneeth in the opener. Should Srikanth play to his seeding, he will at least play his maiden quarterfinals. Sameer Verma, for whom 2018 proved a dream year, faces a tougher run.

Little hope in doubles

In doubles, it is almost unfair to expect much from the Indians. Injury to Satwiksairaj Rankireddy led to India not fielding its highest ranked pair in men's doubles. Satwik and Chirag Reddy are ranked 16th in the world.

The lone men duo of Manu Atri and B. Sumeeth Reddy, the two ladies pairs — Ashwini Ponnappa and N. Sikki Reddy and J. Meghana and  Poorvisha S. Ram — and the mixed combination of Pranaav Chopra and Sikki lack what it takes to win when the stakes are high.

Ranked outside of the top-20, these pairs are expected to end up as easy pickings for the higher-ranked, let alone the seeded contenders. The trend is unlikely to change in a hurry.

So, overall, much like in the recent years, the Indian interest in the All-England shall continue to stay around the progress of Sindhu and Saina.