The first season of the newly introduced BWF World Tour came to an end with the $1.5 million finale at Guangzhou. Given the compulsions imposed on the players on playing a stipulated number of events during the year, this year’s select eight-player invitational field, in each of the five sections of the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals, could well have been the most tired lot seen in the year-ending event.
As though the rigours of the travelling, playing, recovering, dealing with injuries, etc., was not tough enough, the Premier Badminton League is round the corner. One can well imagine the physical and mental state of some of the players coming from Guangzhou for the richest league in the sport.
Before going deeper into the PBL and its relevance in the packed international schedule, let’s look at the rules that compelled the top players to play more this year — for more prize money and ranking points.
This year, the newly christened World Tour events replaced the Superseries tournaments. The number of events went up and so did the prize-money on offer. Further, the players faced the risk of being penalised if they did not turn up for a minimum number of tournaments.
For instance, the BWF raised the season’s prize money from $9.72 million in 31 tournaments, across Grand Prix up to the Superseries Finals in 2017, to $13.755 million spread over 38 events. It is interesting to note that more than 50 per cent of the increase was due to the enhanced prize-fund by China ($875,000), Indonesia (approx. $670,000) and France (approximately $480,000).
The conditions on a player’s participation also stood revised. The players were now required to turn up for at least 13 of the top-level events, instead of 10 in the past year. In 2017, the top 10 players were needed to be part of all five Superseries Premium and at least four of the other Superseries events, plus the Superseries Finals provided they qualified. In short, a player’s best 10 performances during the year were counted towards the world ranking.
In 2018, the changes saw the World Tour Super 1000 and Super 750 (offering a minimum of $700,000) replace the Superseries Premier. The Super 500 came in place of the Superseries events. Further, the top 15 players in singles and 10 pairs in doubles, were placed under the “top committed” players’ bracket. That meant, these players were to figure in all eight of the Super 1000 and Super 750 events, in addition to four to seven Super 500 events.
As though this was not stringent enough, the qualifiers to the cash-rich season ending Finals, from 2010 to 2017, were asked to take part or else face a penalty of $5,000 for each event skipped. This also led to the possibility of a totally bizarre scenario. For instance, if a player or a pair managed to take part in all 33 World Tour events (excluding the Finals and four lesser events held concurrently) during this year and lost in the round of 32 of every tournament, the points accumulated during the season would be more than what last year’s men singles World No. 1 Son Wan Ho or the leading mixed doubles pair of Zheng Siwei and Chen Qingchen aggregated in 2017!
In this background, the players have questioned the BWF regarding the tight schedule, compulsions of playing more tournaments, lacking the time to recover between events, etc. In addition, this year also saw the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, besides the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup team events. Truly, it was tough for the players to consistently produce their best.
However, when faced with the choice of skipping the PBL, almost all the regulars from India and abroad have chosen to be part of this annual cash-rich extravaganza.
Interestingly, the reigning Olympic and world champion Carolina Marin, who cited a leg injury to skip the BWF World Tour Finals, has not said a word so far about missing the PBL for the same reason.
Marin, the icon player for the newly added Pune franchisee, was auctioned for ₹80 lakh ($112,000), much like P. V. Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, K. Srikanth, H. S. Prannoy, Sung Ji Hyun and Lee Yong Dae. Of the singles lot, Sindhu and Sung Ji Hyun will be part of the field in Guangzhou. Many others, in both singles and doubles, are lured purely by the colour of money to be in PBL instead of using the two weeks to physically recover from an exhausting season.
In fact, for players like Sindhu, Saina, Srikanth and Prannoy, the bid received at the auction turned out to be far more than what they earned in prize-money this season. Just to put things into perspective, compared to the $112,000 bid each of them attracted at the PBL auction, their prize money earnings so far in 2018 (not counting the BWF World tour Finals for Sindhu) is as follows: Sindhu — $79,225; Saina — $68,100; Srikanth — $47,950; Prannoy — $23,875. In fact, what Prannoy has received this year almost equals his career earnings of $120,481.
Hence, there is no reason for these players to say ‘no’ to PBL despite all the beating their body takes during a season. Here, it must be remembered that players like Sindhu and Srikanth skipped this year’s Thomas Cup and Uber Cup campaigns, the premier world team events, to prepare for the season ahead. At the same time, with Sikki Reddy indisposed, her doubles partner Ashwini Ponnappa, too, was not chosen. Not surprisingly, the depleted Indian teams were whipped but the Badminton Association of India was least concerned. In contrast, all the leading players turned up for their countries in the premium event.
It is also equally true that most top players take the PBL far less seriously than it appears. With the exception of a possible Sindhu-Saina match, where pride is at stake, the results of most other clashes are soon forgotten. For the lesser-players, in both singles and doubles, it is indeed a fine opportunity to mingle with some world-class performers, interact in informal environments, learn a trick or two by watching some iconic names practise or by listening to them.
Indeed, the Chinese and the rising Japanese in singles, both men and women, have stayed away from the PBL for a reason. They use the PBL window to recover physically at home and stay focused on the upcoming season. World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying, the most dominant female player of the year, was seen in the last edition of the PBL but has refrained from returning this season.
Overall, the PBL means money to the leading names and very little else. For the second rung of players, mainly Indians, it remains a good learning experience. The leading overseas names enjoy the ambience and the attention during the fortnight. Perhaps, some of them find it one way to relax — and also get paid for it.
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