All eyes on Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik at Wrestling Nationals

A Railways athlete, Vinesh will compete in the 57kg instead of the 50kg category in which she won three gold medals this season.

Vinesh Phogat made history after she became the first Indian woman to win a gold at Asian Games, earlier this year.   -  PTI

The spotlight trained on them, Vinesh Phogat gets an opportunity to test her fitness while a struggling Sakshi Malik will look to re-invent herself in the absence of the male stars at the Tata Motors Wrestling Nationals, beginning Friday.

Vinesh was forced to skip the World Championship in Budapest due to a last-minute elbow injury. She was in imperious form following the historic gold-winning effort at the Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games.

Vinesh is one of the most formidable athletes and if she is fit, it is highly unlikely she could be troubled by any of her compatriots. The Railways athlete will compete in the 57kg instead of the 50kg category in which she won three gold medals this season.

“For Nationals I won’t reduce weight. The competition here won’t be very strong and I have several important tournaments coming up in the next few months, so I have to be consistent in maintaining (weight) for those event,” Vinesh said when asked about the change in her weight category.

The 24-year-old said it is important to compete at Nationals because she lost a lot of time after the Asian Games due to the injury.

READ: Bajrang Punia is World No. 1 in 65kg category

“Now I have a chance to restart with the Nationals. I won’t say it is warm-up for me but it is good if I get into some competitions before bigger tournaments ahead. It helps on getting that mindset,” she said.

She remains favourite for the gold but Vinesh says she can’t name any strong opponent.

“I know lot of wrestlers from the senior camp but there will be lot of juniors competing for the first time. I don’t know many of them, so I have to see how it goes,” she said, adding that her hunger for success only got stronger after injuries halted her progress.

READ: Vinesh Phogat in TOPS list

In complete contrast, Sakhi’s career graph has taken a nosedive after her historic bronze medal at the Rio Olympic Games. She could win only a bronze at the Gold Coast CWG in a not-so-strong field while returning empty-handed from the Asian Games before suffering a humiliating exit from the World Championship.

The 62kg will be a battle between Sakshi and the celebrated Geeta Phogat, who has lost a bit of her sting of late.

Ritu Malik, who had lost the bronze play-off at Budapest, will compete in the 65kg while Railways’ Navjot Kaur will compete in 68kg.

Like Sakshi, two time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar is also struggling and has decided to skip the event along with Bajrang Punia, who is injured.

Also missing from action is Sandeep Tomar, who too has been an exciting prospect.

Their absence has taken a bit of sheen off the Nationals but it could help in figuring out a new line of wrestlers in the 74kg and 65kg categories. Though Bajrang, at the moment, looks almost invincible, a next generation of grapplers will give India a strong option in the 74kg.

Jitender Kumar and Vinod look the next best options but they are yet to establish themselves as strong replacements for Sushil. Jitender will compete in the 77kg here while Vinod will be a contender in the 74kg.

This year the national championship also assumes significance as the much-talked about contracts will be awarded on the opening day of the competitions.

Railways (RSPB) are the defending champions in all three competitions.

The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) will announce the names of the grapplers who will figure in seven categories of contracts with the highest bracket (A) offering Rs 30 lakh.

More than 800 wrestlers from 27 states and two Boards — RSPB and SSPB — will be seen in action with the Greco Roman style grapplers taking to the mat first.