Indian badminton has been a scroll of happy headlines for the last 10 years since Saina Nehwal scored her first upset win at the Beijing Olympics. Success at the Super Series, the World Championships and the Olympics has added layers to its history, as a flurry of names have cornered fame and remain in fine fettle to stake claim on any title. Yet, the best of the country’s shuttlers keep returning to the All England to reconnect with badminton’s original moment of glory: the All England. In the coming week — and in years to come, indeed — India’s global stars are bound to race each other to the one title their coach Pullela Gopichand has, and they don’t: the All England.
Saina Nehwal began 2018 voicing her intent to try becoming the first Indian woman to win the prestigious crown. For some time now, PV Sindhu has looked the most likeliest to get herself into contention. The years are breathing down the neck of India’s biggest hope K Srikanth — it’s been 17 Marches now, since Gopichand last won. That had taken 20 years of waiting after Prakash Padukone’s big moment for Indian men’s singles which turns 38 this spring. Both HS Prannoy and B Sai Praneeth will be acutely aware that this Super 1000 event – a $10,00,000 event – can catapult them ahead of every other shuttler in the country’s imagination. China and Indonesia Super 1000s — second tier after World Championship – bring in the same money, but All England is what sets hearts aflutter.
Gopichand would be the first to know the enormity of the event. And hence, he will be the last person to remind his charges of the larger significance — and in turn pile on the pressure. Indians will head into Birmingham on Wednesday the same way they do at any other meet — looking at mid-week as the first of a hopeful five matches to come. The toughest throw of the dice has gone Saina Nehwal’s way. Yet, who else but the trailblazer, to embrace that stiff challenge.
Nehwal starts against Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying. This is a saga worthy of a chapter of its own. The World No 1 vs India’s original superstar. The numbers have insidiously turned against Nehwal in the last 8 years — the Indian won the first 4 of their faceoffs, lost the next two before stamping down the talented opponent for a title at the Swiss Open in 2013, and then lost 7 in a row. It’s not this notoreity of piled up losses though that makes this contest interesting. Saina (world No 11) vs Tai Tzu (world No 1) is anything but run-of-the-mill: it is in fact an opportunity for the Indian to hog headlines on Day 1. The surface of the courts at the Birmingham Arena is said to be harder than usual, and decisive footwork on this carpet that draws added effort out of the legs, remains key to beating Tai Tzu.
Nehwal has worked specifically with coach Gopichand on quickening her movements against an opponent who is toughest to pre-empt with her variety in strokes. Just about the only solution is to be quick on the feet and hope that her anticipation antennae are specially alert if she wants to start chipping at the 5-9 head to head. Picking the Taiwanese girl’s strokes is half the job done, and Nehwal will have to back herself to not get blitzed away like happened at Indonesia two months ago. Nehwal would want to bring in her typical confidence that gets reinforced when her fitness is high and her movements precise.
PV Sindhu can afford to look beyond the first round where she meets Chochuwong Pornpawee of Thailand. American Beiwen Zhang — the last woman to beat Sindhu a month ago, could be next, though she could find herself in a slugfest as early as quarters against Nozomi Okuhara. Sindhu too brought the All England in her radar vocalising her wish to win it in the run-up, and this will be the first of 2018’s big events, where she would want to assert her ability to go for the titles, though Marin and Akane Yamaguchi are in the fourth seed’s half of the draw to make life difficult.
The draw has been wicked to the Chinese, with three clubbed into one quarter.
Shuttle speeds permitting, Kidambi Srikanth ought to back himself to go deep into the tournament. He starts against Worlds giant killer Frenchman Brice Leverdez, and could be in a tricky quarter with HS Prannoy — who will need to beat higher ranked Chou Tien Chen and the plucky Indonesians. Chong Wei and Lin Dan will play out their skirmish of the ageing titans, before Srikanth gets a crack at them, but the country isn’t one of the Indian’s happiest haunts.
Three first round exits in 4 years mean Srikanth, aged 25, ranked 3, who’s best performance was clearing the first round here, hasn’t had the best of All Englands. But 2017 was a sensational year for India’s best men’s singles player, and he cabn fancy his chances in a field that is depleted just a tad by the withdrawal of World No 1 Viktor Axelsen. There’s a slippery second round against Chinese Huang Yuxian (Srikanth lost to a first-time Chinese last year) or local hero Rajeev Ouseph. But should the stars align on five days, this could be Srikanth’s All England.
Prannoy and Sai Praneeth are there to upset equations and trigger a ruckus in the draw — though Praneeth starts out against automaton — the defensive Son Wan Ho. The Indian is known for his impatience when botching matches, and it’ll be a mini-victory of sorts if he can clear the first hurdle against the Korean whose second nature is to induce ennui.
India’s doubles pairings await a break-out performance, and will need to stay in contention till Friday, to corner attention amidst India’s strongest singles contingent. The doubles pairings are also battling the distraction of the new service rule that is being put into trial at All England.