The month of March is the time that every shuttle sports aficionado eagerly waits for. The Superseries circuit kicks off with the prestigious All England Open Badminton Championships at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham, England, sending the excitement level to its peak.
Having had its inaugural edition in 1899, the world’s oldest badminton tournament is steeped in tradition. It goes without saying that this prized title is thus what every shuttler yearns to win.
Indians have been lucky to witness such a glorious moment twice in the history of this event. It was in 1980 that Prakash Padukone etched his name in record books as the first player from the country to taste success at the All England Open and it was emulated by Pullela Gopichand 21 years later.
Saina Nehwal came agonisingly close to repeating that feat until she ran out of steam against a red-hot Carolina Marin in the 2015 final.
Could she hope to have another chance to redeem that? How does her draw and the rest of the Indian contingent’s look like this time? We make an in-depth analysis.
Nehwal starts campaign against defending champion
Seeded eighth, the 2015 runner-up has a tricky path and dangers present themselves right from Round 1. First up for her is the defending champion Nozomi Okuhara, who is placed just a solitary rung below her at 11th.
Threatening as she might be, the Rio Olympic bronze medallist was on a shoulder injury-induced layoff since November and has not yet played a single competitive tournament this season. That should ease the pressure on Saina and help her notch her sixth victory over the Japanese in seven career meetings.
After a qualifier in the next round, the former World No. 1 could come face-to-face with the third seed Sung Ji Hyun. The two squared off as recently as January at the Premier Badminton League where the Indian edged the Korean in three thrilling games.
At that time, Nehwal was still recovering from the knee surgery that she underwent in September and the one-month hiatus that she opted for after her Malaysia Masters win surely will be boosting Nehwal’s confidence even further should she meet her familiar rival Sung yet again.
All-Indian semi-final possible
The semi-finals can have a blockbuster all-Indian affair between Nehwal and the World No. 5 PV Sindhu that should send the TRPs skyrocketing. But for that to happen, the sixth-seeded Sindhu has to overcome a massive obstacle.
The Rio Olympic silver medallist, who gets her campaign rolling against the World No. 33 Mette Poulsen, has the top seed and World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying looming large in the quarter-finals. Interestingly, even though the Taipei player beat Sindhu in the Hong Kong Open final, she was one of the Indian’s victims during her historic medal-winning run in Brazil. If the 21-year-old can summon the same courage and conviction, there is no reason why she cannot get her fourth win over the very talented Tai.
If Saina or Sindhu manages to make it to the summit clash, they have to surmount yet another barrier in the form of the second seed and former champion Carolina Marin.
Five Indians in men’s singles
The Indian contingent has five representatives in the men’s singles section with three of them in the main draw – Ajay Jayaram, HS Prannoy and Srikanth Kidambi. The Verma brothers – Sourabh and Sameer – are the only ones who will be fighting it out in the qualifiers. The third-seeded Sameer, currently ranked 23rd, takes on the World No. 52 Kazumasa Sakai while the reigning national champion Sourabh will be up against the fourth seed Anthony Sinisuka Ginting.
In the main draw, the India No. 1 Jayaram meets the 27th ranked Chinese Huang Yuxiang and has the prospect of facing yet another Chinese in the next round who is none other than the defending champion Lin Dan. The sixth seed is looking for his seventh title at this venue and that shouldn’t be music to Ajay’s ears.
In the first couple of months of the 2017 season, HS Prannoy has shown glimpses of the menacing player that he could be if he plays to his potential. He remained unbeaten in the second season of the Premier Badminton League and even though inconsistency reared its ugly head since then, he grabbed a big win over the World No. 4 Son Wan Ho at the Badminton Asia Mixed Team Championships.
If that aggressive version of Prannoy shows up, the World No. 21 can make it to the quarter-finals where the top seed and World No. 1 Lee Chong Wei will be waiting.
For the former World No. 3 Srikanth Kidambi, it is a more comfortable start as he takes on a qualifier although the road ahead gets steeper. Third seed Viktor Axelsen will be locking horns in the second round while Lin Dan will be there in the last-eight stage. After the 2014 China Open final where Srikanth toppled the mighty Chinese in his own backyard and the 2016 Olympic quarter-finals where the Indian nearly pulled off the upset, suffice to say all eyes will be on this particular match-up.
The Pullela Gopichand protégé, who played the German Open last week, went down fighting to the Olympic champion Chen Long but not before giving ample evidence that he is very much on his way back to the top tier and that makes things quite interesting.
Formidable Koreans up first for Chopra and Sikki Reddy
In mixed doubles, the World No. 13 pair of Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy, who won the Syed Modi International, begins their challenge against formidable Koreans Yoo Yeon Seong and Kim Ha Na.
In men’s doubles, the India No. 1 duo of Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy has a qualifying team to deal with in the first round.
India has two teams in women’s doubles with the 39th ranked combine of Meghana Jakkampudi and Poorvisha S Ram being the only one getting direct entry into the main draw. They will seek a first round win over fellow unseeded Hsu Ya Ching and Wu Ti Jung.
Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy, who have made fast progress over the last few weeks, have to counter the English pair of Lauren Smith and Sarah Walker in the first round of qualifying. The Indians joined forces towards the end of 2016 and since then, have climbed to the World No. 51st position, riding on a runner-up finish at the Syed Modi International.Published 07 Mar 2017, 15:59 IST