Former chief of the national badminton team, U Vimal Kumar, has picked PV Sindhu, world no. 7, and the men’s doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty (world no. 10) as strong medal contenders in the Tokyo Olympic Games later this year.
While Sindhu finished in the last four of the All England last week, losing to eventual runner-up Pornpawee Chochuwong in the semifinal, Chirag/Satwik exited in the Round of 16 in Birmingham. They had made the semifinals of the Swiss Open in their previous tournament.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview with Vimal Kumar:
The 58-year-old Vimal Kumar, who participated in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when badminton was first introduced in the Summer Games, told Sportskeeda in an exclusive chat about India’s prospects in Tokyo and how the players have coped up with the pandemic.
Q. How has the badminton world taken to the COVID-19 pandemic that has hit the world and slowly things are returning to normal, though a ‘new normal’ is to be followed?
Vimal Kumar: Badminton is not as professional as most other sports. Wherever badminton tournaments are conducted, there are a lot of restrictions.
The local rules are very stringent and difficult for the players. Recently at the All England, what they did it to the Indonesian team was unfair. The whole team tested negative and played one round. But the local council found out that the flight in which they came in had one passenger testing positive, so the entire team was asked to withdraw despite all of them coming out negative.
This is absolute stupidity. They are really going bonkers. And then they put everybody to test. In Europe, they charge 120 to 150 Euros for tests. In India, we can get it tested anywhere for only Rs 800. They rip people off.
Q. How has the Indian badminton players taken to it?
Vimal Kumar. The top players are going through a very lean phase. The men’s singles players are struggling. Among women, except maybe Sindhu to some extent, others are struggling.
The men’s doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty are putting up a good fight. We can expect medals in Tokyo Olympics from Sindhu and the pair of Chirag and Satwik.
In most of the top badminton-playing countries, they have been having their domestic competitions on. Since they are into competitions, their players are more match fit than ours.
In India, we have not started domestic competitions. For the Olympic contenders, a few of the academies are running, so the top players are getting some attention. Otherwise, there is no competition.
In badminton, you have to compete. If you don’t compete, you lose that edge. In any racquet sport, you need competition. You cannot just sit and train. This is something our players are missing. Now slowly, they are going into competitions.
Q. How did you look at the Indian performances since they started competing at the start of the year?
Vimal Kumar. I have a feeling we might miss out on our chances. At the moment, Sai Praneeth is well placed to enter the Olympics.
I thought Kidambi Srikanth had a good chance, but he is still struggling. Hopefully, with 3-4 tournaments left, he will bridge that gap and reach the top 16.
It is a tough task. In women’s singles, Sindhu is certain. Saina is struggling. She also has a tough task to qualify. In men’s doubles, Chirag and Satwik look solid. We might not make it in mixed doubles and women’s doubles.
That is the state of affairs. It is not very rosy. The BWF has extended the qualification period till June 15; there are one or two more big events. Hopefully, the top players can do it. If Srikanth can make it, it will be good.
Q. Is it because of Covid that Indians other than Sindhu and Satwik/Chirag are finding it tough to make it?
Vimal Kumar. You can attribute it to Covid, but actually Olympic Games was to be held last year. Our lean patch started a couple of years earlier in men’s singles. Even in women’s singles, Saina is also struggling with injuries. Sindhu has been our main player. She is still in the top 10 (currently ranked seventh). Otherwise, it has been a bit of a struggle.
Q. How did you view Sindhu’s performance at the All England tournament? Could she have gone the distance?
Vimal Kumar. Sindhu lost to the Thai girl Pornpawee Chochuwong in the All England semifinal. The fortnight prior, she lost to Carolina Marin in the Swiss Open final.
She had a good win after a long time in the quarterfinal. The match against Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi was very interesting. Sindhu played very well to win in three gruelling games.
I thought she did not recover well. Maybe sufficient rest may have done her good. She had only 14 hours between her quarterfinal and the semifinal. Her match against Yamaguchi was very gruelling.
After a long time, I saw Sindhu playing quite well; she was really pumped up. That was a good sign. I thought she would repeat that performance because Sindhu has had a better head-to-head record against the Thai girl (4-1 before All England).
Since she did not recover well, this is one area she has to pay more attention to. She needs to have an ice bath; she has to do it twice.
It’s good to have an ice bath even before going to bed. It has nothing to do with her fitness. She played well. Unfortunately, she did not recover enough. It has happened in the Swiss Open also, she was a little sluggish. \
In my opinion, she should work on this area. She does not look good after a gruelling match. The sluggishness can be addressed with good recovery sessions. She will be ok if she can pay a little more attention to that. She is working with Korean coach (Park Tae Sang) for one and a half years. I still have a lot of hope on Sindhu; she can come back.
Q. Pre-Covid, there were medal hopes on more than just Sindhu and Satwik/Chirag. What has changed that equation?
Vimal Kumar. Men’s singles is still a struggle. What I have noticed is that Sai Praneeth is not physically good at the moment. He has to get better.
I don’t think he’ll be able to last big matches with his present fitness. Srikanth has still not found that attacking game of badminton, he is capable of playing. It is nearly three years since he was at his peak. He was very disappointing at the All England.
Q. Where does that leave Saina? Can India’s first-ever individual Olympic medallist (bronze in 2012) bounce back?
Vimal Kumar. It will be a Herculean task. She is constantly getting injured. That will dent her confidence. Everywhere you go and lose, it gets tough. She needs confidence. She keeps losing to players normally she should not.
She has another 3-4 main tournaments. Currently, she is playing in the Orleans Masters (in France, she has entered the quarterfinals), which is a BWF Tour Super 100 tournament.
Q. Are they left with wherever they play to garner ranking points?
A. No, it is not like that. They need quite a substantial number of points. You cannot get that by playing in these small tournaments. You will get only by playing the big ones. The next big tournament is the India Open in New Delhi (May 11-16), a Super Tour 500 tournament. They also have Malaysia and Indonesia. These are some of the big events which they will be trying. As of now, it is very bleak.
Q. What were the players going through during Covid? You also had your Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy to manage during the lockdown?
Vimal Kumar. More than that, we could make provision for them to train, but without competition, nothing works.
It is not just about training and playing. It is the competition that matters. You must compete in the circuit; that’s what the tournaments are there for. They have to play each other. Those things will sharpen them.
Some top nations have their nationals happening. They are in competitive action; they are in touch. Whereas we are still lacking that.
Q. Who are your medal prospects other than Sindhu and Chirag/Satwik?
Vimal Kumar. From outside India, the Malaysian Zii Jia Lee, who won the All England is a very strong contender.
He is only 22. He looks very impressive. He was in Bengaluru with us at the PPBA. He was 18 then. Five good Malaysians were sent here four years ago. That guy went on to win. Last year also, he reached the semifinals of the All England. This year, he has been consistent.
He is also one who can lose to anybody. He lost in the semifinal of the Swiss Open, lost to Sameer Verma in the Thailand Open. But he was brilliant in the All England, beating everybody, including world nos. 1 and 2, Kento Momota and Viktor Axelsen, respectively.
He is in the top-10 (ranked 8th). He will be my favourite. With the Olympics being held in Japan, definitely Kento Momota will be a favourite. And Axelsen from Denmark as well will be a contender.