The Indian badminton contingent at Rio Olympics 2016 features as many as seven players, making this the largest team ever to head to an Olympic event.
And credit for this should go to Saina Nehwal, the country's premier female player, whose exploits over the last decade at the international level have caused a massive resurgence of interest in the sport. Credit should also go to chief national coach and 2001 All-England champion Pullela Gopichand, whose untiring efforts at his Hyderabad academy have produced a bunch of players capable of challenging the best in the world.
Despite the size of the badminton contingent though, a dispassionate assessment of the country's prospects would reveal that it is only Saina who has a realistic chance of bagging an Olympic medal, and indeed, improving upon the bronze she brought home from London four years ago.
Seeded fifth this time, in accordance with her current world ranking, Saina has shown a commendable return to form of late, after spending a worrying few weeks in January and February this year with an Achilles tendon injury. In fact, there were some doubts whether she would be fit in time for the Games, since injuries of this nature can be stubborn and can take months to heal.
At the very top, there is absolutely no room for fitness levels to drop; there will always be competitors waiting to pounce on someone who is even marginally unfit — particularly if that player does not have a wide arsenal of strokes to fall back upon.
Saina, by her own admission, does not have the kind of talent possessed by players like Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand, Carolina Marin of Spain, Wang Yihan of China or Tai Tzu Ying of Taiwan. She has to rely on her fitness, speed and accuracy to overcome the challenge these outrageous strokemakers pose. Saina does have a fine smash directed at the opponent's body, but lacks the net wiles and overhead sliced strokes that Ratchanok or Tzu Ying do.
However, as her compatriot PV Sindhu remarked, "There are several players at virtually the same level in the world today; anyone can beat anyone on her day. It will be the performance on the day that will count towards progressing into the medal rounds."
Sindhu, who spent several months in the early reaches of last year nursing a stress fracture in her left foot, that also caused her to pull out of the prestigious All-England Championships, appears to have regained a lot of the verve that netted her two bronze medals in successive World Championships, in 2013 and ’14. Although she ended up losing out on a hattrick of World Championship medals, Sindhu has produced enough strong performances of late to pull up her ranking and is in the top-10 today.
The lanky Gopichand protégée is seeded ninth in the women’s singles event, which has 39 competitors divided into 13 round-robin groups of three players each at the preliminary stage. The 13 group winners, plus three of the best second-placed finishers will make it to the last-16 stage of the event.
Saina should not have any problems crossing the group stage, as she takes on Marija Ulitina of Ukraine and local Brazilian Lohaynny Vicente in Group G. Sindhu, however, has to cross swords with the redoubtable Michelle Li, a Canadian player of Chinese origin, and Hungary's Laura Sarosi, in Group M. Michelle, especially, cannot be taken lightly.
The only other singles player in the Indian contingent, Kidambi Srikanth has, like Sindhu, earned the distinction of being seeded ninth. The 23-year-old Indian is placed in Group H of the men's singles event, which is being run along similar lines as the women's draw — 39 players in 13 round-robin pools of three players each at the preliminary stage.
Srikanth roared into our consciousness after defeating two-time Olympic gold medallist Lin Dan on the latter's home turf in the 2014 China Open final. He will face Henri Hurskainen of Sweden and Lino Munoz of Mexico in his group. Neither player appears capable of stopping the aggressive Indian's smooth entry into the last-16.
Amazingly, India has two pairs fighting it out in the doubles events for the first time — Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa in the women's doubles, and Manu Attri with Sumeeth Reddy in the men's doubles.
The contesting doubles combinations have been divided into four pools of four pairs each at the preliminary stage, with the top two from each pool scheduled to progress to the quarter-finals.
Despite the size of the badminton contingent though, a dispassionate assessment of the country's prospects would reveal that it is only Saina who has a realistic chance of bagging an Olympic medal
The Jwala-Ashwini combine, which has the better pedigree of the two Indian pairs in the doubles fray, clashes with the world's top pairing of Japan's Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo in its opening outing. It would be too much to expect a win for the Indians, who have lost considerable steam after their 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medal winning exploits.
Thanks mainly to Jwala's burgeoning weight and substantially slower movements, the Indians have found it difficult of late to penetrate the strong defences of several of the world's best doubles combinations. Ashwini is speedy and hard-hitting, but is left with too much to do, to cover for her lumbering partner.
However, they do have a decent chance of knocking out the Dutch pairing of Selena Piek and Eefje Muskens. That would leave them needing to win their final group clash against Thailand's Sapsiree Taerattanachai and Puttita Supajirakul. The quicksilver Thais simply cannot be taken lightly, and could be the ones standing in the path of the quarter-final aspirations of the Indians.
As for Attri and Reddy, playing in their first Olympics should be a wonderful experience for them, even if they are unable to progress from their group. Every one of the other three combinations in Group D is a world-beater — Hendra Setiawan with Mohammad Ahsan of Indonesia, Japan's Hiroyuki Endo and Kenichi Hayakawa, and the Chinese pairing of Chai Biao and Hong Wei.
It would take an exceptional performance from the Indians to lower the colours of any of these three powerful pairs. Their best chance would appear to be against the Chinese duo, the least experienced among the three at the international level. Should Attri and Reddy deliver even one win, it would be considered to have been a most fruitful outing.