Ace shuttlers from around the world will come together at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham on Wednesday as the Super Series season kicks off with the 'Wimbledon of Badminton' – the All England Championships. The oldest and most esteemed tournament has witnessed shuttlers produce exquisite badminton over the years and the 107th edition promises to be more exciting than ever.
Expectations will be high when the Indian shuttlers fight it out to end the 16-year-old drought at the prestigious event. Earlier, the legendary Prakash Padukone made history in 1980 by winning the All England, announcing India's entry in world badminton, and 21 years later, Indian badminton guru Pullela Gopichand made the headlines with a title triumph at the marquee event. Since then, the only Indian who came close to the title was Saina Nehwal back in 2015, when she was outplayed in the final by old foe Carolina Marin.
This time around, all eyes will be on the eight seed Saina and sixth seed PV Sindhu, who will spearhead India in the women's department.
Olympic bronze medallist Saina has returned to full fitness after enduring a serious knee injury during the Rio Olympics in 2016. The 26-year-old will lock horns with defending champion Nozomi Okuhara of Japan in the first round. The Japanese has been out of touch, which might give Saina the upper hand. Even though the Indian is in better shape and form, her biggest challenge this year will be her decision-making and fitness.
“Saina has been training hard and looks much fitter. I feel she has a good chance to do well in the tournament. She is a fighter,’’ said Saina's coach Vimal Kumar. She can possibly face third seed South Korean Sung Ji Hyun if she successfully manages to clear the first and second rounds. Sung is known for her brilliant court coverage and work rate but trails 1-6 in head-to-head meetings against Saina.
Meanwhile, the high-flying Olympic silver medallist Sindhu has emerged as one of the favourites after smashing performances to win the China Open and Syed Modi Grand Prix, and inspiring her team, Chennai Smashers, to the Premier Badminton League (PBL) crown.
However, the 21-year-old had a season to forget in the previous edition, losing to Thai Porntip Buranaprasertsuk in the first round. But after exceeding expectations and improving her net-play, she looks confident. “This is one of the most important tournaments on the circuit,” Sindhu told ESPN in a recent interview. “It is important to start well and I want to give my best. I have to play my game. Last time I lost in the first round, so I am eager to do better this time,” she added.
Sindhu begins her All England campaign against the 33rd ranked Danish Mette Poulsen. However, Sindhu can possibly bump into top seed Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei who is in sensational form. “It will be an interesting game. She is very deceptive,’’ said Sindhu. Tai's record against Sindhu looks good as she leads 5-3 in overall head-to-head meetings, having recently defeated Sindhu at the Hong Kong Open final.
In the men’s singles draw, fit-again Kidambi Srikanth will face Zhao Junpeng after making a comeback from a lengthy injury in the recently-concluded German Open. The Andhra Pradesh shuttler lost to Chen Long in the pre-quarterfinals. However, Kidambi relishes his chances and may face third seed Danish Viktor Axelsen in the second round. This will be Kidambi's golden opportunity, keeping top seed Lee Chong Wei's injury issues in mind.
HS Prannoy, on the other hand, had a splendid PBL 2017 and was unbeaten over the course of the event, winning all his seven matches. He competes with Chinese Quio Bin in the first encounter and could meet seventh seed Tian Houwei, Indonesian ace Tommy Sugiarto, or Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei. Prannoy needs to up the ante if he wants to leave a mark, given that all eyes would be on Chen Long and Lin Dan, for both of whom, this will be the last All England campaign.
Just like Prannoy, Ajay Jayaram had a remarkable PBL after getting the better of second seed Jan O Jorgensen and his compatriot Axelsen with dexterity. However, the Chennai-born shuttler has never won a single game in the tournament and will want to improve that record when he takes on Chinese Huang Yuxiang. Jayaram can set up a tough fight with former Olympic champion Lin Dan only if he progresses.
Elsewhere, in the men’s doubles, Manu Attri and Buss Sumeeth Reddy will feature as the only Indian pair in that section. The duo have not been in great form but now they have a chance to prove their worth on the grandest stage of all.
Contrary to Attri and Reddy, India's mixed doubles pair of Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy showed remarkable progress in recent times. The dynamic Indian pair have won three Grand Prix titles – the Syed Modi International, Brasil Open and Russian Open – and are title contenders at the All England Championships. In women's doubles, Sikki and Ashwini Ponnappa play the qualifier on Tuesday.
"We have a very strong contingent. I don’t want to single out any one or two players (in men and women’s sections) who could be favourites. But, somehow, I have a feeling that we are going to put up a special performance this time around,” Gopichand was quoted as saying by The Hindu.
This year's All England looks more open as there are no clear favourites, but it goes without saying that Saina and Sindhu are two of India's biggest hopes. The event comes across as an enormous platform for the Indian shuttlers who can finally end the hoodoo and emulate feats of Padukone and Gopichand.
Updated Date: Mar 08, 2017 11:08:59 IST