BWF Korea Open 2019: Spate of ‘strategic retirements’ underline cruel demands of World Tour on shuttlers’ bodies

A spate of retirements by some of the world’s best shuttlers on Wednesday marred a crowded day’s programme and underlined the cruel demands that the BWF World Tour makes on the players.

Shirish Nadkarni September 26, 2019 12:54:05 IST
BWF Korea Open 2019: Spate of ‘strategic retirements’ underline cruel demands of World Tour on shuttlers’ bodies
  • India's B Sai Praneeth retired at the time of the mid-game interval in the second game of his first round match against seventh seeded Anders Antonsen.

  • Japan's World No 1, Akane Yamaguchi, had been the first of as many as six retirees in the course of a packed schedule on four courts at Airport Sky Dome

  • Players' mere presence in the tournaments serves two purposes, avoiding the BWF fine, and getting the points that are awarded for even first-round losses.

A spate of retirements, at various stages of their opening-round matches, by some of the world’s best shuttlers on Wednesday, the second day of the Korea Open Super 500 badminton championships, marred a crowded day’s programme and underlined the cruel demands that the BWF World Tour makes on the players.

BWF Korea Open 2019 Spate of strategic retirements underline cruel demands of World Tour on shuttlers bodies

File image of B Sai Praneeth. @BAI_Media

India’s B Sai Praneeth retired at the time of the mid-game interval in the second game of his first round match against Denmark’s seventh seeded Anders Antonsen, who had been silver medalist at the 2019 World Championships in Basel last month. Antonsen had won the opening stanza comfortably at 21-9, and was leading 11-7 in the second when Praneeth threw in the towel.

In a match being played simultaneously on an adjoining court, Japan’s World No 1, Akane Yamaguchi, had been the first of as many as six retirees in the course of a packed schedule on four courts at Incheon’s Airport Sky Dome, when she called it quits at the midpoint of the first game itself. The Japanese trailed Indonesia’s Fitriani Fitriani 10-11 after a mere eight minutes of action.

Immediately after Praneeth’s match ended prematurely, China’s 2012 Olympic champion Li Xuerui, who has not been at her best since returning from a horrific knee injury at the Rio Olympics in 2016, chose not to continue her match against Japan’s Sayaka Takahashi when trailing 3-11 in the second game, after losing the first at 15-21.

A couple of hours later, it was a huge shock to find China’s World Championship silver medalists, Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping, choosing to retire at 1-3 in their clash against Chinese Taipei’s Wang Chi Lin and Cheung Chi Ya after exactly one minute of their match had been played. The Taiwanese pair appeared shell-shocked when the fancied Chinese combination came to the net to shake hands and signal the end of their brief duel.

In the afternoon, it was former World No 1 and eighth seed, Saina Nehwal of India, who felt unable to continue her quest for a second-round spot, when she fell 1-8 behind in the third game of her duel with South Korea’s Kim Ga Eun. The retirement took place in the 48th minute of the encounter with the local girl, after the Indian had won the opening game at 21-19, but conceded the second at 18-21, and was a virtual passenger in the decider.

A Korean women’s doubles pair, Jeong Na Eun and Kim Min Ji, opted not to continue their one-sided encounter against Japan’s 2019 World Championship runners-up and No 3 seeds, Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota, after the first game had ended in a 21-6 rout of the home pair.

In all of the above retirements, injury was cited as the reason for the player(s)’ pull-out; and it cast a shadow over the condition of the courts at the Airport Sky Dome. Three of the retirements took place on Court 1, while one each took place on the other three courts.

Yet, all the matches were played on the Hova surface that has become the standard surface for all international tournaments on the World Tour. The courts were all relatively new, in good condition, and had not been worn down by years of play.

Was it, therefore, just a coincidence that there had been a large number of retirements in what were first-round matches in the $400,000 prize money tournament, the 19th competition in the current year’s schedule? Or had they been “strategic retirements” by tired players who had been forced by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) to play a certain minimum number of tournaments, or face a hefty fine for non-compliance?

It is impossible to come to a cut-and-dried answer to this issue, for it is only the players themselves who can know the true reason for their giving up in a match that has prize money and circuit points on offer. Their mere presence in the tournaments serves two purposes – avoiding the BWF fine, and getting the points that are awarded for even first-round losses.

Some top-15 players have played their mandated 12 tournaments a year even through injury to ensure that they complete their BWF-designated quota; and have then incurred more debilitating injuries. India’s Kidambi Srikanth is a case in point.

The Guntur lad played in the 2017 Indian Nationals at Nagpur (thanks to the diktat of the Badminton Association of India) and in the course of the first quarter of 2018 (to obey the BWF rules), even though he had incurred a knee injury during Denmark and French Open tournaments on the second part of the European circuit.

Not only did this ill-advised participation ruin his knee further and induce a loss of that fine edge in speed that he had built up, but it also affected his confidence, and he has since been a shadow of the player who had won four Superseries tournaments, and been a losing finalist in a fifth, in the course of the 2017 season.

In its own defence, the BWF has said that the participation of the top players directly dictates the level of corporate sponsorships that tournaments attract. Some corporates only come in when they are assured that a certain number of the top players will definitely participate. Last-minute withdrawals adversely affect the sponsorship levels for the following year’s event.

In short, it is all about money. It is the BWF’s unstated submission that only by increased participation in the top competitions on the circuit can the players maximise their points, their monetary rewards from their performances in the tournaments, and the product endorsements that bring in the real moolah.

If asked to look at the deleterious effects that the punishing World Tour schedule has on the bodies of the players, the BWF will no doubt point at the off-court monetary benefits accruing to the shuttlers. The badminton World Tour is still at a nascent stage, and the divide between it and the tennis circuit in terms of money and popularity is huge, but the gap is slowly beginning to close.

Until then, the ‘strategic retirements’ of top players will continue to increase as the annual circuit runs its course, and the gaps between successive major tournaments get fewer. Fans of the game will sadly have to get used to witnessing the slaughter of the geese that lay the golden eggs.

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