BWF World Tour Finals: How PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth sneaked into world’s richest badminton tournament
By rights, neither Sindhu nor Srikanth would have merited a place in the draws. Two stellar rules for qualification, however, came to their rescue.
Indian badminton fans are bound to be riveted to their TV screens this week, for reigning world champion PV Sindhu and compatriot Kidambi Srikanth, who have been the flag-bearers of Indian badminton for the past few years, have managed to sneak through the back door into the singles draws of the delayed 2020 World Tour finals.
The $1.5 million prize money competition, that makes it the world’s richest tournament in the shuttle sport, kicks off at the Impact Arena in Bangkok from Wednesday, 27 January. It features eight players each in the men’s and women’s singles, and eight pairs each in the three paired events, divided into two round-robin groups of four each, followed by the knock-out semi-finals and finals.
The tournament was actually to have been played in Guangzhou, China, in December last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic that struck the world in the first quarter of 2020 and comprehensively disrupted the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) tournament schedule, forced its postponement by over a month, and its relocation to Bangkok. The two Super 1000 tournaments that immediately preceded the World Tour finals afforded players a final chance to improve their points tally.
By rights, neither Sindhu nor Srikanth would have merited a place in the draws, since the berths were to be allotted on the basis of points garnered by players for their performance in tournaments that were actually held in 2020. In other words, those events that were held in the first quarter of the year until the suspension of the schedule at the end of the All England Championships in March, and the Denmark Open that was held in the closing weeks of the year.
Two stellar rules for qualification, however, came to the rescue of the two Indians. One mandated that no more than two players from any one nation could be accommodated in the singles draws, or two pairs from a single country in the doubles events. The second rule, which was drawn up only because of the COVID-19 pandemic, required all players to spend a week in quarantine and be part of a secure bio-bubble before they took the court for their opening group matches.
The second rule resulted in the instant omission of all players from China and Japan. The former nation withdrew its squad from the two Thailand Open tournaments, citing concern over the incidence of the dreaded disease in Bangkok, while the latter reported that world No 1 and two-time reigning world champion, Kento Momota, had tested positive for COVID-19 , and his proximity to the national players during their training camp had forced Japan to withdraw its entire squad from the three tournaments that were to take place in the Thai capital.
Thus, among the men, players of the caliber of Momota, Chen Long and Shi Yuqi, who would have been among the top eight qualifiers, were forced out of the race even before they could take their positions on the track. Among the women, the likes of Chen Yufei, Nozomi Okuhara and He Bingjiao suffered the same fate.
The qualification list for the World Tour finals, based on the number of points collected by the players in the handful of tournaments that could actually be conducted, read as follows:
Men’s Singles: 1. Viktor Axelsen of Denmark (57,220 points from six tournaments), 2. Anders Antonsen of Denmark (40,820 from six), 3. Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei (40,520 from six), 4. Rasmus Gemke of Denmark (37,020 from seven), 5. Wang Tzu Wei of Chinese Taipei (35,240 from eight), 6. Ng Ka Long Angus of Hong Kong China (35,020 from six), 7. Kidambi Srikanth of India (31,360 from nine), 8. Lee Zii Jia of Malaysia (29,390 from six) and 9. Anthony Sinisuka Ginting of Indonesia (27,620 from five).
Women’s Singles: 1. Carolina Marin of Spain (73,820 points from nine tournaments), 2. Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei (40,200 from four), 3. Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand (38,250 from six), 4. An Se Young of Korea (37,140 from seven), 5. Pornpawee Chochuwong of Thailand (33,860 from eight), 6. Michelle Li of Canada (28,940 from five), 7. Nozomi Okuhara of Japan (28,040 from four), 8. Busanan Ongbamrungphan of Thailand (27,870 from seven), 9. Evgeniya Kosetskaya of Russia (26,750 from nine) and 10. Pusarla V Sindhu of India (24,840 from five).
Thanks to the absence of the top Chinese and Japanese shuttlers, and the omission of Rasmus Gemke (as he is the third player from Denmark to qualify), Srikanth has made it from the sixth spot. He proved to be the hardest working of all the qualifiers in the men’s singles, for he participated in nine tournaments, three more than the top two qualifiers — Axelsen, who claimed a hat-trick of titles at the 2020 All England and the two just-concluded Thailand Opens, and Antonsen, who was runner-up to Momota at the 2019 World Championships in Basel.
Among the women, the three-time world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, Carolina Marin, finished way beyond all others in the race, with a whopping 73,820 points from participation in nine tournaments. Her compelling victories over the world No 1, Tai Tzu Ying, in successive weeks in Bangkok, and the fact that she did not drop a single game over 10 rounds in the Yonex and Toyota Thailand Opens, installs her as the odds-on favourite to claim the top prize when the World Tour finals run their course on 31 January.
Sindhu, of course, did not play in as many tournaments as most of her closest competitors, and also did not have the best of results in the events in which she competed. Nevertheless, she was helped in her qualification quest by the sidelining of Busanan Ongbamrungphan as the third Thai player in the elite list, and by the forced absence of Nozomi Okuhara, who followed the diktat of her country’s badminton association and stayed away from the trio of Bangkok tournaments.
A notable omission from the list of qualifiers was Japan’s former world No 2, Akane Yamaguchi, whose points tally was unexpectedly poor, thanks to a series of first-round exits she experienced in the first quarter of 2020. Of course, even if she had qualified for the World Tour finals, she would have been forced to drop out of the race, along with Okuhara and the rest of the Japanese squad.
It is now up to Sindhu, as the reigning world champion, Olympic silver medallist and winner of the World Tour finals in 2018, to impose her presence on the forthcoming event. Hopefully, she will cast aside the evil memories of her recent losses to Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt and Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, and play like the irresistible force and immovable object she proved to be when she powered her way to the world championship gold at Basel in August 2019.
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Swiss Open: PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth through to round of 16; Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty win
While world champion Sindhu beat Yigit Neslihan of Turkey 21-16, 21-19 in her first-round match that lasted 42 minutes, Srikanth staved off a spirited challenge from compatriot Sameer Verma to make a winning start to his campaign.
World champion Sindhu took a minute less than an hour to see off a fighting Busanan, seeded fifth, 21-16, 23-21 to set up a clash with fourth seed Denmark's fourth seed Mia Blichfeldt.