Has Kidambi Srikanth’s withdrawal from China Open Superseries Premier cost him the World No 1 position?

Kidambi Srikanth’s last-minute withdrawal from the China Open Superseries Premier badminton championships was almost inevitable.

Continuous tournament play by the World No 2 over the past month, with outstanding results in the three competitions in which he featured, has taken its toll on his body, and induced him to skip the tournament in which he announced his arrival on the world stage in 2014 by beating the legendary Lin Dan in front of the latter’s home crowd.

The portents were there when he sported a tight band below his right knee during the final of the French Open Superseries, which he won handily in two straight games from Japan’s 40th-ranked giant-killer, Kenta Nishimoto, after edging past compatriot and regular sparring-partner at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA), HS Prannoy, in the penultimate round.

File photo of Kidambi Srikanth. AFP

File photo of Kidambi Srikanth. AFP

The French Open title was Srikanth’s fourth of the year from five entries into the finals, the sole aberration being a narrow defeat in the Singapore Open summit clash at the hands of another PGBA trainee, B Sai Praneeth. It came hard on the heels of a fabulous triumph in the Denmark Open Superseries Premier, where he tamed world champion Viktor Axelsen at the quarter-final stage in the Dane’s own den in Odense.

Shortly after returning from Paris, the Guntur-born 24-year-old was pressurised into playing in the Indian Nationals in Nagpur, a tournament in which all the icon players of the country participated for the first time in the last decade. It was clear from his initial rounds itself that he was not at his best, as he struggled past Shubham Prajapati in the quarter-finals (at 21-17, 23-21) and upcoming youngster Lakshya Sen (by a 21-16, 21-18 scoreline) in the semis.

The knee problem got aggravated in the course of a long-drawn final against Prannoy, who is ranked 11th on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) computer, and knows Srikanth’s game inside out. The latter had to fight tooth and nail to retrieve the second game after losing the opener; and the massive effort appeared to have drained the top seed, inducing him to let the decider go without much of a fight.

Srikanth’s court movement in that third game looked positively laboured, and it appeared to the jam-packed audience as if he was either allowing his friend and batch-mate to take the national crown as compensation for Prannoy’s narrow loss to him in the French Open semifinal, or saving his dicky knee for future combat.

The announcement of his pull-out from the China Open, therefore, did not come as a big surprise, though he has revealed that he is only taking a precautionary week-long break, and that he will be back at the Hong Kong Open Superseries, which is being played from 21 to 26 November.

The major question that arises from Srikanth’s withdrawal from the China Open is: Has his move to skip this premier competition, in which virtually all the world’s top players are participating, cost the Indian ace the World No 1 ranking?

There are several points that must be considered before coming to a conclusion on this issue. First and foremost is the question of whether Srikanth has been hankering for the premier spot in the BWF rankings. From all accounts, it has not been his major ambition, as he had clarified in a courtside interview at the end of the French Open.

“I will take a decision on my participation in the remaining tournaments in South-East Asia (like the China Open Superseries Premier, the Hong Kong Open SS and the Macau Open), in consultation with my coaches, after I get back to Hyderabad,” he had said.

“Basically, it is his (coach Mulyo Handoyo’s) call to decide on my participation in those tournaments. In any case, I don’t have any points to defend in these tournaments, so my overall position (in the BWF rankings) will not change whether I participate or not. So there is really no pressure on me to take part in them. I do want to become World No 1, but am not overly bothered about that.”

The second point to be considered is the current points position, going into the China Open. Srikanth, with 73,403 points, trails the top-ranked Axelsen, who has 77,930 points, by 4,527 points. He is ahead of the third-ranked South Korean, Son Wan Ho (71,738) by a little over 1,600 points. Chinese legend Lin Dan is fourth with 68,746 points.

The points awarded for winning a Superseries Premier championship are: 9,200 for the winner, 7,800 for the runner-up, 6,420 for both the losing semi-finalists, 5,040 for the losing quarter-finalists, 3,600 for those reaching the last-16, and 2,220 for those losing in the first round of the competition. It meant that, even if Srikanth were to win the China Open, he would only have leapfrogged Axelsen if the top-seeded Dane were to lose at the last-16 stage.

Since the draws were made before Srikanth ascended to the World No 2 spot, the seedings have him in the eighth spot, in the fourth and final quarter of the draw, headed by Korean Son, who is seeded second. Indeed, Srikanth was scheduled to run into fellow countryman Prannoy in the second round, after both Indians tackled qualifiers in their lung-openers.

Srikanth’s vacated spot will now be filled by a player who is first in line for promotion from the qualifying rounds, that is the one ranked highest in the 33-40 bracket. Prannoy, in his first two matches, is hence scheduled to meet two players from the qualifying rounds, and should comfortably make it to the quarter-finals against Son.

But to return to the race for the World No 1 ranking, it becomes clear that Axelsen will further extend his lead at the top of the table if he wins the China Open. Thanks to Srikanth’s pull-out, there is even a chance that Son, with at least a semi-final placing in Fuzhou, could displace the Indian from the No 2 spot.

This jockeying for the top spot pulls the focus back on the problem of scheduling of tournaments. In the face of criticism about bunching of tournaments, that increases the injury risk to players, the BWF has clarified that it schedules two to three tournaments in successive weeks in a particular part of the world to allow players to move seamlessly from one tournament to another without needing to make back-and-forth trips between their homes and the tournament venues.

Thus, the Denmark Open and French Open were scheduled in Europe, one behind the other, just as the Macau Open Grand Prix Gold, China Open and Hong Kong Open have been scheduled in East Asia in successive weeks. Most of the top stars have preferred rest and training to playing in the ongoing Macau Open (8-12 November), which only boasts second-rung players.

For the Indian players, the scheduling of the Nationals — sandwiched between the European and East Asian circuits — could hardly have come at a worse time. Since pressure was exerted on the top stars to participate in the Nationals, the likes of Srikanth, Prannoy, Sai Praneeth, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu had no alternative but to take the court in Nagpur.

Thus, Srikanth was forced to play three matches en route to the final, at a time when he would have preferred to rest his knee, and concentrate on light training to maintain his fitness levels. Four matches in a tournament that had become a prestige issue to show the country that the star internationals were worthy of their status proved to be the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

Indian fans will fervently hope that the forthcoming week, when the world’s top badminton players will be vying to win one of the most prestigious tournaments on the world circuit, will allow their blue-eyed boy to return to full fitness, and get back on the courts at the Hong Kong Open on 21 November.

Updated Date: Nov 12, 2017 12:08 PM

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