A first-round loss to Japan’s Sayaka Takahashi at the Indonesia Masters World Tour Super 500 badminton championships has dealt a crippling blow to the aspirations of defending champion Saina Nehwal of qualifying for her fourth successive Olympic Games.
Having played with distinction at Beijing in 2008, London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the 29-year-old Indian shuttler had set her heart on qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, six months hence, and possibly bettering her bronze medal-winning performance at the London Games.
In her all-consuming desire to make the heavily restricted 64-player draw at Tokyo in an effort at one final Olympic hurrah, Saina had even dropped out of the forthcoming lucrative Premier Badminton League (PBL) for the first time in her career. She made it plain that she wished to concentrate all her energies in garnering the points on the World Tour that would propel her into the world’s top 15 women’s singles players in the Olympic qualification table, and net her a second Olympic slot behind reigning world champion PV Sindhu.
Olympic rules dictate that each of the participating nations is allotted one slot in the draw of each event, unless – like China and Japan – there are two players within the world’s top-15, in which case the second player also gets accommodated. With Sindhu having almost certainly qualified, Saina was aiming to grab a second berth for India by making the top-15 by the cut-off date of 26 April.
However, the 11th ranked Indian ace’s 21-19, 13-21, 5-21 loss in 50 minutes to Takahashi, who features in the 14th spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) pecking order, was her third consecutive loss in seven career meetings with the Japanese left-hander. The scores of the second and third games revealed the extent to which the staying powers of the former World no 1 have deteriorated in the wake of her lengthy struggle with pancreatitis in the final quarter of 2019.
After beating Takahashi four times in succession between 2013 and 2015, when she was arguably in the best phase of her career, Saina did not run into the Japanese southpaw in the following three years, but then lost to former World no 1 doubles player Ayaka Takahashi’s younger sister at the Thailand Open and Denmark Open in 2019, and now the Indonesia Masters in Jakarta.
This last loss was, without doubt, Saina’s worst showing against an opponent she did not have too much trouble with, earlier. The Hisar-born player was simply not in the match after conceding a massive 11-2 lead in the second game; and, although she pulled back to some extent, to close the gap to 11-13, the effort sapped her strength, and rendered her a passenger for the rest of the encounter.
It may still be argued that there are several key tournaments, including the prestigious All England Super 1000, before the 26 April cut-off date for collecting points for Olympic qualification, and that Saina could still make the top-15 to grab a second slot for Indian women.
But the qualification rules for the Olympics are different from the rules governing BWF rankings. The latter are determined on the strength of a moving annual total (MAT), where the points gained from the previous year’s performance in a particular tournament are dropped, and the ones gained at this year’s event are added. In Saina’s case, the 9,200 points she gained for her Indonesia Masters title triumph over Spaniard Carolina Marin in January 2019 needed to be defended.
Saina’s indifferent performance in Jakarta on Wednesday would have netted her a consolation 2,220 points, and cost her 6,980 points in her MAT, resulting in her ranking going down after the results of the Indonesia Masters are taken into account for the rankings next week.
That is bad enough, but the rules for the Race to the Olympics involve an aggregation of the points gained by participation in tournaments between April 29, 2019 and April 26, 2020. There is no MAT involved, or defence of points gained in the previous year’s tournament; it just means that the more tournaments you play, the more points you gain. It explained Saina’s desire to blot out the PBL from her mind, and channelize all her energies into collecting points on the World Tour.
In the Olympics qualification table, Saina stood 24th in the rankings before the onset of the Malaysia Masters, which concluded last Sunday, and where she gained 5,040 points for her quarter-final loss at the hands of reigning Olympic champion Marin. She was able to improve her standing marginally, although there was a long way to go before she could squeeze into the top-15.
Sadly, the deterioration in Saina’s stamina was apparent in her 8-21, 7-21 loss to the three-time former world champion, although she had raised Indian hopes sky-high with a superb display (a 25-23, 21-12 win) against precocious South Korean An Se Young in the second round. That effort had rendered her stiff and stale the next day, and she could do nothing right against Marin.
The Indian’s first-round loss to Takahashi in Jakarta yesterday will have prevented her from moving up the Olympic qualification table, and will have left her with an almost insurmountable hurdle in the remaining tournaments before April 26. As of now, nothing short of a title win in the Thailand Open next week will serve Saina’s qualification cause. And even then, there would be plenty of agonizing over the results of the tournaments to come over the next quarter.
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Updated Date: Jan 16, 2020 10:44:36 IST