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Japan Open Superseries: Nozomi Okuhara’s withdrawal due to injury highlights BWF's scheduling issue

Nozomi Okuhara versus Carolina Marin. Japan’s newly crowned world champion versus the Spanish two-time former world champion, who had first bagged the crown in 2014, and retained it the following year. The most eagerly awaited women’s singles semi-final of the 2017 Japan Open Superseries badminton championships.

 Japan Open Superseries: Nozomi Okuhara’s withdrawal due to injury highlights BWFs scheduling issue

File image of Japan's Nozomi Okuhara. AP

It was a non-starter. It simply did not happen.

Half an hour before taking the court for the anticipated battle-royal, Okuhara, her face wreathed in an apologetic smile, announced to the media that she was being forced to withdraw from the competition because of injury. A build-up of fluid in her knee had apparently made the joint swollen and stiff, and totally unsuited to withstanding the rigours of a duel against the fit and speedy Spanish southpaw whom she had replaced as world champion.

That withdrawal announcement, made in the warm-up area of the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, brought the curtain down on the 22-year-old pint-sized Japanese ace’s campaign to regain the Japan Open title she had won two years ago. Okuhara’s body had finally rebelled against the intense pressure she had been putting on it in the course of the last month, and warned her against taking the court against the Spaniard on Saturday.

Playing on the hard surface of a synthetic Hova court (that is now used as standard equipment in all international tournaments) can be really unforgiving on the knees and ankles, as it does not allow a player to employ the ‘slide’ that can be done on a wooden surface. Every pushback from the net puts pressure on the knees – which explains why virtually every player on the international badminton circuit has had some issue or the other with the knees.

The injury turned the spotlight once again on the problem that the top players on the international circuit have been facing now for a while – that of tight bunching of tournaments, one behind the other, without giving the players sufficient time to rest and recover. The start of the ongoing Japan Open was scheduled a bare two days after the conclusion of the Korea Open, with both tournaments carrying the elite Superseries status.

On hindsight, it can be seen that it must have been killing for Okuhara and India’s PV Sindhu to turn up just three days after engaging in a one hour and 23 minute marathon in the Korea Open final, when both players had virtually played themselves to a standstill. Ideally, there should have been a week buffered in between the two events, to give the players some R&R (rest and recuperation) time.

Even in the scheduling of matches within the tournament, one can identify a certain amount of cynicism on the organisers’ part. Would it not have been unnerving for Satwiksairaj Rankireddy to play four matches – two each in the men’s and mixed doubles – in last Tuesday’s qualifying rounds, finish his fourth match of the day at 9:30 p.m., have a massage to relax his aching limbs, eat dinner, and then be forced to turn up the next morning at 9:30 a.m. to play his first-round mixed doubles match of the main draw?

Surely the organisers could have scheduled that fixture a little later in the morning, considering the fact that a vast number of matches had to be gone through on Wednesday, to complete all first-round fixtures in five events. Some of the other matches could easily have been moved up, and Rankireddy’s match delayed by a few hours. Or they could have scheduled all the matches in which qualifiers were involved for a slot later in the day.

It may be recalled that Saina Nehwal had complained of a similar painful experience a few weeks ago, when she had been forced to turn up bright and early for her next match, barely ten hours after getting a chance to get in a massage, dinner and catch some sleep in the wake of an exhausting late-night match the previous day.

The tight scheduling of tournaments by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) explains why several top players had chosen to skip the Seoul competition, even though it carried nearly double the amount of prize money as the one in Tokyo. The coaches of the world’s best players are having to pick and choose tournaments for their wards, to ensure they don’t suffer a premature burn-out.

It is hard to push out of the mind the dazed, almost disoriented, look that Sindhu had on her face in the course of the second game of her clash against Okuhara in Tokyo, earlier this week. It was almost as if she was just waiting for the match to be over, so she could get away from the on-court torture, and put as much distance as possible between herself and a badminton court.

Of course, the players at the very top, like Lin Dan, Chen Long and Lee Chong Wei, have the luxury of cherry-picking their appearances, since they are not bothered in the least by their standings on the BWF ladder. South Korean Son Wan Ho, on the other hand, appears bothered by the rankings, and has been playing a vast number of tournaments on the circuit, to hit the No 1 position, and stay there for the past 16 weeks.

The two Chinese aces play less than half the tournaments on the Superseries circuit, and just concentrate on the main ones. It has been years since Lin, without doubt the most dominant player in the past dozen years, was No 1 in the rankings. The Chinese legend is routinely seeded in the 5-8 bracket, and he just as routinely knocks out higher seeded players and makes the medal rounds.

It could be conceded that Lee has been one of the most prolific players in recent years, participating in tournament after tournament, and raking up the points to cement his No 1 position at the top of the heap. The Malaysian continues to hold the record of spending maximum number of weeks in that pre-eminent position. But even the soon-to-be-35 has realised the folly of putting his body through the wringer week after week, and plays fewer tournaments these days.

It is up to the mandarins at the BWF to admit to the existence of the tournament scheduling issue, and to take steps to protect the health and well-being of the players. Else, nouveau riche badminton would soon be facing the issue that had hit wealthy tennis a few decades back, and caused the premature retirements of quality players like Tracy Austin and Andrea Jaeger.

It really would be sad if that malady were to consume the shuttle sport’s marquee players like Okuhara and Sindhu.

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Updated Date: Sep 23, 2017 17:43:11 IST

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