A year can be a long time in sport, just ask Saina Nehwal. The face of Indian badminton till not too long ago has been supplanted by her youthful compatriot Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, who is riding the wave of her Olympic success. The promotional posters of the Premier Badminton League declare the #BaddiesAreBack with Sindhu front and centre. Saina, on the other hand, is dealing with a tortuous return from a major knee injury. The 26-year-old isn’t alone in her pursuit to reclaim lost glory – she is joined by Parupalli Kashyap and Srikanth Kidambi, who are both fighting for form after returning from injuries.
The new year could offer each of these stars just the kind of stage they need to assert themselves and rediscover their touch. The PBL is a carnival in the guise of a league, with six teams duking it out for a healthy million-dollar pot. The festival lasts just a fortnight, offering them at least five matches against reasonably solid international competition. The players can express themselves with freedom, with nothing but money at stake during the event.
The eleven-point format will feel breezier and less strenuous to these warriors. As they return from injury inflicted layoffs, the players will find the PBL an easier test of their fitness and stamina. The shorter format also calls for an aggressive approach, which could help the players go for the finish earlier than most rallies in the conventional 21-point format.
None of that makes it an easy test, because Season 2 of the PBL has attracted some top talent. And even if there are no ranking points at stake, the top players have a sense of pride that is hard to separate from their game. That should help Saina, Kashyap and Srikanth test themselves against some serious competition over the coming two weeks.
Saina has dropped to no.10 in the rankings as she lost much of last season to a knee injury that needed major reconstruction. That is a long way from the heady summer of 2015 when she scaled the peak of the world badminton rankings. After a lengthy rehab, Saina made her return late in 2016, reaching the quarterfinals of the Macau Open and Hong Kong Open.
The real season will begin for her when she plays in the Malaysian Masters and later the Syed Modi International in Lucknow. It will be interesting to see how Saina shapes her role with the Awadhe Warriors this season. She will be tested severely against the likes of Sindhu, Carolina Marin and Sung Ji Hyun – all three women ranked higher than Saina at this time.
As challenging as that might sound, it might be the perfect opportunity for Saina to test herself against them. Interestingly, Carolina herself is looking to regain some form after a lackluster finish to 2016. The Spaniard had to deal with injury and a dip in intensity after taking Gold in the Rio Olympics. The competition will help Saina and coach Vimal Kumar identify the nuances that need tweaking ahead of the main season.
Kashyap has been dealing with a series of injuries that have nearly derailed his career. He slipped to 114 in the world before climbing back to 62nd on the strength of his good showing in the Korea Masters. It was welcome relief for Kashyap, as he was searching for some confidence before ending a barren 2016. The Indian was even leading Son Wan Ho in both the games before losing in that hard-fought match.
Kashyap is an exciting player when he is fully fit and Korea was the first real indicator of his abilities in a long time. He will bring that energy to the PBL and look for some good results ahead of his campaign for 2017. At 30, Kashyap is running out of time to make a lasting impression. But the hardworking Hyderabadi will like to have a couple of good seasons before walking away into the sunset.
Srikanth rose to world No.3 in 2015, but inconsistency and injuries have robbed the young star of the momentum. The 23-year-old did reach the quarterfinals in Rio, but there wasn’t really much else that he could celebrate in 2016. He is currently ranked 15th in the world.
The powerful player is an excellent stroke maker with a thundering smash. He will be electrifying to watch in the PBL, especially in the context of the new format. Aggression is key this fortnight and Srikanth packs a few dynamites with him every time he is on court.
Playing against men of the caliber of Jan O Jorgensen and Viktor Axelsen should help Srikanth raise his game and prepare for the battles that lay ahead in his path. The man from Guntur in Andhra Pradesh was clearly gutted at his loss in Rio. The PBL could mark the beginning of a second journey for this young badminton player – another four-year cycle that could climax in Tokyo 2020.
It is these underlying battles of fallen stars that could spark added life into the second season of PBL and layer the excitement for its fans.
Updated Date: Jan 01, 2017 19:15 PM