“You will be well compensated for your efforts on the court, but you will not be permitted to cherry-pick your tournaments, and will be penalised if you fail to turn up at certain tournaments.”
This was the unequivocally stern message delivered by the Badminton World Federation (BWF), the game’s controlling body, to the world’s top shuttlers, as it unveiled a revamped competition schedule for the year 2018.
Called the ‘World Tour’, instead of the erstwhile Superseries and Superseries Premier, the tournament schedule makes it compulsory for the world’s top 15 players in the singles events and top 10 pairs in the doubles disciplines to play a minimum of 12 tournaments, or face a stiff fine if they fail to comply.
The structure of tournaments in the annual calendar has been divided into different grades and levels. Top of the pops is Grade One, which comprises all major tournaments like the Olympics, the Thomas and Uber Cup team finals, the Sudirman Cup, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and World Junior Championships.
Grade Two has been sub-divided into a number of levels. There is just one tournament in Level One — the World Tour Finals — until now known as the year-ending Superseries grand finals. This is the world’s richest tournament, with a purse of US$1 million, that has featured only the top eight players/pairs to have made the grade on points garnered during the year at various tournaments around the globe.
The Superseries final has been played in mid-December in Dubai since 2013, after the BWF concluded a five-year contract with the authorities in the emirate. From 2018 onwards, the prize money purse has been revised to $1.5 million, even as the qualification norms for the World Tour Finals remain the same.
Three tournaments have been placed in Level Two — the All-England, Indonesian Open and China Open, which were formerly known as Superseries Premier. They will all carry prize money of at least $1 million.
Incidentally, the All-England, in Birmingham from March 14 to 18, will be the first global competition to implement the new, controversial service rule, under which it has been mandated that the whole of the shuttle must be below 1.15 metres from the surface of the court at the moment it touches the server’s racket. Tall players, like reigning world champion Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, have complained bitterly about the huge advantage that the experimental rule gives to the shorter players.
Five tournaments make up Level Three, at which $700,000 will be on offer – the Malaysian Open, Korea Open, Denmark Open, France Open and Japan Open, all of which were formerly known as Superseries events. The India Open, which has been held in New Delhi since 2008, and which carried prize money of $325,000 in 2017, does not make the cut in Level Three, and has been downgraded by a level.
The erstwhile Grand Prix Gold events, like the Malaysian Masters, the Thailand Open and the Syed Modi Memorial, have been placed in Level Four, which has a total of seven tournaments featuring the lower ranked players. Level Five, earlier known as the International Satellite and Challenger, comprises 11 tournaments. There is also a Level Six for continental tournaments, though the exact number has not yet been decided by the BWF.
The qualifying draws of 16 for Levels Two and Three, that feature players just outside the ranking list of the top 32 to have entered a particular competition, have been scrapped, because the preliminaries take time to complete and add an extra day to the schedule of each tournament.
Henceforth, all World Tour tournaments up to and inclusive Level Three, will last five days instead of six; and run from a Wednesday through to the following Sunday. The qualifying tournament for Level Four will be limited to eight players instead of 16.
India has four players in the top 32 — Kidambi Srikanth (ranked No 5), HS Prannoy (No 10), B Sai Praneeth (No 17) and Sameer Verma (No 30) – who will henceforth be forced to play in all three tournaments of Level Two and all five competitions of Level Three. The shuttlers also have to play at least four Level Four tournaments, to make up the mandatory dozen in the year.
In addition, there is their ‘national duty’ to make themselves available for the Thomas Cup, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and other such major team events. It would mean that the top players would be required to compulsorily play 13-14 tournaments in a calendar year. It will be a tough ask, although the monetary rewards have improved.
Players outside the world’s top 32 would be debarred from playing in the prestigious Level Two and Three tournaments. Those on the fringe of the elite 32, like India’s Ajay Jayaram (currently occupying the 39th berth) would have to send in their entries and anxiously await news of the withdrawal, for one reason or another, of some of those who automatically make the cut. The abolition of the qualifying rounds has made it tougher for lower-ranked players to play in big tournaments.
“BWF have decided to do away with the qualifying tournament because it takes time. They also want to ensure quality competitions to give spectators their money’s worth,” a top official of the Badminton Association of Malaysia was quoted by The Star as having said in Kuala Lumpur, where the BWF is headquartered.
Players like veterans Lee Chong Wei (35) and Lin Dan (34), who have been seeking to cut down on their playing schedule to ensure their longevity, would not have been amused by the compulsion to play at least a dozen tournaments, plus turn up for national duty.
The legendary Prakash Padukone, the first Indian to win the All-England title in 1980, had this to say on the sidelines of the just-concluded Tata Open in Mumbai: “As we know, it is already a cramped schedule; and, at the international circuit, one should be careful not to overdo things, to remain injury-free. If your injury gets serious, you'll end up missing action for six months. So, all the top players should sit down with their coaches, and pick tournaments they will play well in advance.”
In fact, there is no clarity in the new rules on what happens to a top-15 player who is unable to participate in the minimum number of tournaments because of a major injury that takes months to shake off. Not only does he/she face the prospect of dropping out of the top 15 because of the inability to defend the points collected in 2017, but there will also be an unspecified fine for sitting it out.
One of the two Indian players currently ranked in the top bracket, speaking on condition of anonymity, called it a retrograde step. “The BWF is cracking the whip on the world’s best players, putting them under unnecessary pressure, and risking getting them injured,” the player said. “We work so hard to improve our ranking, but it has now become a burden to be ranked in the top 15!”
Updated Date: Dec 05, 2017 11:32 AM