Swiss Open 2021: Tepid Indian performance at Basel a reason to worry about Tokyo Olympics qualification
The early exits of Saina Nehwal, HS Prannoy, Lakshya Sen did them no favours as they fight to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
It is not so much the prize money available at relatively lower level tournaments like the just-concluded Swiss Open Super 300 (which offered a pot of $140,000) that is of importance to most of the top-25 international badminton players as the points that are up for grabs, and which could determine qualification for the quadrennial Olympic Games.
Players poised tantalisingly on the periphery of qualification, like India’s Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal (who were both ranked 22nd on the Race to Tokyo roster before the resumption of the battle, suspended in March last year due to the proliferation of the COVID-19 pandemic) are straining every nerve and sinew to barge into the top 16 to gain automatic qualification.
Higher ranked players are striving to garner points that would propel them higher up the pecking order, and assure them of better seedings at the Olympics, so that they avoid their most fancied rivals in the earlier rounds. The points on offer at Basel were 7,000 for winners, 5,950 for the runners-up, 4,900 for losing semi-finalists, 3,850 for losing quarter-finalists, and 2,750 for those who lost in the Round of 16.
Several elite shuttlers, including the entire Chinese and Japanese squads and most of the Indonesian topnotchers, gave the Swiss Open a wide berth, but – bar the Chinese, who will continue to stay away due to the grim COVID-19 situation at home – are likely to be seen at the prestigious All England Super 1000 championships that will kick off at Birmingham from 17 March. The All England, incidentally, does not figure in the list of qualification tournaments in the Race to Tokyo series.
When viewed against the backdrop of the foregoing propositions and the lukewarm quality of the opposition at Basel, the performance of the Indian hopefuls in this opening tournament of the truncated European circuit was rather less than overwhelming. None of the Indians exceeded their expected performance, based on their seedings; and several fell short of performing to their wonted potential.
World champion PV Sindhu was seeded second behind three-time former world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin, and duly made the final with victories over Thailand’s Busanan Ongbamrungphan (whom she led 11-1 in career meetings before their quarter-final clash) and Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt (against whom she held a 3-1 lead in head-to-heads). Her semi-final triumph over Blichfeldt provided the Indian ace with sweet revenge for her shock first-round loss at the Dane’s hands in the Thailand Open in January this year.
In the final, though, Sindhu came to grief against a vastly superior Marin, who totally outpaced and outplayed her for a runaway 21-12, 21-5 triumph. The lanky Indian matched the Spaniard stroke for stroke initially until 6-6, but could not keep pace with the speedy southpaw when Marin stepped on the accelerator and comprehensively dominated the rallies, to record her ninth win over Sindhu in 14 meetings.
The 5,950 points that the Indian pocketed for her runner-up position would improve her tally to 76,704 points once the rankings table is updated, and move her into the sixth spot, ahead of Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon (75,885 points), who chose to give the Swiss Open a miss. Marin’s 7,000 points helped her to a total of 83,210 points, enabling her to leapfrog two places to third on the Race to Tokyo table, and pushing the two Japanese, Nozomi Okuhara (82,676) and Akane Yamaguchi (78, 470), down a rung each.
For Saina Nehwal, the tournament at St. Jakobshalle proved a disaster, as she plumbed a new low, losing her opening outing to unsung Thai, Phittayaporn Chaiwan, who is just out of the junior ranks. Chaiwan’s earlier name was Pattarasuda, but she changed it after a temple visit to Phittayaporn, in the belief that it would bring her luck. Apparently, it did; and the Thai teenager also accounted for Korea’s recently married Sung Ji Hyun in the second round before succumbing rather meekly to Blichfeldt in the quarter-finals.
The first-round exit, however, deprived Saina of the points she desperately needed to improve her 22nd position (with 41,847 points), at a time when the erstwhile 15th and 16th ranked players, Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun (49,410) and Thailand’s Pornpawee Chochuwong (49,176) have powered further ahead on the table with 2,750 and 4,900 points, respectively, for their performances at the Swiss Open.
The 17th ranked player, Beiwen Zhang of the US (48,160), also picked up 3,850 points for her losing quarter-finalist spot, to move beyond the 50,000-point mark, while 19th ranked Mia Blichfeldt (45,211) pocketed 4,900 points for her semi-final placing, to also cross the 50,000-point barrier. It has made matters all the more tough for Saina.
Among the men, Srikanth showed steadily improving form, to add 4,900 points for his losing semi-finalist showing, to his erstwhile tally of 40,469 in the Race to Tokyo list, and reach 45,369 points. The Indian, who was seeded fourth in the tournament, and was expected to make the semi-finals, had a trying time in the opening round against compatriot and stable-mate, Sameer Verma and the second outing against Frenchman Thomas Rouxel, but then sailed smoothly past Thailand’s Kantaphon Wangcharoen, to make the last four.
There were hopes that the Indian would improve upon his 3-3 head-to-head record against Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen, who has been in red-hot form since his win at the 2020 All England, and has lost only one match since his triumph in that competition – against fellow-countryman Anders Antonsen in the World Tour finals in Bangkok a few weeks back.
But Srikanth was all at sea against the pace, steeply angled smashes and tight defence of the lanky Dane, and was a virtual spectator for three-quarters of the match, as his forehand sideline defence simply failed to work. It behooves to his credit that he overturned a 3-11 deficit in the second game, after a 12-21 loss in the first, to restore parity at 17-all, and stayed with Axelsen until 19-all. Two desperate smashes, that went marginally out along the forehand sideline and at the Dane’s baseline, dashed Srikanth’s hopes and secured the game for the champion at 21-19.
This was the fourth match in recent weeks that Srikanth has lost narrowly when his opponent has managed to stick his nose ahead at the finishing tape. In the World Tour finals in Bangkok, the Indian had lost at 21-15, 16-21, 18-21 in 77 minutes to third seed and 2019 World Championship runner-up, Anders Antonsen of Denmark; was beaten at 21-19, 9-21, 19-21 after 78 minutes to Wang Tzu Wei of Chinese Taipei; and lost at 21-12, 18-21, 19-21 in an hour and five minutes to Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus.
Somehow, Srikanth finds himself unable to get across the line when it comes to the business end of a match – and it is not for lack of physical fitness. Perhaps some psychological counselling may do the trick for the 27-year-old Guntur native, who is slowly returning to the kind of form that won him four Superseries titles in 2017, and made him the most feared player of that season.
Srikanth still has half a dozen tournaments to boost his points tally to a level where he would end up in the top 16 in the Race to Tokyo list. Compatriot Sai Praneeth, who was in the 13th position with 51,527 points before the Swiss Open, did his qualification prospects no harm by justifying his fifth seeding in the event, and losing in the quarter-finals to Malaysian second seed, Lee Zii Jia, thus adding 2,750 points to his tally. If Sai maintains his 13th position, or at least remains within the top 16, India could well have two representatives in the Tokyo Olympics men’s singles.
There was nothing much to write about in the first-round losses suffered by veteran Parupalli Kashyap (an abject 15-21, 10-21 defeat to Spaniard Pablo Abian), Lakshya Sen (who was all at sea against the sustained attack of Denmark’s Victor Svendsen, promoted from the reserves) and HS Prannoy (who lost a close three-gamer against Mark Caljouw of The Netherlands).
Sameer Verma’s elder brother, Sourabh, was beaten in the second round at 17-21, 14-21 by two-time former world junior champion, Kunlavut Vitidsarn of Thailand, who also accounted for Ajay Jayaram in the quarter-finals by a 21-9, 21-6 scoreline. The gritty Jayaram had two impressive victories against Thailand’s Sitthikom Thammasin and Denmark’s Rasmus Gemke, but had nothing left in the tank against the speedy Vitidsarn, who had the distinction of making the final, where he was overwhelmed by the artistry and control of Axelsen.
In the doubles, there was a fine showing by the mixed doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Ashwini Ponnappa, who upset the second seeded combination of Hafiz Faizal and Gloria Widjaja of Indonesia at 21-18, 21-10 in their lung-opener, but were narrowly beaten in the quarter-finals by Malaysians Tan Kian Meng and Lai Pei Jing at 21-18 in the decider of a match that could have gone either way.
However, the second seeded men’s doubles pair of Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty failed to justify their placing, and bowed out in the semi-finals to the eventual winners, Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen, whom they had beaten in 2019. Shetty had a totally off-day, and made errors galore, causing his partner to also go the prodigal way in their one-sided 10-21, 17-21 loss to the Danes who defended brilliantly and were in excellent form in the competition.
However, the Indians are in little danger of missing out on the Olympics, as they are way ahead of their compatriots in the Race to Tokyo roster, and are assured of India’s quota spot in the men’s doubles draw. What they need to do, however, is to improve their consistency, and become more competitive, so that they could be in contention for a medal at the 2021 Olympics.
Tokyo Olympics 2020: Ethiopian legend Kenenisa Bekele's participation in doubt after skipping qualifier
Although he did not compete in Saturday's race, the Ethiopian federation can still draft Bekele if they wish for a much-awaited duel with reigning Olympic champion and Kenyan world record holder Eliud Kipchoge.
The relay, which will involve 10,000 runners from every corner of Japan, started six weeks ago and has been mostly on schedule despite major re-routing in Osaka and in Matsuyama City in nearby Ehime prefecture.
Pranati's long-time coach Minara Begum, who retired from the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in 2019, was also extremely pleased to see her ward achieve the qualification.