Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. However, defending champion Sameer Verma will not be short of motivation when he takes the court at Lucknow's Babu Banarasi Das Stadium on Wednesday, to launch his campaign at the 2018 Syed Modi International World Tour Super 300 badminton championships.
It is not so much the monetary prize in the $150,000 tournament that the 24-year-old Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) native will be gunning for, as the 7,000 circuit points on offer to the eventual champion, that would help him move from his current 12th spot into the top eight who will qualify for the season-ending $1.5 million World Tour Final in Guangzhou, China.
It must be remembered that there are two ranking systems operated by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) – one that shows the world rankings at any given time, and that involves "defending" the points won in the previous year, and the other simply aggregating the points won in circuit tournaments this year.
To explain the rather complicated world ranking system, we can take the example of Verma, who won the Syed Modi tournament last year, and gained 7,000 points for his triumph. That 2017 victory assumes the nature of a poisoned chalice this year since anything less than a win will adversely affect his BWF ranking.
If Verma were perchance to lose in the semi-finals this year, he would get 4,900 points for his efforts, and end up with 2,100 fewer ranking points at the end of the tournament. However, in the race to Guangzhou, the 4,900 points for his semi-final showing this year would be simply added to his tally of points won in all the tournaments he has participated in during the entire year.
The World Tour rankings, for the week that ended on 15 November, had Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei, the most consistent player in 2018 with three World Tour titles and three runner-up spots, perched comfortably at the top of the list with 94,670 points, followed by Japan's Kento Momota in second place with 79,950 points.
In the next four spots were: Indonesia's Tommy Sugiarto (75,780), China's Shi Yuqi (71,320), Thailand's Kantaphon Wangcharoen (63,080) and Indonesia's Anthony Sinisuka Ginting (63,010).
Bunched tightly together in the 7-11 bracket, with very little separating them, were: China's Lin Dan (58,880), South Korea's Son Wan Ho (58,700), Japan's Kenta Nishimoto (58,500), Thailand's Suppanyu Avihingsanon (57,850) and Indonesia's Jonatan Christie (57,750), with India's Sameer Verma (54,580) a slightly more distant 12th.
There will be a fair bit of churn in the rankings when the next Road to Guangzhou list is announced on 22 November, since the results of the just-concluded Hong Kong Open will be taken into account. Son and Nishimoto stand to gain substantially, adding 9,200 and 7,800 points, to take their respective tally to 67,900 and 66,300, and occupy the fifth and eighth positions in the chart.
Sandwiched between them, Wangcharoen and Ginting will each benefit by 3,600 points for their loss in the round of 16, and take the sixth and seventh spots with 66,680 and 66,610, respectively, only marginally ahead of Nishimoto.
Lin Dan, who lost to Momota in the first round of both the Fuzhou China Open and Hong Kong Open, and will have 61,100 points in the kitty, will be pushed down into the ninth spot and will be followed closely by Avihingsanon, with 60,070. Verma, who claimed 5,040 points for his quarter-final finish in Hong Kong, will move into the 11th position, with 59,620 points.
The equation for Verma's participation in China is now reasonably clear. If he wins the Syed Modi International and bags 7,000 points, he will take his tally to 66,620, which would put him in the seventh spot, just ten points ahead of Ginting, who is not participating in this competition.
A runner-up finish in Lucknow would gain Verma 5,950 points, which would put his aggregate at 65,570, in the ninth spot, behind both Ginting and Nishimoto. He would then effectively miss the bus to Guangzhou unless one of the top eight withdraws due to injury or some other consideration.
He will also have to see how the other contenders for a spot in Guangzhou fare in the two tournaments that remain in the 2018 calendar – the imminent $75,000 Scottish Open in Glasgow and the $250,000 Korea Masters in Gwangju.
At Lucknow, in a tournament understandably dominated by Indian entries, the title holder has been seeded third and placed in the same half of the draw as the No 2 seed, HS Prannoy. Verma faces a qualifier in his opening joust and will take on the winner of the clash between China's Zhao Junpeng and Mauritius' Georges Julien Paul in the second round. Elder brother Sourabh most likely awaits him in the quarter-finals.
The last-minute withdrawal of top-seeded Kidambi Srikanth has left the upper half of the draw bereft of big names and has cleared the road for fourth-seeded B Sai Praneeth to raise a comfortable gallop to the final. Along the way, Praneeth could encounter some opposition from China's sixth-seeded Lu Guangzu in the quarter-finals, and from Thailand's eighth-seeded Sitthikom Thammasin at the last-four stage.
The withdrawal of title holder PV Sindhu has similarly left the top half of the women's singles draw bereft of any big names apart from China's Li Xuerui, ranked seventh behind compatriot Han Yue (seeded No 4). The 2012 London Olympics gold medallist returned to the circuit earlier this year after two years in the wilderness caused by a severe knee injury sustained at the 2016 Rio Olympics but has not made as much of an impression as had been expected.
While Sindhu opted out of the Lucknow competition in order to concentrate her energies on the Guangzhou event, her fellow-countrywoman in the world's top ten, Saina Nehwal, who has no chance of making the cut for that competition, is very much in the fray and has been given the second seeding.
Saina, who skipped the tournament last year, does not have a seeded or fancied player to bother about until the semi-final stage when she is slated to run into little-known Chinese fifth seed, Zhang Yiman. The 28-year-old is the odds-on favourite to once again bag the title she has won thrice earlier – in 2009, 2014 and 2015.
There is much more of quality overseas competition in the paired events. However, with Denmark's Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen seeded first in the men's doubles, it provides India's top combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty an excellent opportunity of going for their first major international crown. The Indians, seeded eighth, have been placed in the same quarter as the top-seeded Danes and can fight for the title should they manage to get past the Danes.
The top Indian women's doubles duo of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy have been seeded fourth and bracketed in the upper half of the draw along with the No 1 seeds, Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo of Japan. With compatriots Meghana Jakkampudi and Poorvisha S Ram, seeded seventh, scheduled to bump into Ponnappa and Reddy at the quarter-final stage, it is hard to see any other pair getting in the way of the latter duo's march to the semi-finals.
It is something of a surprise to see Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Sikki Reddy being given the top seeding in the mixed doubles, but that is explained by the fact that none of the top ten pairs in the world is participating in Lucknow. It offers a gilt-edged opportunity for Rankireddy and Ponnappa to show that they can produce a far better showing than their relatively lowly No 6 seeding indicates.
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Updated Date: Nov 20, 2018 14:16:51 IST