Thailand Open: Badminton stares at uneasy return as compulsions mount on BWF

There is no doubt that the world badminton body would have been influenced by the compulsion of holding these three tournaments in a delayed Olympic qualification year, and also by the fact that other sports like tennis and cricket have been holding major events successfully, without causing a spike in Covid-positive cases.

Shirish Nadkarni January 07, 2021 12:21:05 IST
Thailand Open: Badminton stares at uneasy return as compulsions mount on BWF

International badminton is set to return, with Bangkok hosting three tournaments in successive weeks – the Yonex Thailand Open (12-17 January), the Toyota Thailand Open (19-24 January) – both of which carry prize money of $1 million – and the prestigious $1.5 million BWF World Tour finals (27-31 January). All these tournaments carry precious points in the race for qualification to the Tokyo Olympics.

Following the successful, but intensely rocky, conduct of the All-England Championships in March last year, no World Tour event could be held for several months until the sparsely attended Denmark Open in November. The lack of competition threw the plans of several top badminton players totally out of gear, leaving them with a Herculean task of trying to displace a few on the ladder above them, and achieving a qualification in the handful of events planned until the cut-off date of 31 March, 2021.

Thailand Open Badminton stares at uneasy return as compulsions mount on BWF

As of now, world champion PV Sindhu looks certain to make the cut for Tokyo Games while Saina needs a series of results to go her way in order to make it to the Olympics. AFP/File

While reigning world champion PV Sindhu (ranked No 7) and B Sai Praneeth (on the 13th rung of the ladder) have virtually made certain of automatic qualification by being ranked among the top 16 in the Race to Tokyo, Saina (in the 22nd spot) needs to put in some sterling performances in the remaining tournaments before 31 March and vault into the top 16, if she is to obtain a berth in the women’s singles draw.

As of now, the Indian’s Tokyo qualification hopes literally hang by a thread. Olympic rules provide for representation from a maximum number of countries, and guarantee a spot only to the top-ranked player from each country. A second player from that country can only make the grade if he or she is ranked among the top 16 on the basis of points in the World Tour qualification events. No third player from any country can qualify for the draw, even if he or she figures in the top 16.

Thus, five countries – Japan, Denmark, China, Chinese Taipei, and Indonesia – have two players each in the men’s singles draw. Kento Momota (ranked No 1) and Kanta Tsuneyama (12) make the grade for Japan, as do Anders Antonsen (3) and Viktor Axelsen (6) for Denmark; Chen Long (5) and Shi Yuqi (11) for China; Chou Tien Chen (2) and Wang Tzu Wei (10) for Chinese Taipei; and Anthony Sinisuka Ginting (4) and Jonatan Christie (7) for Indonesia.

But there is no room for the third-ranked player from those countries, and the likes of Kenta Nishimoto and Rasmus Gemke will have to watch from the sidelines, as nondescript players like Emre Lale of Turkey and Abhinav Manota of New Zealand (ranked 97th and 98th in the world, respectively) are accommodated in the 64-player draw. Kiwi Manota, who is an ethnic Indian, ironically scores over former World No 1 from India, Kidambi Srikanth, who is in the 22nd spot, and will need nothing short of a miracle to qualify for Tokyo.

Among the women, four countries – China, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea – have two players each among the top 16 singles exponents. Chen Yufei (ranked No 1) and He Bingjiao (9) will feature for China in the Olympic draw, along with Nozomi Okuhara (3) and Akane Yamaguchi (4) for Japan; Ratchanok Intanon (6) and Busanan Ongbamrungphan (12) for Thailand; and An Se-young (8) and Kim Ga-eun (14) for South Korea.

Quite clearly, the recently married South Korean couple of Son Wan Ho and Sung Ji Hyun would have seen the writing on the wall. Both would probably have made it to the top 16 on the qualification charts, but decided to gracefully step away and let their younger compatriots, Heo Kwang Hee and An Se-young take over the mantle of representing their nation at Tokyo.

Certainly, they have given the three Thailand tournaments a wide berth and skirted the massive challenge that the BWF faces in the few days before the first of the three competitions gets underway on 12th January.
Notwithstanding the criticism heaped by Saina, the BWF’s toughest task is to get the trio of tournaments out of the way without compromising on the health of the participating shuttlers.

Thailand Open Badminton stares at uneasy return as compulsions mount on BWF

Delaying the resumption of tournaments would also have hit sponsorship and television revenues hard, and set the sport back by a few years. AFP

Already, there have been stumbling blocks, main amongst which has been the positive Covid test presented by two World No 1’s – the two-time reigning world champion Kento Momota and Indonesia’s doubles ace, Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo. The positive test on the luckless Momota, who professed himself fully recovered from the road accident in Kuala Lumpur at the end of the Malaysian Open in February last year, induced the entire Japanese contingent to give Bangkok a miss.

Badminton Association of Malaysia’s (BAM) director of coaching, Wong Choong Hann, also turned in a Covid positive test on the eve of the contingent’s departure for Thailand. Fortunately, it did not scare the team into cancelling its trip.

While all the players who have descended on Bangkok for the Asian leg of the circuit have tested negative on arrival, a distinct air of unease is said to prevail over the players, confined to their secure bio-bubble, who are counting down the days to their opening rounds of the Yonex Thailand Open.

The entire scenario begs the question: Could the BWF have done anything different in the circumstances, given the fact that less than three months remain for the Olympic qualification deadline?

It will be recalled that Saina had been equally strident at the end of the All-England in March last year, but this time, the Indian ace has not demanded the cancellation or postponement of the three Thailand competitions, and has, in fact, sought to downplay the danger of the Covid spread.

There is no doubt that the world badminton body would have been influenced by the compulsion of holding these three tournaments in a delayed Olympic qualification year, and also by the fact that other sports like tennis and cricket have been holding major events successfully, without causing a spike in Covid-positive cases.

Delaying the resumption of tournaments would also have hit sponsorship and television revenues hard, and set the sport back by a few years. Badminton has always been a poor cousin of tennis in terms of the money that the two sports attract. A lengthier break than the one suffered since the worldwide Covid outbreak in March 2020 might have done irretrievable damage to the sport’s coffers.

The BWF would be keeping its fingers crossed that Covid does not favour with its unwelcome attentions the shuttlers currently gathered in Bangkok for three weeks of much-needed action. Having to cancel even one of these tournaments at the last moment would really hit the sport where it hurts.

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