Tokyo Olympics 2020: Here's why Saina Nehwal's quest to make fourth Olympic appearance has suddenly become all the more difficult
The suspension of the BWF World Tour, and uncertainty over a fresh date for the India Open, has made Saina’s task of displaying her longevity and sustained excellence by playing in her third Olympics all that more difficult
There would have been a frown of worry on the forehead of Indian shuttle queen Saina Nehwal, when she rose on the morning of her 30th birthday on 17 March — would she be able to garner sufficient points in the tournaments left before the cut-off date of 26 April to qualify for her fourth Olympic Games in Tokyo, later this year?
The answer to this question is shrouded in considerable mystery, considering the fact that the Badminton World Federation (BWF) has suspended the World Tour till further notice, and has also not clarified whether the tournaments thus cancelled or postponed will still figure in the qualification race, or whether the cut-off date will be extended to include a couple of tournaments that were not part of the original plan.
The major qualification issue in the badminton events of an Olympiad revolves around the system of giving each participating nation in the quadrennial event a guaranteed berth in each of the draws for the five events - the two singles, the two doubles, and the mixed doubles. Just one berth per event, goes to the player ranked the highest in the Race to Tokyo standings, based on points collected over the last year since the start of the race was declared open in May 2019.
The only way for a second player from a particularly strong badminton nation like China, Indonesia or Denmark to make the grade is if he or she or a pair is placed among the top 16 – in the Race to Tokyo standings, mind you; not the usual weekly BWF rankings that are declared every Monday.
Therefore, while Nozomi Okuhara has virtually sealed her spot from Japan in the Olympic women’s singles event by virtue of her third ranking (with 82,676 points from participation in 15 tournaments), her compatriots Akane Yamaguchi (ranked fourth, with 78,470 points from 18 tournaments) and Sayaka Takahashi (ranked 11th, with 54,264 points from 18 tournaments) are in the running for berths in Tokyo.
India’s reigning world champion, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, has not done her reputation much good by failing to win a single tournament after her gold medal triumph at Basel in August 2019, and also by getting beaten at the quarter-final stage of the recently concluded All England Championships. Nevertheless, as the highest-ranked Indian in the Race to Tokyo (ranked seventh, with 70,754 points from 15 tournaments), she is assured of her place in the Olympic draw.
Not so, Saina. A spate of poor results, including a thumping first-round defeat at the All England at the hands of Japanese Yamaguchi, have pushed her down to the 22nd spot, with 41,847 points from participation in 15 tournaments. Injury at the start of the qualification period last year prevented her from playing in more competitions. On paper, she has an uphill struggle to break into the top-16, and overhaul Thailand’s hardworking Pornpawee Chochuwong, currently ranked 16th, with 49,176 points from 19 tournaments.
Looked at dispassionately, the difference of a little over 7,000 points would not be too much for Saina to make up, if she had good results in competitions like her favourite India Open. But the suspension of the BWF World Tour, and cancellation of India Open, has made Saina’s task of displaying her longevity and sustained excellence by playing in her third Olympics all that more difficult, let alone emulating her feat of winning the bronze medal in London 2012.
It should be remembered that the players currently ranked between 16 and 21 on the Race to Tokyo table would also be participating in such qualification tournaments, and would definitely further shore up their own respective tallies. In other words, Saina would be looking at making up a leeway of possibly 10,000 points to overtake the six players ahead of her in the top-16.
Of course, there is the Olympic reallocation clause that could help Saina. Since not more than two players from any country can be accommodated in any one draw, the chances of players like Japan’s Takahashi and Aya Ohori (who are in the top-20, but currently well behind Okuhara and Yamaguchi), Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun (behind An Se Young and Kim Ga Eun), China’s Wang Zhiyi (who trails top-ranked Chen Yufei and No. 9, He Bingjiao) and even Chochuwong (who is behind the sixth-ranked Ratchanok Intanon and the 12th ranked Busanan Ongbamrungphan) go straight out of the window.
With four out of six eliminated in this manner, Saina needs to overtake at least two of three players who are assured of a berth in the 64-player Olympic draw as their respective country’s top player – American Beiwen Zhang (ranked 17th, with 48,160 points from 17 tournaments), Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt (ranked 19th, with 45,211 points from 11 tournaments) and Indonesia’s Gregoria Mariska Tunjung (ranked 20th, with 45,200 points from 18 competitions).
Making up around 5,000 points may be difficult but not insurmountable, provided Saina produces sterling results in the tournaments that remain before the qualification cut-off date – as and when the BWF announces plans for these events, and clarifies its stand on the revision of the cut-off date for qualification. Until then, the Indian shuttler will continue to remain on tenterhooks.
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