Aside from the Olympic gold medal, the title that every badminton player worth his or her salt looks forward to winning is the World Championship, held every year, except in an Olympic year.
The Worlds happen to be the most prestigious tournament in the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) annual calendar, offering the highest number of circuit points, and being the only elite competition on the World Tour (formerly Superseries) that features 64-player draws.
Players represent themselves, rather than their respective countries; and get into the draw on the strength of their individual rankings. There is no “quota system” that restricts the number of entries for each country, as in the Olympics. The World title aspirant has to clear six hurdles, rather than the usual five rounds in 32-player draws, to earn the right to stand on the topmost rung of the victory rostrum.
For 23-year-old former Indian national champion Sameer Verma, the forthcoming World Championships in China, represent an opportunity for redemption, after some indifferent recent results. Verma and three of his regular sparring partners at the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy (PGBA) in Hyderabad, who form the nucleus of the Indian team in international competition, will have their work cut out for them when they take the court in Nanjing on 30 July.
Verma first made his mark at the global level when, as an unseeded player, he reached the finals of the Hong Kong Open Superseries championships in November 2016, on the heels of an excellent victory over the then World No 3, Jan O. Jorgensen of Denmark. The Indian was to lose the title clash to the home nation’s Ng Ka Long Angus, after a 50-minute three-game battle of wits in which the Hong Kong player proved to be the superior aggressor.
At the time, Sameer claimed the distinction of becoming the first Indian male player in 34 years to enter the finals of the Hong Kong Open. The only other Indian male shuttler to make the Hong Kong Open final was Prakash Padukone, who won the tournament in 1982.
That entry into his maiden Superseries final was the culmination of four years of ceaseless toil in the face of a career-threatening back injury, incurred in 2012, shortly after winning the Indian national Under-19 singles crown. Over the next two years, the native of Dhar, Madhya Pradesh, suffered from so many crippling injuries, especially herniated discs in his lower back, that he despaired of ever being able to play the game at representative level again.
Eventually, the toil paid off, and Verma began playing injury-free badminton from October 2014. He won the Tata Open in December, and then bagged the Bahrain International crown. He went on to reach the pre-quarter finals at the 2016 All-England, beating the World No 11 along the way; and then won the Indian national senior title, beating his elder brother Saurabh in the final.
There were no other notable successes for Sameer over the next one year; and so, one could do a fast-forward to the last World Championships in Glasgow in August 2017. Verma had a comfortable opening outing against Spaniard Pablo Abian, who retired when the Indian had the finishing line well in sight.
He, however, found it an arduous task to deal with the metronomic accuracy, steadiness and smooth court coverage of European champion Rajiv Ouseph, an Englishman of Indian descent; and capitulated by a 20-22, 9-21 scoreline. Like his PGBA batch-mate Sai Praneeth, Verma lacks a signature killer stroke, and this shortcoming proved fatal against the rock-steady Ouseph.
Verma’s performances in tournaments leading up to this year’s World Championships are far from encouraging. At the Thailand Open, which is his most recent outing, he lost his lung-opener to Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk of the host nation at 18-21, 16-21. The latter was to be ousted by Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto in the very next round.
A week before his brief sojourn in Bangkok, Verma had cleared the first round of the Indonesia Open with a last-gasp win over extra points in three games against Denmark’s Rasmus Gemke, before bowing out to the top-seeded reigning world champion, Viktor Axelsen by a 21-15, 21-14 scoreline. Even though he was nowhere near his best after returning from ankle surgery earlier this year, Axelsen appeared to be in a different class from the scrappy Indian.
At Nanjing this year, Sameer, currently ranked 19th in the world, first runs into 25-year-old Frenchman Lucas Corvee, against whom he has a 1-1 career head-to-head record, with both matches having been played earlier this year. The Indian won their first meeting at the Orleans Masters in March by a 17-21, 21-19, 21-15 scoreline, but was then outlasted by the 37th ranked Frenchman in a 18-21, 22-20, 18-21 battle at the Thomas Cup finals in Bangkok in May.
Both tussles were desperately close affairs, and it is amply clear that the two antagonists are very evenly matched in the strokeplay and court coverage departments. It will boil down to which of the two can sustain the pace in the closing reaches of their encounter, which promises to be another long-drawn affair.
The winner of this first-round match will probably run into five-time former world champion and twice Olympic gold medallist, Lin Dan of China, who has been seeded No 9 in the 64-player draw, and clashes with 23-year-old Dutchman Mark Caljouw, first up.
The charismatic 34-year-old Chinese left-hander, considered by many to be the greatest shuttler of all time, is now in the eventide of what has been a fabulous career, but still has the tools and the hunger to sideline both Caljouw and Verma, if the latter gets past Corvee. Lin had beaten Verma by a comfortable 21-19, 21-9 margin in their only previous meeting – at the New Zealand Open, on the eve of this year’s Thomas Cup series, less than three months ago.
All these players have been bracketed in third-seeded Shi Yuqi’s quarter of the draw; and all of them, without exception, will find it tough to get past the in-form 22-year-old Chinese, who had crowned himself All England champion in March this year, and is one of the strong favourites for the World Championship gold medal.
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Updated Date: Jul 26, 2018 10:23:16 IST