For a badminton aficionado, this is the ultimate conundrum — Taiwan’s world No 1, Tai Tzu Ying withdrawing from the upcoming World Badminton Championships in Glasgow, so that she can compete for the women’s singles title at the World University Games (Universiade), being held in her hometown, Taipei City. The world meet is from 21 to 27 August, while the Universiade runs from 19 to 30 August.
“The Universiade is being held in my country for the first time. If I miss this, I will not get a chance to play in it anymore,” the third-year student of the National University of Taipei is understood to have told the world press. “I won’t regret skipping the world meet as it is held every year.”
Certainly, we can twist the old adage to read “One woman’s poison is another woman’s meat”! The news could hardly be better for all her rivals, as Tai has enjoyed over the past ten months the kind of superiority that is almost unprecedented in the annals of the shuttle sport. In the six-month period between December 2016 and May 2017, she won six Super Series tournament titles, and remained undefeated in 30 matches, totally dominating every other female player on the world circuit.
The strokeful Tai’s 32-match unbeaten streak finally came to an end most unexpectedly, when she produced an error-strewn performance against Thailand’s Nitchaon Jindapol in the quarter-finals of the Indonesia Open Super Series Premier in mid-June. Yet, once the aura of invincibility was shattered, Tai was also brought down in the semi-finals of the Australian Open Super Series by Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi.
Despite her two recent defeats, the 22-year-old Taiwanese star continues to sit on a massive lead of over 16,000 points over the player ranked second on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder. Tai’s current tally of 94,409 points puts her completely out of the reach of the chasing pack, consisting of Yamaguchi (78,199), South Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun (77,735), Spain’s reigning world and Olympic champion, Carolina Marin (77,687) and India’s Pusarla Venkata Sindhu (76,946).
The absence of the world No 1 has resulted in Yamaguchi’s elevation to the top spot in the women’s singles seedings, with Sung occupying the second spot, and placement at the bottom of the 64-player draw.
The two-time world champion Marin, who emulated Chen Long’s feat of winning the men’s crown in 2014 and 2015 (as also the Olympic gold medal at Rio last year), is seeded No 3, and heads for a semi-final clash with Sung in the bottom half of the draw. Sindhu, who was a bronze medalist at the 2013 and 2014 championships, gets the fourth seeding, for a potential semi-final meeting with Yamaguchi in the other half.
Since there are exactly 48 players who qualified for the women’s singles, every one of the 16 seeded players opens her campaign with a bye. The 22 year old Sindhu’s second round opponent will be the winner of the first-round tie between South Korea’s 21-year-old Kim Hyo Min, ranked 42nd in the world, and Egypt’s 29 year old Hadia Hosny, who sits on the 81st rung of the ladder, and whose highest rank has been 79.
In all probability, it will be the Korean who should come through her opening test, and take on the rangy Indian against whom she trails 1-3 in four career meetings. Sindhu won their first three encounters comfortably in straight games, but was beaten in their most recent meeting – at the Australian Open in June last year. The Hyderabadi cannot afford to take things lightly against the hardworking Kim, whose highest world ranking has been 24, achieved in November 2015.
In the event of a victory over Kim, Sindhu will progress to a pre-quarter-final clash with the 13th seed, Cheung Ngan Yi, the 24 year old world No 17 from Hong Kong, whom the gangling Indian has beaten on all three occasions that they have encountered each other in the past. The most likely quarter-final opponent for Sindhu, should she get there, is the No 5 seed, and China’s current top player, Sun Yu.
And what of Saina Nehwal, until recently considered India’s flag-bearer, and a consistent performer in the world championships? After four consecutive quarter-final appearances between 2010 and 2014, when she just could not cross that last-eight stage hurdle to earn herself a medal, Saina powered into the final at Jakarta in 2015, only to lose to a red-hot Marin, and be compelled to rest content with the silver.
This time, with the gradual slide in her ranking, following a career-threatening knee injury at the Rio Olympics last year, Saina has secured the 12th seeding; and, with a bye in her opening round, has been pointed in the direction of a pre-quarter-final meeting with second-seeded Sung Ji Hyun.
However, to reach that stage, she has to take on the winner of a first-round clash between 103rd ranked Ukrainian, Natalya Voytsekh and Swiss veteran Sabrina Jaquet, who sits on the 36th rung of the BWF ladder. Saina has never played against the Ukrainian before, but has a 1-0 career advantage over the 30-year-old Swiss shuttler, having thrashed her at 21-9, 21-4 in the course of the 2012 London Olympics.
Really, Saina could hardly have asked for a better draw. If her third round clash with Sung does take place, she will enter the court with the knowledge that she owns an overwhelming 7-2 career head-to-head lead against the 26 year old Korean, including a facile 21-10, 21-16 victory in their most recent meeting at the Australian Open in June this year.
Both players are in the final quarter of the draw, with a potential last-eight stage joust against either China’s left-handed He Bingjiao, seeded No 6, or Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour, who has been given the 16th and final seeding. Saina has beaten Gilmour four times without reply from the Scotswoman, but there is no record of an on-court meeting between the Indian and the 20-year-old baby-faced He.
Two other Indians feature in the women’s singles draw, with India having secured the distinction of being one of only three countries to get four representatives in this particular event.
24 year old Tanvi Lad, who has slipped from a career-high ranking of 52, to a present rank of No 93, comes up against England’s 21 year old, 85th ranked Chloe Birch, against whom she takes a 1-0 head-to-head advantage on to court. Lad had beaten the English girl at the November 2015 Welsh International in three games, and is favoured to do an encore in Glasgow. However, she next barges into the No 2 seed, Sung.
The fourth Indian in the fray, the strokeful, talented 20 year old Rituparna Das, has a more challenging draw, running up initially against Airi Mikkela of Finland, ranked 54th in the world.
Das, at No 46, is not too much ahead of Mikkela, but has an outstanding chance of racking up a victory, and progressing to a second-round meeting with the No 16 seed, Kirsty Gilmour. The Kolkata-born youngster could hardly have asked for a more beatable opponent amongst the 16 seeded players than the darling of the local Scottish followers of badminton.
That encounter with Gilmour has all the trappings of being an upset win for the young Pullela Gopichand Academy trainee, who possesses a pleasing array of strokes and a sound temperament, but has been accused of laziness in training. This is a wonderful opportunity for Rituparna Das to dispel that dubious impression.
While there is reasonably good scope for India’s four exponents in each of the two singles draws to return home with a medal, it is hard to draw a similar conclusion when examining the country’s medal prospects in the paired events.
India’s top men’s doubles pairing of Manu Attri (ranked 24th in the world on his own) and Sumeeth B Reddy (ranked 31st) have a challenging opening round against South Korea’s Kim Duk Young and Chung Eui Seok, jointly ranked 55th in the world after they joined hands late last season.
While the Indians are stronger than the Koreans on paper, their performance has been so patchy in recent months that it is hard to put one’s shirt on them. In any case, even if they do slip it across the Koreans, they run into the powerful fifth-seeded Malaysian combination of Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong in the second round.
First-timers at the World Championships, Shlok Ramchandran and M R Arjun, who are ranked 42nd in the world, have been handed a slightly better draw, and take on the Chinese Taipei combination of veteran Liao Min Chun and Cheng Heng Su, who occupy the 35th berth in the BWF doubles standings. Their winners take on the 12th seeded Danish duo of Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen.
The third Indian pair in the men’s doubles draw, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who have risen recently to 38th in the world, have been pitted against 30 year old circuit veteran Hiroyuki Endo, whose new combination with the fresh 20-year-old Yuta Watanabe has taken the Japanese up to the 28th rank in the BWF standings.
India’s top women’s doubles pair, Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy, ranked No 25, have been handed a relatively easy lung-opener against Indonesians Ririn Amelia and Anna Ching Yik Cheong, who sit at the 51st spot on the BWF ladder.
If the Indians win, as they should, they have a tough second round match against the tall Danes, Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter-Juhl, who have been rightfully given the second seeding behind the consistent Japanese combination of Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo.
India’s best prospects in the paired events, Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Sikki Reddy, have been conferred with the 15th seeding in the mixed doubles, and have the luxury of watching the first-round action from the stands, after receiving a bye. In their second outing, they take on the winner of the Indo-Malaysian combination of Yogendran Khrishnan-Prajakta Sawant and the Chinese Taipei pairing of Lu Ching Yao and Chiang Kai Hsin.
A win would put Chopra and Sikki Reddy on course for a pre-quarter-final meeting with the exciting No 7 seeds, Praveen Jordan and Debby Susanto of Indonesia, who have lowered the colours of some of the most illustrious mixed doubles combinations in recent tournaments. Their winner would have to lock horns with the redoubtable Chinese No 1 seeds, Zheng Siwei and Chen Qingchen, in the top quarter of the draw.
Ashwini Ponnappa has paired up with Sumeeth Reddy for this tournament, and the two have only crept up to the 56th position in the world rankings. The Indian duo takes on the Australian duo of Sri Lanka-born Sawan Serasinghe and Indonesia-born Setyana Mapasa, ranked 38th in the world; and their winner comes up against the youthful 13th seeded Chinese pairing of Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping.
Cruel as it may sound to put this in print, one could safely discount the medal hopes of the other Indian doubles combinations at these World Championships – Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Maneesha K in the mixed; Sanjana Santosh-Arathi Sara Sunil and Poorvisha S Ram-Meghana Jakkampudi in the women’s doubles. The experience of playing at the topmost level in a world championship should, however, stand all these players in good stead for the future.
Updated Date: Aug 11, 2017 17:51 PM