Against the backdrop of the miserable showing of India's badminton players at the just-concluded Denmark Open, in comparison with the raging-hot form of the world's top two shuttlers, Kento Momota and Tai Tzu Ying, and the meteoric rise of the enormously talented 17-year-old South Korean, An Se Young, the French Open World Tour Super 750 badminton championships will open on Tuesday at the Stade de Coubertin in Paris.
It is a tournament that India's premier male player, Kidambi Srikanth, had won during those heady days of 2017, when he had become one of only five shuttlers to bag four World Tour (formerly Superseries) titles in a single season, with a runner-up position in a fifth elite international competition, the Singapore Open, to boot.
Since then, Srikanth has gone through a prolonged barren patch, suffering from the lingering after-effects of the knee injury he had suffered at this very French Open, two years ago, and which made deep inroads into both his form and confidence. His steady downward drift in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, from a consistent spot among the top eight for the past three years, has taken him to the ninth spot, which prevents him from being seeded in the $750,000 prize money event that is witnessing participation from virtually all the top players.
The Guntur lad's very first opponent in Paris is the No 2 seed from Chinese Taipei, Chou Tien Chen, whose excellent form in the ongoing season has seen him bag three titles " the Indonesia, Thailand and Chinese Taipei Opens " and a runner-up position at the Korea Open. Incidentally, Chou, who claims to have God in his corner, had won three titles and had three runner-up positions in the 2018 season, when he had taken over from Srikanth the accolade of the most consistent player on the world circuit.
Chou and Srikanth have clashed four times in the past, and the Taiwanese ace has come out on top in their last three encounters, all comfortable straight-games triumphs. Their most recent duel, at the China Open in November 2018, had ended in a 21-14, 21-14 win for the current World no. 2.
Should Srikanth manage to reverse the trend of results between the two, he could be up for a second-round bout against his Pullela Gopichand Academy stable-mate, Parupalli Kashyap " provided the resurgent Indian gets the better of Hong Kong's Ng Ka Long Angus in his lung-opener. There is a huge chasm between the rankings of these two players " Angus is ranked tenth, just below Srikanth, while Kashyap sits on the 25th spot " who have not encountered each other before.
With the feisty HS Prannoy not yet having recovered from the injury he had sustained on the Asian circuit in September, and Sai Praneeth choosing to give this event a miss, the only two other Indians in the fray are Sameer Verma and Subhankar Dey, the latter getting a berth in the event after being promoted from the reserves.
The 17th ranked Verma has a fair chance against Japanese Thomas Cupper, Kenta Nishimoto, who occupies the 14th spot in the rankings. The two have played each other just once before " at the India Open in March 2016, and the Japanese player had come out on top. But plenty of water has flown under the bridge since then, and the two can be considered on par with each other today. Their winner will most probably cross swords with fourth-seeded Dane, Anders Antonsen, in Round Two.
As for Dey, he has been given a challenging opening round against Indonesia's Tommy Sugiarto, a former World Championship bronze medallist. Their victor will run into the winner of the first-round clash between Indonesia's Shesar Hiren Rhustavito and Thailand's Sitthikom Thammasin, both dangerous players, but not unconquerable for the likes of one who boasts a victory over the great Lin Dan. All these players are placed in fifth-seeded Chen Long's section of the draw.
The women's singles event has been shorn of some glamour by the withdrawal of China's Chen Yufei and South Korean Sung Ji Hyun, both of whom were laid low by injury at the recent Denmark Open. The Korean twisted her knee, while Yufei turned her ankle so badly that her race for qualification to next year's Olympics suffered a major setback. Sung, in fact, might have inadvertently paved the way for her compatriot, An Se Young, to secure a guaranteed berth at Tokyo 2020.
While the shock opening-round exits of Japan's Akane Yamaguchi in her last three tournaments have seen her drop to No 2 in the world rankings, and seen Denmark Open winner Tai return to the pinnacle, India's reigning world champion, PV Sindhu retains her sixth position on the table, and consequently, in the absence of the World No 2, Yufei, gets the No 5 seeding in Paris.
Sindhu, whose form after the World Championships in Basel this year has taken a big tumble, should clear her opening hurdle fairly comfortably, for she leads her opponent, Canadian Michelle Li, 5-2 in career head-to-heads, with wins in their three most recent encounters.
If the Indian can replicate the form she had shown at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, when administering a 21-18, 21-8 pummelling to Li, she should go through to a second-round meeting with the winner of the opening-round duel between Singapore's Yeo Jia Min and Malaysia's Soniia Cheah. That should also be a cakewalk, but not the projected quarter-final clash with top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying, whom she trails 5-10 in career meetings, but whom she has beaten in their last two encounters.
The most recent was a pulsating, nerve-wracking 12-21, 23-21, 21-19 triumph at the quarter-final stage of the Basel World Championships, after which the Indian had gone on the rampage, to decimate the challenge posed by Chen Yufei and Japan's Nozomi Okuhara in the penultimate and summit clashes, respectively.
Since that memorable duel in August, Tai's form has taken a steady upwards curve, and has included a win over three-time former world champion and Olympic gold medallist, Carolina Marin, at the recent Denmark Open. Sindhu, on the other hand, has failed to progress beyond the second round in two tournaments, and was tamed with almost ridiculous ease in Odense by the Korean prodigy, Young.
As for the former queen of Indian badminton, Saina Nehwal, the eighth seeding should have ensured that she stayed away from tough opposition until at least the quarter-final stage. However, the 29-year-old could be in for a torrid time in her opening match itself, as she takes on Hong Kong's Cheung Ngan Yi, who had knocked out Yamaguchi at 21-18, 21-19 in the very first round of the Denmark Open.
There is a massive chasm in the respective rankings of the two ladies " the Indian is eighth in the world, compared to Cheung's 27th rank " and the record of their past meetings also favours Saina 2-1. But the Indian will recall the gut-busting effort she had had to put in against the Hong Kong player on the courts of the Stade de Coubertin last year, when she had just about prevailed by a wafer-thin 20-22, 21-17, 24-22 scoreline.
Should she clear the Cheung hurdle, Saina will await the winner of the match between Denmark's Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt and Japan's Aya Ohori. Saina has not run into Ohori earlier, but she boasts a 3-0 career record against the Dane, and should go through to the quarter-final, where she is projected to receive a searching examination from the 17-year-old conqueror of compatriot Sindhu in the Denmark Open, and the hottest player on the circuit, Korea's Young!