India's solitary representative in the men's singles event of the year-ending BWF World Tour Finals at Guangzhou, Sameer Verma, could hardly have asked for a more favourable draw in his quest for the richest prize in the sport.
In an event where the world's top eight players, who have qualified for the tournament on the basis of points garnered during the course of the international season, are divided into two pools of four players each at the round-robin stage of the $1.5 million competition, the Indian has been placed in Group B, in the company of Japan's reigning world champion Kento Momota, Thailand's Kantaphon Wangcharoen and Indonesia's Tommy Sugiarto.
The other pool features Chinese Taipei's Chou Tien Chen, who was the most consistent player on the world circuit in 2018, China's current All-England champion, Shi Yuqi; Indonesia's nippy speed merchant, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting; and South Korean stonewaller, Son Wan Ho, a bronze medallist at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Some of the game's acknowledged stalwarts, including five-times former world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist from China, Lin Dan; the 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen from Denmark; Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei and India's Kidambi Srikanth, failed to make the grade.
In the women's singles, India once again has a solitary player among the elite eight, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, who has been handed a challenging draw after being clubbed in Group A with long-standing World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, Japan's Akane Yamaguchi and American Beiwen Zhang.
The other pool features Japan's 2017 world champion, Nozomi Okuhara; China's exciting young talent, Chen Yufei; Thailand's 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon; and Canadian Michelle Li. Prominent players to miss out on a tournament berth include three-time reigning world champion, Carolina Marin of Spain, India's durable and resurgent Saina Nehwal, and Chinese left-hander He Bingjiao.
Amazing as it would seem, Verma, who literally sneaked into the World Tour Finals by virtue of the points gained from his title triumph in the Syed Modi International championship in the dying days of November, has a good chance of topping Group B. Momota, whom he will clash with in his opening joust on Wednesday, holds no terrors for him, as the Japanese left-hander does for the likes of Srikanth.
Verma and Momota have bumped into each other twice in the past; and the score stands at 1-1. More importantly, whereas the Momota win, in three hard-fought games, came as long back as six years ago in the Badminton Asia Youth Under-19 Championships, the Indian emerged a straight-games victor in the Swiss Open in late-February this year.
Of course, it must be remembered that the Verma triumph took place a few months before Momota bulldozed his way to the summit of the BWF rankings, annexing the World Championship gold medal in Nanjing along the way. Nevertheless, the Japanese ace dislikes crossing swords against players like Verma, who are nimble and rock-steady, and make their opponents sweat for every point.
Like Momota, Thailand's 20-year-old Wangcharoen has been going toe-to-toe in his record of career meetings with Verma, currently ranked 14th on the BWF ladder. The two have met twice, with the 17th ranked Thai winning their first meeting at the 2016 Thai Open in three games, and the Indian returning the compliment at the Swiss Open this year " again, over the full distance (21-14, 11-21, 21-12). The third meeting between the two will take place most likely on Thursday.
Again, coincidentally, Verma stands at 1-1 in career head-to-heads against the fourth competitor in the group, the World no 10, Sugiarto. However, unlike his record against Momota and Wangcharoen, the Indian won their first duel in three tight games at the Dr Akhilesh Das Gupta India Open in February this year, but lost abjectly to the 30-year-old Indonesian by a 13-21, 5-21 scoreline in the Malaysia Open in June.
Thus, it is apparent that Verma has an even chance of scoring over all three of his opponents in Group B of the men's singles, or at least ending second in the group, which would allow him to encounter the winner of the other pool in the semi-finals.
Sindhu, on the other hand, will have her hands full, trying to subdue at least two of the other three players in her pool. Fortunately, the 23-year-old Indian's first match is against Yamaguchi, against whom she sports an impressive 9-4 career record, with victories in four of their most recent five meetings, all of which have taken place during the course of 2018.
The lanky Indian, who had slid down to the 6th spot in the world rankings, scored over the 21-year-old Japanese in the team championship event of the Badminton Asia competition in February this year, but lost to Yamaguchi in three hard-fought games at the All-England in March. She then notched a hat-trick of triumphs " at the World Championships, and at both the team and individual events of the Asian Games.
Against the wily Tai Tzu Ying, however, Sindhu's record is pretty dismal " she is 3-10 down in their 13 career meetings. After lowering the Taiwanese ace's colours at the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Indian has lost to Tai six consecutive times, and has been able to take a game off her redoubtable rival on just two of those six occasions.
Sindhu's record against Zhang is locked at 3-3, but the revealing statistic is that the Indian won their most recent encounter in straight games, at the French Open in October this year, after suffering three consecutive defeats immediately prior to that clash. The Hyderabadi shuttler's form has been so hopelessly up-and-down this year (she has been in seven finals since mid-2017, but has lost all of them), that it is hard to say how her imminent tie with the American-Chinese player will pan out.
To ensure a berth in the semi-finals, Sindhu has to win two out of three matches, and hope that there is no three-way tie at the top of the group, with three players ending with two wins and one loss each. It can also happen that there could be a three-way tie at the bottom of the pool, with each of three players winning one match and losing two.
In both instances, the net result of games won versus games lost will count; and it may even go down to a calculation of points won and lost. It is thus in every player's own interest to win by the shortest route possible; or, if the match appears headed for a loss, to prolong it as much as possible, to build up a stronger position on the table. A runaway loss in any of the three group matches could prove fatal to the chances of making the penultimate round in this cash-rich tournament.