The lingering rigours of a tough, cramped season have made themselves apparent from the spate of withdrawals that have plagued the Fuzhou China Open as the badminton circus moves into its valedictory whirl of the year before the season-ending grand finals in Guangzhou in December.
There will be no World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, or India's shuttle queen Saina Nehwal competing, or the sprightly Hong Kong battler, Cheung Ngan Yi. Nor will the 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, be seen in action at the Haixia Olympic Sports Centre, or Hong Kong's Ng Ka Long Angus, or India's Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth. Or even the exciting Thai, Khosit Phetpradab, who would have been Indian Kidambi Srikanth's first opponent in this China Open.
For those who may be raising quizzical brows at the proliferation of yet another China Open, to add to the $1 million prize money World Tour Super 1000 competition that took place in the third week of September this year, it may be clarified that the tournament which opens in Fuzhou on Tuesday, 6 November, carries prize money of $700,000 and ranks marginally lower in importance than the one that concluded six weeks ago in Changzhou, Jiangsu province.
It also happens to be part of the final phase of the Far Eastern circuit that includes the Hong Kong Open, a tournament in which our own Sameer Verma made his presence felt on the Superseries circuit by ending runner-up to Ng Ka Long Angus of the home nation in the 2016 version of the competition. Indeed, the players will move next week from mainland China to its independent territory and the former British colony, for the last World Tour tournament before the grand finals.
The withdrawals have taken a little bit of the sheen off the Fuzhou competition, in which a handful of players will try to garner the marginal points required to get them a berth in the elite eight-competitors-per-event grand finals, which incidentally have moved to Guangzhou after a five-year stint in Dubai.
Srikanth, who had been picked by the computer's random-selection programme to play Phetpradab, will now face Frenchman Lucas Corvee, promoted from the reserves. Corvee is ranked 42nd in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, and has lost to Srikanth on both the occasions that they have clashed earlier. The lung-opener should thus be a fairly easy outing for the fifth-seeded Guntur lad, who has sadly slid to the ninth spot in the BWF rankings.
Should Srikanth make the second round, he will face the winner of the clash between Indonesia's Tommy Sugiarto and Wong Wing Ki Vincent of Hong Kong. The Indian trails Sugiarto 2-3 in career head-to-heads, but has won on the last occasion that the two had clashed " at the Badminton Asia team championships in February 2016.
Against Wong, on the other hand, Srikanth leads 7-3, having beaten the scrappy Hong Kong player on three of the four occasions that the two have met this year alone. All these players are bracketed in the third quarter of the draw, headed by fourth-seeded Chinese Taipei player, Chou Tien Chen.
The only other Indian player in the men's singles draw, Haseena Sunilkumar Prannoy, has suffered a steep fall in his ranking in the past couple of months, and only comes in at No 23 on the BWF charts. The Kerala-born Prannoy bumps into World No 12, Jonatan Christie of Indonesia, who had claimed the distinction of winning the gold medal at the Asian Games in Jakarta, earlier this year.
The head-to-head statistics favour the Indian, who has beaten Christie on both the occasions that the two have clashed " at the Asian Games team event and the Japan Open, in August and September, respectively, this year. If Prannoy completes a hat-trick of victories, he will take on another youthful Indonesian, the speedy, hard-hitting Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, seeded eighth in Fuzhou. All these players are bracketed in Chinese star Shi Yuqi's half of the draw.
In Saina's absence, the third seeded Pusarla Venkata Sindhu remains India's main hope, and should make the second round comfortably at the expense of Russia's Evgeniya Kosetskaya. The lanky 23-year-old Hyderabadi would then run into the winner of the first-round match between Thailand's Busanan Ongbamrungpan and Lee Chia Hsin of Chinese Taipei.
Sindhu has never lost to the Thai player in nine previous meetings, though she came desperately close to a defeat in their most recent clash at the China Open earlier this year, only managing to squeak through to the finish-line at 21-18 in the decider. The Indian has also beaten Lee in the only match they have played earlier " at the 2016 China Open.
The Indian star would be strongly favoured to clash with He Bingjiao of the host nation at the quarter-final stage of the championship. That would be a really challenging outing, for Sindhu trails the Chinese left-hander 5-7 in their dozen career meetings, and has lost to Bingjiao both times that the two have met this year " in straight games on each occasion.
With so many withdrawals having taken place, Vaishnavi Reddy Jakka has earned a berth in the main draw, and will take on Thailand's talented former world junior runner-up, Pornpawee Chochuwong, in her opening outing. Their winner would clash with China's fourth-seeded Chen Yufei, who has the task of subduing Japanese southpaw, Sayaka Sato, in her own first round.
The men's doubles will see both the top Indian pairs taking on fancied combinations in their opening rounds, albeit ones ranked in the 5-8 echelon of seedings.
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who made waves at the recent French Open by barreling into the semi-finals, will meet the two towering Danes, Mads Conrad-Petersen and Mads Pieler Kolding, seeded seventh; and have a better than even chance of going through to the next round. If they manage that, they would have an easy second round, and then an equally good chance of lowering the colours of Japan's fourth seeded Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda in the quarter-finals.
Manu Attri and Sumeet B Reddy have been given the slightly tougher task of knocking out another Danish combination, Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen, seeded sixth in Fuzhou. The Indians are placed in the top quarter of the draw, where the Indonesian duo of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, ranked No 1 in the world, lurk menacingly.
It is somewhat heart-rending to see the state in which the legendary Lin Dan finds himself in, with even the BWF draw-making computer giving him short shrift. The two-time Olympic gold medallist and five-time world champion, who has been losing to rank upstarts of late, and was beaten by India's Subhankar Dey in the SaarLorLux tournament in Germany, was handed an opening round challenge in the shape of top-seeded Japanese world champion, Kento Momota.
Quite amazingly, as if to rub it in even more, Super Dan was drawn against Momota in the first round of the Hong Kong Open, a week down the line! That, as one would be tempted to say about an ageing all-time great who is trying hard to stay fit and compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is the most unkindest cut of all!