The year 2020 has begun on an ominous note for Indian badminton. Indifferent performances across the board at the recently concluded Malaysia Masters and the ongoing Indonesia Masters World Tour Super 500 championships have raised the spectre of extremely limited Indian participation in the Tokyo Olympics, six months from now.
India can, by rights, command one quota place in each of the five badminton events, but to squeeze in a second entry in any of the 64-player draws (there are no qualifying rounds) requires that player or pair to be ranked inside the top-15 in the world. And the Indian results in the first two tournaments of 2020 have been so poor that it is a moot point whether the country can have any player, barring the reigning world women's champion PV Sindhu, among the premier 15 in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.
The Indians who presented their credentials at the Indonesia Masters in Jakarta on Wednesday, the opening day of the competition, all contributed towards 15 January 2020 being the most forgettable day in recent memory. Of ten Indian competitors in the form of either singles players or doubles pairs, as many as nine fell by the wayside in the opening round itself, and the solitary survivor of the first-round carnage was also cut down to size in the second round.
In this depressing scenario, it was only Sindhu who cleared the opening hurdle in Jakarta, but even that first-round win was unconvincing and laboured " against an opponent she had hammered into submission at the Malaysia Masters, only a week earlier. The 21-10, 21-15 hammering that the lanky Indian had dealt out to Japanese left-hander Aya Ohori in Kuala Lumpur contrasted vividly with the 59-minute 14-21, 21-15, 21-11 scoreline in Jakarta against the very same rival whom she had beaten with monotonous regularity in ten previous meetings, without reply.
File image of PV Sindhu. PTI
Nor did Sindhu last long in the tournament. On Thursday evening, the No 5 seed was pipped at the post by another Japanese southpaw, Sayaka Takahashi, by a 16-21, 21-16, 21-19 scoreline in six minutes over the hour mark. The 14th ranked Japanese player had eliminated an out-of-sorts Saina Nehwal by a 19-21, 21-13, 21-5 margin in their opening-round clash the previous day, marking the third successive occasion that Takahashi was beating the 29-year-old Indian in the past twelvemonth.
With this $350,000 prize money tournament understandably featuring a horde of players from the home nation, there were actually five Indonesia-India first-round clashes in Jakarta " four in the men's singles and one in the men's doubles; and they all ended with convincing wins by Indonesian players.
Arguably the best triumph of the lot was notched by the 25-year-old late bloomer, Shesar Hiren Rhustavito, currently placed 19th in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, who scored his third win over the 12th ranked Kidambi Srikanth in as many meetings since the two antagonists first crossed swords at the 2011 World Junior Championships. The Indonesian won at 18-21, 21-12, 21-14 in three minutes over the hour mark, growing steadily stronger as the match progressed.
The loss to Rhustavito marked Srikanth's second consecutive first-round exit, following his elimination by Chinese Taipei's Chou Tien Chen at the Malaysia Masters last week. The second-seeded Taiwanese had won by a shockingly one-sided 21-17, 21-5 scoreline, with a disconsolate Srikanth barely showing any fight in the second stanza.
The two seeded Indonesian singles exponents " 2018 Asian Games champion Jonatan Christie (6) and his speedy compatriot, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting (7) " simply brushed aside their respective Indian rivals, HS Prannoy, at 21-17, 21-14, and veteran Parupalli Kashyap, by a 21-14, 21-12 scoreline, in identical 38-minute sojourns on the tradition-drenched Istora Senayan courts in central Jakarta.
Sameer Verma lasted an hour and four minutes against another old-timer, Tommy Sugiarto, a former bronze medallist at the World Championships, and looked like claiming their lung-opener in straight games before lapsing into errors and losing at 21-17, 19-21, 21-10. Verma was a totally spent force in the decider, as the vociferous home crowd got solidly behind their man, and urged him on to excel in his essentially defensive game.
While one could factor in a decided advantage for the Indonesian players in their home conditions, and in the presence of their partisan home crowds, there was a common worrying thread running through all the Indian defeats " a propensity to tire as the match progressed. Most of them played their opening games with vigour, but failed to maintain that pace in the second stanza, and were gasping for breath during the decider.
This trend was also apparent in both the other Indian matches that did not involve Indonesians. Promoted from the qualifying ranks, reigning Indian national champion Sourabh Verma, Sameer's elder brother, controlled the opening game against China's Lu Guang Zu, but then failed to maintain the momentum, and bowed out by a 17-21, 21-15, 21-10 margin in 57 minutes.
Basel World Championships bronze medallist, Sai Praneeth, has perhaps the best strokes amongst all of national coach Pullela Gopichand's wards at his Hyderabad academy, but stamina has never been his strong suit. He made China's former All England champion, Shi Yuqi, dance to his tune in the opener, and remained fairly competitive in the second, but was a spent force in the decider of their 52-minute 16-21, 21-18, 21-10 encounter.
India's much-vaunted men's doubles duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty failed to repeat their Thailand Open triumph over the Indonesian 'Daddies', Muhammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan, and lost to the No 2 seeds at 22-20, 21-15 in a mere 34 minutes. It was their second successive first-round elimination, following their 21-15, 18-21, 21-15 defeat at the hands of Malaysians Ong Yew Sin and Teo Ee Yi in Kuala Lumpur, a week earlier.
Though Rankireddy and Shetty failed to replicate their red-hot form of the final quarter of 2019, their compatriots in the mixed doubles, Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy fared even more poorly against South Koreans Ko Sung Hyun and Eom Hye Won, losing 21-8, 21-14 in one minute under the half-hour mark.
When viewed dispassionately, it could be said that the only worthwhile Indian result in the first two World Tour tournaments of 2020 was the impressive 25-23, 21-12 triumph notched by Saina against the precocious Korean teenager, An Se Young, in the second round of the Malaysia Masters. It was sweet revenge for the doughty Saina, reversing the result of their encounter at the French Open last October.
The following day, however, the ageing Indian (who will be 30 years of age in March) was stiff and stale, and did not put up even the semblance of a fight against three-time former world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, Carolina Marin, failing to touch double-figures in even one of the two games the arch-rivals played. It was clear that the stomach bug from which Saina had suffered right through the final quarter of 2019 had had a deleterious effect on her staying powers.
It should work in Saina's favour that quite a few of the top women will be playing in the Premier Badminton League in India from 20 January, and have decided to give next week's Thailand Masters a miss. The former World no 1 has been seeded fifth in Bangkok, but will have to be on her guard in her campaign opener against Denmark's Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt, who sensationally knocked out the Malaysia Masters champion, Chen Yufei of China, in the opening round in Jakarta.