In the normal course of events, the onset of the Malaysia Masters badminton championships would not occasion much comment beyond the fact that it is the first World Tour competition of the new year " indeed, of the new decade. The modest prize money purse of $400,000 would ordinarily mean that there would be only a handful of the top 15 participating in the Super 500 tournament.
Yet, virtually every one of the top ten players or pairs in each of the five events has thrown his or her hat into the ring at the Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur Sports City. Every one of India's top shuttlers, along with those second-stringers who have the ranking to make the qualifying rounds, will be in the fray. And thereby hangs a tale.
Malaysia Masters marks the beginning of a crucial circuit for Saina, whose Olympic qualifications hang by the precipice. File Image
The Malaysia Masters " which kicked off on Tuesday with the singles preliminary rounds and the opening ties of the men's doubles main draw " happens to be the first of three back-to-back tournaments in January. The results of the Malaysia Masters, the Indonesia Masters Super 500 and the Thailand Open Super 300 will go a fair way towards determining qualification for the quadrennial Olympic Games, to be held in Tokyo between 22 July and 9 August (with the badminton event being held between 25 July and 3 August).
Only the results of tournaments played in the so-called Olympic Year, between 29 April, 2019, and 26 April this year, will be counted while allotting the strictly limited slots that are available to each country for this supremely prestigious event. As per the rules, nations can enter a maximum of two players each in the men's and women's singles, if both are ranked in the world's top 16; otherwise, one quota place until the roster of thirty-eight players has been completed. Similar regulations apply to the players competing in the doubles events.
Does it, therefore, occasion any surprise that a player like Saina Nehwal, who is just outside the top-ten at the moment, and is in danger of sliding out of the top-16 by the time the Olympic qualification period ends, has opted to concentrate all her energies on the three World Tour tournaments in January, and give the lucrative Premier Badminton League (20 January to 9 February) a miss this year? Compatriot PV Sindhu, currently ranked No 6 by the Badminton World Federation (BWF), is virtually certain of qualifying for Tokyo, but Saina's chances are teetering on the edge.
The 29-year-old Haryanvi, who became the first Indian badminton player to win an Olympic medal " she bagged a bronze at the 2012 Games " has represented India in Beijing in 2008, London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016; and is hell-bent on donning the country's colours in a fourth Olympics, in Tokyo, later this year.
Saina has a challenging task ahead of her, for she will have to defend in Jakarta next week the 9,200 points she secured for winning the 2019 Indonesia Masters at the expense of Olympic champion Carolina Marin, after the Spaniard retired with a right knee injury midway through the opening game. The Indian, though, stands to boost her points tally at the Thailand Open (21-26 January), since she gave the Bangkok competition a miss last year, and does not have any points to defend.
In Kuala Lumpur, Saina will open her campaign against a qualifier, but will then have an imposing opponent in the second round " the winner of the first-round clash between Thailand's Porntip Buranaprasertsuk, promoted from the qualifying ranks, and South Korean sensation, An Se Young, seeded eighth at this event. The Korean teenager had won their only previous duel, by a close 20-22, 21-23 margin, at the French Open in October last year.
As for the sixth-seeded Sindhu, she barges first into Russian Evgeniya Kosetskaya, whom she has beaten in straight games at the 2018 Fuzhou China Open, in their only bout thus far; and should then take on the victor of the duel between Japan's Aya Ohori and Thailand's Busanan Ongbamrungphan.
The lanky Hyderabadi has crushing 8-0 and 10-1 leads in career meetings with Ohori and Ongbamrungphan, respectively, but the sombre statistic here is that she lost to the latter in their most recent encounter " at the 2019 Hong Kong Open, less than two months ago. Should the reigning world champion get through her opening two rounds, she will run into top-seeded Taiwanese, Tai Tzu Ying, in the quarter-finals.
Among India's men's singles exponents, Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth is the only player from this country almost definitely assured of an Olympic berth. Ranked No 11 by the BWF, the 2019 World Championships bronze medallist is two notches higher in the Olympic qualification ladder. For his lung-opener in Kuala Lumpur, the 27-year-old runs into Dane Rasmus Gemke, whom he has never encountered earlier; and could then take on the winner of the first-round match between Malaysian qualifier Daren Liew and Indonesia's sixth-seeded Jonatan Christie.
Christie himself may not have matters all his own way, since Liew is playing well, and came through two qualification rounds on Tuesday, beating India's Subhankar Dey and China's Zhao Jun Peng by identical 21-15, 21-15 margins. The 22-year-old Indonesian, who had won gold in the 2018 Asian Games, is locked at 2-2 in career meetings with Praneeth, losing their most recent meeting at the World Championships.
Incidentally, the other Indian who tried to make the main draw through Tuesday's preliminaries, Lakshya Sen, was outmanoeuvred in three games by the giant Danish veteran, Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus, by a 11-21, 21-18, 21-14 scoreline. So much in control of the opening game was the 18-year-old Sen that it seemed as if the match would be over in quick time. But the wily 33-year-old Dane defended dourly, and slowly turned the match around for a richly deserved 49-minute triumph over the talented Indian teenager.
Like Saina, who is dangling by her fingertips over the Tokyo qualification precipice, India's foremost male singles star, Kidambi Srikanth, will have to leave behind memories of a horror 2019 season, and get swiftly back to the kind of form that had made 2017 a memorable year. The Guntur lad occupies the 12th berth in the BWF rankings, but is way down at 24th in the Olympic qualification stakes. Nor do his chances of wresting significant points from his forthcoming forays in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta look very bright.
On Wednesday, Srikanth will face the No 2 seed from Chinese Taipei, Chou Tien Chen, who was arguably one of the two most consistent players during the 2019 season, the other being reigning world champion Kento Momota of Japan.
Srikanth trails the Taiwanese 1-4 in career head-to-heads, and the alarming statistic is that he has not beaten Chou in their last four meetings, since the December 2015 World Superseries finals in Dubai. In their most recent clash, the 26-year-old Indian did manage to take the second game off Chou, but faded away in the decider. Srikanth also has his work cut out for him in Jakarta, where he faces Denmark's 2017 world champion Viktor Axelsen in the second round, and Momota in the quarter-finals.
Of the other Indians in the men's singles main draw, old-timer Parupalli Kashyap has been given the toughest outing of all in his opener " Japan's two-time world champion Momota, who bagged 12 titles in the 2019 season. Their winner will take on the victor of the duel between India's HS Prannoy and Kanta Tsuneyama, in two India-Japan clashes that sadly have the potential of seeing both Indians eliminated before the quarter-final stage.
Sameer Verma, whose best result on the world circuit thus far has been a semi-final placing at the World Tour grand finals in December 2018, faces Thailand's Kantaphon Wangcharoen with the bracing knowledge that he leads the Thai 2-1 in head-to-heads, having beaten his adversary on both the most recent occasions that they met, in 2018. Should he win, he will in all probability face Denmark's third-seeded Anders Antonsen, the 2019 World Championships silver medallist, who however has a tricky opening match against Malaysia's Lee Zii Jia.
There will be considerable interest in the results that will be produced in this imminent triad of tournaments by the Indian men's doubles combination of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who last year had become the first Indian pair to break into the top ten. Currently ranked 12th in the world, the Indians have virtually cemented their spot in the Olympic draw, but need to put in some strong performances in their endeavour to remain consistently among the top ten.
Rankireddy and Shetty first run into Malaysia's Ong Yew Sin and Teo Ee Yi, ranked seven places behind them on the BWF computer. They then have the lowest of the eight seeded pairs, China's Han Cheng Kai and Zhou Hao Dong, to successfully tackle if they hope to go into their eighth career meeting with top-seeded Indonesians Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo.
In the unlikely event that the Indians win this projected quarter-final, it would be their first triumph against the crack Indonesian World No 1 combination that is already laying claim to being recognised as one of the best men's doubles duos of all time.