Four years ago, when the last edition of the Olympic Games was held in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, India's leading badminton singles exponent, Kidambi Srikanth, was in his prime " a speedy, hard-hitting dynamo of 23 summers, and among the favourites for the coveted singles gold medal.
The Guntur lad made it to the 2016 Olympics quarter-finals in style, beating the likes of Mexico's Lino Munoz, Sweden's Henri Hurskainen and leading Dane, Jan O Jorgensen (at 21-19, 21-19), before losing a back-and-forth battle against the then-defending champion, Lin Dan of China, by a 6-21, 21-11, 18-21 scoreline. Srikanth went on to make the 2017 season all his own, winning four Superseries titles on the world circuit, and being runner-up in a fifth.
Fast forward a few years, and as the battle for qualification to the 64-player men's singles Olympic draw meanders to an uncertain conclusion, in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, the 27-year-old Indian ace languishes in the 22nd spot, with 40,469 points from taking part in 15 tournaments. Not only is he nowhere among the list of favourites for the Olympic gold, but he has also placed himself in an invidious situation where he is almost definitely out of the race to make the cut for the Tokyo Games.
File image of Kidambi Srikanth. Reuters
As mentioned in an earlier study of Saina Nehwal's chances of making the women's singles draw, the Olympic rules guarantee one singles spot for each participating country, and a second berth if the player concerned ends up among the top 16 in the Race to Tokyo standings. There is no room for a third player from a particular nation, even if he ends up among the premier 16 in the table.
Thus it is that the two-time Olympic gold medallist (at Beijing 2008 and London 2012), Lin Dan of China, will not be seen in action in Tokyo. The 37-year-old living legend lies 26th in the qualification table, having garnered a mere 38,730 points, although he has participated in as many as 17 tournaments in a desperate effort to rack up points and qualify among the top two from his country.
Lin lies way below the two leading stars from his country, defending champion Chen Long (in fifth spot with 73,890 points from 14 tournaments) and Shi Yuqi (eleventh on the table with 53,161 points from participation in 11 tournaments during an injury-plagued season).
Two other Chinese players sit on the table ahead of the left-handed Super Dan, considered by many to be the greatest player of all time " Huang Yuxiang (in the 21st spot with 40,800 points from 14 competitions) and Lu Guangzu (23rd on the table with 40,210 points from 14 tournaments). Not one of these three players has even a ghost of a chance of overhauling Shi's tally, and becoming the second Chinese player to make the men's singles draw.
As for Srikanth, who is sandwiched between Huang and Lu on the qualification table, his 40,469 points are grossly insufficient to enable him to overtake fellow-countryman and Pullela Gopichand Academy batch-mate, Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth, who is the top Indian in the Race to Tokyo table. 2019 World Championships bronze medallist Praneeth is in the 13th spot, having gathered 51,527 points from 17 tournaments.
There are several players in the 14 to 21 bracket who will automatically be sidelined because there are two compatriots ahead of them in the table. Indonesia's Shesar Hiren Rhustavito (14th, with 48,970 points) will miss the cut since Anthony Sinisuka Ginting (fourth, with 75,332 points) and Jonatan Christie (seventh, with 72,940 points) are way ahead of him.
The No 15 player, Kantaphon Wangcharoen of Thailand, is assured of his berth as he is his country's top-rated player, but numbers 16 and 17, Denmark's Rasmus Gemke (48,310 points) and Japan's Kenta Nishimoto (46,243 points), fail to make the grade since Danes Anders Antonsen (third, with 80,362 points) and recently crowned All England champion, Viktor Axelsen (sixth, with 73,188 points), plus Japan's Kento Momota (at the top spot, with a whopping 105,968 points) and Kanta Tsuneyama (12th, with 53,075 points) have already sealed their Olympic slots.
There are simply not enough tournaments left for Srikanth to collect the 8,000+ points required to overtake Gemke and finish in the top-16, even if he puts in a late gallop and finishes among the medals at these competitions. Also, mention must be made of teenager Lakshya Sen, who barged into the top 25 in the Race to Tokyo stakes, garnering 39,447 points from 18 tournaments, and obviously failed to make the cut.
It would hence appear that India will go into the Tokyo Games with one singles player each in the men's and women's singles " Sai Praneeth and PV Sindhu, with Saina Nehwal (still in with a faint chance) and Srikanth unlikely to barge into the top 16 and seal their Olympic berths.
The country will also have a solitary pair in the men's doubles, in the shape of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who are presently in the ninth spot on the table, with 57,500 points from 15 outings. There is no place in the Olympic draw for the second men's doubles pair of Manu Attri and Sumeeth B Reddy, who trail in 36th place, with 32,619 points from 15 tournaments.
The men's doubles table is headed by the crack Indonesian World no 1 pair of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, who remain the only pair in the six-figure bracket, with 106853 points from 16 tournaments. The 'Minions' are followed by the veteran 'Daddies', Muhammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan, who won the Basel World Championships last August; they have 96,757 points from 17 outings.
As for the remaining two paired events, Indian players will be reduced to watching from the sidelines, as their best women's doubles duo of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy is in the 28th position, having collected 36,179 points from 17 tournaments, while Rankireddy and Ponnappa, the best Indian mixed doubles combination, is 31st with 33,647 points from just nine tournaments. The latter missed a major part of the season as Rankireddy was nursing a lingering shoulder injury.
After India's reasonably heady results of the two previous Olympics, when Saina bagged a bronze in London 2012 and Sindhu settled for the silver medal from Spaniard Carolina Marin, Indian badminton-lovers will be hoping and praying that their three medal candidates put in a late gallop and challenge for the medals. The heart will hope against hope, and will lustily cheer Praneeth, Sindhu, Rankireddy and Shetty, but the head makes the pessimistic prediction that India will return empty-handed from the Tokyo badminton arena.