As the international badminton calendar begins with the Malaysia Masters Super 500 in Kuala Lumpur, the Tokyo Olympics, starting in six months, is bound to be on most players' minds.
From an Indian perspective, apart from a women's singles world title in 2019, the rest of the previous season has been largely sub par. With the cut-off date for qualification set for April 26 - and just four players currently in position to make the Olympics - India's players would be hoping to hit the ground running over the next week.
According to the rules, up to two players from each country can qualify for the Olympics in each of the singles categories if they feature within the top 16 of the world rankings on April 26. For the doubles events, upto two teams from each country can qualify if they feature among the top eight of the world rankings as on the above date.
Here, only the points scored by players at tournaments conducted between April 29, 2019 and April 26, 2020, would count towards their ranking. At the moment, only PV Sindhu (Number 6 in the Olympic period), B Sai Praneeth (9th in the Olympic ranking period in men's singles) and the doubles pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (8th in men's doubles in the Olympic period) meet this criteria. Olympic bronze medalist Saina Nehwal is currently ranked world no. 11, but is 25th in the Olympic period. Former world no. 1 Kidambi Srikanth is World number 12, but World number 24 in the Olympic period. Therefore, Sourabh Verma (Olympic period rank 20) and Parupalli Kashyap (Olympic period rank 21) are closer to the Olympic cut-off.
What they need to do
The next four months will be critical for Saina, Srikanth, Sourabh, Kashyap and HS Prannoy (Olympic period rank 25). They will have to jump up the rankings based on their performances in the 10 tournaments rated World Tour 300 or higher until April 26th. This won't be an easy prospect considering their run of form last year. Saina played 16 tournaments, winning the Indonesia Masters at the start of the year after Carolina Marin got injured in the final. However she also suffered seven first-round losses and a single defeat in the second round. Srikanth, too, struggled in the 16 tournaments he played, losing four times in the first round, three times in the second round, while also making seven quarterfinals. Sourabh had five first-round losses last year while Kashyap had lost four times in the first round and 13 second-round exits in 2019.
Saina and Srikanth, however, are taking the right steps to get the year off to a positive start. Having struggled through injuries last year, both players have pulled out of the Pro Badminton League this year, in order to give themselves the best possible chance to compete in the Olympics.
Prospects in Malaysia
As they have slipped down the world rankings last year, both Saina and Srikanth are facing tougher opponents earlier in the draw. This is the case at the Malaysia Masters too. Srikanth begins against second-seed Chou Tien Chen. The Indian doesn't have the best record against the Taiwanese player who has beaten him in each of the last four matches the two have played while losing once back in 2014. However, Srikanth will take heart from the fact that he did push the world no. 2 to three games in their previous encounter at the French Open last October.
Saina too has it tough in the season-opener. She plays a qualifier in her first match but likely faces the fast-rising 17-year-old An Se Young in the second round. Other Indians don't have it any easier. Kashyap opens against world no. 1 Kento Momota, who in turn is likely to be Prannoy's second-round opponent.
The Malaysia Masters is only a World Tour 500 event but nearly every top player will be competing here. Every men's singles player in the top 10, all but one player in women's singles top 10 (World Number 8 Michelle Li), nine of the top 10-ranked men's, women's and mixed doubles teams, are competing in Kuala Lumpur.
Things are not likely to get easier in the tournaments going forward with all players trying to secure their Tokyo spots.