All England Open: Saina, Srikanth's Tokyo hopes hanging by a thread

The next four months in the badminton circuit will be critical for Saina Nehwal. Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Even though we are already into the third month of the year, the badminton circuit is yet to fully come to life. The All England Open remains one of the prized tournaments for all badminton players, but this year's edition will be played under a shadow, with seven Indians already pulling out owing to fears from the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

So what are the key storylines to watch out for this year?

Tough draw for Sindhu

Having become the first Indian to win the World Championships last year, Sindhu has found herself in a prolonged slump following that achievement. She has failed to progress beyond the quarterfinals in the nine tournaments she has played since then and looked short of her best in the PBL earlier this year.

The All England Open has generally not been a happy hunting ground for her as she has reached the semifinals only once in her seven previous appearances. Her draw is anything but straightforward here as well, as she'll face world No. 13 Beiwen Zhang in the opening round. While Sindhu leads Beiwen 5-4 in their career head-to-head, a tougher challenge might await in the second round, where she's likely to face the vastly experienced Sung Ji Hyun.

Sung defeated Sindhu in the first round of the tournament last year and has won each of her last three matches against the world champion. Moreover, the slow courts in Birmingham suit Sung's attritional style of play.

Last chance for Saina and Srikanth

Former World No.1s Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth have had their share of memorable moments at the Olympics but their hopes of making the cut for Tokyo are hanging by a thread and an early exit at All England will all but end their pursuit.

Even a quarterfinal finish might help them rise significantly in the Olympic qualification rankings but they will have their hands full as they face high-quality opponents in the opening round.

Saina and Srikanth's performances have been lackadaisical for the better part of a year now as they have been plagued by injuries and a loss of confidence. While Saina will face World No. 3 Akane Yamaguchi in the opening round, Srikanth will take on two-time champion Chen Long.

Their past record against these opponents does not inspire much confidence as Saina has won only two of her ten career meetings against Yamaguchi, whereas Srikanth has two wins from eight matches against Chen, with one of them coming at the Hong Kong Open last year, where Chen retired after the opening game with an injury.

Watch out for Lakshya Sen

Sen might only be the fifth-highest ranked Indian in the world rankings, but at just 18, he is easily the youngest. Moreover, he has also put up the most consistent results among all of India's singles players in 2019. He carried on in the same vein in the PBL earlier this year, where he won four of his five matches.

He faces the prodigiously skillful Lee Cheuk Yiu in the first round in a match that should be well worth the admission fee. If he gets past Lee, he'll then most likely run into Viktor Axelsen in what will be another mouthwatering contest. With Sen having shown the ability to punch above his weight and up his game in his yet nascent career, don't be surprised if he runs the former world champion close.

What about B Sai Praneeth and Parupalli Kashyap?

Praneeth's bronze medal-winning display at the Worlds last year has more or less marked him out as a certainty for the Olympics but he has struggled for consistency after that career-defining moment. He's also had some notable performances at the All England Open, with his defeat of Lee Chong Wei in 2016 topping the list. He might run into 2018 champion Shi Yuqi in the second round but don't rule out an upset as Shi has not been at his best after suffering a serious ankle injury last year.

Even as most eyes have been focused on whether Saina and Srikanth will make the cut for the Olympics, the vastly experienced Kashyap has quietly sneaked up the rankings over the past year and has an outside chance of going to Tokyo.

He'll however have to get past familiar nemesis Anthony Sinisuka Ginting in the second round if he gets past Shesar Hiren Rhustavito in the opening round.

India has only had two champions (Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand) in the oldest badminton tournament and it looks like that wait for a third name to join the list might continue for another year.

Key first round matches:

PV Sindhu (6) vs. Beiwen Zhang

Kidambi Srikanth vs. Chen Long (3)

Saina Nehwal vs. Akane Yamaguchi (3)

B Sai Praneeth vs. Zhao Junpeng

Shesar Hiren Rhustavito vs. Parupalli Kashyap

Lee Cheuk Yiu vs. Lakshya Sen