Several badminton stars, including Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap, could miss this year's India Open (starting March 24), following the Indian government's latest travel advisory imposing a 14-day quarantine period for travellers returning from coronavirus-affected countries. Missing the tournament will cost both players crucial ranking points, affecting their hopes of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
All travellers, including Indian nationals who have visited China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, France, Spain and Germany after February 15 will face a quarantine period, and the new advisory will come into effect from March 13, 5:30pm IST. Both Saina and Kashyap participated in the Spain Masters, a Super 300 tournament, between February 18-23 February, and thus fall outside the stipulated government cut-off for travellers.
The players, still in Birmingham after losing their opening-round matches at All England, are supposed to fly to Basel for the Swiss Open scheduled to begin on March 17. Kidambi Srikanth, who also has a Spain travel history and exited All England on the first day, has put his Swiss Open plans on hold for now and will be back in India by Friday morning, before the quarantine deadline.
To curb the effects of the virus, the Swiss Open will, on its 30th anniversary this year, be held behind closed doors. On Thursday the BWF said that "there is no change with regard to the tournament being held", but players aren't ruling out last-minute changes yet. The Geneva Motor Show, which was supposed to be held in the first week of March, was cancelled after the Swiss government banned gatherings of 1000 people or more until March 15.
In a quarantine situation, the Malaysia Open, a Super 750 tournament that begins after the India Open on March 31 could also be in doubt for affected players like Saina and Kashyap. "We have existing visas for Malaysia, but we don't know if we can travel," says Kashyap. "Right now all we have are questions. Even if we don't show any symptoms will we be quarantined when we land in India? Here in UK it's another story. The whole attitude toward the disease is very casual. There are barely any checks and measures in place."
The India Open starts in New Delhi on March 24, just days after the Swiss Open and questions prevail over whether players who choose to travel for the latter will be put under quarantine on arrival, which would then rule them out of participation. Kashyap even sent out an SOS tweet tagging the union health and family welfare minister, Harsh Vardhan, seeking clarity on their situation.
Sir @drharshvardhan we are in Birmingham for a tournament and we are not sure about our situation considering the health advisory issued yesterday. Can we please speak to you urgently? .@NSaina @srikidambi @pranaav6 @sikkireddy @bwfmedia @YonexAllEngland
- Parupalli Kashyap (@parupallik) March 12, 2020
Right now among Indian players, only PV Sindhu, Sai Praneeth and the men's doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty look assured of an Olympic spot. Kashyap and Sourabh Verma are marginally better placed than Srikanth to sneak in since they don't have as many points to defend while Saina is at No 22 in the Race to Tokyo rankings.
On Wednesday, union sports secretary Radheshyam Julaniya had ruled out any concessions for athletes saying that "the travel advisory is meant for everyone regardless whether they are sportspersons or not". There is currently a doubt over foreign players' admission into the country, which puts the spotlight on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) not changing its calendar given the global health crisis. Several top global sports events have already been suspended or cancelled, including La Liga, Serie A, UEFA Champions League and Europa League as well as the NBA.
It is understood that the Badminton Association of India (BAI) had written to the BWF few days ago requesting postponement of the Super 500 event since it hadn't received a favourable response from either the union health ministry or the sports ministry. "All international events in India have been cancelled. We are telling sports federations to comply by the guidelines issued by the health ministry. If matches are being held, organisers need to put screening machines in place," union sports minister Kiren Rijuju told mediapersons outside parliament on Thursday.
BWF though, has scythed through BAI's appeal and pushed for the tournament to be held anyway behind closed doors. In all of this, it's players who are battling to get a foot in the door of the top 16 Olympic qualification cut-off within the April 29 deadline, are hardest hit. As long as tournaments are being held, they would have to travel for them. "Tournaments are carrying on like there's no issue at all. It's crazy," says Kashyap, who pulled out of his first round match at All England over a back injury he sustained in Spain last month, "We don't know if we came across someone who is infected on the flight, at the airport or in the playing arena. Right now, it's just confusion and chaos. We've been advised by our coach that those of us that don't have a genuine chance of qualifying for Tokyo should return home. We have no idea what we should do."