The 2016 Olympics in Brazil is less than five months away and athletes from various disciplines are eagerly trying to qualify for the quadrennial mega-event. For India, badminton is one of the primary events where winning a medal is a genuine possibility. Popularity of the racket sport has increased manifold in the last decade. Saina Nehwal's incredible achievements, including winning the bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, have only skyrocketed expectations, and Saina getting one better this time around cannot be ruled out.
But things are not so black and white on the men's side. Kidambi Srikanth, who is a nailed-on certainty to represent India barring injury, has been struggling for some time. He is ranked 10th and has been India's best shuttler for the last two years, but his recent form has been disastrous. The next highest-ranked Indian is Parupalli Kashyap in 17th position. But he has had multiple injuries in the past year and is injured at the moment and is facing an uphill task in the race to be fit for Rio. He also missed out on the ongoing All England Championships due to a knee injury.
Kashyap can curse his luck, but the other Indian male shuttlers, who are battling to seal the second place, missed an opportunity this week at the prestigious All England Championships. Ajay Jayaram is the next in line with a ranking of 21, but he suffered an excruciating loss to Hong Kong's Angus Ng Ka Long in the first round on March 9. His match score of 18-21, 21-19, 19-21 is made more heartbreaking by the fact that he led 19-18 in the third and final game. At one point, he also led 12-8 and 13-9. His inability to close out the match could prove very costly come May 1 when the qualification period finishes.
Another player who will be ruing his missed opportunities will be HS Prannoy. The World No. 24 lost to World No. 30 Xue Song of China in Round 1 that too in straight games. In the first however, Prannoy held an impressive 18-11 lead only to lose his nerve and the game by 22-20. With his confidence being dented, he hardly challenged in the second game as he lost 21-15. The three closest to seal that second men's singles spot for Rio 2016 have all had to endure setbacks.
Surprisingly, the two after them shocked much higher-ranked opponents in the first round. Sameer Verma ranked 42nd, outplayed Hu Yun, ranked 12th, of Hong Kong 21-10, 21-14. But that didn't quite make the big headlines as Sai Praneeth effected the biggest upset of the tournament as he stunned Lee Chong Wei. Praneeth is 37th in the rankings, and his tie against the World No. 2 from Malaysia seemed as a mismatch on paper. Chong Wei is considered by many as one of the greatest-ever to grace the game of badminton. But that didn't stop the Hyderabadi from sealing the upset win by 24-22, 22-20.
What is even more surprising and wonderful for India is that Praneeth trailed by heavy margins in both games and made late comebacks to oust the two-time Olympics silver medal winner. In the first game, Praneeth was 15-7 behind before winning eight straight points. Then it was a tussle right till the end, with no player gaining a two-point lead before Praneeth pulled away after the scores were level at 22 each. In the second game, he trailed 16-10 but made a charge to clinch the game and match. The joy ride didn’t last for either Verma or Praneeth, as they suffered defeats to Tian Houwei and Hans-Krist Vittinghus respectively.
Despite the duo providing a ray of hope for the Indian men's badminton stars, the fact is both are quite a way behind in the world rankings to have any realistic chance of qualifying for Brazil. Irrespective of what the two achieve from now until the end of the qualification period, their rankings are not going to rise high enough to break into the top 16. Hence, the travails of the three Indians ranked above them should be seen as a lost opportunity for the country's male shuttlers.
There are only two more World Superseries tournaments before the May 1 deadline date – Indian Open and Singapore Open. There are a bunch of Grand Prix Gold series as well. But for India to have two male badminton players at the Olympics in Brazil, the chances have to be taken in the remaining tournaments that are left. The only stumbling block is that all the other countries and their players are also in the hunt.
If Kashyap was fit for the whole of 2016, he might be in the top 16 and on track to book his place in back-to-back Olympics. Kashyap is a seasoned campaigner and reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 London Olympics only to lose to then World No. 1 Chong Wei. Ajay is also experienced and has been around for a while. With Kashyap's injury, Ajay may still have the best chance to qualify for the Olympics among the Indian men.
The Indian Open Superseries from March 29 to April 3 should galvanise the Indians to go as far as possible in the tournament staged on home soil. The knowhow of home conditions and with the fans in full voice, this could be the most important tournament to reignite India's hopes of having two players in the men's singles section at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Written by Shrikant Shankar, who is a media person and sports enthusiast. Previously he has done audio commentary for various matches involving India, Indian Premier League and Champions League Twenty20 for ESPNSTAR.com. He was also a reporter & writer for Cricketcountry.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Shrikant_23
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