After the high of PV Sindhu's bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, badminton action resumes after a gap of a month, when the best in the world will rub shoulders in the Sudirman Cup, in Finland, commencing on September 26th.
The team tournament which is played in the best of five clashes per tie format, will witness the Indian team in action sans the presence of leading players -- Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, and the pair of Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy. In what has been a stop-start year for the shuttlers due to Covid-19, they will be taking part in the first BWF tournament of the year, where the majority of the competitions were canceled in the wake of the pandemic.
The 12-member Indian team will be up against 11-time winners China, Thailand, and Finland in their Group A matches. The men' singles duty will be taken care of by former world no.1 Kidambi Srikanth and bronze-medalist at the World Championship in 2019, B Sai Praneeth, while the women's singles would be represented by Malvika Bansod. In the women's doubles, experienced pair of Ashwini Ponnappa-Sikki Reddy would be expected to deliver with Dhruv Kapila and MR Arjun partaking in the men's section. As for the mixed doubles, it would most likely be Ponappa partnering with one of the men's players. Youngsters Aditi Bhatt, Tanisha Crasto and Rituparna Panda are the ones who feature in singles and doubles both, and it would be up to the management how to utilise them.
A competition where India has a best-place finish of quarters - in 2011 & 2017 - realistically, it will be nothing short of a miracle if they progress to the next round. Of course, there is Finland in the group, whom India should beat convincingly, but players will certainly be short on match practice leading up to the encounter against Thailand (three-time semi-finalists), and powerhouse China. Having said that, the team championship, which has matches in the men's singles, women's singles, men's doubles, women's doubles, and mixed doubles, India should at least be looking to get a victory each in all the categories, which could help develop future stars in the country.
Nothing much can be said regarding Srikanth's form this year as he has been out of action since the start of April this year. The world no.14, whatever little he played in 2021, looks like a player past his prime and a host of injuries seem to have taken a toll on his body. He would be up against Shi Yuqi (world no.10) of China and Kantaphon Wangcharoen (world no.17) of Thailand. But a win against one of these opponents would do a world of good to his confidence and would bode well for the team.
The second singles bet, Praneeth was way off the mark at the Olympics. He failed to make it to the knockouts; surprisingly failed to win even a game there. So form will be a big concern for him.
Malvika Bansod is the highest-ranked singles player in this section and has been presented with the biggest opportunity of her life, to make a name for herself on the world stage. In all likelihood, world no.110 will be given the responsibility to play against Tokyo gold medalist Chen Yufei, and that could be her moment to shine. With all the talent in the world, and her opponents not knowing much about her game, Bansod would be looking to spring a surprise.
While Bansod has made her debut in the international circuit, others like Crasto and are yet to do so, and one of them could be tested in the clash against Finland. All in all, the women's singles are an opportunity for these girls to make their presence felt, and a few surprises are guaranteed.
Arjun and Dhruv have big shoes to fill after the world no.10 pair pulled out of the tournament. They are the world no.47 and will face stiff competition from the Chinese world no.21 pair of He Jiting and Tan Qiang. Having said that, the field in this section from China and Thailand doesn't look as strong. If the Indian pair applies themselves well, they could sneak out with a win.
Ponnappa and Reddy have a lot of experience of playing together and should target wins against Finland and Thailand. If the team has to progress to the knockouts, win in the doubles is imperative. They would face a stiff challenge from the Thai pair of Jongkolphan Kititharakul and Rawinda Prajongjai. Again, if they want to ace the Chinese team as well, they will have to play out of their skins.
Had Satwik been around for this tournament, he would have paired up with Ponnappa here, but now it's a case of the management picking one between Arjun and Dhruv. Since none of these players have played together in the past, it would be a lot to expect a win from them.