World Badminton Championships 2017: Kidambi Srikanth is India’s best medal hope, Ajay Jayaram gets tough draw

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NEW DELHI, Aug 10: Tennis legend Roger Federer once remarked that, at the Grand Slam tournament level, there are no easy rounds, no hand-outs, no free lunches. Every competitor in the 128-player draw has his eye on the crown; and whoever wants to hold the winner’s trophy at the end of a rough-and-tumble fortnight has to stay fit and healthy, and has to perforce win seven matches on the trot.

So it is with the World Badminton Championships, with a couple of key differences. The man who is keen to join the ranks of five-time winner Lin Dan and twice champion Chen Long, both of China, has to win six rounds in the space of a single week from a 64-player elite field that features the current best in the business.

Not even Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei, who has won virtually every title in the game, bar the World Championship and Olympics, has been able to earn the distinction of standing on the topmost step of the winners’ rostrum in the sport’s showpiece event, held annually except in an Olympic year.

On two occasions (2011 and 2013), Lee has been thwarted by his greatest rival, Lin Dan; and twice (in 2014 and 2015) by Chen Long, although the 2014 performance in Copenhagen was expunged from the records after revelation of a doping offence. No doubt the 34-year-old Malaysian, seeded second at the forthcoming Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, from August 21 to 27, will try his utmost to correct that anomaly in his curriculum vitae this time, in what is the eventide of his great career.

As far as India is concerned, just one name from this country adorns the medals’ board in the men’s singles – that of 1980 All-England champion Prakash Padukone, who was a losing semi-finalist at the 1983 World Championships in Copenhagen. Prakash and China’s Han Jian were awarded bronze medals in what was the third edition of the Championships, won by Indonesia’s Icuk Sugiarto from his compatriot Liem Swie King at 18-17 in the decider of a memorable, marathon 100-minute battle.

Four Indians – Kidambi Srikanth, Ajay Jayaram, Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth and Sameer Verma – will have the opportunity of bettering Padukone’s achievement, when they take the court in Glasgow. India is one of only four countries – the others being China, Denmark and Hong Kong – to have earned the right of fielding four representatives in the men’s singles in this year’s competition.

Just how much Indian badminton has progressed from Padukone’s times can be judged from the fact that three of the four who will take the court in Indian colours have earned berths in the list of 16 seedings in the 64-player field.

Due to the fact that every one of the world’s top ten players is in the fray, Srikanth has been given the eighth seeding that exactly matches his present world rank. Jayaram, who occupies the 16th rung on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder, has been seeded 13th, while Sai Praneeth, who is 19th in the world, has bagged the 15th seeding. Verma’s substantially lower world rank of No 28 obviously makes him ineligible for a seeded berth.

Srikanth, who turned 24 last month, appears to have the best draw among the four Indians. In his lung-opener, he has been given the task of taming 23-year-old Russian Sergey Sirant, who currently sits on a career-high 70th rank on the BWF ladder and yet to really find his feet in the singles world, and therefore also dabbles regularly in men’s doubles in the company of fellow-countryman Vladimir Malkov.

If Srikanth does clear that opening hurdle, he will run into either 24-year-old Frenchman Lucas Corvee, ranked 62nd in the world, or the dangerous 25-year-old, 48th ranked Taiwanese, Lin Yu Hsien, who saved four match-points last week while taming India’s HS Prannoy in the quarter-finals of the New Zealand Grand Prix Gold tournament.

Presuming Srikanth moves past either Lin or Corvee into the pre-quarter final, he will face either Denmark’s 14th seeded Anders Antonsen, ranked No 18 in the world, or Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto, a former World Championship bronze medalist. While Sugiarto has been on the decline of late, the 20-year-old Dane has had a string of excellent results, especially on the European circuit; and will not be an easy man to subdue.

Should Srikanth cross these three hurdles, he will most likely cross swords with top-seeded Korean, Son Wan Ho, whom he had beaten narrowly in the semi-finals of the Indonesia Open Super Series Premier event, two months ago. The aggressive Srikanth, if he happens to be at the top of his form, would be strongly favoured to beat the essentially defensive Korean whose main attribute is consistency.

All this action takes place in the top half of the draw, which also has two strong title contenders from China – No 4 seed, Shi Yuqi and No 7 seed, Lin Dan. The legendary left-handed Super Dan is bound to make an all-out effort to win his sixth world crown, and it is doubtful whether Shi Yuqi can bar his path to the title. Or, for that matter, Srikanth, although an entry into the semi-finals will guarantee him at least a bronze.

India’s next title aspirant, in order of ranking and seeding, Jayaram, has a couple of comfortable initial outings – against Luka Wraber of Germany, ranked outside the top 100 in the world; and then, against either 22-year-old Dutchman, Mark Caljouw, ranked world No 49, or Sri Lanka’s 32 year old Niluka Karunaratne, who occupies the 69th rung on the BWF ladder.

It would be a major disaster for Jayaram to trip against any of these three players, but it would undoubtedly be the crowning moment of his career if he manages to upset the two-time defending champion and No 5 seed, Chen Long, whom he crosses swords with, in the pre-quarter-finals. Their winner is slated to joust with second-seeded Lee Chong Wei in the semi-finals, in the lower half of the draw.

15th seeded Praneeth, who had the distinction of winning two international tournaments earlier this year – the Singapore Open Super Series and the Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold – runs into wily Hong Kong veteran Wei Nan, who, like Sameer Verma for India, qualified for the World Championships at the last minute.

A victory over Wei Nan would see Praneeth run into Indonesia’s Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, ranked 26th in the world. Praneeth trails 0-1 in career head-to-heads against the stocky Indonesian, having lost to him in three tough games in the May 2016 Thomas Cup finals, but is playing far better today than he was last year. He would be strongly favoured to make it to the third round, where sixth seeded Chinaman, Chou Tien Chen awaits him.

The fourth Indian in the fray, Verma, has 36th ranked Spaniard Pablo Abian as his first opponent, and runs into No 16 seed, Rajiv Ouseph of England in the second round. All these players are in Lin Dan’s quarter, and would find it hard to progress further, if the 33 year old Chinese star plays to his anticipated potential.

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