Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Saina Nehwal dribbles too close for comfort for berth in Tokyo Olympics

Power struggle between a federation and its players is nothing new. But the way the Badminton Association of India (BAI) is stumbling from one controversy to another, giving in to players’ demands at just about every turn, does not augur too well for the future of the sport.

Badminton has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently.

First was the controversy about Saina Nehwal’s refusal to join the national camp for Olympic probables on the plea that her husband Parupalli Kashyap be included as well. Then followed the news that Indian players would be travelling to Denmark in late September to participate in the Thomas Cup for men and Uber Cup for women followed by the Denmark Open and Masters, all scheduled for October!

The Olympic training camp was hurriedly converted into the one for the October team events only to come a cropper as the players flatly refused to abide by the standard operating procedures laid down by the Sports Authority of India in conjunction with the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, which finally foots the bill for such programmes.

SAI has issued clear guidelines which include a mandatory seven-day quarantine for all players and coaches as well as other staff prior to the commencement of any training camp. Despite pleadings by BAI, the camp scheduled to start on September 7 had to be cancelled as players were not willing to follow the SOP.

That effectively means that Indian teams would be going into the Thomas and Uber Cup events without much of an opportunity to shake off the rust from the enforced lay-off since March. However, the team competition from October 3 to 11 may help the players to get better at the individual events to follow and pick up some much-needed ranking points in the race to seal places at the next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

The qualifying standards of the Badminton World Federation is pretty straightforward. Countries with two or more players in the top 16 of the BWF singles rankings get two Olympic places. For doubles the same criteria applies but for top 8 in world rankings. If not only one entry per country for each of the five singles and doubles medal events are permitted for Olympics to allow to widest possible participation.

When the BWF froze the rankings on March 19, 2020, due to the Covid19 pandemic, India held only three confirmed entries for Tokyo – Sai Praneeth (rank 13) and Kidambi Srikanth (14) for men’s singles and reigning world champions PV Sindhu (7) for women’s singles.The men’s doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, ranked 10 by BWF, too are all but certain to make the grade for the Olympic draw of 16 for doubles competitions in badminton. 

For the women’s doubles pair of Ashwini Ponappa and Sikki N Reddy, currently number 28, and mixed doubles hopefuls Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Sikki, ranked 27, this is the time to play their hearts out and pick up ranking points to improve their chances of making the Olympic draw.

The present cut-off date for Tokyo has been set as April 29, 2021, by the BWF.

Interestingly, Saina Nehwal is ranked 20 and needs to improve at least four places to have a shot at another Olympic medal to add to her London bronze. As part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme of the MYAS, Saina’s training is funded by the government but her insistence that her husband Kashyap, ranked 24, to be added to the Olympic camp is rather strange.

The former world number one would do well to focus on her own Olympic qualification rather than push for her husband.

Not only did BAI accept Saina’s demand to add Kashyap to the list of national campers but also bowed to players’ demand to not follow the SOP, leading to the eventual cancellation. Kashyap has been chosen as the second singles player for Thomas Cup alongside Srikanth while Sai Praneeth recovers from an injury but the player has not been entered in the Denmark Open and Masters events that follow. 

Interestingly, while Thomas and Uber Cup do not carry any ranking points for the players, the Denmark events certainly do. Lakshya Sen is ranked 27, three places below Kashyap but gets the BAI nod instead to play both the Denmark events, apart from Thomas Cup.

There’s definitely something not so healthy cooking within the BAI even as the world badminton calendar resumes and the race hots up for Tokyo Olympic places.

Ravi Kant Singh is a sports writer, analyst and broadcaster since 1984, having covered a wide spectrum of sports—Olympics, Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, FIFA World Cup, Cricket World Cup, ICC Champions Trophy, to name a few.

While working for ESPN Star Sports, he was a regular commentator for NBA, tennis, golf and many a major soccer leagues of Europe and South America. He has also pushed the cart of new home-grown leagues in India: Pro Kabaddi and Hockey India league, being involved with both since launch. 

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