The significance of the Indian badminton nationals had come into question in recent years, with the best often choosing to skip it. That isn't an assumption that can be made for this year's competition though. On Wednesday, when HS Prannoy steps up against Kidambi Srikanth (around 2.45pm) and Saina Nehwal takes on PV Sindhu (not before 6pm), it will be the best singles players in India who will bid to win the marquee men and women's titles.
Clash of the titans
The four singles players who will step on court on Wednesday are amongst the most accomplished Indians to ever hold a badminton racquet. Saina (2006, 2007) Sindhu (2013) and Srikanth (2013) have all been crowned national champion in the past. Only HS Prannoy has not stepped on top of the podium, either at a National Championship or at a Superseries event, although he remains the only Indian to have beaten the legendary quartet of Taufik Hidayat, Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long.
They have won 19 of the 20 Superseries titles won by an Indian. Of the four, three are currently at a career-high rank. Sindhu and Srikanth are currently second in the world rankings while Prannoy (world no.11) is just outside the top ten. Saina Nehwal is at an unfamiliar spot at world no. 11, but that is explained by the fact that she is on the comeback trail from a career-threatening injury.
However, Saina has been putting together some big wins in recent months. She beat former World Champion Ratchanok Intanon in Indonesia, world no. 3 Sung Ji Hyun on the way to a bronze medal at the World Championships and Olympic Champion Carolina Marin at the Denmark Open last month.
A contest involving familiar foes
The fact that Saina shifted camp from Bengaluru to Hyderabad following the World Championships means that all four train at the Gopichand Academy. While they share the same training facilities, the rivalry between Sindhu and Saina has an edge to it. Saina was the undisputed numero uno of Indian badminton courtesy her 10 Super Series titles and 2012 Olympic bronze until Sindhu claimed that spot with the Olympic silver medal in 2016.
The competition between Prannoy and Srikanth, is a lot more mellow. "After our last match at the French Open, we had completely forgotten about it. We were instead discussing mobile phones and cars," Prannoy told ESPN. The intensity is relatively subdued on court too. "It isn't always easy to play against someone you practice with all the time. Both of you know each other's game completely. So it is very difficult to surprise the other," Srikanth says.
Sindhu and Srikanth favourites
Wednesday's matches have clear favourites. While matches between the two men are usually close - all but one out of four going to a decider - Srikanth is on a three-match winning streak against Prannoy. He last lost to him in 2011. After their most recent encounter, in which he lost after being a game up and just three points away from a win, Prannoy has said it was Srikanth's self belief that allows him to close out matches.
Sindhu, on the other hand, was largely in control against Saina in their last match, which she won without breaking a sweat. When Saina beat her in 2014, Sindhu was a completely different player.
A battle of styles
The fact that all four players were given direct entry into the pre-quarterfinals of the nationals means they are relatively fresh, having played just three matches each heading into the final. Indeed, only Prannoy (against Chirag Sen in the last 16) and Sindhu (against Ruthvika Shivani Gadde in the semis) have had to play a decider. As such, the finals can be played as a single match with little concern about having to recover for another day.
Saina has a workmanlike style that breaks down opponents with work rate if not brilliance. It is a style that in the absence of speed and a single killer stroke might not succeed against Sindhu's reach and power. The drifty indoor stadium where matches are being played will likely affect Saina's game the most, compared to the other three who mostly favour hitting the shuttle into the court. Srikanth and Prannoy will likely be a closer match. Both have finishing power, although Srikanth is the more deceptive player at the net. However, Prannoy has the habit of committing too many errors in his pursuit of the white lines and success for him will be determined by his unforced error count on Wednesday.