The third edition of the Premier Badminton League (PBL) begins on Saturday with a match in Guwahati between last season's winners - PV Sindhu's Chennai Smashers - and semi-finalists, Saina Nehwal's Awadhe Warriors. The tie will be the first of 20, before the knock-out stage begins. In what will be the final tournament of the year, before a hectic 2018 season, here are some factors to watch out for.
With its team nature, and best of three games -- 15-points-a-game format -- the PBL isn't seen as a particularly draining tournament for players. It is considered as a bit of fun, at the end of the year.
Despite its relaxed format, it has served as an excellent tune-up for more serious competition in the upcoming year. When Kidambi Srikanth turned out for Awadhe Warriors last season, he wasn't even fully fit, having suffered an ankle injury a few months before. He hadn't even practiced on the court before his first match. However, he credits the tournament with boosting his match fitness for the season ahead. "Last year, when I took part in the PBL, I didn't have much practice because I was just coming back from an injury. But I was able to have a very good tournament and that gave me a lot of confidence for the new year," he says. Srikanth would go on to have one of the strongest years by an Indian men's singles player, winning four Superseries titles.
Owing to a shakeup in the tournament structure of the BWF, 2018 is expected to feature a hectic international calendar. Srikanth and the other players featuring in the PBL will hope that a similar sequence of events follows this year's edition too.
Strong singles challenge
While doubles count for two of the five ties between teams, the PBL will have none of the top Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian doubles players participating in the competition. Just three players in the draw -- Mathias Boe, Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl -- have won a Superseries tournament this year. Partnering each other, Pedersen and Juhl had won the women's doubles event in Singapore, while Boe alongside Carsten Mogensen had won the Singapore and Korean Superseries. In contrast, the singles competition in the league will be packed.
The teams' emphasis on singles can be seen from the fact that HS Prannoy (62 lakh) and Tai Tzu Ying (52 lakh) are the most expensive players this season. Both the world's top ranked men's and women's singles players in Viktor Axelsen and Tai will be featuring too. Of the 26 Superseries singles titles, 16 were won by players currently in India. Srikanth (4) , Tai (5) Axelsen (3), PV Sindhu (2), Carolina Marin (1) and Sai Praneeth (1) have all won titles this year.
The PBL will also offer a chance to a number of players who have been working their way back from injuries. Srikanth wasn't at his best at the Dubai World Superseries Finals, which he played despite just having recovered from a shoulder strain. His compatriot Ajay Jayaram has been dealing with his share of ailments too, having had to retire from the National Championships owing to knee and hamstring issues. Among the most high profile athletes making their comeback at the PBL is Olympic champion Carolina Marin. After winning the Japan Open, her only Superseries title of 2017, Marin pulled out of the Hong Kong Open in October with an injured hip. "I have been working really hard to make up for lost time. It is tough for any player to come back from a big break and the PBL will be a good platform for me to test my fitness," she says.
Sindhu vs Saina and the big re-matches
The singles event will also be a chance for viewers to witness a few interesting match-ups. The highlight of the first day of the competition will likely be Sindhu's clash with Saina. The two have faced each other thrice in the past year. In the first two instances, at the last edition of the PBL and at the India Open, it was Sindhu who was dominant against Saina, who was still recovering from a knee injury suffered at the Rio Olympics. The Olympic bronze medalist, though, would show she still has a lot of fight left in her - at their most recent encounter in the finals of the National Championships, it was Saina who emerged as the surprise winner in three games.
In the men's events, there will be three Indians bidding for bragging rights among each other. While Srikanth and Praneeth have both won Superseries titles this year, it is Prannoy who is seen as the premier threat among domestic competition. In his last tournament at home, the 24-year-old beat Srikanth to claim the National Championships. He had gone unbeaten 7-0 at the last edition of the PBL, a winning streak he will be keen on maintaining.