India's campaign in the women's freestyle section of the Wrestling World Championships ended in disappointment on Thursday, leaving Indian hopes for a medal resting on the shoulders of the male freestyle wrestlers.
However, the result must be seen in the context of the following several factors, including limited exposure for a novice squad, among others.
The Indian women's team comprised two players - Pooja Sihag (75kg) and Sheetal Tomar (53kg) - who were making their debut at the World Championships. Of the others, only Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik had competed in any international competition previously this year, with both competing in the Asian championships. Only Phogat had competed in more than one tournament.
For the remaining wrestlers - Shilpi Sheoran(63kg), Lalita Sehrawat (55kg) and Navjot Kaur (69kg) - the World Championships were the season's first international event. They had made the team on the basis of selection trials held at the national camp in Lucknow. In the previous eight months of the International calendar, there have been several invitational competitions - such as the Dan Kolov and Nikola Petrov invitational - to which India has sent wrestlers too, but only one of the wrestlers who competed there, Vinesh, returned for the World Championships.
In a relatively inexperienced team, much was expected from Rio Olympic bronze medalist Sakshi Malik. However, she went out in the first round to Louisa Niemesch of Germany. More than the defeats themselves, it was the manner of the loss that was particularly disappointing as she failed to adapt to a defensive fighter. At the same competition where Malik had created history, Niemesch had exited in the first round, finishing 20th overall.
Malik's gameplan has usually been to tire out her opponents defensively, confident in her ability to overcome any deficit owing to her superior stamina. Against Niemesch, though, she waited too long for her counterattack. Perplexingly, Malik failed to mount a single leg attack even as the clock ticked down. In the next round, Allison Ragan executed that same strategy to perfection. She picked up two points for passivity and subsequently pulled off a takedown to finish with a 4-0 win en route the final.
This isn't to say that the Indians didn't have their chances. Vinesh started off with a technical superiority win over Junior world bronze medalist Oksana Livach. Pooja Dhanda beat France's Sonia Michele Christiane Baudin 10-0 inside the first half. Dhanda was 8-0 up inside the first thirty seconds and only a takedown away from a second consecutive technical superiority win against Ningning Rong before eventually freezing and losing 12-8. Rong would eventually finish fifth.
Lalita Sehrawat too got past her first round opponent Paula Kozlow before faltering immediately after. Sheetal Tomar got past her opening round before losing to four-time European silver medalist Estere Dobre in the quarterfinals. Navjot Kaur (69kg) and Pooja Sihag (75kg) too picked up wins before being eliminated.
The men in focus
Sandeep Tomar had a horrible time at the Asian Wrestling Championships as he hobbled out with an injury in his first bout. However, as a former Asian Champion, Tomar will likely be India's best prospect at the worlds, where his 57kg freestyle draw is particularly steep. He faces a tricky opponent first up in Russia's Zaur Uguev, the current national champion and a bronze medalist at the European Championships this year. If Tomar does get past the Russian he will likely play Japanese Yuki Takahashi, who is the defending Asian Champion.
In the 61kg division, Harphool has it far easier against Elmedin Sejfulau of Macedonia. A likely second-round opponent is Turkey's Cengizkhan Erdogan, who, having finished fourth at this year's World Cup, is expected to be a far stiffer challenge. Deepak (86kg) and Sumit (125kg) are the other Indians in action.