Eighteen years have passed since an Indian -- Pullela Gopichand -- held aloft the winner's trophy at the All England Championships, which begin in Birmingham on Wednesday. While the tournament is one of only four World Tour 1000 events on the BWF calendar, it holds a significant place in Indian badminton. It was the unofficial world title back in the 1970s, when Prakash Padukone won it for the first time, while Pullela Gopichand's win in 2001 came amidst a barren run for Indian badminton.
There's been plenty of success since. Indians -- Kidambi Srikanth with the 2014 China Open and 2017 Indonesia Open, and Saina Nehwal with the 2014 China Open and the 2012 Indonesia Open -- have won World Tour 1000 events (or Superseries Premier events as they were called prior to 2018) while PV Sindhu won the World Tour Finals last year. The prestige of the All England title, though, shows little signs of fading.
Here's what to watch out for:
Big challenges weakened?
There are good reasons for Indians to believe this is the year the drought at Birmingham will come to an end. While Sindhu and Saina always remain a threat, they are aided by the fact that two key contenders aren't likely to be quite that. 2015 All England winner, reigning Olympic and World champion Carolina Marin won't be participating owing to a badly injured knee. World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying, who won the All England titles in 2017 and 2018, meanwhile, is coming off a period of poor form and injury. She pulled out of a World Tour Final match with an injury and was upset by Intanon Ratchanok in her comeback tournament in Malaysia in January. That competition was also her last before the All England Open and it remains to be seen just how rusty the 24-year-old will be on her return.
Although Tai Tzu will be in Saina's half of the draw, there are plenty of challenges Sindhu will have to overcome to go all the way. She opens her campaign against South Korea's Sung Ji Hyun, who she leads 8-6 in head-to-head encounters. The numbers are split evenly 3-3 post the Rio Olympics, with the Korean having won their most recent encounter at the Hong Kong Open in November last year. Sindhu's next opponent is likely to be Hong Kong's Cheung Ngan Yi. While the Indian has a comfortable 5-0 record against her, Yi is also someone she has struggled against with three of those matches going to the decider.
Chen Yufei and old rival Nozomi Okuhara are also in her half of the draw. What Sindhu has going for her is that draws have rarely mattered to her when she gets going. There's also the fact that Sindhu has had plenty of time to prepare for the All England Open -- she hasn't competed since losing in the quarterfinals of the Indonesia Masters at the end of January. Her career graph has shown that whenever she has had a few weeks to prepare for big tournaments (the 2016 Olympics and the 2017 and 2018 World Championships), she has progressed deep into the tournament. The courts are also reportedly drift-free, which should suit the Indian's attacking game as well.
Saina going strong
That Indian interest would be split on both sides of the women's draw is a testament to how well Saina Nehwal is doing. Her ability to stay competitive into her 28th year is remarkable but the Indian, who is ranked ninth in the world, is doing a lot more than just participate. Her win at the Indonesia Masters came at the expense of an injured Marin, but it still ended a two-year title drought on the international professional circuit. It would be unwise to count out the Indian. And while she has typically fared poorly against Tai Tzu -- whom she is likely to play in the quarterfinals -- as a 5-14 record would suggest, the Indian's form as well as the Taiwanese player's lack of it should give her a fighting chance in Birmingham.
Early obstacles for Srikanth, Verma
Tough matches abound for the remaining Indians in the contest. Kidambi Srikanth will remain the best hope in the men's singles. While the world No. 8 has been consistent over the past year, he has not had anything close to the success of 2017 when he won four Superseries titles. Srikanth has his task cut out if he has to travel far into the tournament weekend. He faces a likely second-round opponent in Indonesia's Jonatan Christie, who he has lost to on the previous two occasions. Should he clear that hurdle, he has also got the challenge of world No. 1 and reigning world champion Kento Momota in the quarterfinals. Sameer Verma, the second-highest ranked Indian, has an equally tough ask. He faces 2017 world champion Viktor Axelsen in the first round and a possible quarterfinal against Olympic champion Chen Long.