The Badminton World Federation's announcement on Friday that it was suspending all tournaments until April 26 because of the coronavirus, effectively ending the qualification process for the Tokyo Olympics, has left some of India's top players - including Saina Nehwal and Kidambi Srikanth - unsure of whether they will make the cut. The BWF has not yet stated whether it will change the qualification rules in light of the emergency scenario, but some players have already spoken out on the issue.
"If the Olympics is happening to schedule, the BWF should add more tournaments to the qualification," Srikanth told ESPN. "If not, then they should at least freeze the rankings. Otherwise, it's tough if you just don't know what to expect. Right now I just don't know what lies ahead."
His words were echoed by Parupalli Kashyap, an active player and also Nehwal's coach. Nehwal is currently the world number 20, and thus out of Olympic qualification, but Kashyap feels that she might have a chance of qualifying should the qualification period be extended. "The BWF hasn't taken a decision either on extending the qualification period or announced any rules on it," he said. "It's hurting players who are on the brink of qualification really bad. As things stand now, it will be really tough for Saina or Srikanth to make it, but extraordinary performances can happen in extraordinary times."
Srikanth and Nehwal represent two sides of the qualification problem. The cut-off for Tokyo was to be based on the BWF ranking list to be published on April 30. Srikanth is currently ranked 14; if today's rankings were considered he'd qualify for Tokyo, but not by the current qualifying norms. Nehwal is currently ranked 20; she won't make the cut on that, but if there were more tournaments she would have a chance to improve her ranking.
The federation had already announced last week that it was suspending the BWF World Tour and other BWF-sanctioned tournaments until April 12. The latest five tournaments to be suspended -- including three continental championships -- would have been the last events for athletes to have earned ranking points that would have counted towards qualification for Tokyo.
According to the BWF qualification criteria, a country can only enter two players in the singles category should they both feature in the top 16 and two teams in the doubles category should both feature in the top eight. Should no player be ranked in the top eight of doubles, the highest-ranked team from that country would travel to the Olympics. Should the prospective rankings on April 30 be considered, Sindhu would be ranked seventh and B Sai Praneeth 13th, while Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (men's doubles) would be tenth.
Under these rules, Nehwal (prospective rank 22) and Srikanth (prospective rank 22) would not qualify for the Olympics. The Indian women's doubles pair of Sikki Reddy and Ashwini Ponappa (prospective ranking 28) and the mixed doubles pair of Ponappa and Satwik (prospective ranking 31) would also likely miss out.
While both teams are the highest ranked Indian pair, the qualification criteria also states that each continent has to have one representative to the Olympics in each category. As such, the Egyptian women's doubles pair of Doha Hany and Hadia Hosny (prospective rank 41) and the Australian mixed doubles pair of Gronya Somerville and Simon Leung (prospective rank 48) would travel to the Olympics instead.
So as things stand India will likely be sending a four-member badminton team to Tokyo: Sindhu (women's singles), Sai Praneeth (men's singles) and Chirag and Satwiksairaj (men's doubles).
Kashyap feels the BWF should freeze player rankings, much like the world tennis federation (ATP). "ATP has frozen player rankings, the BWF hasn't done so yet. It's not a huge sport with big money but at whatever stage we are, this is our dream, this is our livelihood. The BWF themselves are saying only 43 per cent of the qualification slots have been filled. The lack of clarity right now is unfair to players. After three to four tournaments, players can drop as much as up to 30-40 places," he says.
Kashyap says in 2012, he needed to make a semi-final to qualify for the London Olympics. "I had lost the past five tournaments in the first round but I ended up making the semi-finals at the India Open and qualified," he says. "Son Wan Ho, whom I played in semis, had to win the event to qualify. He did so by beating Lee Chong Wei in the final.
"Saina needs to make two quarterfinals and one semi-finals, or two semi-finals to get through this time. I thought she stood a chance of making the last four at the Swiss and India Open [which have been postponed] and that would have sufficed. How can we rule anyone out? Now with tournaments gone and no idea over how qualification is going to be assessed, all we can do is wait."
While it is possible that the BWF might yet change the qualification criteria, the world body has given no indication it will do so. On Thursday, it issued a statement suggesting as much. "BWF is not, at this point in time, planning to make any adjustments to the regulations related to the Olympic qualification period," the statement read. "Any change to the existing Olympic qualification rules will affect different players both positively or negatively, and with the present level of postponement and cancellation, BWF does not believe that making changes is appropriate."
However, on Friday, it did say, "BWF will make a further announcement on any implications related to the Olympic qualification period at a later date."