Other than a couple of exceptions, the return to action of India's top badminton players at the Yonex Thailand Open was rather lacklustre, with most performances ranging between tepid and insipid. A field devoid of Chinese and Japanese players presented a great opportunity for the Indians to make a deep run at the tournament. However, none of the Indians managed to go beyond the second round.
Nonetheless, they will have a second opportunity to impress at the Toyota Thailand Open starting from Tuesday. The tournament, a World Tour 1000 event, will count towards the rankings that will determine who qualifies for the World Tour Finals, scheduled be held in Bangkok next week.
Here's what to watch out for:
Can PV Sindhu arrest her prolonged slump?
Sindhu has played over a dozen tournaments since she became World Champion in 2019 but has failed to reach the semifinals in any of them. While she has been remarkably consistent at the Worlds, Sindhu has not managed the same level of consistency on the World Tour.
Her decision to train in London -- where she worked with the Gatorade Sports Science Institute to get advice on her nutrition and recovery routines -- and away from the national camp raised a few eyebrows and in an Olympic year, poor performances are bound to attract greater attention. Unlike most of her compatriots, Sindhu played well in her match against Mia Blichfeldt and even held two match points but could not convert them as the Dane upped her play in the final game.
Sindhu has a relatively straightforward draw, opening her campaign against local player Busanan Ongbamrungphan, an opponent she has only lost to once in 11 career meetings. Her first big challenge might come in the quarterfinals against home favourite Ratchanok Intanon. Sindhu will start that match as favourite, though, as she has won her last three matches against the former world champion without dropping a game, and tends to play better as the tournament progresses.
Is Saina Nehwal no longer a force in the women's game?
It has been 17 tournaments and over two years since Saina made a semifinal on the World Tour. She has been fairly injury-plagued throughout that duration but it's also true that, at 30, she's the oldest player in the top 20 in the women's world rankings and the years seem to have caught up with her as her movement and agility is nowhere close to what it was at her peak.
Saina has particularly struggled against players ranked in the top 10, having won only one of her last seven such matches. The draw here will not make for particularly happy reading for the Indian as she faces Intanon in the opening round. Saina has a comfortable 11-5 lead in the H2H and has also won each of their last four matches but it is worth noting that the last time they played was at the Asian Games in 2018, almost two and a half years ago.
Even if she manages to get past Intanon, Saina's path does not get any easier as her next two opponents would then most likely be veteran Sung Ji Hyun and Sindhu. Saina's H2H against both opponents is in her favour, but her reduced endurance has meant that she's struggled in matches that go the distance against younger, fitter opponents. She has lost each of her last eight matches that have gone to three games, the last such win coming back in April 2019.
Saina still has the ability to match the best on her day but it's safe to say she's no longer a major contender at the biggest tournaments as she has struggled to beat top 10 players back-to-back, which is what you need to do at these events.
Will the Indian men match quantity with quality?
India's six entries in the men's singles draw are the joint-most with hosts Thailand. The strength and depth among the men can be gauged by the fact that as many as eight of them are ranked in the top 50 in the world. On the other hand, none of those men are currently ranked in the top 10 in the world and none of them have managed to win a Superseries or World Tour 500 (and above) title since Kidambi Srikanth won the French Open in 2017.
Of the six men who played last week, only Srikanth managed to win a match but he pulled out before his second-round match with an injury. With Lakshya Sen, who has easily been India's most consistent men's singles player, choosing to skip the Asian leg due to injury, it's hard to say who India's best hope is as all the others have been plagued by injury (Srikanth, HS Prannoy and Parupalli Kashyap) or inconsistency (B Sai Praneeth) in the last few years.
With the reigning World Champion (Kento Momota) and Olympic Champion (Chen Long) missing from the draw again, the Indians will fancy their chances but anything better than a quarterfinal appearance from any of the men should be considered a bonus; India's wait for a men's singles World Tour 500 (and above) event champion might have to continue a little while longer.
So who then represents India's best hope?
With three of the top five pairs in the men's doubles rankings missing from the draw, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty will fancy their chances of repeating their success in Thailand from 2019. They lost to the reigning world champions Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan in a hard-fought match last week and easily looked the best out of all the Indian players in action.
The South Korean pair of Choi SoI Gyu and Seo Seung Jae are the only seeded pair in their half of the draw and a win against them in a potential second-round match could well see the Indian duo reach the semifinals with ease. Their only previous meeting was at the 2019 Thailand Open, where the Indians won 21-19 in the third game. A similar result here would put the Indians in sight of an encore.