'Unfair, upsetting': Saina, Srikanth's Tokyo hopes dwindle with India Open postponement

Saina Nehwal is currently 22nd in the Race to Tokyo rankings. Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images for Falcon

On Monday, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) announced the postponement of next month's India Open Super 500 in New Delhi, following the deteriorating virus scenario in the capital, which went into a six-day lockdown the same night. It was to be one among the final three Olympic qualification tournaments. This turn of events has further complicated the qualification path for former World No .1 Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal, the London Olympics bronze medallist. The two are now left staring at a steep climb of ranking points from just two competitions -- Malaysia Open Super 750 and Singapore Open Super 500 -- over the next two months.

Parupalli Kashyap, who's taken it upon himself to offer courtside coaching and try to nudge Saina, his wife, to her fourth straight Olympic Games appearance, calls the situation 'unfair and upsetting'. "When three tournaments were left we were calculating that perhaps a couple of quarterfinals should give her (Saina) a good chance. Now one's gone and we aren't sure if the remaining two will happen at all. It just seems unfair at this point for the Olympics to stick to schedule when qualification events aren't taking place. You can't just brush aside these athletes and say they don't matter.

"The world is going through so much at this point. During training (on Monday), our strength and conditioning coach heard of his uncle passing away (in Gujarat due to Covid-19) after being unable to find a ventilator bed. You end up asking yourself, 'how do tournaments or anything else matter right now?' but in the next breath you're also pushing yourself to stay motivated. It's a struggle, really."

Srikanth says he did some tentative qualification math on Monday morning. The India Open, he'd assured himself, would bring him the best result of the year so far. In 2019, he made the final, where he lost to Viktor Axelsen. The tournament was cancelled last year due to the pandemic. "Frankly," he says, referring to his qualification chances, "I don't know what's in store anymore. Ideally, the Olympics should have been originally scheduled for the end of this year, so there's enough time for qualification events. Personally, I think whatever is playing out now is a little unfair. I don't think the world is ready to host tournaments at the moment.

"It's still not over for me, though. If I can manage a semifinal finish in Malaysia and a quarterfinal in Singapore, that'll be good for my qualification chances. Of course, that's assuming these competitions will take place at all."

Of the six tournaments he's played this year, 28-year-old Srikanth has made one quarterfinal (New Orleans Super 100) and one semifinal (Swiss Open Super 300) so far. In 2017, he won four Superseries titles, the most by any Indian in a calendar year. He is currently in 20th position with 42,989 points in the Race to Tokyo list. Only the top 16 will go through to the Olympics. Each country is allowed a maximum of two singles players inside the top 16 bracket. There are four players ahead of him belonging to Denmark, Japan, Indonesia and China, who already have two players each well inside qualification contention, marking out Hong Kong's Lee Cheuk Yiu (in 18th position with 46,180) as the one he needs to leapfrog.

Saina, meanwhile, is currently placed 22nd in the Race to Tokyo and, at 30, form and fitness are her primary foes. Between No. 17 and No. 22, there's still one more Japanese -- Aya Ohori in 19th position -- who is the fourth player from her country in the top 20, which automatically strikes her out of contention. On 43,037 points currently, the Indian's primary adversaries are 17th-ranked Beiwan Zhang (49,010) of USA, Dane Mia Blichfeldt in the 18th spot (47,891), and Indonesian Gregoria Mariska Tunjung (45,200) at No 20. Nitchaon Jindapol (43,320) of Thailand, which has three players in the top 16, is at No. 21.

In the melee of rescheduled events, the skewed advantage for players/regions is hard to overlook. While the Badminton Asia Championships (April 27-May 2) has been put off until post the Olympics after China withdrew as host and BWF struggled to find a replacement, the European Championships next week in Kyiv will stick to schedule. Both the continental events falling within the Olympic qualifying window carry crucial ranking points but one has already fallen by the wayside while players scrambling for points in the final few tournaments get a leg-up in the other.

"The world is going through so much at this point. You end up asking yourself, 'how do tournaments or anything else matter right now?' but in the next breath you're also pushing yourself to stay motivated. It's a struggle." Parupalli Kashyap

In a recent report, the British Medical Journal pleaded that the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics this summer be reconsidered -- rapping Japan's handling of the pandemic and urging scientific and moral imperatives to be given precedence over economic and domestic political ends. It also touched upon the disparity in qualification advantage.

"Preliminary qualifying competitions for Tokyo 2020 have already been suspended or postponed because of Covid-19, and it is now unclear whether equity among athletes can be ensured," it said.

"If the German Open, Asia Championships and India Open had taken place, together with the Malaysia Open and Singapore ahead, a lot of pressure would have been off me by now," says Srikanth. He is fighting pangs of wistfulness. "It's just four spots that I need to climb but obviously it's difficult if every other week tournaments are cancelled. That's not to say that under the circumstances we should just go ahead and have competitions. Badminton is an indoor sport and it's not easy to have a bubble like in cricket. If I miss this Games, it'll be a big miss. I'll obviously have regrets. But I will be around in the sport till the 2024 Games. All I can do right now I train. There's really little else in my control."