Bruised, bloodied, bowed: How a breakneck schedule wrecked Badminton's World Championships

The aura of the 2021 BWF World Championships lies in tatters after a spate of high-profile pullouts. Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The World Championships are robbed of its biggest names and the top seeds have withered early. A brutal run of tournaments since the Olympics has taken its toll on players, who're straddling their need to earn a weekly paycheck while holding their bodies together. We looked at the factors and spoke to players and coaches for a broad view:

What's the issue?

Injuries and players running their bodies to the ground. The opening day of the World Tour Finals was telling. Within minutes of each other, two players - world No 1 Kento Momota and Rasmus Gemke showed up on court for their group encounters but promptly decided to pull out. Reigning Olympic champion Viktor Axelsen tweeted soon after, calling the situation 'absurd', adding that the schedule was 'running everyone down'. He later deleted his post. Over the next couple of days, India's top doubles pair, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, and women's singles player Yeo Jia Min too withdrew.

Axelsen, who played seven tournaments ahead of the World Championships, remarked after his first-round loss on Monday that he "felt burnt out". After the World Tour Finals, Momota would go on to withdraw from the World Championships as well.

What does it stem from?

An unusually heavy schedule. Starting September 26, the Sudirman Cup and the Thomas/Uber Cup finals were hosted over three weeks. Then followed a six week run of two Super 1000, two Super 750 and one Super 500 event. Rounding off with the World Tour Finals and saving the World Championships for last, after nearly half the field is bruised, battered or missing.

That's 10 tournaments in 12 weeks, with players having to travel across Europe, then to South-east Asia, then back again to Spain.

To compare with a regular year with no backlog of pandemic-affected tournaments, between September and December 2019, only three Super 750 events -Denmark Open, French Open and China Open were held, followed by the World Tour Finals.

In a statement dated June 28, Badminton World Federation (BWF) said the changes in the calendar were made following a "comprehensive feasibility study to determine how best to optimize exposure for the sport and to preserve the livelihoods of the elite playing community, and other industry participants."

Why were so many tournaments bunched together?

Following the pandemic, the BWF decided to hold cluster tournaments. By itself, it was a pragmatic decision, which was supposed to save players travelling between continents every other week. Soon after Momota and Gemke pulled out of the World Tour Finals, BWF issued a statement clarifying that they had earlier waived off the Top Committed Player Obligations during Covid-19 so that players can manage their programs efficiently and it had been communicated in advance to member associations.

Outgoing BWF Athletes Commission head and former world No 10 Marc Zweibler, told ESPN that they were consulted by the BWF events committee and he spoke to many players seeking their opinion. The BWF, he says given the circumstances, didn't have "much of a choice". "A majority of players wanted every opportunity to play since quite a few tournaments were canceled earlier this year and they were fighting with loss of prize money and sponsorship money. When I spoke to the lower-ranked players who usually play national or continental championships, they told me that they hadn't played anything in a while. So quite honestly it became really hard to keep a normal schedule going." While most players wanted to get back on court after the Olympics, play more tournaments than usual if needed, the eventual schedule - Super 750s every other week followed by Super 1000s - wasn't quite their call.

What could have been done differently?

For one, the common view among coaches and players appears to be that possibly the major tournaments could have been interspersed with a few smaller ones. Some Super 100s, 300s and 500s tucked between the major tournaments as buffers. The World Championships this year has had as many as 26 pullouts across the five events, the Indonesian team's withdrawal contributing to a fair chunk of it, yet the BWF decided against a re-draw.

The slow shuttles in Bali - where three tournaments were played ahead of the World Championships - only made matters worse. Shuttle companies manufacture shuttles of slow, medium and fast speed and usually the BWF picks the shuttle speed based on the courts and the altitude of the location. The injuries and fatigue could perhaps have been cut considerably if shuttles of normal speed were used. With slow conditions, rallies get longer, so do the matches, the physical demands on the body grow and the incidence of injuries can see a spike. At a time when players were already cracking under a punishing run of events, it landed a sledgehammer blow. It didn't help that most top players have the aforementioned shuttle company among their sponsors. What followed was radio silence.

What do players feel?

Players agree that they have been hungry for tournaments since the pandemic ravaged the calendar but feel that the schedule could have been planned better. Some of them said they wouldn't want to miss a Super 750 or Super 1000 event because of the ranking points and the money involved. The pandemic has hit the prize money of BWF Tour events. The total prize fund for a Super 1000 like the World Championships for instance has dropped from USD 1,100,000 in 2020 to USD 850,000, this year. A second-round exit can fetch a singles player roughly USD 2500. Particularly for self-funded players, every round won is money piggy-banked for the next tournament.

There are also sponsor commitments that players need to navigate. Equipment sponsors for instance would require players to turn up for events in which they hold title rights. While the terms of sponsor contracts can vary between players, what remains common is that a drop in rankings would effectively translate into lesser money. Given the pandemic, a few sponsors have negotiated minor extensions on their player contracts to fill in for the months when tournaments couldn't be held, while some players haven't been as lucky and find their contracts not being renewed post the pandemic.

Do athletes have a voice?

Yes, but not enough. The Athletes Commission, most players feel, deserves a greater voice in the running of the sport. Fresh elections for the body will be hosted on December 17 and India's PV Sindhu is among the nine candidates nominated for a four-year term. The two-time Olympic medalist is already a current member, elected in 2017. Among the aims of the Commission listed on the BWF site are: acting as an "official link" between the BWF and players, to "proactively" consider issues related to players and offer advice to the world federation, to "ensure athlete opinion is heard at the highest level of governance" among others. The chair of the Commission is a voting member of the BWF Council. At this point, however, the overriding view is that the body largely serves a cosmetic purpose.

At the start of this year, during the Asia leg of tournaments in Thailand, some players including former Olympic champion Carolina Marin, took to social media protesting over the food, manner of Covid testing, among others. It is understood that the BWF informed players soon after that they would be fined for any further criticisms directed against the federation.

A current senior player points out that the onus is on the top names to take a stand on issues beyond a few topical social posts since they are the ones bringing eyeballs and endorsements to the sport and their voice cannot be easily dismissed.

"Last year at the height of the pandemic, I remember a group of us sitting in the stands, talking amongst ourselves and wondering what's happening," the player says, "why are we in a foreign country playing a tournament when the world is shutting down. Everyone was worried how they'd get back home to their families, but beyond a few social media posts, no one really put their foot down. We just got on with our matches. The truth is, every player is on their own. There is no real sense of being a collective unit. The call for change has to come from a current top player. And it has to be someone who is ready for a long fight."