India Open: Rising COVID cases, no bio-bubble and a silver lining

According to organisers, bio-bubble at the India Open wasn’t feasible. BAI

Amid the burst of youngsters sneaking big wins, the India Open is quickly turning into a crash-pile of COVID-19 cases. Early on Thursday, seven Indian players, including the men's singles top seed Kidambi Srikanth, were tested positive and withdrawn. Eight doubles players, who were deemed to be close contacts were also out of the draw and it resulted in ten second-round matches being cancelled.

We look at a few questions surrounding the conduct of the year's first BWF Tour event:

Why did this happen?

A huge part of the reason is the poor timing. The tournament is taking place in the midst of a peaking third wave when positivity rates in New Delhi are hovering above 25 per cent, with around 27,000 active cases and the city under near-lockdown. In a climate of spiraling cases, it's the only international sporting event in the country without a bio-bubble in place. Three major events -- Pro Kabaddi League, Indian Super League and the upcoming AFC Women's Asian Cup are all being conducted in bio-secure environments. It is pertinent to add that all three are team competitions where the financial burden of sustaining through a tournament doesn't fall on individuals, unlike in badminton.

The risk of virus transmission in badminton is much higher because of the nature of the sport, which is played indoors and players spend a lot of time in enclosed areas during training sessions.

So why is there no bio-bubble?

According to organisers, it simply wasn't feasible. Only those ranked inside the top-25 are being put up at a sanitized five-star hotel in Central Delhi at the cost of the organisers. The rest are scattered, lodged at accommodations of their choice and budget. A day's tariff at the official hotel where the top players are put up costs Rs 10,000, excluding food expenses. Most self-funded players, in a draw teeming with Indians, many of whom are juniors, can't afford to foot that kind of a bill. To go ahead with the tournament, the alternative then, organisers say, was to let players stay where they please, at hotels, Airbnbs, and bunking up with relatives.

"Yes not all players are in the same hotel for the India Open but the same restrictions on movement are applicable to everyone including that no one can leave the hotel to go out to buy food or dine in. BWF can confirm that it is not aware that any player or group of players have broken these rules/restrictions," a BWF official told ESPN.

The truth is that there is no way to control what you can't see. Some players prefer it this way. "I was not aware of the restrictions, neither were we briefed but either way I'm ordering my meals and not stepping out," said a player. "Not staying at the official hotel also means I don't run into a whole lot of other players in the breakfast area every morning. That's a risk avoided. So maybe this is a good thing."

What are the testing protocols?

Daily antigen tests for all players, officials and personnel entering the venue. Players were subjected to RT-PCR tests on Tuesday, the results of which returned positive for seven players who were struck off the draw. All of them had tested negative in the antigen tests on two consecutive days. It is understood that players will undergo another round of RT-PCR tests on Friday.

Is there a silver lining?

For young Indian players, this is a massive opportunity. Usually, they wouldn't find a spot in a Super 500 tournament held in other parts of the world. But a home event devoid of major international names is a blessing. Many young Indian players, including 20-year-old Malvika Bansod who pulled off an upset win over Saina Nehwal on Thursday, are playing their first-ever Super 500 tournament. Even for the self-funded senior lot, who have to count the costs, three tournaments at home is money piggy-banked for a couple of tournaments overseas. Economic benefits aside, the points picked up from three tournaments in India this month (including Syed Modi Super 300 and Odisha Open Super 100) particularly for the hungry bunch of teens who've been treading water since the pandemic struck, could convert into a push in rankings and a world of self-belief.