A rematch of the last year's World Championships semifinals between Ravi Dahiya and Zavur Uguev is in the making as India's freestyle and women wrestlers prepare to compete at the Individual World Cup in Belgrade, Serbia. While the competition marks the resumption of the international wrestling calendar, which was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic, the tournament is also significant for Indian wrestlers looking to find some momentum heading to the 2021 Olympic season.
Why does it matter?
The Individual Wrestling World Cup is particularly important for Indian wrestlers who have not competed since the 2020 Asian Championships in February this year. "Right now we have been training for several months but unless we take part in a competition, we won't know at what level we are training at. I'm also looking to find out what areas I need to work on," says Ravi Dahiya, who is one of the favourites in the men's 57kg division.
Dahiya's compatriot Deepak Punia hopes the competition will give him momentum heading into the 2021 season. Punia was one of the star performers at the 2019 World Championships where he won a silver medal in the 86kg division. Struggles with injuries have resulted in a string of poor performances in this Olympic year though. While the long break has seen him return to full fitness, he's hopeful of getting back to winning ways. "A good performance here will give me a lot of confidence for next year's Olympics," he says.
Who is in the Indian contingent?
Owing to the fact that the coronavirus pandemic made any sort of selection trials impossible, the Indian contingent competing in Belgrade is the same squad that featured in the 2020 Asian Wrestling championships that took place in Delhi in February this year. However, several high level athletes will not be taking part. Vinesh Phogat (women's 53kg), Divya Kakran (women's 68kg), Bajrang Punia (men's 65kg) and Jitender Kumar (men's 74kg) have not travelled to Serbia. While Bajrang and Jitender have chosen to train in the U.S., Divya Kakran had to skip the tournament after testing positive for the coronavirus just a week before the team departed. Vinesh too opted to sit out of the tournament as she felt her preparation was not up to the mark and that the best wrestlers in her weight category were not participating at the World Cup.
What sort of competition is expected in Belgrade?
Although thirty-one returning world medallists, including five returning world champions, are in the field, it's still depleted significantly since top teams like USA, China, Cuba, Japan and Kazakhstan decided not to send a squad to the competition. Other strong teams like Turkey and Iran are sending weakened squads as well.
How has the Indian team prepared for the competition?
While competition in Belgrade isn't of the same standard as it would have been in the case of a regular World level tournament, what would count against the Indians is the fact that preparation has been far from ideal. The wrestlers lost several months of practice time owing to the nationwide lockdown during the pandemic. The sacking of Andrew Cook in the middle of the pandemic meant that the women's team was left without a foreign coach following the resumption of training.
The fact that only limited number of wrestlers were permitted back to the national camp has meant that the quality of sparring in practice has been limited. Finally, the women's camp in Lucknow was called off following a break in Diwali, which meant that all of those wrestlers were training near their homes. What should help Indian fighters is the fact that athletes have been permitted to weigh within two kilograms of their weight categories. With their physical conditioning not in optimum shape, such an exemption would make their weight cuts less draining than it might have otherwise been.
What is expected from the squad?
The absence of the USA, China, and Japan from the competition means that the women in particular have a strong chance of medalling. However, not all categories are similarly depleted. In the women's 50kg, Asian Championship silver medallist Nirmala Devi will be up against 2019 World Championship silver medallist Emilia Vuc of Romania and World bronze medallist Ekaterina Poleshchuk of Russia. Also up against it will be Sonam Malik who is looking to cement her place in the women's 62kg division. The weight category is prestigious - it's the one in which Sakshi Malik won a bronze at the Rio Olympics. Sakshi though, was shocked by the two-time world cadet champion Sonam at the national trials in January. A medal for Sonam at Belgrade, in a field that features 2019 World champion Aisuluu Tynbekova and 2019 world silver medallist Lyuba Ovcharova would be a huge shot of confidence.
Among the men, the highlight of the competition is expected to be in the 57kg division where 2019 World bronze medallist Ravi Dahiya could get a chance to avenge his loss to world champion Zavur Uguev. Dahiya had lost to Uguev 6-4 in the semifinals of the Worlds last year but appeared to be on the ascendancy in the closing minutes of the bout. A win here would mark him as a favourite going into the Olympic year.