Tokyo: Five years after securing a silver on her Olympic debut, reigning world champion P V Sindhu will lead India’s quest to bring home an elusive gold medal as the Tokyo Games’ badminton competition begins here on Saturday.
The stunning run in Rio that made her the toast of the nation ended with a gut-wrenching loss in the final, and Sindhu will be desperate to lay her hands on the gold this time around as she begins her campaign in Group J, which also comprises Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi (ranked 34th) and Israel’s Ksenia Polikarpova (ranked 58th).
Sindhu will play her opening match on Sunday, while compatriots B Sai Praneeth and the men’s pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy will be in action on Saturday.
As a 21-year-old, Sindhu had entered the Rio Games with the reputation of creating a flutter but she was not considered a medal prospect.
But this time she is one of the favourites for the gold, especially in the absence of defending champion Carolina Marin, who missed the Games due to an injury.
Since Rio, Sindhu has won medals at each of the big-ticket events, including silvers at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in 2018, a gold and a silver at the season-ending BWF World Tour Finals and became the world champion in 2019, after reaching the finals thrice in previous editions.
With the COVID-19 pandemic delaying the Olympics, Sindhu went for a training stint to London in 2020 before returning to the country to practice under new foreign coach Park Tae Sang, who has worked extensively on her defence in the last few months.
”I think the (break during) pandemic was very useful because I got to learn more and focus more on my technique and skills,” said the world No. 6 from Hyderabad, who will open against Polikarpova.
Talking about the draw, Sindhu, seeded sixth, said: ”It’s a good draw in the group stage. But this is the Olympics and it is not going to be easy, each point is very important.
”Everybody is going to be in top form, I hope I do well. Every match is important so I will take match by match.” Sindhu is expected to meet Mia Blichfeldt in pre-quarters and world No. 5 Akane Yamaguchi in the quarters, barring any hiccups in the earlier matches.
World No. 1 Taiwanese Tai Tzu Ying, one whom Park considers her fiercest rival, might stand on her path to the semifinals. Sindhu had defeated the Chinese Taipei star in the pre-quarters of Rio Games.
In men’s singles, Praneeth will hope to make a dream Olympic debut when he begins his campaign against Isreal’s Misha Zilberman, ranked 47th.
The 13th seeded Indian will also have to go past world No. 29 Mark Caljouw of the Netherlands to top Group D and take on the winner of Group C.
Praneeth, who had won the 2017 Singapore Open before claiming the World Championship bronze in 2019, has been hampered by fitness issues in his career. But he has worked on them in the last few months.
The 28-year-old from Hyderabad will look to better the quarterfinal finish of his compatriots Kidambi Srikanth and Parupalli Kashyap in the previous Games.
In men’s doubles, Chirag and Satwik will carry India’s hopes of a first ever medal in the category but the task will be a tough one, considering that they have been handed a difficult draw.
The world No. 10 pair, which bagged India’s maiden men’s doubles silver medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games before winning the title at Thailand Super 500 and reaching the final at French Super 750 in 2019, will have to compete against higher ranked pairs in the group stage itself.
The India duo will open on Saturday against Chinese Taipei’s world No. 3 Lee yang and Wang Chi Lin. They will also have to fight it out against top-seeded Indonesian pair of Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and England duo of Ben Lane and Sean Vendy, ranked 18th, in group stage.
In doubles, the top two teams in the group go through to the quarter-finals.
Chirag and Satwik will meet the Group D runners-up, which has second seeds Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan, if they top Group A, while a second place finish will see them take on the winners of Group B, where home favourites Hiroyuki Endo and Yuta Watanabe have been drawn.
‘Chirag and Satwik, although, have a tough draw but I do see them as potential hopefuls for a medal,’ Chief national badminton coach Pullela Gopichand had said.