Three-time women’s singles champion and hometown star Carolina Marin’s comeback isn’t happening yet, two-time men’s singles defending champion Kento Momota has had to pull out due to injury too and the stars of the Indonesian team will not be gracing us with their brand of brilliant badminton. There won’t be Nozomi Okuhara either and Olympic champion Chen Yufei and silver medallist Chen Long are missing too. After a taxing schedule in Tokyo, Europe and then Bali, the badminton caravan is now back in Europe as Huelva hosts the 2021 BWF Badminton World Championships. The sheen around the tournament, however, has been lost a little.

But for those who have assembled in Spain and ready to launch their campaigns, becoming a world champion on 19 December will be as close to the ultimate achievement of their lives as is possible. Except for a place in the podium at the Olympic Games or perhaps the title of being the All England champion (maybe not even that), being the world champion is the biggest prize there is for a shuttler. So who is absent from the event, won’t (and shouldn’t) matter to those who are present and raring to go.

Here are some things to look forward to ahead of Huelva 2021:

Sindhu seeks sixth medal

When the draw came out, the first thing that stood out was Sindhu’s potential quarterfinal rematch with Tai Tzu Ying. The world No 1 has not played since her silver medal in Tokyo (more on her later). But arguably Sindhu’s bigger test will be the potential third-round clash against Pornpawee Chochuwong, one of the best players on tour this year (and who missed out cruelly from qualifying to the Olympics). The Thai, who ended Sindhu’s All England hopes earlier this year, would be raring to go at arguably the biggest event for her this year.

Sindhu, too, has been in impressive form as she claimed her second silver medal at the season-ending World Tour Finals after three successive semifinals finishes at French Open, Indonesia Masters and Indonesia Open. The 26-year-old from Hyderabad will now look to cap the season with a successful defence of her World Championship title, which she had claimed two years ago in Basel, Switzerland.

It is no secret now that Sindhu brings her best to the biggest events and we saw that in Bali when she pulled off a tremendous win in the semi-final of the World Tour Finals against Akane Yamaguchi. And the World Championships is where Sindhu has almost always been at her best. From her first bronze in 2013 as a teenager, and then in 2019 where she was crowned World Champion, Sindhu has thrived at this event winning a medal in five out of her six appearances. (Two bronze, followed by two silver, followed by a gold... is there a pattern there?)

Any expert or passionate fan of badminton will tell you that women’s singles is filled with fantastic talent. Despite the absence of some big names, if Sindhu plays to the levels she is capable of, she will be in the mix for a historic sixth podium finish.

From Prakash Padukone’s first to PV Sindhu’s five: India’s medals at BWF World C’ships

India's medals at Badminton World C'ships

Edition Host city Winner
1983  Copenhagen  Prakash Padukone (bronze) 
2011  London  Jwala Gutta & Ashwini Ponnappa (bronze) 
2013  Guangzhou  PV Sindhu (bronze) 
2014  Copenhagen  PV Sindhu (bronze) 
2015  Jakarta  Saina Nehwal (silver) 
2017  Glasglow  PV Sindhu (silver)
2017 Glasglow Saina Nehwal (bronze)
2018  Nanjing  PV Sindhu (silver) 
2019  Basel  B Sai Praneeth (bronze) 
2019  Basel  PV Sindhu (gold)

Exciting prospects in women’s singles

That brings us nicely to the women’s singles field as a whole and there is one name on everyone’s mind ahead of the tournament. An Seyoung has been in scintillating form. She claimed back-to-back titles at Indonesia Masters, Indonesia Open before grabbing her first World Tour Finals crown, becoming the first from her country to do so. The Korean teenager is undoubtedly the most in-form female shuttler in the world at the moment and she will be raring to go after her missed chance at the Olympics, losing to the eventual champion in the quarterfinals. She is in the same quarter as Akane Yamaguchi and should they both reach there, it promises to be a cracking last eight fixture.

And then, of course, there is the return of Tai Tzu Ying. There were multiple murmurs before the Olympics that she will bow out of the big stage after Tokyo 2020. But, after her heartbreaking silver medal finish, she is back on the biggest stage. Olympic glory has remained elusive and the silver medal in Tokyo (the first as it was) will have been scant consolation. Now she searches for the elusive World Championship glory. For arguably the greatest player of her generation, not finishing with either an Olympic or World Championships gold would be an anomaly. But whether she is match-fit enough from the lack of action or fresh and raring to go after a break, is the mystery right now. Her last campaign at Worlds ended in a three-game thriller at the hands of Sindhu and we are on for a rematch in Huelva.

While we have discussed the main contenders for the title, keep an eye on former champion Ratchanok Intanon too, who is returning to something close to her best after a tough time on the court at Tokyo and off the court in the weeks after. She is smiling again, she is enjoying her game again and the results are on the upward trend.

Tai Tzu Ying at World Championships

Year Finish Opponent
2019 Quarterfinals PV Sindhu
2018 Quarterfinals He Bingjiao
2015 Quarterfinals Lindaweni Fanetri
2014 Quarterfinals Carolina Marin
2013 Quarterfinals Li Xuerui
2011 First-round (walkover) 

Hope for Indian men’s singles

No Momota of course, but Indonesia’s withdrawal has also meant the absence of Jonatan Christie and Anthony Ginting, two fantastic players on their day and recent champions of the team event at Thomas Cup. And all three of those stars were in the same half as Lakshya Sen, Srikanth Kidambi and B Sai Praneeth.

At the biggest of sporting events, athletes will tell you draws don’t matter. That they can only focus on one match at a time. That some of them even don’t look at the draw and that the next match is all that matters.

But, this is an extraordinary case of a draw opening up big time to make the semi-final path a real goal for every top shuttler in this half and the favourite has to be fourth seed Chou Tien Chen, who is the highest seed remaining. He too, however, has to potentially face an in-form Kunlavut Vitidsarn (three-time junior World Champion and recent finalist at the BWF World Tour Finals) in the second round.

All that means, is simply that the three Indian shuttlers in this half will likely not get an easier draw to the semifinals in their lifetimes at a major event. Now, whether that adds only more pressure or not, only time can tell. But for Indian badminton fans, there is hope in this half of the draw.

Can anyone stop Axelsen?

And while we speak about the lack of big names in the men’s singles draw and hopes for a podium finish for many in the top half, the bottom half is effectively a Danish battle unless there are any huge upsets. In Anders Antonensen, there is a dynamic player to look out for. But all eyes will be on Viktor Axelsen, the red-hot world No 1 who will start the tournament as an overwhelming favourite. There are no two ways about that.

Axelsen, who became the Olympic champion in Tokyo, has won a ridiculous 59 matches on tour this year out of 63 (60-5 overall including mid-match retirements). He has been in 10 finals, winning seven titles, including the recent World Tour Finals in Bali. It will take a brave human to bet against Axelsen adding another World Championship gold medal to his bag.

Open men’s doubles draw

Top seeds Minions (Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon) and defending champions Daddies (Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan) are absent from the event. But in a field as incredibly competitive as the men’s doubles, that tells us nothing about potential champions.

There are no clear favourites (the Indonesians usually take up that billing) and that is good news for the rest of the top pairs. Seeding in men’s doubles matters little usually but effective top seeds and Olympic champions Lee Yang and Wang Chi Lin will be the pair to beat. Takuro Hoki and Yugo Kobayashi have form on their side.

For India, there are four pairs in action but all eyes will once again be on Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, seeded eighth at the event. Having made their debut at the season-ending World Tour Finals in Bali, the Indians had to pull out early due to an injury Satwik has been carrying. And while full recovery is perhaps too much to expect in a short span of time, they will hope they can up their game in Huelva and make a deep run. The Olympics heartbreak for them is still fresh in the mind, but the Worlds offer a chance to perhaps finish 2021 on a high. They are in the same quarter as the Olympic champions and a couple of brilliant Malaysian pairs. It is not likely to be easy, but they have shown, at their best, they can beat almost any of the top pairs in the world.

Stats courtesy Badminton Statistics and research