The top-level badminton season is back upon us. The 2023 BWF World Tour will start on Tuesday in Kuala Lumpur with the Malaysia Open, elevated now to a Super 1000 event (the highest category of event on the World Tour) and it will be followed by India Open, now a Super 750 (the second rung), from the following week.

In other words, we are into high-level action straight away without any warm-up of sorts for the new year.

In many ways, 2022 was superb for Indian badminton. PV Sindhu had arguably her best season on the tour in terms of titles won (before the injury at CWG 2022 put an early end to her year). Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty reached the top five in the world. Lakshya Sen reached the finals of All England among other memorable results. HS Prannoy returned to the top 10 once again. Through the medals and wins, there were some impressive results across the board for the likes of Dhruv Kapila and MR Arjun (Worlds), Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly (All England), and Sankar Muthusamy (World Juniors). And of course, there was the Thomas Cup triumph that was the icing on top of it all, one of Indian sport’s greatest achievements, let alone badminton.

DAY 1 UPDATE: Malaysia Open Super 1000: Gayatri Gopichand-Treesa Jolly progress; K Srikanth, Saina Nehwal bow out

But of course, that is all in the past and the many shuttlers who have made impressive gains on the rankings ladder will have to sustain it in a busy 2023 season that is back to full swing after some interruptions in recent times. And soon enough, the attention will shift to Paris 2024 Qualification as well, which would require all the top shuttlers to plan their events carefully and more importantly, manage their bodies.

The two upcoming weeks also represent the first events on World Tour where the rankings are live now with the BWF’s staggered unfreezing coming to an end.

Spotlight on Sindhu

On her return to action after Birmingham, a tasty test awaits Sindhu. She will be up against the three-time former World Champion and Rio 2016 gold medallist Carolina Marin in the opening round. Sindhu, now ranked 7th in the world, is still seeded but Marin – who has had her share of injury issues too – is now out of the top 8 and unseeded. The battle between world No 7 and world No 9, the Rio 2016 finalists and former world champions is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the week.

“I do believe playing someone like Marin also gives a scope for critical evaluation about my game too,” Sindhu told Sportstar while looking forward to taking on her “good friend.”

Marin leads Sindhu 9-5 on world tour Head-to-Head, winning the last three meetings.

Sindhu has been clear that she wasn’t going to risk her return from injury given how busy 2023 is going to be with Paris qualification. She had returned to training in the back-end of 2022, but skipped the 2022 BWF World Tour Finals to focus on recovery. The test against Marin will not just be mental as it always is, but physical too as both players get an idea of where their game is ahead of a big season. While Marin has been known to fight back from tough injuries, Sindhu has rarely spent this much time away from the tour in recent years. One of the fittest players on tour, the two-time Olympic medallist will be hoping her body holds up well, irrespective of results in Kuala Lumpur.

Also in the women’s singles draw are Saina Nehwal, Malvika Bansod and Aakarshi Kashyap. Four Indians in the top 32 of women’s singles is a pleasant sight but it remains to be seen how they fare. For Nehwal, is there a final push left? For Bansod and Kashyap, is this the year they translate domestic form to consistent international performances? The first couple of weeks on tour should give us an indication.

Nehwal starts her campaign against China’s Han Yue, Kashyap takes on Wen Chi Hsu while Bansod faces a massive test against An Se Young, the second seed.

Lakshya vs Prannoy yet again

After five meetings in 2022, HS Prannoy and Lakshya Sen seem to be inseparable on the BWF’s draw-making software. Prannoy, now ranked ahead of Lakshya, starts the season as the men’s singles No 1 among Indians but was unseeded when the draws were made. And so, Prannoy and Lakshya will face each other in the first round of not just Malaysia Open this week but also India Open next week.

“You got to be kidding me,” as Prannoy put it on Twitter.

For the record, the international world tour H2H stands at 3-2 in favour of Lakshya at the moment.

Elsewhere, Srikanth Kidambi will have some catching up to do in a Olympic qualification year and he starts off the season in a relatively quieter section of the draw with Kenta Nishimoto awaiting him in the first round. He faces a potential second round against Jonatan Christie.

But all eyes on the men’s singles section will be on the juggernaut that is Viktor Axelsen, who is in Srikanth’s quarter too. The undoubted star of 2022, Axelsen will be the man to beat once again.

“I feel like every time I go on court, I have everything to lose. I’ve been favourite in most matches the entire year. Most players can play freely because they have no pressure but really, I’m fine with it,” Axelsen told BWF.

Doubles action

For Satwik-Chirag, 2022 was brilliant. World Championships bronze medal, two World Tour titles, Thomas Cup and CWG gold medal around their necks... and in the top five now. But 2023 will be all about building on that in a men’s doubles field that was wildly open and unpredictable in the season gone by. While going deeper in tournaments will be expected from the Indian field now, they will also be a marked pair. And perhaps high on their target list for 2023 will be finding the elusive wins against the Minions Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo from Indonesia and Aaron Chia / Soh Wooi Yik. The Indians are in the same quarter as the world champions and local favourites from Malaysia.

Even before that, they face a tough test in the opening round against world No 9 Choi Sol Gyu and Kim Won Ho (leading 1-0 on H2H), and a potential second round battle against All England champions Muhammad Shohibul Fikri and Bagas Maulana.

Also in the men’s doubles draw are Krishna Prasad Garaga and Vishnuvardhan Goud, promoted from reserves to replace another Indian pairing in MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila.

In women’s doubles, CWG bronze medallists Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand – currently in top 20 – will start off against Hong Kong’s Yeung Nga Ting and Yeung Pui Lam in the first round. But much like Prannoy vs Lakshya, they could be in for a familiar battle in second round against the red-hot Thinaah Muralitharan and Pearly Tan. Ashwini Bhat and Shikha Gautam face a tough test against Thailand’s Supissara Paewsampran and Putita Supajirakul.

There is no Indian interest in mixed doubles this week.

Withdrawals from Malaysia Open: 

Men’s singles: Kento Momota 

Women’s singles: Ratchanok Intanon [7], Iris Wang 

Men’s doubles: M.R. Arjun & Dhruv Kapila

Women’s doubles: Catherine Choi & Josephine Wu, Mayu Matsumoto & Wakana Nagahara, Nami Matsuyama & Chiharu Shida  [2] 

Mixed doubles: Mikkel Mikkelsen & Rikke Søby 

Here’s the schedule for Tuesday’s matches with Srikanth, Nehwal, Kashyap, Gayatri-Treesa, Krishna-Vishnuvardhan in action.