The biggest badminton event of the year is here. The venue is Glasgow. At stake is the title of World Champion. The best in the world will battle it out at the Emirates Arena starting August 21, some hoping to live up to the high expectations, some hoping to spring a surprise, in a sport where rankings and reputation often count for very little.
As far as India is concerned, it is by far the largest contingent the country has sent to the marquee event – an event where only the best get invited. While the familiar faces are still around in women’s singles, it’s the men’s singles contingent that’s probably the strongest – as a unit – from an Indian point of view. With four players in top 30 making the cut, the odds are ever in favour of one or more of the Indian men finishing on the podium – a feat that has not been achieved since Prakash Padukone won a bronze in 1983.
Here’s a ranking-based analysis of the Indian presence in the men’s singles draw.
Undoubtedly the form player going in to the World Championship, expectations are high for the world No. 8 Srikanth. Few expected him to be the player to beat at the player to beat in the badminton calendar’s marquee event, fewer still thought he would reach three consecutive Superseries finals, winning the last two of them.
His run in Singapore, Indonesia and Australia has catapulted him to the top of the Destination Dubai rankings – a ranking system in place just for the calendar year to determine the top eight for the year-end event. The Destination Dubai rankings are a better indicator than the world rankings to gauge current form and Srikanth’s lead at the top of the tree is over 4000 points – a clear indicator of his stellar season.
As for his draw, his first round opponent is world No. 70 from Russia, Segey Sirant and this will be their first meeting at the professional level. His potential second round opponent is either the world No. 45 Lin Yu Hsien or world No. 63 Lucas Corvee. The third round is where it starts getting tricky for Srikanth, where either Tommy Sugiarto or 14th seed Anders Antonsen, European runner-up, likely await.
At the business end of the tournament, Son Wan Ho – the World No. 1 – is Srikanth’s potential quarter-final opponent. As daunting as that task sounds, Srikanth defeated him twice in their last two meetings in Indonesia and Australia. Should he make it a hat-trick, a medal is ensured for the 24-year-old. Shu Yuqi or Lin Dan could be his potential semi-final opponents and should the seeding hold in the bottom half, Lee Chong Wei would be in the final.
If Srikanth plays to his potential and sticks to the form book, he will be India’s best bet for a podium finish.
It’s been a weird year for Ajay. Till Srikanth’s big leap in the rankings, he was the top-ranked singles player among the Indian men and yet he has had barely a notable achievement in the big events of the year. A win against Viktor Axelsen in Malaysia was the highlight of his year, on his way to the quarter-final. But, by fate or design, the initial draw has been kind to Ajay. World No. 114 Luka Wraber in the first round and either world No. 51 or 70 in the second round. Third round is where it gets mighty difficult, with fifth seed Chen Long as his likely opponent – Ajay has a 0-5 record against the Chinese star. Being in the same quarter as Lee Chong Wei, Ajay would do really well to get to the quarter-final.
The lowest ranked Indian in the fray in men’s singles, Sameer Verma also has perhaps the toughest draw among the four. His first round opponent is Spain’s Pablo Abian, ranked 37, just eight spots below. Abian also has a 1-0 advantage, head-to-head. Should he overcome that first obstacle, 10th seed and European Champion Rajiv Ouseph awaits. Should Sameer somehow overcome that second obstacle as well, it’s likely to be Lin Dan in the third round. Ouch.
B Sai Praneeth
The other in-form Indian player this year. Sai Praneeth, Srikanth’s contemporary and training partner, has had a breakout year in 2017. Before the turn of this year, he had not even reached the quarter-final of a main event. And heading into the World Championship, he is one of the five men to win a Superseries title this year. And he has a Grand Prix Gold title to go with that as well. He is 10th on the Destination Dubai rankings, further proof of the good year he has had. Seeded 15th in Glasgow, there is a good case to be made for Sai Praneeth to be the dark horse.
The draw though, is a bit tricky for the Singapore Open champion. His first opponent is world No. 44 Wei Nan and it will be their first meeting in the circuit. Given he overcomes that, a potential second round tie with the talented and mercurial Indonesian Anthony Sinisuka Ginting awaits. Though form and ranking favours the Indian, the head-to-head is 1-0 in favour of Ginting. Should he overcome that, a tough third round fixture against world No. 6 (and the second best player this year) Chou Tien Chen is in store. The Chinese Taipei star has been plagued by inconsistency this year after a semi-final appearance at All England, but would start the favourite against Sai, having won both their previous matches. Ng Ka Long Angus or Viktor Axelsen would be his reward in the quarter-final if he makes it that far. And Lee Chong Wei in the semi-final, of course, should the seeding hold.
To guarantee a medal by reaching the semi-final, Sai Praneeth has to navigate three tough fixtures, but given the form he has showed this year, don’t write him off just yet.
Bonus takeaway: Don’t put your money on it, but none of the four Indians have been drawn in the same quarter, meaning an all-Indian semi-final is a possibility.
Men’s singles first round matches:
Monday, August 21: Kidambi Srikanth (8) vs Segey Sirant
Monday August 21: Sameer Verma (29) vs Pablo Abian
Tuesday August 22: Sai Praneeth (15) vs Wei Nan
Tuesday August 22: Ajay Jayaram (13) vs Luka Wraber