The Badminton Association of India announced on Monday that it will be raising the total prize purse for the senior national championship to almost Rs 1 crore to make it lucrative enough for the top players to participate.

The proposed amount is higher than the mandatory $1,20,000 (Rs 77 lakh) prize purse for the Badminton World Federation’s Grand Prix Gold events. Hence, in purely financial terms, it is a very attractive proposition for Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu, K Srikanth, B Sai Praneeth and others.

The Field has learnt that almost all top players have confirmed their participation for the upcoming national championships to be held in Nagpur in November. However, the format of the tournament will be changed to ensure that the top stars don’t need to play more than three days.

The tournament is normally played over five days with the eventual champion expected to win at least six matches during that period.

“We are working on the new format,” said a source involved in the development. “Maybe the top players will get direct entry into the quarters or pre-quarters. The top players don’t really look forward to the Nationals like in the past and we need to do something to keep them interested.”

No motivation to play

There is no doubt that the top players are not very keen to play the Nationals simply because the performance in the championship hardly affects the selection process for most Indian teams. The entries to international tournaments are directly linked to players’ world ranking points.

“After you have won the national title once, what is the point of trying to just win it again and again when you can concentrate on bigger goals,” was how one top player put it a few years ago in an informal discussion.

Saina Nehwal was the first to start this trend and hasn’t played the Nationals since winning her second crown in 2007. Many others have taken that route since then. This has meant that there are not many takers for hosting the Senior Nationals as the organisers have to foot the lodging and boarding bill of the players and find it difficult to raise funds for the same in the absence of top players.

In the last few years, BAI office bearers have been deliberating on how to bring back the glory of national championships but with little success. There were plans to make it mandatory for all players to play the India Super Series and Grand Prix Gold and the Nationals. A circular was also issued to this effect only to be withdrawn soon after as the players hardly bothered to oblige.

The most famous snub to this policy came from Nehwal when she turned up to play the Syed Modi International in Lucknow in 2012 under pressure from the then President Dr Akhilesh Das Gupta but conceded her first-round encounter to Russia’s Ksenia Polikarpova at match point, citing a knee injury and returned to Hyderabad.

Current president Himanta Biswa Sarma doesn’t want to go down the route of forcing the players and had a chat with them to understand their reservations over playing the Nationals. While points like better courts, lesser travel time are valid, giving them a direct entry to the business end of the tournament isn’t really the right way forward.

The way forward

Normally, entry into to any tournament of stature is restricted according to pre-defined criteria but everyone participating has to compete from the first round unless they are given a bye on the basis of number of competitors or withdrawal of an opponent.

This could actually lead to a lot of problems because deciding uniform criteria for such direct entries would be difficult across the five events. In simple words, the association will be conveying to the majority of players that few among them are more equal than others.

Instead, the BAI could look at the system followed by the All India Chess Federation in which they hold a qualifying tournament (National B) from which a certain number of players join the top-rated players and the title holder for the main championship.

Some BAI officials feel that having raised the cash prize and accepted the players’ demand like holding the Nationals in better venues and scheduling them at a better time, it should be mandatory for all of them to participate in the Nationals and selection into the core group. Thereby, government funding should be linked to the performance at the championship.

It is the same in top badminton playing nations like China, Malaysia and Indonesia, where the national camp players have to play the domestic tournaments, while those outside the framework have to spend their own money to compete in international meets as professional players.

The likes of five-time world champion Lin Dan also featured in the Chinese National Games a week after the World Championships. However, the BAI isn’t willing to go down that route for now and would try to make things comfortable and lucrative enough for the players to participate in the Nationals.

The shuttle is in the players’ court now.