At the start of 2018, both Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik had had a season to forget. After winning silver medals at the Asian Championships last year, both failed to medal at the World Championships and by the time Pro Wrestling League began in January, the only gold medal they had to show was at the Commonwealth Championships, a tournament which has a reputation of having a field weaker than the national-level championships in India.

Close to a year later, the two wrestlers have seen their careers take different paths. While Vinesh is now India’s bright hope at the Tokyo Olympics, Sakshi has fallen behind with doubts being raised if the she can repeat her performance from the Rio Games, where she finished with a bronze medal.

Now at the Senior National Championships, which begins on Friday, all eyes will be on the two wrestlers, one trying to regain lost glory while the other thinking of it as a “easy” competition.

Different challenge for Vinesh

In the last nine months, the 24-year-old has won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games, Spain Grand Prix and a silver at the Asian Championships in February. She missed the World Championships due to an elbow injury but just 20 days later she was back on the mat.

Her return to the mat will see her move up to the 57kg weight category from the original 50kg category.

“The competition here will not be very strong so I don’t have to reduce weight here. This competition is not a warm-up but it’s good if I get some competition before the bigger tournaments,” Vinesh says.

“I have a chance to restart at the national competition. I have several important tournament coming up in next few months and this helps in getting into the competition.”

“I have to maintain weight throughout the next year so I don’t want to reduce the weight,” she adds.

But jumping three categories, also brings a new challenge for her. While she has sparred with the senior wrestlers at the camp, junior wrestlers will prove to be tough challengers.

“I know lot of the wrestlers from the senior national camp but there will be a lot of the juniors competing for the first time. I don’t know many of them, so I have to see how it goes,” she says.

Chance at redemption for Sakshi

The threat from the junior wrestlers will be a bigger one for Sakshi who will find this tournament as another chance to regain her reputation. Not only she will have tough competition, the junior wrestlers will also like to cause an upset.

The 26-year-old has had a dismal year. After winning a bronze medal at the Asian Championships in February, she failed to win a medal at the Asian Games. A Commonwealth Games bronze medal — that was received with tears, because she wanted more — was sandwiched between the two but her loss at the World Championships further raised doubts over her form.

“It’s all about psychology. If you can score eight points against a wrestler, there is no way you cannot score two more. At least you won’t lose from that situation. But she has been struggling with that. We have tried improving on it,” Kuldeep Malik, national coach of the Indian women’s team, says.

A gold medal would be a perfect way to regain her winning ways. It will not only serve as a launchpad for a new season, it could well be a big boost of confidence.

“This tournament is important for her because she will get into that mentality of being the best. She will have qualification tournaments for the Olympics so she needs to start now,” Malik says.

Not only personally, but the success of Sakshi and Vinesh matters to their team – Railways. Both wrestlers, expected to win gold medals, will be key in helping the defending champions retain the title.

“For Vinesh it is more about getting into training and competing. She is also an important part of the Railways team so we want her to compete,” the coach adds.

Big names missing

But Railways will be without the big stars in the men’s freestyle with Bajrang Punia and Sushil Kumar giving the tournament a miss. In women’s, Pooja Dhanda has decided to give it a skip as well. Another big name Sandeep Tomar will miss the tournament because of an injury.

It provides a good opportunity to Ravi Kumar (57kg), who won a silver medal at the recent U23 World Championships, to claim top honours. Praveen Rana will be the favourite to win the 74kg title with Jitender moving up to the 79kg.

Another youngster, Deepak Punia, who won bronze medal at the last year nationals, will try to improve the colour of the medal. The 97kg weight category will once again be a showdown between two veterans of the category Mausam Khatri and Satyawart Kadian.

But this tournament will be an important one for the youngsters who would like to rise to the top level especially with the stars missing.