It is pretty clear that most of the top international stars do not give the national championship much priority in the whole scheme of things. And one of them even articulated that thought by saying: “How does it matter if you become a National champion once or 10 times. At this stage you have to focus on winning international tournaments.”
The Badminton Association of India thinks otherwise and believes that all players should be participating in the nationals given that it is the premier tournament in the country and hence has increased the prize money exponentially and even tweaked the rules to accommodate the requests of the top players.
We will go into the merits and demerits of those rules later. But what happened at the Assam Badminton Association courts on Thursday and BAI’s response to the entire episode made most other players feel that they were being treated as secondary citizens by their own federation.
First the bare facts. When top players like Saina Nehwal, P Kashyap and others came to know that the Senior Nationals were being held on the cement courts — the courts have BWF approved synthetic mats above the flooring as per playing regulations — of the TRP stadium in Guwahati, they conveyed to the organisers that they were not comfortable with the idea of playing on cement courts and should be made to play on courts with wooden flooring or else they would prefer to withdraw.
The organisers then decided to lay a single wooden court like they did during the Premier Badminton League last season for the semi-finals and finals and shifted the matches of top players to the wooden courts of Assam Badminton Association.
But when Saina Nehwal took the court against Shruti Mundada in the third match of the day on the court — where PV Sindhu and Sameer Verma had played earlier — she noticed that the court was slightly uneven and told the organisers that she would prefer to wait till the main stadium court was ready to play or would take play in current conditions and weigh the conditions while playing and decide whether to continue or not.
Clearly concerned with the possible withdrawal of top players due to fear of injury, the organisers then decided to postpone the matches of Nehwal, Kashyap and B Sai Praneeth to evening slots after the main court was ready to play.
So far so good.
But what happened thereafter left a bad taste for everyone concerned.
It got worse
While Nehwal was going around inspecting the courts and the officials busy indulging her, Mundada stood clueless on the other side of the court waiting for clarity on whether she had to be ready to play or not. Nobody bothered to ask her what her views were and neither the organisers nor the referee even bothered to consult the players’ respective opponents before taking any decisions.
The organisers also decided to go ahead with the rest of the matches on the same courts and when some of the other players objected, they were then given the option of playing on the concrete flooring courts in the main stadium.
While Nehwal and Kashyap waited for their pre-quarterfinal matches, the other singles players were even asked to play their quarterfinal matches on the same wooden flooring courts in the evening session and many players remarked that had they asked for any of this, they would have been told to shut up and play.
In fact, the evening session saw B Sai Praneeth opting to play on the same academy courts as he wasn’t willing to wait for longer for the main court to be ready and his opponent C Rohit Yadav was once again made to just comply without anyone asking whether he was comfortable with the arrangement.
It is nobody’s argument that the top players should not get some privileges like better staying facilities, permission to have their own support staff. But once on court, they have to be treated as equal competitors and that would mean that all the matches from the quarter-finals should have been played on a similar standard of courts.
If a court is unsafe to play for one player it has to be unsafe to play for all the players and no differentiation can be done on that count.
In any case, the change in rules to accommodate the top players defies the norms of level playing field.
Under the new rules, the top-50 players — with top BAI ranked played completing the eight slots — are directly parachute in the Super Draw of 16 players while the other eight qualifiers had to play four rounds in two days before the main tournament starts.
What this means is that even the likes of two-time national champion Sourabh Verma, who doesn’t fit in the eight direct slots, will have to play eight matches in five days while the eight others only need to play four matches in three days to be crowned national champion.
One policy for everyone
It is not may the place to argue whether the top players should play the nationals or any national level events at all or just concentrate on the international circuit. It is the job of the chief national coach or the BAI office bearers to decide on such matters.
But it is logical to expect that once a policy is made, it has to be equal for everyone concerned. In this edition of the nationals itself, BAI has allowed a K Srikanth to pull out and he could still be part of the All England squad while Sindhu played both her matches on the same Academy courts which were deemed dangerous for the others top players.
If the BAI wants its top players to play the nationals then it has to first get its house in order, hold the nationals during the period stipulated by BWF for national championship for all countries so that the top players don’t have any other engagements. The last nationals were held in November 2017 while the championship for 2018 is being held in February 2019.
Players would still have to miss the nationals if they are injured and there have to be clear cut stipulations to differentiate the circumstances under which skipping the Nationals is to be permitted.
In most top countries, players who do not follow the national federation’s system have to fund their own training and competition and there is a school of thought within the BAI that such a system should also be implemented in India.
But before taking any such step, BAI first needs to have proper rules and regulations in place regarding the participation of players in the domestic circuit and they cannot be implementing such diktat’s on an ad-hoc basis – depending on what the officials feel at that point of time and which players are involved.
Every player playing badminton in the country deserves, at least, that much respect.