It is inevitable these days that any major badminton event is highly anticipated by India’s sporting community. The past decade and even more has shown that Indians are a powerhouse in the sport and are not to be counted out. From Saina Nehwal’s rise to the very top to PV Sindhu’s 2019 World Championships gold, success has been frequent for the shuttlers.
And so it would be once again, when the badminton disciplines get underway in Tokyo a year later than they were meant to be.
While the event itself begins on July 24 in Tokyo’s Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, a significant part of it happened on Thursday: the draw for all the groups in the five categories. Significant because it determines the fate of all the medal contenders and their paths to the podium.
Sample this: in the men’s and women’s singles draw of Rio 2016, out of the 13 seeds on each side, only a total of three did not make it out of their groups. One of them was an injured Saina Nehwal. And being a seeded player, the group a shuttler is drawn into first is crucial in determining their progress.
From India’s point of view, with the contingent already shrunk in size from the last time around, the news wasn’t exactly great on Thursday. Only PV Sindhu, B Sai Praneeth and doubles Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty have made the cut for the Games in their categories and two of them, at the very least, did not receive the luck of the draw.
Singles seeds at Tokyo 2020
|Seeds||Men's singles||Women's singles|
|1||Kento Momota||Chen Yu Fei|
|2||Chou Tien Chen||Tai Tzu Ying|
|3||Anders Antonsen||Nozomi Okuhara|
|4||Viktor Axelsen||Akane Yamaguchi|
|5||Anthony Ginting||Ratchanok Intanon|
|6||Chen Long||PV Sindhu|
|7||Jonatan Christie||An Se Young|
|8||Ng Ka Long Angus||He Bing Jiao|
|9||Lee Zii Jia||Michelle Li|
|10||Wang Tzu Wei||Busanan Ongbamrungphan|
|11||Shi Yu Qi||Beiwen Zhang|
|12||Kanta Tsuneyama||Kim Gaeun|
|13||Sai Praneeth B.||Mia Blichfeldt|
|14||Kantaphon Wangcharoen||Gregoria Mariska Tunjung|
|15||Heo Kwanghee||Evgeniya Kosetskaya|
|16||Brice Leverdez||Yeo Jia Min|
Doubles seeds at Tokyo 2020
|1||Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo / Marcus Fernaldi Gideon|
|2||Hendra Setiawan / Mohammad Ahsan|
|3||Li Jun Hui / Liu Yu Chen|
|4||Hiroyuki Endo / Yuta Watanabe|
Format for men’s / women’s singles: 14 groups, with 14 seeds. Player topping each group enters the round of 16. Top two seeds receive a bye, while the 12 others compete in six knockout matches. Losing semi-finalists compete in a bronze medal match. The groups determine their round of 16 matches, there is no further draw.
Format for doubles: Four groups, with four seeds. Two top pairs from each group proceed to quarter-finals. A second draw is held for this stage for the eight qualified pairs, with pairs from the same group being separated. Losing semi-finalists compete in a bronze medal match.
For the purpose of this analysis, we will look at only the categories involving Indians:
Let’s start with the Rio 2016 silver medallist and reigning world champion. Sindhu was already India’s best bet for a badminton medal at the Games and given how tough the other draws turned out, that fact only got reiterated. Seeded sixth and placed in the bottom half, Sindhu will face Hong Kong’s world number 34 Cheung Ngan Yi and Israel’s Ksenia Polikarpova, ranked 58th. Sindhu has a 5-0 head to head against Cheung and the two haven’t met since 2017 on the tour. Against Polikarpova, Sindhu has a 2-0 record and they last met in 2015. In terms of recent results, there is not much to go by but the Indian should get through the group.
If the top 14 seeds go through without any upsets (and without injuries only Group K with Kim Gaeun and Yeo Jia Min is unpredictable), here’s how the round of 16 will shape up:
Women’s singles potential round of 16 matches (if the seedings hold)
Chen Yufei (bye)
An Se Young vs Busanan Ongbamrungphan
Nozomi Okuhara vs Michelle Li
He Bingjao vs Beiwen Zhang
Mia Blichfeldt vs PV Sindhu
Kim Gaeun vs Akane Yamaguchi
Gregoria Tunjung vs Ratchanok Intanon
Tai Tzu Ying (bye)
Sindhu should — on paper — should have the edge over Blichfeldt (head to head 4-1) but it is worth noting that the rising Danish star defeated Sindhu at start of the year in Thailand in a three-game thriller. Sindhu defeated her more recently at the Swiss Open.
And then it gets interesting. The quarter-finals is where it gets mighty difficult to call. Intanton vs Tai, Chen Yufei vs An Se Young are both cracking matches but all eyes will be on a potential Sindhu vs Yamaguchi clash for the 19th time. Sindhu has a 11-7 advantage, with the latest of those wins coming in an epic All England quarter-final. But the Japanese has won three of the last four meetings and will have the advantage of playing at home in familiar surroundings.
From here on, it is anybody’s tournament but for the record a semi-final against world No 1 Tai and then a final against one of Chen / Okuhara could be on the cards. As an aside, keep an eye out for Korea’s An Se Young to go far.
If there is one thing Sai Praneeth might have hoped for before the draw, it would have been to avoid the same quarter as Kento Momota or Viktor Axelsen. Sure, *Chen Long is the only defending champion across categories, but the Japanese and Dane were the must-avoid players. But as luck would have it, the Indian is in the same quarter as world No 1 and red-hot local favourite Momota.
The group stage itself promises no smooth ride. Praneeth will have to go past world no 29 Mark Caljouw of Netherlands (first meeting) and Isreal’s Misha Zilberman, ranked 47, and both are tricky customers. Caljouw had a breakthrough All England 2021 campaign, reaching the semi-finals after accounting for Lakshya Sen in the last eight. Praneeth has a 3-0 record against Zilberman with the most recent win coming at Swiss Open 2021. A banana skin of a group, but at his best, Praneeth should still progress.
Men’s singles potential round of 16 matches (if the seedings hold)
Kento Momota (bye)
Ng Ka Long Angus vs Sai Praneeth
Viktor Axelsen vs Wang Tzu Wei
Jonatan Christie vs Shi Yu Qi
Kanta Tsuneyama vs Anthony Ginting
Kantaphon Wangchaoren vs Anders Antonsen
Lee Zii Jia vs Chen Long
Chou Tien Chen (bye)
Even before thinking about a massive challenge against Momota in the last eight, Praneeth will face a tough challenge against Ng Ka Long Angus, the world No 9. The Hong Kong shuttler has a 3-1 record against the Indian.
Sure, Momota looked rusty at All England. Sure, formbook doesn’t matter much at the Games. Sure, Praneeth has the knack of pulling off upsets. But it would take a brave man to predict that the No 1 will not progress all the way. Praneeth has lost the last five matches against Momota (a 5-2 head-to-head but both the wins coming against the pre-suspension Momota in 2013).
Alongside the Indian in the top half, former world No 1 Axelsen, former All England champion Shi Yu Qi and Asian Games gold medallist Jonatan Christie being drawn in the same quarter makes for cracking knockout match-ups.
There are two ways to look at this. From an Indian point of view, it is not ideal at all that the exciting Satwik-Chirag combo ended up in arguably the toughest group across all categories. But on the flip side, as the BWF website put it, it is not ideal for the top seeds Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo or world No 3 and in-form Wang Chi-Lin/Lee Yang either. The Chinese Taipei pair swept all the three doubles titles in Thailand at the start of 2021.
Satwik-Chirag have pulled off many an upset in the past couple of years but the top seeds, fondly known as the ‘Minions’, have proved to be a tough nut to crack. The Indians have a 0-8 head-to-head record against the favourites from Indonesia. The Indians will be meeting the Taipei pair for the first time and have lost the only match they played against Lane / Vendy back in 2019.
If anything, however, the Indians have shown often that formbook and rankings don’t matter to them if they find their groove and they would be hoping to pull off an upset or two and enter the knockouts, where anything is possible.
Corrections and clarifications: The article mentioned at this point that Chen Long was the second seed, but he is the sixth. The table above has the correct information.
Full badminton schedule is available here.
First matches for the Indian shuttlers:
Satwiksairaj/Chirag: Jul 24, around 830 am: LEE Yang/WANG Chi-Lin
Sai Praneeth: Jul 24, around 930 am: Misha ZILBERMAN
PV Sindhu: Jul 25, around 7 am: Ksenia POLIKARPOVA
Tentative schedule for groups involving Indians: (Tokyo timings)
SUN 25 JUL 10:40 PUSARLA V. Sindhu IND (6) vs POLIKARPOVA Ksenia ISR
TUE 27 JUL 12:40 CHEUNG Ngan Yi HKG vs POLIKARPOVA Ksenia ISR
WED 28 JUL 11:00 PUSARLA V. Sindhu IND (6) vs CHEUNG Ngan Yi HKG
SAT 24 JUL 13:00 B. Sai Praneeth IND (13) vs ZILBERMAN Misha ISR
MON 26 JUL 11:20 CALJOUW Mark NED vs ZILBERMAN Misha ISR
WED 28 JUL 18:00 B. Sai Praneeth IND (13) vs CALJOUW Mark NED
SAT 24 JUL 12:20 GIDEON MF / SUKAMULJO KS INA (1) vs LANE Ben / VENDY Sean GBR
SAT 24 JUL 12:20 LEE Yang / WANG Chi-Lin TPE vs RANKIREDDY S / SHETTY C IN
MON 26 JUL 11:20 LEE Yang / WANG Chi-Lin TPE vs LANE Ben / VENDY Sean GBR
MON 26 JUL 12:40 GIDEON MF / SUKAMULJO KS INA (1) vs RANKIREDDY S / SHETTY C IND
TUE 27 JUL 12:00 GIDEON MF / SUKAMULJO KS INA (1) vs LEE Yang / WANG Chi-Lin TPE
TUE 27 JUL 12:00 RANKIREDDY S / SHETTY C IND vs LANE Ben / VENDY Sean GBR