23 September 2018 05:46 AM

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PARTAB RAMCHAND | 12 MARCH, 2018

Strong Indian Challenge for All England Badminton

PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal


Over the years the all England badminton championships has lost none of its aura. Indeed it was considered the unofficial world championships till 1977. After the Badminton World Federation started grading tournaments the all England was slated as a Super Series event in 2007 and upgraded to the Super Series Premier category in 2011.

It is the one tournament that the leading players want to win more than any other since it is acknowledged as the Wimbledon of badminton. Four time men’s champion Lee Chong Wei sums it up aptly. ``Every year I come here I feel I am playing at home. You can feel that it’s different from any other badminton tournament.’’ Former women’s world champion Camilla Martin is another one who has willingly surrendered to the inimitable ambience. ``It is special because there is so much tradition.’’

To sum up the tradition, the little details that go into the impeccable organization of the tournament and the awe it evokes among the players make it what it is. The tournament one of the oldest sports competitions in the world started in 1899 with only doubles - men’s, women’s and mixed - with singles added a year later. The journey over the last 120 years has been eventful and the legend has only grown.

For the Indian badminton player the all England is what Wimbledon is to the Indian tennis player. The leading players have taken part in the tournament through the forties, fifties, sixties and seventies but it was not until Prakash Padukone came on the scene did the Indian challenge really make an impact. After being one of the main challengers for the title for a few years he finally became the first Indian to win the prestigious title in 1980 defeating arch rival Liem Swie King of Indonesia in the final. It still constitutes one of the greatest moments in the history of Indian sport.

Thanks to the inspiration provided by Prakash Indian badminton has made steady strides culminating in the healthy scenario that prevails today. In 2001 Pullela Gopichand became the second Indian to win the title and over the next 15 years the Indian challenge has been prominent even if there has been no winner at Birmingham, the venue of the all England.

However it is safe to say that the Indian challenge for this year’s tournament starting on Wednesday is perhaps the strongest. First it was the Indian women duo of PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal that really made an impact on the international badminton scene but since last year the men too have not lagged behind. Kidambi Srikanth has led the challenge winning four Super Series titles last year something that neither Sindhu nor Saina have achieved. This has propelled him to No 3 in the rankings and he is seeded third for the all England.

Srikanth who will be making his fourth appearance at the all England makes no secret about his ambitions. ``Winning the all England has it its own aura. Once you do that you will join the big names in the history of the sport,’’ he says not curbing his enthusiasm. Sai Praneeth and HS Prannoy are the two other Indians in the draw. Sai Praneeth world No 14 was in the same half of the draw as world No 1 Viktor Axelsen but the latter’s withdrawal owing to an ankle injury has made the path clearer for the Indian to make it at least to the last eight for a start.

Prannoy who is world No 12 is short on training following a corn on his foot. But he is back in action feeling ``mentally fresh’’ as he has put it a factor that he hopes will stand him in good stead for Birmingham.

With all the splendid performances of the men, the main focus will continue to be on the performances of Sindhu and Saina. Such is the aura surrounding Sindhu’s showing over the last couple of years that Indian hopes will be pinned on her becoming the first Indian woman to win the title. The world No 4 is seeded fourth and could run into reigning world champion Nozomi Okuhara in the quarterfinal. But as anyone associated with badminton is aware Sindhu is capable of getting the better of fancied opponents.

Saina who is unseeded (she is ranked No 11) has a tough start. She faces top seed Tai Tzu-Ying of Taiwan in the first round but that has not affectedher ambitions. The former world No 1 says she wants to win the crown for ``Indian women’’ and an upset cannot be ruled out.

Speaking of other challengers the absence of Axelsen has opened up the the men’s singles draw. Defending champion Lee Chong Wei may be 35 but his fitness and fondness for Birmighham’s courts make him the favourite. He could however face a strong challenge from former champions Lin Dan and Chen Long. In the women’s section Tai Tzu-Ying the top seed is the favourite though former champion Carolina Marin back again after fitness problems will be keen to silence her critics. Akane Yamaguchi who won the year ending Dubai Super Series is on a high and then of course there is always Sindhu and Saina.
 

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