Sai Praneeth can be the 'surprise package' at Tokyo Olympics —Vimal Kumar
Veteran badminton coach Vimal Kumar gives his expert views on Tokyo-bound Indian shuttlers PV Sindhu, Sai Praneeth and Satwik-Chirag and weighs the chances of each ahead of the Tokyo Olympics
With 17 days left for the opening of the Tokyo Olympics, former badminton player turned coach Vimal Kumar said, "this is going to be an open Olympics, with no clear favourite" while picking his Top 5 for the coveted gold medal. The badminton veteran, Kumar also forecasted an enormous challenge for women's singles specialist and current World No. 7, PV Sindhu, while terming India's lone men's singles representative B. Sai Praneeth as the "surprise package".
From the Indian perspective, badminton is going to be one of the biggest attractions as four Indian shuttlers - PV Sindhu, B. Sai Praneeth and men's doubles duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty - will shoulder the hopes of a billion-plus country, India, in the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Games.
The chief coach of Bengaluru-based Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, Vimal Kumar, vouched for a good show from the Indian shuttlers even though the pandemic forced them to train at Gachibowli Stadium in Hyderabad without any tournaments to fetch them enough match practice.
"India will have good chances in Tokyo in all three disciplines. Indian shuttlers have done well before the pandemic. Now, the hope is that they will return home with a medal. PV Sindhu is a World Champion, B Sai Praneeth is a bronze medallist and the doubles duo of Satwik-Chirag also won a Super 500 tournament previously. So, I believe all of them will be in the reckoning for Olympic medals," Kumar said during an exclusive interview.
'Not having domestic tournaments is a disadvantage for Indian shuttlers'
However, the 58-year-old coach said India's chances of winning medals will depend on how the Olympic-bound shuttlers make last-minute adjustments in the build-up to Tokyo 2020.
"Though Indian shuttlers have previously done well, right now, that performance will be of least importance. With the pandemic in effect for more than one and half years, India's chances are at a toss now. It is difficult to predict a winner. A lot will depend on their preparations and how they perform on the given day," stated Kumar.
Underlining the effect of the pandemic on the Indian shuttlers, Vimal Kumar further said, "This pandemic could make a lot of differences. Since BWF cancelled all the tournaments two months before the Olympics, this is a disadvantage for shuttlers, especially for Indian shuttlers as there is no domestic tournament here. In other countries, domestic tournaments are going on in full swing. Getting to compete in tournaments is a big thing for any player. This is an advantage for foreign players against Indian shuttlers."
Sindhu's biggest threats at the Tokyo Olympics
Among the four Indian shuttlers, 2016 Rio Olympics silver medallist PV Sindhu is being considered India's strongest medal hope. The 2019 World Championships gold medallist last played in the All England Open in March where she lost in the semifinal to Pornpawee Chochuwong of Thailand.
Though the draw is yet to be unveiled, Vimal Kumar forecasted Sindhu's possible threats who can stop the Indian's campaign at any point during Tokyo 2020.
"Going by the conditions, Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi will be favourites and they will be Sindhu's biggest threats. Apart from the Japanese shuttlers, Tai Tzu-ying, Ratchanok Intanon and Chen Yufei will also be in the reckoning for the medal in women's singles. But making any prediction will be difficult now. Once the draw is out it will be easier to comment in this regard," said Kumar, who served as the Chief National Coach of India for three years.
Asked about Sindhu's game plan and a possible strategy to negotiate the threats in Japan, the 1992 Olympian said, "Sindhu has to study their old performances and prepare herself accordingly for any match situation. There is a Korean girl, An Seyoung who can be a giant killer. She has upset many top players in the past. Sindhu will definitely face an uphill task, but being an experienced cog and equipped with experience and skills, I think she will soak up the challenge very well. It will be heartening to see how she negotiates this set of young shuttlers."
No limelight, no pressure on Sai Praneeth
Meanwhile, talking about B Sai Praneeth's chances, Kumar termed the 2019 World Championships bronze medallist the darkhorse of the Games and urged everyone to be ready to see surprising performances from the Indian men's singles specialist.
Elaborating his view on World No. 15, Praneeth, who lost to Viktor Axelsen in his last international outing at All England in a Round of 16 match in March, Kumar pointed to the pressure factor as the Indian's advantage.
"Last time when PV Sindhu won a medal in Rio there was no expectation from her. She won it from nowhere. It was her maiden Olympics. She enjoyed it and got the result. This time Sindhu will have a lot of expectations to deal with. The focus is on her. For Sai Praneeth this is an advantage as he has not been in the limelight. So, if he prepares himself well, he could be a surprise package going into the Games. Remember he is a World Championship bronze medallist. You can't rule him out of a medal," apprised Kumar.
But, when it comes to his favourite for the men's singles gold, Vimal Kumar picks Lee Zii Jia of Malaysia as his number one choice.
"I am hopeful of seeing a good performance from Lee Zii Jia, who won the All England Open. He is the strongest contender for the gold. Viktor Axelsen and defending champion Chen Long, World No. 1 Japan's Kento Momota, Denmark's Anders Antonsen and Chou Tien Chen will also be there in the reckoning for the gold medal. But Lee, according to me, is a favourite. Sai Praneeth will be the darkhorse, a giant killer. All in all, this Olympics is going to be very entertaining," said the coach.
'Japan should worry about its own people, not athletes'
In the meantime, talking about Japan's decision to impose additional COVID-19 norms on Indian shuttlers, Vimal Kumar didn't mince words to slam the Olympic Games authority. "I don't understand this extra COVID protocol for Indian athletes. Japan should worry about its own people because all the athletes are going to Tokyo vaccinated and will undergo several tests before departure and after arrival. In Japan, people are refusing to take the vaccine. So, instead of putting an extra curb on athletes, they should convince their citizens to take vaccines. For athletes, these will be unnecessary hiccups. Japan should decide whether to allow their people inside the stadium or not."
However, he doesn't think this will make any massive difference to Indian shuttlers' performances. "If they have prepared themselves well for the big event in the last four years, those few days will not be a big issue. Those who are well prepared will relax and enjoy the break and get back to training. Nothing much will change in those few days. This is a special situation, you have to prepare yourself for that," Kumar said.
On being asked to comment on what advantage Indian shuttlers will get training at the big hall of Gachibowli Stadium, the former National Champion said it is more about taming the psychological worries than gaining technical advantages.
"Playing in a big air-conditioned hall makes them adapt to the drift of the shuttle. But to what extent this will be helpful in Tokyo I don't know. The weather conditions in Tokyo will be different, humidity levels will be different. So, the shuttle speed and drift will be different. I think this is more about defying psychological worries than gaining technical advantages," he stated.
Inclusion of Mathias Boe as a coach will be a boost for Satwik-Chirag
Vimal Kumar also felt Olympic silver medal-winning doubles specialist, Denmark's Mathias Boe's presence will be beneficial for the men's doubles duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty.
"Chirag Shetty and Satwik are familiar with Boe as they have played with him and under him in PBL. So, they know each other very well even before Boe was hired by BAI. Chirag was in fact training with him during the pandemic. And Boe has retired only recently. He is still familiar with the current conditions of world badminton. He is himself a champion player. He knows a lot of players among the current lot. His understanding of current badminton and doubles pairs will be beneficial for the Indian pair. Boe is technically sound, so he will help the Indian duo to pick up things before Tokyo to make themselves eligible for a medal. Boe's presence will give the Indian duo an advantage," said Kumar.
Boe, a three-time All England champion, was roped in by the Badminton Association of India as doubles coach in January 2021 to oversee the preparations of the Tokyo-bound, especially Satwik-Chirag, who will be making a debut at the Olympics.
Seconding to Kumar's statement former men's doubles player Leroy D'sa, who has been nominated for the Dhyanchand award, said, "Mathias Boe being a former international shuttler of very high calibre his appointment is certainly a big boost for the Indian duo before the Olympics. Also, his knowledge and idea of the game will definitely help them considerably. His extraordinary ability to monitor the progress of a game and set strategy accordingly will help the Indian doubles pair in Tokyo. I am very confident he will really be able to do wonders to the Indian combination."