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Badminton 2.0: New blood from India to restart BWF season at Sudirman Cup

Without Saina Nehwal or PV Sindhu in the fray, a motley mix of young and old blood have set sail for Sudirman Cup - can they fare well?

Badminton 2.0: New blood from India to restart BWF season at Sudirman Cup

Sohinee Basu

Updated: 23 Sep 2021 6:30 PM GMT

With the dust finally settling after the Tokyo Olympics storm concluding earlier this month, it is time to restart proceedings on the BWF calendar. Come 26th September, the 2021 Sudirman Cup will take flight in Vantaa, Finland and Indian badminton players have already set sail for the Scandinavian country - however, the picture of the 12-member squad is not the usual this time. With PV Sindhu rested and Saina Nehwal to make a return at the Uber Cup next month, the Indian squad for the Sudirman Cup is a motley mix of young and old players, combining youth and experience in a heady blend as they take the gamble for a medal in the mixed team biennial tournament.

The BWF season got badly hampered with a lot of events being either postponed or called off entirely that jeopardised the qualification chances of many star players for the Tokyo Olympics who did not make the cut owing to a dearth of tournaments being contested. Like any other sport, badminton was also served a harsh blow by the COVID-19 pandemic but it is finally time to get things back on track and the 2021 Sudirman Cup, scheduled to be held in Vantaa, Finland will mark the resumption of the interrupted BWF season.

The Sudirman Cup, which is a Grade I Team Tournament which will be in its 17th edition was originally supposed to take place in Suzhou, China but got changed to Finland owing to pandemic complications in China still. The Indian badminton squad will be spearheaded by former World No. 1 Kidambi Srikanth, 2019 World Championships bronze medallist B. Sai Praneeth and youngsters Malvika Bansod, Aditi Bhatt, Tanisha Crasto alongside MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila also in the fray. Veteran women's doubles pair of Ashwini Ponnappa and N. Sikki Reddy will also be there in Vantaa to contest in the event. The Sudirman Cup has five matches played - Women's Singles, Men's Singles, Women's Doubles, Men's Doubles and Mixed Doubles in a group stage followed by knockouts.

India has been handed a tricky draw as they are placed in Group A with defending champions China and formidable Thailand and hosts Finland. While China has won the Sudirman Cup 11 times so far, Thailand has finished as semi-finalists on three occasions and Finland is yet to make it beyond the group stages, making them the only easy opponents. On the other hand, India has only reached the quarters twice (in 2011 and 2017) and with 6 debutants in the squad - Malvika, Aditi, Tanisha, Rutaparna, Arjun and Dhruv, India has to be on their marks, especially without Sindhu and Saina, by their side.

Women's Singles - No Saina or Sindhu, new names lead the mix

Malvika Bansod

The Sudirman Cup is a mixed team event and therefore India will have several opportunities to steady their game, in case the right boxes aren't being checked. Taking a gamble with a new team like this, especially in the women's side, is hence not so much a risk. In a way, with Sindhu and Saina absent, it will be the time for the young blood to shine at the prestigious event. The exposure that they will get is unbelievable given the likely opponents India is set to face in their group matches itself.

Prakash Padukone in a recent interview with The Bridge feared for this future and said,"Especially in the women's singles, for the last 3-4 years, we don't have depth after Saina and Sindhu. You ask any badminton player to name even one player after Sindhu, and I can't think of any player who is doing reasonably well at the international level," Padukone ruefully put forth. However, he did agree that the level of badminton has definitely improved in the country and singles isn't the only hope in a mixed-team event, so all is not lost.

At 20, Malvika Bansod will be looking forward to her Sudirman Cup debut after enjoying a fair bit of success on the international tour where she has collected 4 titles so far - Maldives Future Series 2019, Nepal International Series 2019, Uganda International Series 2021 and Lithuanian Future Series 2021. Currently, Malvika is the World No. 110 on the rankings.

Aditi Bhatt dabbles in both singles and doubles and is just 18 years old now. Being a junior still, Aditi is yet to make her debut on the international circuit and the Sudirman Cup will be one of her biggest tournaments yet. A World No. 10 in the Women's Singles and No. 9 in Doubles in juniors, Aditi has reached the pre-quarter finals of the World Junior Championships in 2019 in both singles as well as doubles (with Tanisha Crasto) and will be awaiting to make a mark at the Vantaa event.

Tanisha Crasto, is also 18 and plays in doubles mostly. Along with Aditi, Tanisha has won the Bulgarian Junior International 2019 and Dubai Junior International 2019. She paired with Rutaparna Panda in the trials for the Sudirman Cup and topped the group.

All four players - Malvika, Aditi and Tanisha and Rutaparna have tasted a lot of success in the domestic junior circuit and the Khelo India Games are ready to make the big leap now.

However, there will be China's Tokyo gold medallist Chen Yufei, Thailand's Pornpawee Chochuwong to give them competition.

Men's Singles - Srikanth and Praneeth expected to deliver

Kidambi Srikanth

Former World No. 1 Kidambi Srikanth will be looking to make a comeback as he gets ready to helm the Sudirman Cup alongside Tokyo-returned Sai Praneeth. While Srikanth missed out on making the Tokyo cut by a whisker, Sai Praneeth's outing was highly disappointing to say the least, as the 2019 World Championships bronze medallist did not win a single game in either of the group matches he played, let alone the whole match.

Both have amends to make and will have to deliver at any cost and inspire the relatively young and inexperienced squad with their presence. On the Chinese side, they need to be wary of Shi Yuqi while Thailand's young talent Kunlavut Vitidsarn is almost certain to throw problems in the way of Srikanth and Praneeth.

Doubles will be tricky - Satwik-Chirag absent, pressure on young pair

Ashwini Ponnappa and N. Sikki Reddy

With Chirag Shetty falling sick in the eleventh hour, the star duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty had no option but to withdraw from the Sudirman Cup. This means that India is short by two members of the original 12-member squad and the pressure is now on the young pair of MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila to do the deed for India in the doubles matches.

The combine of MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila joined forces in 2019 to finish as the runner-up's in two events - the 2019 Nepal International Challenge and the 2019 Bangladesh International Challenge and currently, the duo are ranked as the World No. 47 on the BWF rankings. With Satwik-Chirag not present, the onus will be on this duo to see India through in the doubles clashes, which is a mighty task for the young pair.

In the women's doubles, Ashwini Ponnappa and N. Sikki Reddy will be there to guide the team and lead them. There will also be Tanisha, Rutaparna and Aditi as well who will play doubles. It is important for India to secure their doubles and a lot of pressure will be on them.

Even in the Mixed Doubles, India has to have their guards up as they have fierce opponents and it will be far from a cakewalk.

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