For Indian shuttlers, the BWF Swiss Open Super 300 concluded last weekend was another opportunity missed. The tournament that marked the Race to Tokyo points' resumption saw just a few bright spots in otherwise an underwhelming outing for the entire Indian contingent, where many of them are desperately attempting to make it to the Tokyo Olympics.
One simply cannot overlook the contribution and achievements of Saina Nehwal while scrutinising India's badminton outing at the Olympics. Having played three Olympics - Beijing in 2008, London in 2012, and Rio de Janeiro in 2016- with the distinction of becoming the first Indian woman shuttler to win a medal at the Games, the 30-year-old shuttler is aiming for her swansong at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. But with the slump in her performances and the recent first-round exit in the Swiss Open, Saina's Tokyo aspirations have dealt a crippling blow. The road to qualifying for the Games looks even tougher for Saina.
The target for the former world no. 1 shuttler, who was languishing at no. 22 on the Race to Tokyo roster before the resumption, is cut out. Saina has to climb up the rankings ladder up to six places, to number 16, in the Race to Tokyo rankings by the end of the qualification period, which saw an extension till June 15 2021.
The points on offer at the Swiss Open were 7,000 for winners, 5,950 for the runners-up, 4,900 for losing semi-finalists, 3,850 for losing quarter-finalists, and 2,750 for those who lost in the round of 16. PV Sindhu bagged 5,950 points, being the runner up, which makes her total points tally to 76,704, placing her at the
seventh position ahead of Korea's An Se Young in the BWF World Rankings published on 9 March 2021. Whereas, Saina's performance saw a new low when she lost in the opening round against Thailand's unseeded Phittayaporn Chaiwan, who has just transitioned into the senior level. Notably, Nehwal battled for 58 minutes before going down 16-21 21-17 21-23 to Chaiwan.
Saina Nehwal had won the Indonesia Masters in 2019 (Source: Times of India)
Strings of lacklustre performances keep haunting Saina and disrupt her chances to qualify for the Games. The 30-year-old has not made it to any BWF event semifinals since she won the Indonesia Masters in January 2019. Since then, Saina has taken part in 19 tournaments where she has made it to the quarterfinal stages just five times, the round of 16 stages just two times, where she exited in the first round on 12 occasions.
Saina's first-round exit in the Swiss Open deprived her of the points she needed to improve her position in the Road to Tokyo race. Before the Swiss Open the Road to Tokyo Rankings published on 28 April 2020 with 41,847 points in her kitty, she trails way behind the 15th and 16th ranked players Korea's Sung Ji Hyun (49,410) and Thailand's Pornpawee Chochuwong (49,176). Players like them, who are poised on the periphery of qualification, are striving in every way possible to barge and stay into the top 16 to gain automatic qualification.
Is all hope lost for Saina Nehwal?
Does it mean this is the end of the road for Saina Nehwal's Tokyo dream? Of course not. On papers, it still looks possible, but the bridge is quite wide to be gapped. After the restart of the qualification period starting from March 1, six possible tournaments have been lined up to gain Road to Tokyo points. Though the All England Championship will happen this month, it won't carry the points. Saina has to participate in all the six tournaments, of which the Swiss Open has already concluded. She will take part in the Orleans Masters Super 100, India Open Super 500, Spain Masters Super 300, Malaysia Open Super 750 and Singapore Open Super 500.
Saina Nehwal needs to gain as much as points possible from these outings and, of course, reach the later stages of India Open, Malaysia Open and Singapore Open.
With at least two each Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai players ahead of her in the Race to Tokyo rankings, she needs to outperform Sung Ji Hyun, Pornpawee Chochuwong, Biewen Zhang, Aya Ohori, Mia Blichfeldt, Gregoria Mariska, Nitchon Zindapol, Evgeniya Kosetskaya in these tournaments. With the situation changing every week because of updated points, Saina has to make most of it and rise up the rankings by toppling the best in the business.
With the German Open Super 300, Malaysia Masters Super 500, Badminton Asia Championships Super 1000, Australia Open Super 300, Korea Masters Super 300, Indonesia Open Super 500 getting cancelled or postponed during the qualification period, it leaves Saina in a tense but not impossible situation to qualify for Tokyo Olympics.