By Shrikant Shankar
The importance of the Indian Open badminton championship starting in New Delhi from Tuesday can be gauged by the fact that a Chinese world No. 5 is still not assured of a berth in the London Games. Many a London hopeful, including a powerful Chinese contingent, will be seen in action in the last tournament of the Badminton World Federation Super Series ahead of the Olympics.
The Siri Fort auditorium will start with the qualifiers on Tuesday and almost a dozen Indians, including national champion Saurabh Verma, will vie for a slot in the main rounds starting on April 25. The tournament ends on April 29.
There will be limited representation from each country in the Olympics. Hence the Indian Open could turn out to be big in terms of competition. In the men’s singles, defending champion and world No.1 Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, former world and Olympic champion Taufik Hidayat of Indonesia and Denmark's world No.4 Peter Gade are just some of the big names to be seen in action.
Ever since the Indian Open started in 2008 and became a Super Series three years later, the tournament never saw the reputed Chinese players in action. It is different this time. Olympic rules stipulate that the top four in the world rankings get an automatic Olympic berth. The Chinese have two in the world top four. That is why 2010 world champion and current world No. 5 Chen Jin will be in Delhi.
In the women's singles, India's Saina Nehwal will have to battle it out against China's world No. 3 Wang Shixian and No. 4 Li Xuerui. The Chinese have dominated this sport for long and they already have two shuttlers set for London. One from among Wang and Li will grab the third berth.
“The world's top-10 players will be present at the Indian Open,” says Saina. “This is the last chance for anyone who wants to qualify for the Olympics. So in many ways this is equal to the Olympics in terms of competitiveness."
Saina will have to lift her game, especially after a second-round defeat in the Asian Championship in China last week.
For the likes of world No. 27 Ajay Jayaram and No. 31 Parupalli Kashyap, the Indian Open will be once in a lifetime opportunity. If Jayaram wins his first round, he will meet world No. 1 Wei. The other men's singles hopefuls are Verma and RMV Gurusaidutt. All the Indians only have a mathematical chance to qualify.
“This could be my last chance to play an Olympics, says Jayaram. “I will take my chances against Wei and can’t afford to be defensive.”
Ashwini Ponnappa and Jwala Gutta are India's best hopes from women's doubles.. Jwala will also be playing with V. Diju in the mixed doubles category. In men's double, India's best chances lie with Rupesh Kumar and Sanave Thomas.