A month ago, Indian shuttlers were hopeful of joining the national camp and their respective training academies in July after a prolonged lockdown. There was excitement that they would finally be able to compete in international competitions, starting with the $500,000 Taipei Open in the first week of September.
But with a surge in Covid-19 cases and strict lockdowns being enforced again, their wait seems endless even as competitors in other countries have commenced training. “There’s no specific information; we are still waiting for permissions,” says chief national coach Pullela Gopichand from Hyderabad. “Wherever the academies had opened, they’re shutting down…we’ll have to wait.”
Hyderabad and Bengaluru, the two main centres for badminton, have emerged as new urban Covid-19 hotspots. Stadiums and academies had opened in Bengaluru in May but the lockdown was re-imposed in the Karnataka capital on July 15, leaving shuttlers with no option.
India’s top doubles exponent Chirag Shetty from Mumbai, who was expecting to travel to Hyderabad for the national camp, says whatever little training the players had started “has again been stopped”.
The situation is no different in Kerala where world No.8 HS Prannoy had commenced training for a month-and-a-half in Thiruvananthapuram before the lockdown was re-imposed due to community transmission. He too was expecting to fly to Hyderabad for the camp. “Given the scenario, I don’t think anything will open…don’t think things will be fine in the next couple of months. This year looks impossible,” says Prannoy.
While Punjab-based Pranaav Jerry Chopra is lucky to train on court twice a day, five days a week, social distancing norms have meant the doubles exponent is playing singles with India international Dhruv Kapila. “We are managing our training with whatever we have. We also do online sessions with coaches and take help from local players,” Chopra says from Ludhiana.
It normally takes about six weeks of training to regain match fitness, following which regular top-quality matches get the competitive juices flowing. Given the scenario across India, that is unlikely to happen. And if the season commences on September 1, then Indians will have to go straight into competition without much on-court time, and face rivals who would have already touched peak fitness.
However, most are hoping there will be another round of postponements. With the pandemic situation across the world still evolving, many feel it won’t be feasible to start the season in September. “How are they going to conduct tournaments? With no international travel or regulations in place and no clarity on quarantine rules, I am not sure how they can start,” says Prannoy.
Prannoy puts it bluntly. “If competitions start in September, I will just sit and watch on TV.”
Gopichand too is unsure. “There are many doubts on whether it’ll (competitions) happen.”
World Championship bronze medallist B Sai Praneeth also says the September 1 restart is unlikely. “If it does, we’ll not be able to play,” says the 27-year-old.
World No.10 Shetty is also not very hopeful of the September restart. “Getting out of cities is difficult, let alone the country. Travelling outside India is a completely different question altogether.” Then there is this issue of resumption of flights and quarantining of players from different countries, adds Shetty.
But if competitions do start, it will be a no-win situation for the Indians as shuttlers in many countries have resumed training long back. “Chinese Taipei, Indonesia, Malaysia… everyone is training now. We will fall behind (if the season restarts in September),” says Chopra, the 2018 Commonwealth Games mixed team gold medallist. “July will be over soon and after that only a month remains (for competition). I’m not sure if we’ll be able to go at all. If a lot of players cannot go, they might cancel (tournaments), but they may also go ahead if players from (only) a couple of countries do not come.”
Former India chief coach Vimal Kumar too is worried about such a scenario. “I am a little concerned about that. Other countries will travel but we have not opened our borders. Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan have started training and playing but we haven’t. It is an area of concern. We have many top players and they will get due weightage. But if our government decides (not to open borders) then we cannot do anything. And, if BWF feels, they will play (go ahead with competitions).”
But can organisers afford to leave out certain countries? It did happen in February when the Badminton Asia Team Championships went ahead in Manila without players from China and Hong Kong as the Philippines government had banned their entry owing to the pandemic.
Kumar has a piece of advice for BWF. He feels that the Thomas and Uber Cup in Denmark in October should have been the ideal stage for international badminton to resume with limited participation. “Denmark is relatively safe and Europe has opened up. We could take it from there with the Denmark Open immediately after. Then everyone will get the confidence to travel and go about things,” says Kumar.
Last month, the iconic Lee Chong Wei had asked the Badminton World Federation (BWF) to scrap all tournaments this year. Earlier this month, China cancelled all international sporting events in 2020, including the year-ending $1.5 million BWF World Tour Finals held annually in Guangzhou.
BWF secretary general Thomas Lund had said last month that circumstances will continue to change “and, therefore, BWF may be required to make further updates to the status of tournaments as and when necessary”.