For World Championships medallists Srikanth and Sen, Tokyo 2022 will be a tougher challenge

The calm after the storm is in Indian badminton. And this World Cup, which begins Monday, could be the first hint of the fading of a sporting success story of the last decade, which has seen an Indian medal win at either the Olympics or the World Championships every year since 2011.

In its worst foreboding, India may be staring at its first non-medal spot at Tokyo 2022 World in many years.

And on Lakshya Sen’s massively taped shoulders – trapezius and deltoids – rest flickering hopes of keeping this series alive should he reach the semifinals to secure a medal and then some. Any other unexpected surprises will deserve loud cheers, such as the tie dependent projections.

Tokyo, a year after the Olympics, is also unsurprising with the full array of international stars returning to the field. And it is their hungry appetite for the biggest title, rather than the bleak prognosis for Indians, that this World Cup needs to be considered. Any one of the three Indians – Sen, Kidambi Srikanth or HS Prannoy – who can beat Kento Momota, preen like a peacock and proudly claim a medal or at least help a compatriot. But it’s a tournament too many to expect the two-time world champion from Japan to falter and fall, even though Prannoy loves those hacking jobs dearly.

On the eve of the World Cup, Momota told the press that although he feels good in training, he still feels uncomfortable during the games. The 27-year-old southpaw added that he was slowly building his confidence and said he was keen to “play in front of Japanese fans, feel their support and enjoy playing in front of them”. An hour-long car crash en route to the airport in Malaysia in early 2020 that killed the driver and left Momota with a shattered eye socket was the beginning of his suffering.

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His home Olympics ended in an early exit and he tested positive for Covid at the airport and traveled to last year’s World Championships in December.

First lap elimination was common on the circuit as his confidence waned and his once compact game was frayed at every nook and cranny. It is worth noting that despite his streak of terror in this episode, no Indian has yet managed to beat him, although Sen took a stab from him in Indonesia. But Indians aside, Momota will have to deal with either Lee Zii Jia or Loh Kean Yew/Kunlavut Vitidsarn before fighting title favorite Viktor Axelsen for his third crown.

Axelsen has reorganized his coaching staff and arrived in Tokyo, where he won the Olympic title, quite confident. A quarter-final against fierce, rebellious China’s Shi Yuqi, who is looking to prove plenty of points while maintaining his pretty game through a federation ban, could be Axelsen’s first challenge. However, he would do well not to take lightly the likes of Kanta Tsuneyama / Malaysian Ng Tze Yong. The 2021 World Cup was all about generational change and the youngsters like the Malaysian would be keen to push that trend. Anthony Ginting and Chou Tien Chen have never won the world title and will always prove to be a handful should Axelsen make a mistake.

Lu Guang Zu and Zho Junpeng are the dangerous swimmers as China looks to reclaim a title they haven’t won since 2015. Chinese shuttles — mainly Lin Dan — have won eight times since 2006, but Momota, Axelsen and Loh have kept them at bay ever since. A world title for Kidambi Srikanth will be just as valuable for India as one for Lee Zii Jia while Malaysia look for their own first.

return of Marin

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Carolina Marin, who has three world titles, may not be able to match Zhan Nang, the two-time Olympic champion, until 2024. But she has a good chance of overtaking the Chinese if she can turn back the years and get her fourth place finish in Tokyo. Marin missed the Olympics following a horrific cruciate ligament tear in May ahead of the Tokyo games and has taken her comeback suitably calm to deserve a mention among the favourites. She even skipped her hometown World’s in 2021 as she wasn’t willing to risk underperforming.

This time she brings curiosity to the table, more than anticipation due to her fiery game. And a wistful realization that with the emergence of An Se Young and Wang Zhi Yi, the game may well have slipped past her. But nobody brings the big swag to the place like Marin does. And although He Bing Jiao and Akane Yamaguchi are waiting to trip her up, the Spaniard is most looking forward to her comebacks on the world stage in Tokyo.

Another returning contender is Olympic champion Chen Yufei, who surprisingly has never won the world title, thanks in part to PV Sindhu, who will regret missing a chance to get past Zhan Nang’s five world medals following her injury. But Yufei, who trained in clockwork simulation while winning Olympic gold in Tokyo, would love to crack the title – which Japan’s Okuhara and Yamaguchi and Sindhu and Marin have denied her for years.

Standing in Yufei’s way is the other surprise non-winner, Tai Tzu Ying, who just can’t take a break at the Worlds. She came close last year, but Yamaguchi delivered a master class in neutralizing deception in the final.

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The other player with a suspect temper for big occasions is Korean sensation An Se Young. When she sings, she seems unbeatable. But there was more than a quarter/half bungle to ask if the teenager can go the distance. She has the tenacious Chinese Wang Zhi Yi to counter early and Yamaguchi (5-7 win loss) and Marin after. As such, it’s not a bad lot for her, some would even say it’s great.

But single women are teeming with the smoldering ambitions of talented women. Two former world champions are missing – Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara, and there are still six real contenders for the title. Six. Stunning six real life fighters who can beat anyone.

Fire in the stomach, title in mind

A look at the stars primed to prove a point at the World Cup

Kento Momota – He missed a good show at the home Olympics and suffers from poor track form. This is shot at redemption, with a 3rd world title.

Caroline Marin – She missed the Tokyo Games due to a late injury and even missed the World’s in her hometown of Huelva. Fitness permitting, the Spaniard’s fight goes on and on.

Shi Yuqi – He rebelled and pointed a foot bubble at the cameras after an effective defeat in a team event, and the Chinese superiors were very unhappy. He never stopped training during the lockdown. Now he’s back for a title he longs for.

Tai Tzu Ying – She’s never really gone anywhere but she hasn’t won a world title yet and that’s a stunning shock in the badminton universe. The one who stops the Taiwanese this time could be Chinese nemesis Chen Yufei, who is looking for her first.

Kidambi Srikanth – He won silver last time. Only gold will make him happy. Returning to Tokyo after an Olympic non-qualification, he is the best shuttle of his generation without a world title. Still.

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