The cancellation of the 2021 Singapore Open World Tour Super 500 badminton championships, slated to be held in the first week of June, has literally slammed the door in the faces of Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal, who had continued to harbour hopes of qualifying for their second and fourth Olympics, respectively.
Srikanth, sitting in the 20th spot, and Saina, occupying the 22nd position, in the Race to Tokyo rankings, needed BWF (Badminton World Federation) circuit points to power them into the top-16, so that they could become the second players from India to qualify behind Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth and Pusarla Venkata Sindhu.
Participation in the quadrennial sporting extravaganza gives a player membership of an exclusive club of Olympians, and remains a permanent credit entry in his/her sports ledger. Sports like athletics have featured in the Olympics since they were launched in 1896, but badminton was included in the Games only 29 years ago in Barcelona, and hence boasts a far smaller community of Olympians, particularly in India.
It is fascinating to trace the history of India's progress in badminton at the Olympics. Deepankar Bhattacharya was the country's flag-bearer of a three-member team at the 1992 Barcelona Games, holding down the distinction of being the first sportsman to represent the country in badminton in the Olympics.
Bhattacharya started with a relatively easy victory over Sri Lankan Niroshan Wijekoon, but huffed and puffed before he could defeat Austrian Hannes Fuchs at 15-11 in the decider. He then ran into the mercurial Chinese left-hander Zhao Jianhua, a former All-England champion, and bowed out after a 4-15, 12-15 loss.
Eight-time Indian national women's singles champion Madhumita Goswami-Bisht also featured in the singles at Barcelona, and launched her campaign with a facile 11-3, 11-0 triumph over Iceland's Elsa Nielsen. But she unaccountably stumbled in her second outing against Great Britain's Joanne Muggeridge, who in turn was pulverised by China's Huang Hua in the third round.
This was the Olympiad which saw the real-life sweethearts from Indonesia, Allan Budi Kusuma and Susi Susanti, walk away with the stellar singles gold medals. Susanti's win was expected but Budi Kusuma produced a rich vein of form to sideline players of the caliber of Zhao Jianhua, Denmark's Poul-Erik Hoyer-Larsen, China's Wu Wenkai, Malaysia's Rashid Sidek and Indonesia's other stalwarts, Hermawan Susanto and Ardy Wiranata.
There was little to write about from the Indian point of view in the two doubles events (the mixed doubles was not held in the inaugural tournament), as the scratch pairing of Vimal Kumar and Bhattacharya were pummelled into submission at 6-15, 3-15 by the former All-England champion combination of Razif and Jalani Sidek of Malaysia. No Indian pair made the cut in the women's doubles.
Bhattacharya and PVV Lakshmi were the sole badminton entrants from India at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and neither of them gave Indian badminton-lovers much cause for celebration. The former ran into Indonesia's Heryanto Arbi in his opening encounter at the group stage, and was shown the exit door by a 15-5, 15-4 scoreline. Lakshmi, who reached the second round with an easy win over British woman Anne Gibson, but then was totally out of sorts against Poland's Katarzyna Krasowska, and lost by a 5-11, 6-11 margin.
At Sydney in the year of the millennium change, Pullela Gopichand led the Indian challenge, but stumbled in the pre quarter-final, being tossed out at 9-15, 4-15 by Indonesia's Hendrawan, who went on to bag the silver medal after losing to China's Ji Xinpeng in the title match. Nine-times-in-a-row national champion Aparna Popat was tamed in the very first round by Great Britain's Kelly Morgan, who recovered after a bad start to win at 5-11, 11-7, 11-2, growing steadily stronger as the match progressed. No Indian could qualify for any of the three paired events.
On to 2004 and Athens, the site of the very first Olympics, the brainchild of Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1896. India fielded two qualifiers in the 32-player men's singles draw. Left-hander Nikhil Kanetkar survived a really searching examination by Spaniard Sergio Llopis in his lung-opener, and came through at 15-7, 13-15, 15-13, only to fall at the hands of Denmark's Peter Gade at 10-15, 6-15. Stonewaller Abhinn Shyam Gupta had nothing left in the tank in the second game against Korea's Park Tae-sang, and succumbed at 12-15, 0-15.
Aparna Popat, playing her second Olympics, breezed past South African Michelle Edwards at 11-6, 11-3, and raised Indian hopes by winning the first game against the formidable Indonesia-born Dutch player, Mia Audina. But she also ran out of steam, and lost at 11-9, 1-11, 3-11. Audina went on to claim the silver medal after ending on the wrong side of a tough three-game decision against China's Zhang Ning. As had happened earlier, the three doubles events went unrepresented by Indians.
There were expanded 64-player draws in the badminton singles events at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, but only one Indian apiece could make the grade in the singles. Anup Sridhar and Saina Nehwal led the Indian challenge, with Sridhar eliminating Marco Vasconcelos of Portugal at 21-16, 21-14, before bowing to Japan's Shoji Sato at 21-13, 21-17.
The teenaged Saina, who won the world junior championship in Pune, strolled through three rounds with aplomb, before losing in the quarter-finals to Indonesia's Maria Kristin Yulianti by a 28-26, 14-21, 15-21 margin. The Indonesian lost in the semi-finals to the eventual gold medallist, Zhang Ning (who was winning her second successive Olympic singles title), but held on to beat another Chinese, Lu Lan, in the bronze play-off. India's weakness in the paired events was clearly apparent, as they failed to put up a single pair in the three doubles events.
Five Indians made it to the 2012 London Olympics, one of them picked up India's first-ever badminton medal, and one was beaten at the quarter-final stage, a step short of bagging at least a bronze. Parupalli Kashyap, who pipped compatriot Ajay Jayaram at the tape in the qualifying stakes, scored easy victories at the group stage over Vietnam's Nguyen Tien Minh and Belgium's Yuhan Tan, to stroll into the last 16.
The Indian had his hands full while pegging back the fighting Sri Lankan, Niluka Karunaratne, but then ran into Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei in the quarter-finals, and suffered a 19-21, 11-21 loss. Chong Wei, it will be recalled, played a humdinger of a final against his nemesis, Lin Dan, and only bowed out at 19-21 in the decider.
Saina, who was in red-hot form in what was her second Olympics, had an equally easy time in the group stages, and knocked out Belgium's Lianne Tan and Switzerland's Sabrina Jaquet. The 22-year-old Indian went on to beat Chinese player Yao Jie, representing the Netherlands in the pre-quarters, and scored an impressive 21-15, 22-20 triumph over three-time All England champion, Tine Baun of Denmark in the quarter-finals.
With her bronze at the London 2012 Games, Saina Nehwal became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in badminton. Reuters
The semi-finals saw Saina being outclassed by the Chinese ace, Wang Yihan, who went on to lose the final to her fellow countrywoman Li Xuerui. The Indian won the play-off for the bronze when her Chinese opponent, Wang Xin, retired when she twisted her knee badly after winning the first game at 21-18, and leading 1-0 in the second. The result once again prevented the Chinese from making a clean sweep of the women's singles medals that they had been denied on home soil, four years earlier.
In the paired events, Jwala Gutta had the distinction of qualifying for both the women's and mixed doubles events.
In the group stages of the former, the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallists had the misfortune of narrowly missing the quarter-finals on countback, after they ended with two victories and a solitary defeat to Japan's Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiwaa, who went on to win the silver. In the mixed doubles, though, Jwala and Valayaveetil Diju ended their group foray with three straight defeats, to crash out of contention for the play-off quarter-finals.
The biggest Indian contingent to qualify for an Olympiad " seven members " made it to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 edition. Kidambi Srikanth, who was slowly getting into top gear for a breakaway season in 2017, went through to the quarter-finals after successive victories over Mexico's Lino Munoz and Sweden's Henri Hurskainen at the group stage, followed by a 21-19, 21-19 triumph over Denmark's Jan O. Jorgensen. He then made life extremely difficult for the defending champion, Lin Dan of China, before bowing out at 6-21, 21-11, 18-21.
Both Saina and Sindhu were seeded in the women's singles, and expected to get far. However, Saina suffered a shock 18-21, 19-21 defeat at the hands of Marija Ulitina of Ukraine, and crashed out at the group stage itself. It was later discovered that she had played the tournament with a badly injured knee, and went in for surgery immediately upon her return from Brazil.
Sindhu, however, performed far better than her ninth seeding merited. She beat Laura Sarosi of Hungary without any trouble, but struggled all the way against Canadian Michelle Li before winning at 19-21, 21-15, 21-17. Her next two victories were spectacular " 21-13, 21-15 against Chinese Taipei's Tai Tzu Ying, and 22-20, 21-19 against China's former Olympic silver medallist and world champion, Wang Yihan. She was in equally spectacular form against Japan's Nozomi Okuhara in the semi-finals, and won comfortably at 21-10, 21-19.