Four years ago, when Saina Nehwal bagged the bronze medal at the London Olympics, there was a general feeling that the 26-year-old was lucky to make it to the podium as China’s Xin Wang conceded the play-off match after injuring her knee.
Without taking away anything from Saina’s effort in bagging the medal, it was a widely accepted fact that there were only four genuine contenders – three Chinese and Saina. It meant that the Indian had to beat just one of the three players from the badminton powerhouse to become the first shuttler from the country to win an Olympic medal.
But just over a fortnight from now, when the Indian contingent led by Saina begin their campaign in Rio, they will need all the luck apart from their ‘A’ game to return with a medal.
Take the case of women’s singles – India’s best bet to win a medal. Unlike in 2012, there are over 10 contenders for the top-3 spot.
Two-time world champion Carolina Marin and the two Chinese stars – Li Xuerui and Yihan Wang – obviously start as favourites according to the seedings but that’s just on paper.
A look back at the last two years results show that apart from the top-3, the likes of two-time world championship bronze medallist PV Sindhu, BWF Super Series Finals champion Nozomi Okuhara, Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tsu Yin, apart from Saina and former world champion Ratchanok Intanon, can upset any top-ranked player. In fact, in 2015, seven different players won Super Series titles and none of the top-3 stars have won a Super Series this year.
Saina won the last Super Series in Australia to give her confidence a major boost. On the other hand, Sindhu has struggled for form in 2016, but then the 20-year-old has a knack of raising her game in major tournaments. The draw has been kind to both of them in the group stage but Saina is likely to face defending champion Xuerui in quarters while Sindhu has to overcome Tai and Yihan to just make it to the semis, after which they need to win at least one match to win a medal.
In the men’s singles, K Srikanth has proved that he can beat the best with his two Super Series titles. But his form in 2016 has been patchy with just a semi-final appearance to show for since his title win at the Syed Modi GPG in January.
At Rio, he should easily get through Lino Munoz of Mexico and Sweden’s Henri Hurskainen in the group stage but is likely to face Dane Jan O Jorgensen in the round of 16 and the holder Lin Dan of China in quarters.
The challenge for the doubles team will be much higher as they will have to produce results they have never managed in the past. The women’s doubles combination of Jwala Gutta/Ashwini Ponnappa and men’s doubles pair of Manu Atri/B Sumeeth Reddy are capable of upsetting the top stars but to entertain any hope of a medal they will have to register at least three such upsets.