India will go into the Nanjing edition of the Sudirman Cup with history weighing heavily against them. In the 16 editions of badminton's premier mixed-team championships, they have never won a medal. India's best result has been quarterfinal finishes in the 2011 and 2017 edition of the biennial tournament. National coach Pullela Gopichand is putting a brave face on the team's prospect this time around though, with the goal of winning a maiden medal. However, with players searching for form or returning from injury, they will have their task cut out this year as well.
Struggles with form and injury
It has been just over a year since India attained their most significant result in badminton mixed-team events with a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games. That win, against a strong and all-round Malaysian team, was capped by a stunning straight-sets win by Kidambi Srikanth over Lee Chong Wei.
Srikanth was playing near his peak then, coming out of the tournament as the first Indian to be ranked No.1 in the men's singles. His form has fallen away since then, as his current ranking of 9 would suggest. Srikanth is coming into the Sudirman Cup off a loss in straight games in the opening round of the Asian Championships against world No.41 Shesar Hiren Rhustavito.
PV Sindhu's ranking, too, has fallen, from 3 to 5. There are also injury woes, most notably in the case of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who had paired up with Ashwini Ponappa in the mixed doubles to get India off to a winning start in the Commonwealth Games final. A freak injury at the end of 2018 had forced him off the international circuit for nearly five months and while he has returned to winning ways, he is still some ways from his physical best.
No easy rounds
India are paired with 10-time champions China and Malaysia in the group stages and will need to win at least one tie to advance to the quarterfinals. Should India advance through their group stage in first place, they will likely play relatively weaker teams in Russia or Thailand. That result, at least on paper, seems unlikely.
China are expected to go in with Chen Long (6-1 record against Srikanth) in the men's singles, and He Bingjiao (9-5 against PV Sindhu) in the women's singles.
In doubles, China boast the likes of Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen (world No.2 in men's doubles), Jia Yifan and Chen Qingchen (No.3 in women's doubles) and Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaquiong in mixed doubles (world No.1).
If China top the group as is expected and India advance by beating Malaysia, they will in all probability face off against Japan, who are one of the in-form teams going into the tournament. The Japanese have been dominant across all categories this year and won their opening Sudirman Cup tie against Russia on Monday. Their side comprising Kento Momota (world No.1), Nozomi Okuhara (No.2) and Akane Yamaguchi (No.3) in singles make up for a truly formidable challenge
Doubles key against Malaysia
India will have happy memories playing against Malaysia in a mixed-team event. After all, they had come out winners the last time they did so, in the finals of the Commonwealth Games.
That win was particularly memorable with Srikanth beating Chong Wei in straight games. Chong Wei is not competing this time but that does not mean India's task is any easier.
India have historically done well in the single's category and have a strong squad with the option of playing Saina Nehwal or PV Sindhu in the women's section and either Kidambi Srikanth or Sameer Verma in the men's division. However, the fate of the tie will likely fall on the outcome of one of the three doubles matches, which appears to be India's weak link.
National coach Pullela Gopichand admitted as much: "The draw is very tough. Against Malaysia the singles may not be difficult but we will need to work hard in doubles."
While Malaysia' singles players Goh Jin Wei (world No.23) and Lee Zii Jia (No.20) are outranked by their likely Indian opponents PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth, the opposite is the case in doubles.
In the men's doubles, Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik are ranked 13 in the world compared to the 20th rank of Satwik Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. Moreover, the Malaysians have already beaten the Indians the only time the two teams have played each other.
In the mixed doubles, Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying boast of a world ranking of 5 and have never lost in four encounters to the highest ranked indian pair of Pranav Jerry Chopra and Sikki Reddy.
India's best chances to pull of a doubles win will likely come in the women's double's category. While Lee Meng Yean and Chow Mei Kuang are ranked 13th in the world, Ashwini Ponappa and Sikki Reddy (No.25) have a 2-2 record against them, even winning when it has counted the most - the pre-quarters of the Asian Games.