If Indian badminton players make their way to the Tokyo Olympics next year, they will be welcomed by a familiar waft of air at the courts.
This is because Tokyo’s Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, which will host Olympics’ badminton tournament, has seen Indian shuttlers like Kidambi Srikanth, B Sai Praneeth, PV Sindhu, Chirag Shetty, and others plying their trade in the BWF Japan Open over the last two years.
Their familiarity with the conditions on the court, as a result, will go a long way in their preparation for the Tokyo Games.
India’s emerging doubles talents, Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy had an impressive campaign at the 2019 BWF Japan Open, where the duo reached the quarter-finals while playing at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza.
And Chirag Shetty believes that their acquaintance with the drift inside the hall favours their cause.
“Musashino is one of the slower courts, something which both I and Satwik prefer,” Chirag Shetty told the Olympic Channel.
“We played there last year quite well and were almost in the semi-final as we came close to beat the home pair of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda,” the 22-year-old remembered.
Closer to natural conditions in Tokyo
For an indoor sport like badminton, it is intriguing that one of the key factors that make a difference between a win and loss is drift. For the casual eye, it may not seem much, but the effect of the fierce air-conditioning on the shuttlecocks could be huge for a professional.
Hence, even the top shuttlers take time to get acquainted with it and adjust their tempo and shot selection accordingly.
B Sai Praneeth, who reached the semi-finals of the BWF Japan Open last year at the Olympic venue in Tokyo, believes it will take a few sessions for the badminton players to adjust to it.
“Since 2020 was the Olympic year, the previous years have seen the Japan Open being held at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza in order for all athletes to know the conditions well,” B Sai Praneeth told the Olympic Channel.
“So, if we were to go three-four days before and play two to three sessions at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, we will already have a good idea about it [drift],” he added.
Though Tokyo’s Musashino Forest Sport Plaza is a multisport complex like the Riocentro, where the 2016 Olympics badminton tournament was held, it has minimised the effects of the external conditions well.
Drift was one of the variables in Rio’s badminton arena where it affected the middle of the pavilion's three courts significantly more than the others.
After his loss against Denmark’s Jan O. Jorgensen, Estonia’s Raul Must had told USA Today, “The drift made it harder for me. One side, it was slow; the other side was faster. So, it can be one metre shorter than what you think on the slow side, and one-metre longer on the other side."
However, Chirag Shetty believes that it won’t be the case in Tokyo’s Musashino Forest Sport Plaza.
“There is not much wind at the Musashino and can we have better control over the shuttle, which helps in executing our plans well,” Chirag Shetty said.
“We will get to see longer rallies as it will remain closer to the natural conditions and we won’t have to worry much about the shuttle placement,” he added.
Technique triumphs all
Asian badminton players are considered to be better under the drift than their European counterparts, as the humid Asian climate leads their players to practice with the strong gust of cool winds from AC blowers.
However, Chirag Shetty believes each shuttler has their own skills to compensate for the limitations.
“AC blowers are a major factor for drift inside the hall, something which is not required much in the cool European conditions,” Chirag Shetty observed.
“However, players with good technique can counter the drift well.
“For example, while Indonesian shuttlers are really gifted players of badminton, I have found Danish players to be rich in the technique that compensates for it,” he added.
Where do Indian badminton players stand in Olympic race
With the Badminton World Federation (BWF) freezing rankings by backdating it to March 17, when the last tournament was held, there are events ahead where Indian shuttlers can aim for direct qualification.
B Sai Praneeth sits 13th on the ‘Race to Tokyo - BWF Olympic Qualification’ rankings table with 51,527 points in the men’s singles category. With the top 16 getting direct qualification, he remains a high probability.
India’s top-ranked shuttler PV Sindhu sits even higher in the seventh position on the women singles table with 70,754 points.
Having chosen to skip the All England Open, the men’s doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty sit ninth on the men’s doubles table with 57,500 points. However, with as many as three Indonesian pairs in the top eight, the Indian duo is well within the direct qualification range.