India Open 2022: New world champion’s India challenge

Indian Open 2022: Loh Kean Yew received a ‘water salute’ as the men’s singles world champion’s plane bringing him back from Spain rolled between two high-powered water tank hoses – the gush forming a welcome arch for the returning winner at Changi Airport.

Singapore honored its first-ever badminton world champion, a rare phenomenon in a country that loves the sport. After years of applauding the giants from China, Malaysia and Indonesia, this was their moment to celebrate with a spectacle.

Later, half a dozen businessmen from the city-state “The Little Red Dot” set up a S$50,000 (INR 27,000) trust fund to support Kean Yew’s future ambitions after realizing that the World Cup did not include cash awards. “It’s just a fresh start for me because I was the underdog, but now I’m going to be one of those guys who want to hit people … how badly,” Kean Yew said at the airport reception.

Delhi’s KD Jadhav hall at IG Stadium will give the newly crowned world champion a first taste of these men waiting to beat him – how very bad at the Super 500 India Open.

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With his goofy grin and easy-going charm, Kean Yew elicits underwhelming reviews from a formidable opponent reserved for the likes of Kento Momota and Viktor Axelsen – both of whom he’s beaten in the last two months. No matter how much that crown of his smooth, gelled pompadour pushes him to 6 feet and makes him a prized scalp, there’s always a suave smile waiting to brighten his sunny face and take away the threat of his lightning speed giving him the earned world championship titles.

Memories of the World Championship final where Kean Yew trumped Kidambi Srikanth are fresh – not to mention the calendar change. Still, both Srikanth and HS Prannoy, whom he knocked out en route to the title, will be assessing their chances of reversing their points should they meet the surprise gold medalist. Lakshya Sen, who has beaten him for the past 12 months while making his own reputation in the debut, will not be blamed for believing he could have gone the distance had he failed against the Singaporean in the final.

“I ended the year on a high, so it’s been a good year… Nobody’s going to win all the time. The pressure is always there. I just hope I can play and perform at my best,” Kean Yew told BAI.

fitness concern

However, a gold medal is undeniable. Ask Lee Chong Wei, arguably far more legendary than anyone to finish in the last eight in Spain, how hard the gold can be. And perhaps the greatest folly of the Indian pack in Delhi – despite playing in their backyard – is getting overly optimistic about their own forms when they face off against the newcomer to the throne. The fresh King’s right ankle has been a bit unsteady after winning the world title, so those lunges and jumps might be a bit wobbly while stomping. But the draw that could see him face Srikanth in the semifinals could be difficult even sooner.

Those badly wanting to win and aiming for the scalp may be new names – Canadian Xiadong Shen and Malaysians Soong Joo Ven and Cheam June Wei. A new season will always have the boisterous unknowns, upstarts.
For Kidambi Srikanth, who won Delhi in 2015 and soon became No. 1 and also reached the final in 2018, this season opener will be a matter of unfinished business: he hasn’t won a title in eons – 3 years. Failure at the World Finals leaves him starving for title glory. And there’s the Singaporean grinning at him from across the pitch from under his game mop should they both line up for revenge revenge.

But as a first seed, Srikanth has some speed bumps of its own – a bunch of ambitious Indians spoiled for escape. Siril Verma in Round 1, Subhankar Dey in Round 2 and Sameer Verma/Kiran George in the Quarterfinals. Everyone has the opportunity to overtake the challenger. Targets are stamped on all sizes of torquing backs.

HS Prannoy at the World Championship. (Reuters)

HS Prannoy has to shake off the rustiness against Pablo Abian and could face Mithun Manjunath, a talented Bangalorean who is trying to get rid of Lakshya Sen’s shadow. Prannoy – Lakshya going head to head in the Quarterfinals could be a nice little domestic blockbuster on Friday.

Highly regarded in Hyderabad, young and vigorous Priyanshu Rajawat will be riddled with a French challenge first but could quickly make headlines if he beats veteran Tommy Sugiarto. India’s wily fox Ajay Jayaram narrowly missed out on Olympic qualification a decade ago – albeit at Siri Fort – with that amazing limby game. If his fitness allows – and he’s been in touch in terms of European swing – he might want to take advantage of a softer bottom half of the draw and surprise the world.

Loh Kean Yew is world champion. But for a horde of Indians starved for world-class competition, this India Open might well be the time to grab the badminton world’s attention.

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