With a little over four months left, the race to grab that solitary ticket to the London Olympics 2012 is between two men, Ajay Jayaram and Parupalli Kashyap.
Both men will be conspicuous by their absence from the Tata Open India International Challenge 2011 badminton tournament, which started with the qualifying rounds on Wednesday at the National Sports Club of India (NSCI) in Mumbai (the main rounds begin Thursday). Though the Tata Open provides valuable ranking points to its competitors, both Jayaram and Kashyap need bigger tournaments to feed their desire to participate in London 2012.
The qualifying window for the Olympics ends in April—Saina Nehwal as the No. 4 ranked player already has an assured place in the women’s singles. In the men’s singles, if both Jayaram and Kashyap make it to the top 16 in world rankings (as of 3 May 2012), they will both make the trip to London. If one of them does, the other will stay back. If neither cracks the top 16, the higher-ranked player will go through. As of 8 December, Kashyap at No. 28 was marginally ahead of Jayaram at No. 25 in the world rankings. That difference in number means little in the constantly changing order of merit outside of the top 10 rankings.
Photos by Santosh Harhare/Hindustan Times and Ben Stansall/AFP
That elusive No. 16 does not seem improbable, considering Kashyap was No. 20 in February and Jayaram, riding on a wave of resurgence this year, was No. 24 in September, their highest respective rankings so far. The two-man race has also meant that the third-ranked Indian, Chetan Anand at No. 55, has excused himself from the NSCI tournament, still recovering from an ankle injury and with little hope of making the London berth.
The Tata Open India International is a grade IV event in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) calendar in which the winner gets 4,000 points, while the Yonex Sunrise Syed Modi Memorial India Open, a Grand Prix Gold event to be held in Lucknow from 20-25 December, will earn the winner 7,000 points. It’s the reason why Jayaram and Kashyap are already acclimatizing in the Uttar Pradesh capital for next week’s event.
Lucknow would merely be one of the possible 8-10 tournaments that the two men will be playing over the next few months in their attempt to qualify for the Olympic Games, which Kashyap says is not his area of focus.
The important thing is to win a medal, qualifying is not really a target,” he says over the phone from Lucknow, something Jayaram agrees with. “What I mean is I need to be good enough to win a medal there, which would automatically make me good enough to qualify. Many people have gone to the Olympics, no one will know you have even played there, unless you win,” adds Kashyap, a trainee of the Gopi Chand Badminton Academy.
Jayaram adds: “It’s going to be at the back of my head but there are other important events as well. Qualifying is not good enough if you are aiming to play at that level.”
Both men, supported by the non-profit organization Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), have also begun to believe in themselves, filled with the confidence of a few creditable results. In November, at the Yonex Sunrise Hong Kong Open 2011, Kashyap lost a close match to Lin Dan of China (currently world No. 2) in three games, 21-16, 17-21, 14-21. Two months earlier, Kashyap had stretched Jin Chen of China (No. 5) to three games, 15-21, 21-6, 18-21, in the Yonex Open Japan. In the Yonex BWF World Championships 2011 (London) in August, he had lost another close one, this time to Tien Minh Nguyen (Vietnam, No. 7) 22-24, 21-17, 20-22.
“It does give me a lot of confidence,” says Kashyap. “Last time, in the Sudirman Cup, he (Lin Dan) seemed two steps ahead of me. In Hong Kong, I could see a lot of difference in how I was feeling (towards playing Lin Dan).”
Jayaram beat Nguyen in straight games but lost to Simon Santoso (Indonesia, No. 8) in the Yonex Open Japan 2011 in September. A month earlier, in the Yonex BWF World Championships 2011, he lost narrowly to Jin Chen (China, No. 5), 18-21, 21-12, 21-11, displaying—like Kashyap—a lack of fear for higher-ranked opponents.
“I am almost there,” says Jayaram, who started 2010 ranked in the 70s. “I have beaten a few in the top 10, the rest should follow.”
Training with English coach Tom John for some time now, Jayaram says he still lacks in consistency though his skills and fitness have improved. “My strength was always deception, now I have become more aggressive as well,” he says. Kashyap is working on his core strength, to improve his balance and to be able to adjust better to the changing pace of the match.
“I don’t know what our rankings are at the moment,” says Kashyap.
“I don’t believe this need to qualify is any added pressure. If anything, it puts our focus in the right direction.”
Smash it: After Lucknow, Kashyap (in blue) and Jayaram will play the Victor Korea Open and Maybank Malaysia Badminton Open, both in January.