In the absence of top international players, home shuttlers have emerged the frontrunners in the $350,000 India Open badminton championship, starting at the Sirifort Sports Complex on Wednesday.
If PV Sindhu clinched the title last year, Saina Nehwal laid her hands on the trophy in 2015. Kidambi Srikanth, who has had a superlative 2017, had also won the trophy in 2015. With defending champion and World No 1 Viktor Axelsen pulling out, Srikanth will be eyeing an encore.
Of late, Sindhu and Saina have developed a rivalry of their own and their contests have got the audience riveted. India's two best women's singles players have had several square-offs recently. If Sindhu defeated Saina in the quarterfinals before clinching her maiden title here last year, a resurgent Saina beat her younger rival and Olympic silver medallist in the national championships final. Saina again got the better of Sindhu last week en route to the final of the Indonesia Masters, where she lost to deceptive World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei for the seventh straight time.
With Tai skipping the event along with top Chinese and Japanese shuttlers, World No 3 Sindhu has got the top billing. Despite the presence of former World Champion and Rio Olympic champion Carolina Marin and World No 4 Ratchnok Intanon, the possibility of an all Indian final cannot be ruled out. Sindhu will open her campaign against Denmark's Natalia Rohde and is expected to remain on course to meet former world champion Ratchanok in the semifinals.
"Each round would be tough, so we should prepare one at a time. I know I won last time and Saina also won in 2015 so we will have to give our best," said Sindhu.
Saina, seeded fourth and placed in the bottom-half of the draw, will go off the blocks against Denmark's Sofie Dahl and can expect to run into fifth-seeded Beiwen Zhang in quarterfinals.
"The only thing I am looking to do is stay fit and train hard. It has been an excellent week at Indonesia for me," said Saina. However, when referred to as a title contender here, her response was rather terse. "Last few months I was not a title contender, so I don't know where it is coming from. It's okay I am performing well, so I hope to do well."
In the men's singles, Srikanth, who is coming from an injury which forced him to miss the Indonesia Masters, will be looking to make amends for his early exit last year. He will be opening his campaign against Hong Kong's Lee Cheuk Yiu. Other key contenders include Dane Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus, World No 10 H S Prannoy, P Kashyap and last year's finalist Chou Tien Chen.
The entries for the tournament, the organisers admitted, have dipped this year owing to the tough scheduling. One hopes the quality of contests will make up for the deficit.