New Delhi, July 10: For nearly a decade, India's hopes on the badminton courts have centred around two extremely-fit women athletes -- Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu.
To say that they became household names in the country would be an understatement. At the packed Siri Fort Sports Complex on the final day of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, Saina was unstoppable.
Amid the deafening roar of spectators in between points, the then world No. 3 conjured up magic, which left her Malaysian opponent in a daze as the Indian went on to win her maiden gold in the Commonwealth Games.
Two years later, at the 2012 London Olympic Games, Saina was again the toast of the nation, becoming the first shuttler from the country to bring home an Olympic medal -- a bronze.
As luck would have it, Saina will not be on the flight to Tokyo as her dream of qualifying and bowing out in a blaze of glory was shattered by a season marred by the pandemic.
Saina and former world No. 1 Kidambi Srikanth's hopes of making it to the Olympic Games ended late in May after the sport's global governing body BWF said that no more qualifying tournaments would be played due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Four Indians - 2016 Rio Olympics silver medallist PV Sindhu, Sai Praneeth and the men's doubles pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty -- have qualified for the Olympics and the country would be hoping for Sindhu to recreate the magic of five years back to bring home another medal.
However the pandemic, and how much it has impacted the preparations of the four shuttlers, will decide how far they progress at the Games.
While 27-year-old Spain's Carolina Marin, Sindhu's nemesis in the 2016 Rio Olympics final, has withdrawn from the Olympics after tearing a ligament in her left knee, it doesn't make the 2019 World Championship winner's progress through the draw any easier.
While Sindhu is unlikely to be threatened before the round of 16, the draw beyond that is littered with the likes of Japan's Akane Yamaguchi, world No. 1, Chinese-Taipei's Tai Tzu-Ying, and Chen Yufei of China. The pot of gold for the world No. 7 lies once she crosses these hurdles.
Sindhu said on Friday that, "It's a good draw in the group stage. The Hong Kong girl (Cheung Ngan Yi) plays well and it'll be a good match. Everybody is going to be in top form, I hope I do well. Every match is important so I will take it match by match. This is the Olympics and it is not going to be easy, each point is very important."
The 13th seed B Sai Praneeth has a tricky group, which also has All England Open semi-finalist Mark Caljouw of the Netherlands. If he gets past the group stage and Hong Kong's Ng Ka Long Angus in the Round of 16, he will meet the top seed and home favourite Kento Momota.
Things will be even tougher for the men's doubles pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy as they are placed in Group A alongside the top-seeded Indonesian pair and world No. 1 Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon,.
But India's doubles coach Mathias Boe feels his boys are capable of creating a few upsets.
"It's a very even group which means even if you lose a match, you are still in the game because nobody knows what will happen. We'll focus on preparing as much as possible in the last few weeks. We will attack on court and hopefully, we get good results. I am positive, it's a good challenge for us."
Whether a third consecutive medal in badminton at the Olympics is made possible will not just depend upon the players' ability to withstand the challenges thrown at them by their rivals but also on the year-long preparations they have made in lockdowns, with very few competitions to test their progress.