Badminton: Worries for S'pore shuttlers on tour as Thailand Open hit by 4 coronavirus cases

SINGAPORE – The Yonex Thailand Open kicked off on Tuesday (Jan 12) in Bangkok with a schedule of 38 first-round matches, but even as players battled it out on court after a long Covid-enforced hiatus, their eyes were focused on one score instead. And that was the number of shuttlers who had tested positive for Covid-19 at the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Tour event.

Midway through the opening day, four players had tested positive: former women’s singles world No. 1 Saina Nehwal and her Indian teammate HS Prannoy, and two unnamed shuttlers from Germany and Egypt.

Their matches, along with that of Nehwal’s husband Parupalli Kashyap, were declared walkovers, as the badminton bubble in Bangkok threatens to burst.

Despite a partial lockdown in the Thai capital this month following a resurgence of the pandemic, the Yonex Thailand Open is the first of three consecutive tournaments played in strict bio-secure conditions and behind closed doors, culminating in the World Tour Finals from Jan 27.

Over 200 players from 22 countries are scheduled to compete in the Yonex Thailand Open, including Singaporean shuttlers Loh Kean Yew, Yeo Jia Min, Crystal Wong and Jin Yujia.

Ahead of the tournament, Thailand badminton chief Patama Leeswadtrakul had given the assurance that it would be the “safest in the world”. This was after the Chinese team had pulled out due to travel restrictions. Japan also followed suit by withdrawing its team after men’s world No. 1 Kento Momota tested positive before their departure for Thailand.

According to the tournament protocol, players were required to undergo two Covid-19 tests each week during their 14-day quarantine in the lead-up to the competition, and while their earlier tests were negative, Nehwal and Prannoy’s tests on Monday returned positive.

The duo will be isolated in a hospital for a minimum of 10 days, while Kashyap is quarantined in his hotel room due to close proximity with Nehwal.

Badminton Association of India general secretary Ajay Singhania said that aside from the trio, the others will be allowed to participate but they will have to do so “without the presence of coaches and support staff as per the safety protocols”.

Nehwal took to social media to express her frustrations and tweeted: “I still didn’t receive the Covid test report from yesterday. It’s very confusing and today just before the warm up for the match they tell me to got to hospital in Bangkok … saying that I’m positive ..according to rules the report should come in 5 hours.”

Singaporean’s top male player Loh, 23, admitted to The Straits Times about feeling unsettled by the developments, but said that he can only press on while taking the necessary precautions.

“Anyone would definitely be concerned about the situation,” said the world No. 38 shuttler. “It has been the most unusual build-up routine in my career. We are required to stay in our hotel rooms at all times except for training at the court and fitness centre. We get tested once every few days and it is important for each of us do our part to stay safe.”

On Tuesday, Loh narrowly lost to Indonesia’s world No. 7 and Asian Games champion Jonatan Christie 2-1 (13-21, 21-10, 21-16) after a gruelling 63-minute match.

Loh did not show much ring rust as he reeled off seven straight points to take the first set, but he was undone by his unforced errors in the end.

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He said: “I was slower at adjusting to the wind conditions… months of not competing dulled my senses quite a bit. Jonatan played a great game was much more consistent than I was.

“It was a good match and I would rate myself seven out of 10. I still have a lot to work on, especially my mental aspect. At the highest level, it is all about the mental game.”

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