New Delhi, May 6: London Olympics bronze-medallist Saina Nehwal and men's star Kidambi Srikanth's last hopes of Olympic qualification hang in balance as the Indian government negotiates for their participation in the Malaysian Open amid a ban on flights from India in that country.
Following the postponement of the India Open (May 11-16), Saina and Srikanth's hopes of qualifying for the Tokyo Games hinge on the (May 25-30) Kuala Lumpur event followed by the Singapore Open (June 1-6).
In the wake of an unprecedented COVID-19 surge in India, Malaysia and Singapore have banned flights from the country effective April 28.
"The Sports Ministry, through the Ministry of External Affairs, has approached the Malaysian Government requesting to grant permission to the Indian Badminton Team to travel to Malaysia to participate in the Malaysian Open scheduled from May 25 to May 30," the Sports Authority of India said in a statement.
"This is in light of a temporary travel ban that has been imposed by Malaysia on travellers from India, owing to the rising COVID-19 cases in India," it added.
After an initial request made earlier this week, the Indian High Commission in Malaysia "received information from the Malaysian Government that the travel of the team may not be possible immediately."
"However, with 19 days left for the competition to begin, the possibility of travel cannot be ruled out completely," SAI stated.
The tournament is one of the last events that contribute to Olympic qualification which ends on June 15. All top Indian singles and doubles players like PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth, Sai Praneeth, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Chirag Shetty, Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy are due to participate in this.
The Badminton Association of India said it has still not given up hope and is awaiting a response from the Badminton World Federation (BWF).
"Indian nationals won't be allowed in Malaysia as well as in Singapore, this is already in public knowledge. This is why we had written to both the Member Countries to consider our request as a special case with respect to the Olympic Qualification of some of our players," BAI general secretary Ajay Singhania told PTI.
"The matter has been taken up with BWF as well and we are awaiting Badminton Malaysia's response. Until they decline any possibility we will continue to pursue every opportunity that we have to send our shuttlers."
The governing body had earlier said that as per the laid-out guidelines, for any Indian to enter Singapore, they have to either be in quarantine in a foreign country other than India for 14 days before they will be allowed to enter Singapore.
"Alternatively all players have to maintain a 21 days quarantine in Singapore. As for Malaysia, for now there is a 14 days quarantine guideline which means, our players have to reach Malaysia on May 10, 2021 to follow the protocols laid out by both the countries."
With direct travel not possible, BAI had been trying to work out a solution and was exploring alternative routes to reach Malaysia via Doha or Sri Lanka. BWF, on the other hand, has been in discussion with BA of Malaysia (BAM) on the feasibility of conducting the Malaysia Open in light of the host nation's 14-day mandatory quarantine rule for participating nations, including Denmark, Japan and China.
COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Malaysia as well and so far 14 shuttlers in the country have tested positive, according to reports. A few days back, World number two Viktor Axelsen had also pulled out of the European Championship final in Kiev after returning COVID positive.
Indian shuttlers who have already made the cut for the Olympics include PV Sindhu, B Sai Praneeth and men's doubles pair of Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy.
Besides the quartet, Srikanth, Saina and the women's doubles pair of N Sikki Reddy and Ashwini Ponnappa were supposed to participate in the two Olympic qualifiers. The COVID-19 pandemic had disrupted the international calendar last year as well, forcing the BWF to cancel or postpone most of the tournaments and also come up with a new Olympic qualifying period.