Despite lockdown measures worldwide and the cancellation of many qualifying tournaments in the run-up to the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, when the time came to get back on court in April and May this year, it was evident that athletes had not missed a beat. So what does recent form indicate?
We look at the top five in the Race to Tokyo rankings across all events and categories, beginning with the men’s singles standing classes.
India’s Pramod Bhagat is the world champion and No. 1, and in his own words has said: “Call it confidence or overconfidence but no one (challenges me) for now. I’ve trained myself to stop thinking about my opponents before a match. If I think of their ability, I give them the power over me so I just tell myself I’m the best.”
Bhagat’s reign could be threatened by Daniel Bethell of Great Britain. Bethell’s return to competition after 18 months saw him take the gold medal at the Spain Para Badminton International in May 2021. “My biggest rival over qualifying has been Pramod but we haven’t faced each other in nearly two years, and I am a better athlete compared to when we last met (November 2019). I’m more confident than ever I can take the gold.”
While the top two seem to stand apart from the rest, there’s no telling how hard they will have to work in order to get through the next three competitors down the line.
India’s Manoj Sarkar and Indonesia’s Ukun Rukaendi have been known to make their opponents sweat for every point. And Japan’s Daisuke Fujihara, who never fails to have the crowd cheering for him at every match, will be relying on home ground advantage.
Bhagat, Sarkar and Ukraine’s Oleksandr Chyrkov are in Group A, while Bethell, Rukaendi and Fujihara are in Group B.
While France’s Lucas Mazur has dominated the scene over the last two years, India’s Tarun Dhillon and Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj are close behind with Indonesia’s Fredy Setiawan in fourth and Korea’s Shin Kyung Hwan in fifth place.
With two World Championships titles and the Asian Games 2018 gold to his name, Dhillon’s performance has been hampered recently by a knee injury sustained in the 2019 World Championships against Mazur. He again suffered the same injury in Peru last year.
Dhillon made the most of his time away, and was happy that the Paralympics was postponed: “The postponement of the Paralympics has given me more time to recover and be ready. I’m under the supervision of some of India’s best physios and doctors, and I feel stronger by the day.”
Mazur’s return to competition post-lockdown has earned him wins in the SL4 men’s singles, as well as in the SL3/SU5 with mixed doubles partner Faustine Noel.
For a long time, it seemed to be a two-way battle in the SU5 men’s singles between teammates Dheva Anrimusthi and Suryo Nugroho of Indonesia until Malaysia’s Cheah Liek Hou upped his game.
A year in lockdown and with a new coach to guide him, Cheah has returned to competition stronger and fitter than when he once remarked: “I’m at least 10 years older than some players. The game is a lot faster too. It won’t be easy facing them.”
Not only did he face his nemesis, Cheah defeated Anrimusthi in Dubai earlier this year. “Dheva has always been my obstacle but I’ve been working hard on my fitness and momentum. Dheva is a long-rally player and I had to attack that.”
Anrimusthi and Cheah can expect similar attacks from the others in the pack as Poland’s Bartlomiej Mroz and Japan’s Taiyo Imai will not go down easily.
World No.1 and two-time world champion Jack Shephard will represent Great Britain, while Krishna Nagar (India) is in second place in the men’s singles SH6. Hong Kong China’s Chu Man Kai is in third place.
Great Britain will also have Krysten Coombs in the team but Wong Chun Yim (Hong Kong China) will be missing from the Tokyo line-up. This paves the way for No.6 Brazil’s Vitor Goncalves Tavares and No.7 Malaysia’s Didin Taresoh.
The draw saw Shephard and Coombs in Group A with Chu Man Kai, while Nagar, Tavares and Taresoh are in Group B.