Four years ago, when Li Xuerui arrived at the Siri Fort Indoor Stadium here for the Asian badminton championship, she was an unknown entity.
In what turned out to be a defining week of her career, Li Xuerui qualified for the main draw, knocked out top seed Saina Nehwal in the semifinals and clinched the title by beating fellow qualifier and teammate Liu Xin.
This week, Li Xuerui will be back at the same arena for the $250,000 Yonex Sunrise India Open starting on Tuesday. She left the Capital as the continental champion and now returns as the Olympic gold medallist and the World number 1.
The 23-year-old heads a field that has all the leading players, except World champion Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand who withdrew citing injury. Therefore, there is no clear favourite.
The presence of teammates, Wang Yihan and Wang Shixian, both former world No. 1 players and now part of the top-three bracket, promises a Chinese champion on Sunday.
The Indian interest will obviously be around Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu, seeded eighth and ninth. Last year, top seed Saina faltered early but Sindhu reached the semifinals. This year, Saina should make the most of an easy draw to justify her seeding.
Tough draw for Sindhu
The going will be tougher for Sindhu. The 18-year-old faces Wang Shixian, the reigning Asian Games and All England champion.
However, after having beaten the Chinese second seed in all three meetings in the past year, Sindhu is confident of a similar result.
The men’s section, headed by world No. 1 and defending champion Lee Chong Wei, has also attracted the best names. Second seed Chen Long will be the strongest Chinese ever to play here after Olympic and World champion Lin Dan’s title-winning act in the 2010 Asian championship.
The late withdrawals of third seed Kenichi Tago (Japan) and fifth seed Boonsak Ponsana (Thailand), in addition to the absence of World number four Tommy Sugiarto (Indonesia), should ensure some lesser-known names in the quarterfinals.
The Indians have a great opportunity to cause upsets in familiar conditions. Having beaten some of the higher-ranked players in the Indian Badminton League last August, the Indians have reason to be upbeat.
However, should the results justify the seedings, then the home interest may not last long. Even in the doubles, the field is clearly the most formidable seen in the country. Going by the world's top-10 list, the men’s doubles has six of the top eight pairs.
The notable absentee is the top-ranked Indonesian pair of Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan.
In women’s doubles two Chinese pairs, ranked third and sixth in the world, have withdrawn, leaving the Danish, Japanese and Korean pairs with a good shot at the title.
In mixed doubles, the world No. 1 Chinese combination of Zhang Nan and Zhao Yunlei, and second ranked Indonesians Tontowi Ahmed and Lillyana Natsir promise to provide a thrilling finale.
Overall, except in the women’s singles, the Indians are set for some very challenging times in the next couple of days.
After the qualifying rounds on Tuesday, the main draw action will commence on Wednesday.