SINGAPORE - A strange feeling settled in the Singapore shuttlers as they set foot in Changi Airport's unusually empty departure hall on Monday (Jan 4) for the first time in over 10 months.
While they were anticipating their trip to Bangkok for the Jan 12-17 Yonex Thailand Open and Jan 19-24 Toyota Thailand Open - their first competitive action after a Covid-hit season last year - there was also apprehension at the uncertain times that lay ahead.
Even before the Thai capital welcomed the sport's top players, the tournaments were hit by withdrawals, with the Japanese team pulling out after world No. 1 Kento Momota tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday. The Chinese contingent, which includes Olympic champion Chen Long women's world No. 2 Chen Yufei, are also not travelling to Bangkok due to China's virus regulations.
The Badminton Association of Malaysia's coaching director Wong Choong Hann tested positive for Covid-19 and is in self-isolation, but Malaysia's shuttlers will compete in the two events.
National shuttler Yeo Jia Min, the world No. 26, said: "I feel very excited (to compete again). At the same time, there'll be quite a lot of things that may be different and there are a lot of things to be careful about.
"Before the last few days, I didn't have many concerns about going to Bangkok, but after hearing that athletes are getting infected, I'll be very careful when I go there."
The 21-year-old is among Singapore's contingent of five, which comprises men's singles player Loh Kean Yew, women's doubles pair Crystal Wong and Jin Yujia, and national singles coach Kelvin Ho.
Upon arrival in Bangkok, they are required to undergo a 14-day quarantine and will be allowed to train at specific time slots once they test negative for Covid-19.
During the tournaments, they do not plan to leave their hotel, the Novotel Bangkok Impact, except to travel to the tournament venue at Impact Arena, which is a five-minute drive away. Both competitions will be held behind closed doors.
While the Singapore Badminton Association has tried to simulate a competition environment by holding an internal tournament for the shuttlers last month, the players expect to have to shake off some rustiness.
Jin, 23, whose last competition was the Badminton Asia Team Championships last February, said: "I feel excited to compete again, but at the same time, because we haven't competed in almost a year so we've kind of lost (the feeling) of standing in such a big hall and such a high level of competition."
Crystal Wong, 21, added: "I'm looking forward to seeing where we stand against other top opponents because during these few months, we've been training quite hard so hopefully we can see improvements in our game play."
The pair will face Thailand's Laksika Kanlaha and Atitaya Povanon in the Yonex Thailand Open, before taking on Denmark's Alexandra Boje and Mette Poulsen in the next tournament.
Yeo will face world No. 5 Ratchanok Intanon, the 2013 world champion whom the Singaporean has not beaten in two outings, in her opener next week.
Teammate Loh, the world No. 38, is also in for a tough first match against Indonesia's world No. 7 Jonatan Christie. But the 23-year-old is relishing the challenge, saying: "I'm an underdog as compared to him. I want to win because after preparing and not competing for so long, I would love to play more rounds."
There is also much at stake for Loh and Yeo, who are aiming to compete at the Olympic Games in July.
But their journey to Tokyo is riddled with uncertainty. The top 38 singles players in the men's and women's Race to Tokyo rankings will qualify and while Loh and Yeo are 16th and 17th respectively, they are unsure of which tournaments will take place in the last few months of the qualification window, which closes on May 2.
Loh said: "We're going to play it by ear and see the situation around the world. If we can, we'll go to get more Olympic points for qualification."