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 world No. 1 Saina Nehwal and her Indian teammate HS Prannoy, Germany’s Jones Ralfy Jansen and Egypt’s Adham Hatem Elgamal.
Their matches, along with that of Nehwal’s husband Parupalli Kashyap – who was quarantined in his hotel room – were initially declared walkovers, as the badminton bubble in Bangkok threatened to burst.
But Nehwal, Prannoy and Jansen, who had all contracted Covid-19 late last year, were allowed back into the tournament after returning positive antibody blood tests. Elgamal was forced to withdraw as he tested positive but had no antibodies for the virus.
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.
The Indian team have been categorised as high risk by Thai health authorities and all players and staff are quarantining in their hotel rooms.
India’s world No. 14 Kidambi Srikanth described tests conducted at the event as “unacceptable” after he was left bleeding from his nose.
“We take care of ourselves for the match, not to come and shed blood for THIS,” he tweeted with an image of blood dripping down his face following a swab test. “I gave four tests after I have arrived and I can’t say any of them have been pleasant. Unacceptable.”
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.
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."
In the women’s doubles, Wong and Jin also ran Thailand’s Laksika Kanlaha and Atitaya Povanon close before losing 2-1 (12-21, 21-15, 21-18).
Singapore’s top female shuttler Yeo Jia Min will face Thailand’s world No. 5 Ratchanok Intanon in the women’s singles first round on Wednesday.