BWF World Championships: Who can stop PV Sindhu from defending her crown?

P V Sindhu faces a tough task in defending her BWF World Championship crown. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

It's a World Championships without Carolina Marin and Nozomi Okuhara, two of defending champion PV Sindhu's most storied rivals. This time the tournament has arrived at the very end of the year, after brutal months of cluster competitions. It has been pockmarked by a bunch of player withdrawals, some fatigued, injured or recovering, and a group of others being pulled out by their home federation, Indonesia for unclear reasons.

This tournament in her hometown Huelva, at a stadium named after her, was pitched to be the perfect vehicle for former Olympic champion Marin's comeback. She may not have been expected to tear through the draw and cause major damage in her first competition post-surgery, but the hope was to see her in the flesh, drumming up the tempo. A day ago, she conveyed her decision to hold off from the court for now.

Can Sindhu draw from her past to defend her title?

Sindhu, who skipped the Sudirman and Uber Cups, has played five tournaments so far - not as tall a stack as many others - since her bronze medal at the Olympics. The shuttles used in the recent crop of events in Bali were slow, making greater demands on staying power and a lot might depend on the conditions in store in Spain.

Even in a depleted field rid of her usual foes this week, she could be troubled by the ones who are likely to fall into path. One player who the Indian has been roundly confounded by in recent months is An Seyoung. It's a headache she can put off for later, since she isn't drawn in the same half and doesn't cross paths with the Korean until a possible final.

The Sindhu of Basel 2019 - the murderous pace, savage hitting and absolute obliteration of the opponent - has not been conjured since. "That was Sindhu playing badminton like I've never seen her play before, or after. It was magical," says former Indian player Aparna Popat, "But that's the thing with such moments of magic. They may or may not ever ever happen again. We can't really hold her to those standards. But if she has to stand a chance this time, she has to push the pace, defend attacks on her body better, play that one extra shot more than her opponent and just step it up from what she's been doing so far in recent tournaments."

As she gets down to defend her title, we look at Sindhu's primary hurdles:

Pornpawee Chochuwong

The world No 10 Thai is among the most improved players on the Tour, chipping away at her shortcomings over the past couple of years. While she wasn't majorly lacking in technique, her physical stamina and staying power were sore areas. She appears to have put in the grunt work, and the results have begun to show.

Over the past couple of weeks, she's appeared to be in good touch, outlasting Akane Yamaguchi and Sindhu, both higher-ranked than her, in three-game contests that clocked over an hour each. Sindhu, who has lost to her in two of their three meetings this year, may need to tread this pre-quarter final obstacle with caution.

Tai Tzu Ying

The world No 1 Chinese Taipei player has been missing on the Tour since the Tokyo Games. We've been offered a peek into her life away from a punishing string of tournaments through her social media timeline - on-court routines, table tennis sessions, endorsements and goofy snapshots with family.

Tai missed a gold at the Olympics in August, has never won the World Championships and has always been a particularly bothersome opponent for Sindhu. The Indian star presently trails their head to head record by a telling 5-14 and could run into a hungry Tai - with her deception, round the head drops and gift of being able to hold the shuttle mid-air in a freeze for a nanosecond, take it off its projected path and land it short - in the quarterfinals.

Tai typically probes Sindhu's low backhand forecourt defense, challenges her to battles at the net, deposits shuttles low near the net, sending her bending, lunging and scrambling for retrieves. It was enough to shut the Indian out from a spot in the Olympic final. The only comfort for Sindhu at this point is knowing that Tai hasn't featured in a tournament between August and now. She is unlikely though to show up less than fully prepared for a tournament that features at the top of her goal-sheet.

An Seyoung

The Korean teen from Gwangju is the storm that's been brewing in women's singles, flattening opponents with disdainful ease this year. Sindhu is yet to win against An and is harried by her style that robs her of her bread-and-butter power game, disconcerts her with variations in pace and corners her into relinquishing control over exchanges. It's exactly the sort of scenario that can suck the wind out of Sindhu's sails.

Until two weeks ago, the Indian hadn't cracked a way out of it. Unless the fatigue of a punishing clump of tournaments is tugging at her limbs, An might be favored to make a run for the title.