TOKYO: With the injured PV Sindhu missing out for the first time in a decade, the onus will be on young Lakshya Sen and HS Prannoy to spearhead India's challenge in the BWF World Championships, starting here from Monday.
With five medals, including the gold in 2019, Sindhu is a colossal figure in the BWF's most prestigious and competitive tournament, but an ankle injury en route to a maiden Commonwealth Games title triumph dashed her hopes of travelling to the Japanese capital.
This left the task of continuing India's impressive run in the tournament on the young shoulders of Lakshya, and the experienced duo of Prannoy and Kidambi Srikanth. The country has not returned empty-handed from the Worlds since the 2011 edition.
It was Srikanth and Lakshya, who had ensured India's presence at the podium in 2021 when they finished with a silver and a bronze, respectively, but the field this time will be much stronger than last year.
It was a depleted field in 2021 with Japan's Kento Momota, and the Indonesian duo of Jonatan Christie and Anthony Ginting missing out. But there has been no such withdrawal this time.
At the same time, the expectations from the Indian male shuttlers will also be high, given their exploits in recent months.
Brimming with confidence following his CWG gold on debut, Lakshya has been on a sensational run this season, and will go into the top event as one of the favourites.
The 20-year-old, who was left crestfallen after not being able to go the distance in Spain, will look to complete his unfinished business when he opens against Danish veteran Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus.
Lakshya's stocks have been rising ever since he returned from Huelva in December as he won a maiden Super 500 title at India Open, finished with a silver at All England Championships, before joining hands with Srikanth and Prannoy to earn India its maiden Thomas Cup win in May.
However, the trio will turn foe this week after being clubbed in the same quarter.
In fact Lakshya, seeded ninth, might clash with Prannoy in the third round if the senior pro manages to get past former world number one and second seed Momota in the second round.
Prannoy has been one of the most consistent players in the circuit, with a run of quarterfinals, three semifinals and a runners-up finish this season, and he would be itching to continue his impressive run.
The 30-year-old Indian is known for his giant-killing exploits and comes into the event after twin wins over world No. 4 Chou Tien Chen recently, and will fancy his chances against Momota, who hasn't looked the same player since his car accident two years ago.
Srikanth, 12th seed, was simply sensational in Bangkok and it was his unbeaten run which played a huge role in India's Thomas Cup win, but the former world No. 1's confidence took a beating after he lost twice to upcoming Malaysian Ng Tze Yong at the Birmingham CWG.
He, however, recovered to return with a bronze from the Commonwealth Games and will have to be at his best when he faces the likes of Ireland's Nhat Nguyen and China's Zhao Jun Peng in Tokyo.
If Srikanth clears the initial hurdles, world number 5 Malaysian Lee Zii Jia will stand in his way to the quarters.
B Sai Praneeth, a 2019 World Championships bronze medallist, too, is in the fray and will open against Taiwanese Chou Tien Chen.
The former Singapore Open champion will look to exorcise his ghosts in Tokyo, where he battled without a proper coach or physio, suffering a series of defeats to bow out early from the Olympics last year.
All eyes will also be on Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who claimed India's first gold medal in men's doubles at the CWG earlier this month.
The world number 7 duo, which won the India Open title in January and was an important cog in the Thomas Cup triumph, received a first-round bye but is expected to clash with Malaysian 13th seeds Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong in the second round.
Away from all the limelight will be a certain Saina Nehwal, who was once the cynosure of all eyes.
The decorated shuttler has a silver and bronze from the Worlds but, of late, has looked a pale shadow of herself, following a series of below-par performances due to both injuries and lack of form.
The 32-year-old from Hyderabad recorded a stunning win over He Bingjiao of China en route her first quarterfinal appearance in 16 months at Singapore Open and she will look to produce her best effort when she opens against Hong Kong's Cheung Ngan Yi.
Among others, the pairing of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy, and Gayatri Gopichand and Treesa Jolly, will also be in the fray in women's doubles. The pairs are CWG bronze medallists in 2018 and 2022.