Ratchanok to carry both Thai flag and hopes
Kingdom's shuttlers are training hard to win a historic medal at Rio Games
The Thai badminton team's training camp for the Rio Games in Khao Yai, at times, looks like a deserted place as the focus stays fixed on Ratchanok Intanon -- the woman who is expected to bring home the country's first Olympic medal in the sport next month.
Thailand will have seven shuttlers vying for medals at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
They include world No.4 Ratchanok and No.16 Porntip Buranaprasertsuk, who will be contesting in the women's singles.
The others are No.22 Boonsak Ponsana (men's singles), Savitree Amitrapai and Bodin Issara (mixed doubles) and Puttita Supajirakul and Sapsiree Taerattanachai (women's doubles).
The players are in their final training phase before leaving for the Games on Aug 1 with the badminton tournament, offering five gold medals, being slated for Aug 11-20.
However, Ratchanok, Porntip and Boonsak are training in Khao Yai while the rest are preparing for the Games at their respective clubs. Both groups of players are being supported by the Badminton Association of Thailand.
According to BAT president Khunying Patama Leeswadtrakul, former world champion and No.1 Ratchanok is now 95 percent fit.
Boonsak and Porntip are getting better with Sompol Kookasemkij overseeing their progress as coach and talented Busanan Ongbumrungpan and Nichaon Jindapol serving as sparring partners.
"They are all professional players. It is an individual sport like tennis and golf. So, we are doing it [the training] the professional way by giving them support while they train on their own at their clubs," Khunying Patama said.
"It is also great to see these clubs taking an active part in helping us prepare our players for the Olympics. The clubs know the weaknesses of their players and can help them."
Khunying Patama, handling the Thai Olympic bid for the first time as the BAT's president, believes that with a month before the badminton events begin in Rio, all the seven players will be in great shape to vie for the historic medal.
"I am quite confident we will bring home the historic medal," she said.
The 21-year-old Ratchanok from Yasothon is being seen as the top Thai bet for a medal but Porntip has also improved in recent weeks and can be a contender at the Games.
"I am pretty sure Ratchanok will get an Olympic medal," said Thanach Assawanapakas, assistant secretary-general of the association and a TV commentator.
Ratchanok started the year with a victory at the Thailand Masters by beating China's Sun Yu 21–19, 18–21, 21–17 in the final.
She then took three consecutive Superseries titles by winning the India Open, Malaysia Open and Singapore Open to claim the world No.1 spot for the first time in her career. However, her form nosedived and is now fourth in the world rankings.
According to Thanach, Ratchanok will be seeded fourth for the singles event in Rio where the top three contenders will be Carolina Marin of Spain and China's Wang Yihan and Li Xuerui.
As Wang and Li both represent China, they would have to be in the separate halves of the draw.
And that means Ratchanok, who will be the Thai flag-bearer at the opening ceremony on Aug 5, is likely to take on Wang in the semi-finals if they both progress through the early stages.
"Wang's style is really tough to beat for Ratchanok. Among the top four, she is the toughest one for Ratchanok," Thanach said.
Ratchanok has a forgettable record against Wang, winning only one of their 13 meetings at an encounter at the Malaysian Open in April.
Thanach added Ratchanok should not have much trouble in the opening round of 16.
However, her task would be harder if she is drawn to face either India's PV Sindhu or Japan's Akane Yamaguchi, who are ranked 10th and 12th in the world respectively.
"Sindhu and Yamaguchi could be the most dangerous rivals for Ratchanok in the round of 16," said Thanach.
Ratchanok has a 4-1 record against Sindhu and has beaten Yamaguchi five times in their nine meetings.
If the Thai star, who will be making her second Olympic appearance, reaches the quarter-finals, her opponent could be India's Saina Nehwal, Japan's Nozomi Okuhara, South Korea's Sung Ji-Hyun or Taiwan's Tai Tzu-ying.
Of all these players, Thanach thinks Tai would be the toughest one for Ratchanok despite the fact that the Thai ace holds an impressive 8-5 record against the Taiwanese.
This year, the 22-year-old Tai has won two titles.
She beat Wang Yihan to win the Superseries Premier Indonesia Open in June and defeated Wang Shixian in straight sets in the final of the Chinese Taipei Open.
She had finished runner-up to Ratchanok at the Malaysian Open.
As for Porntip, who will be making her Olympic debut, Thanach sees her as a dark horse.
Starting the year in 22nd place, three behind Busanan, the 24-year-old Porntip has made fast progress and joined Ratchanok in the world's top 16.
"When she is at her best, she can beat anyone," said Thanach.
In the men's singles, veteran Boonsak, who will be making his fifth Olympic appearance, would find it quite tough even in the first round because his low ranking will pit him against one of the pre-event favourites.
Thanach said: "It depends on the draw. If he Boonsak faces a player from the top four in the first round, that could be the end of his bid."
Boonsak came close to winning a medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens where he lost in the bronze medal round.
The women's and mixed doubles pairs are likely find the going a bit too tough in Rio de Janeiro next month.