Shuttlers in with chance to end wait
Hopes high for Thais' 1st badminton medal
Thai shuttlers have competed in every Olympics since badminton officially debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games but have yet to win a medal in the sport.
There are high hopes that the Thais can finally end the country's long wait for that breakthrough at the eighth staging of the sport as a medal event at Tokyo 2020 which begins Friday.
The badminton competition starts on July 24, a day after the opening ceremony at the newly-constructed Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, and Thailand have seven representatives in Tokyo -- the same number of athletes they had in Rio 2016.
A total of 172 athletes from 50 nations will compete in Tokyo with five gold medals up for grabs. The men's singles event includes 42 players, the women's singles competition has 43 and the three doubles events have 16 teams (32 players) in each category.
Former world champion Ratchanok Intanon and Busanan Ongbamrungphan will compete in the women's singles while Kantaphon Wangcharoen is the only Thai player in the men's singles category.
Mixed doubles specialists Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai are the country's biggest medal hopes in the sport alongside Ratchanok while women's doubles stars Jongkolphan Kititharakul and Rawinda Prajongjai complete the line-up.
Ratchanok, 26, will be competing in her third Olympics and Sapsiree in her second while the rest of the squad will make their Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Ratchanok reached the quarter-finals at London 2012 and was eliminated in the last-16 round at Rio 2016.
Ratchanok, who is seeded fifth in Tokyo, is in Group N with Soniia Cheah of Malaysia and Laura Sarosi of Hungary while Busanan is in Group D with Kristin Kuuba of Estonia and Daniela Macias of Peru and both should come through their group stage without much trouble.
In the last 16, Ratchanok will likely face Gregoria Mariska Tunjung. Ratchanok has a great record against the Indonesian rising star and should be able to reach the quarter-finals where she is likely to face world No.1 Tai Tzu-ying.
If Ratchanok gets past the Taiwanese, the fifth seed should be able to make it all the way to the final.
But it will not be an easy task for the Thai star as Tai will look to do better in her third Olympic outing, after never having progressed further than the round of 16.
Ratchanok hopes it will be third time lucky.
"[I] first took part [in the Olympics] at 17 years old and now I am 26. It will be my third Olympics. Have to reach destination with a medal!" she said in a social media post.
Busanan, meanwhile, will likely face South Korean rising star and world No.8 An Se-Young of South Korea in the last 16.
The two have never played each other but with both players showing impressive form this year, Busanan has a 50-50 chance of beating the Korean.
The women's singles competition will be without reigning champion Carolina Marin of Spain who is nursing an injury.
As for Kantaphon, who is in Group K in the men's singles with Germany's Kai Schaefer and Britain's Toby Penty, the 22-year-old is likely to face Anders Antonsen in the round of 16 and it will be a daunting prospect for the 15th-ranked Thai who has an inferior head-to-head record against the Danish world No.3.
Mixing it with the best
Sapsiree played with Puttita Supajirakul in the women's doubles in Rio but this year the 29-year-old teams up with Dechapol, 24, in their quest for the mixed doubles glory.
The duo, who were runners-up at the 2019 world championships, made history by winning three successive World Tour Super 1000 tournaments on home soil in January and an Olympic medal will cap off a magical year for them.
Dechapol and Sapsiree, who are seeded third in Tokyo, are in Group B with Thom Gicquel and Delphine Delrue of France, Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith of Great Britain and Canada's Joshua Hurlburt and Josephine Wu.
They have a great chance of finishing as group winners and will meet a second-placed team in the quarter-finals.
"I believe we will get one of the medals," said Sapsiree. "Our ultimate goal is the gold medal."
Khunying Patama Leeswadtrakul, president of the Badminton Association of Thailand said: "We are confident Dechapol and Sapsiree will win their group and then play a second-placed team in the quarter-finals. They have a really good chance to reach the semi-finals and win a medal."
World No.9 women's doubles pair Jongkolphan and Rawinda seem to have the toughest preliminary round outing after having been drawn in Group D with second-ranked Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan from China, Kim So-Yeong and Kong Hee-Yong of South Korea and Bulgaria's Gabriela Stoeva and Stefani Stoeva, who won the European Championships in May this year, in the group phase.
However, Jongkolphan and Rawinda have beaten the Korean and the Bulgarian pairs before and it will be an interesting battle for the Thai players in the so-called "Group of Death".