Travel troubles for Indians, Chinese pull out from Thailand events

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Saina Nehwal faces a tough draw for the two Super 1000 events set to take place in Thailand next month, while PV Sindhu is expected to have a smooth run through the quarterfinals, even as the organizers are up against the odds to host the tournament in Bangkok amid fears over the new strain of the coronavirus gripping the world.

To contain the latest wave of infections, Bangkok on Tuesday ordered sports and entertainment venues to close till January 4, with a possible extension if things don't look up. But even though the latest flare-up of cases sweeping almost two-thirds of Thailand will likely complicate the participants' travel plans, the Badminton World Federation (BWF) still confirmed on Tuesday that the tournaments are sticking to schedule as of now.

Two Super 1000 events (prize purse of $1m each) in the space of two weeks, followed by the World Tour Finals are scheduled to run in the Thai capital city from January 12-31.

Saina has tough first-round match ups in both the Super 1000 events - facing world No 4 and 5 Nozomi Okuhara and Ratchanok Intanon respectively while Sindhu is likely to have a smooth run until the quarterfinals in both the tournaments.

Earlier in the day, Chinese players withdrew from the marquee events delivering a body blow to its star power. Among the names who will now be missing are world No 2 and women's defending champion Chen Yufei, 2016 Olympic gold medallist Chen Long and the top-ranked women's doubles pair of Jia Yi Fan and Chen Qing Chen. Following the surge of COVID-19 cases in Thailand, all three events are currently scheduled to go ahead without spectators.

Indian players are navigating travel challenges too. Many who had their tickets booked on Air Vistara flight from Hyderabad via New Delhi to Bangkok on January 4, now find their plans thrown off gear. The airline has cancelled their tickets since no air bubble agreement has been finalised yet between India and Thailand. Earlier this month, union civil aviation minister Hardeep Puri had announced that India was negotiating with 13 countries, including Thailand, to resume international flight operations. Lakshya Sen, who was to leave for Bangkok from Bangalore via New Delhi on January 3, too finds his plans disrupted.

"When we booked our tickets, the assumption was that things would get better by the early January," said an Indian player. "But the airline informed us that they aren't operating flights to Thailand yet. We'll have to book fresh flights via Doha or Dubai. Everything looks unclear at the moment. The Chinese team pulling out is quite massive." PV Sindhu, who is in Milton-Keynes, too is expected to fly via Doha on January 3, as a growing list of countries ban UK travellers over the mutated virus. The reigning world champion Indian does not have an automatic berth in the World Tour Finals after BWF decided to break from convention this time given the pandemic-disrupted calendar.