Looking at 2021: Record Olympic haul for India, Federer’s Wimbledon aspirations and more

Even though 2020 saw a lot of marquee events being scrapped or postponed, 2021 is not short of big sporting events. ESPN’s staff tell us what they are looking forward to the most in 2021:

The return of the I-League

The 2019-20 I-League was suspended just as things were starting to heat up. Sure, (the old) Mohun Bagan had run away with the title, but with a minimum of four matches each left and just three points separating second from eighth, it would have been another belter of a season climax.

The league will hope it can pick things up from where it had left off, even though they will be without their two biggest draws. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have new prefixes, new investors, and are in the ISL now. How the I-League handles this – in terms of dipping viewership, commercial attractiveness and stakeholder interest – will go a long way in shaping the future of football in India.

Economic considerations aside, there are enough sub-plots to hold the attention, in pure footballing terms. The drama and history of Mohammedan Sporting returns. A club from the capital again, Sudeva. The upwardly mobile Gokulam Kerala, Chennai City, and Real Kashmir battling for supremacy. And can you ever truly count out Churchill Brothers?

The 2021 season will be held in Kolkata, in the new normal of bio-bubbles and quarantines, with teams fighting for their lives. That’s must-see television — if they can find a decent broadcaster.

– Anirudh Menon

Can India build on early promise of their WC qualifying?

India have not played a match, competitive or otherwise, in more than a year, and they lost that to Oman (on Nov. 19, 2019). That result means they are all but out of contention for a spot in the next round of AFC’s World Cup Qualifying (India are nine points off second-placed Oman, with three games to go). Pride — and qualification to the ’23 Asian Cup — is still at stake, though.

2021 will see India take on Bangladesh away, Afghanistan and Qatar at home. The reverse fixtures all ended in draws, but only one of those was a positive result (drawing the Asian champions on their own turf. That’s quite positive). Igor Stimac will be desperate to show his processes have been effective, for which he would need his team getting wins against the first two. The ISL would be (tentatively) winding to a conclusion by the time the matches come around, and the I-League would be peaking, so at least he does not need to worry about his players being match-fit.

India’s qualifying campaign started off with real promise, before tailing off, as it so often does. Stimac’s challenge lies in proving that the early positivity wasn’t a one-time accident.

– Anirudh Menon

Will Federer be a contender at Wimbledon again?

The biggest blow to tennis in 2020 was the cancellation of Wimbledon for the first time since 1940-45 due to World War II.

On the men’s side, most eyes will once again be on Roger Federer, who will return to the tour following two knee surgeries as Wimbledon is where he will be looking to round into some semblance of top form. Yes, he will be around a month shy of 40 by that time, but if there’s one major where Federer will most fancy his chances of adding to his Grand Slam tally, it’s at Wimbledon.

Defending champion Novak Djokovic will probably be the favourite again. Last year was a mixed bag for the Serb — He won a record eighth Australian Open and clinched a sixth year-end No. 1, but was defaulted from the US Open and lost a one-sided French Open final to Rafael Nadal. If anything, Djokovic will be even more determined to make amends for missed opportunities.

As for Nadal, the Spaniard has shown improvement after years of poor results at Wimbledon, falling in the semifinals in 2018 and 2019. Can he make another deep run, perhaps even return to the final?

On the women’s side, the biggest storyline to watch for will be whether Serena Williams can finally get over the 24th-Grand-Slam hump. Assuming, of course, she hasn’t done so by then. Since winning No. 23 at the 2017 Australian Open and returning to the tour after giving birth, Serena has been in four major finals, including Wimbledon in 2018 and 2019, but hasn’t won a set in those four finals.

Also worth watching is how well the young(er) challengers — From Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Andrey Rublev, to Naomi Osaka, Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek — can build on their successes in 2020 and whether they can improve on a surface they have somewhat struggled on.

– Manoj Bhagavatula

A different PKL with a ‘new normal’ outlook

The previous season of the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) ended in October 2019. Cut to the end of 2020, and the whereabouts of a Season 8 continue to be vague.

Now, there are several factors behind this. The ongoing ISL, followed by the IPL next year, is likely to block all the primetime slots (which is when the matches are held in the league) until at least June. If the Olympics are held as planned, the organisers might look at a further delay in order to avoid a division in the viewership. More importantly, most kabaddi players haven’t actively played or practiced together since the lockdown in March. This may necessitate the need for longer training camps – usually lasting two months – that, in turn, might lead to teams spending lesser at the auction to stick to budgets.

Given that kabaddi is a contact sport that requires at least 14 people on the mat, there is a likelihood that some rules will be tweaked in order to ensure the safety of the players. Will gloves be introduced in the player kits? Will the players continue to chant the cant or will it just be an audio effect going forward? Will the players move from indoor stadiums to outdoor stadiums in order to allow some crowd presence?

All in all, even as the chances of the PKL returning in 2021 are high, be prepared for it to take place with a different, ‘new normal’ outlook.

– Debdatta Sengupta

Delayed Olympics might be worth the wait

It probably goes without saying that the biggest sporting casualty of 2020 was the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.

Heading to the 2020 Games, Indian fans would have felt they were in with a shot for one of their best-ever results in terms of medals. There were four shooters who were ranked in the top two of their individual events, India had won a record 21 gold medals in the 2019 World Cups, including seven of the eight medals on offer in the mixed pair rifle and pistol events. Four wrestlers were coming off World Championships medals as was men’s flyweight boxer Amit Panghal. Among the weightlifters, Mirabai Chanu appeared to be a near lock for a podium place, having finished fourth at the 2019 Worlds. Among athletes, javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra – who won gold medals at the 2018 Asian and Commonwealth Games, seemed to be hitting top form, qualifying for the games in January.

It remains to be seen whether those hopes would remain undimmed for the Games next year. Training programs have taken a hit over the past few months, as have the prospects of high-level competition. While practice has resumed to some extent across sports, all athletes will be hoping to get the elite competition that they desperately need in the coming months.

What will serve them in good stead is the fact that it isn’t just Indian athletes who have had to deal with a disruption in their schedule this year. There is also the fact that there are several young Indian athletes who will only be stronger in 2021. Wrestler Anshu Malik, 19, is showing glimpses of genuine ability in the women’s 57kg division while 68kg wrestler Divya Kakran is slowly hitting her peak. Among India’s best hopes to carry on their storied performances on the wrestling mat will be Bajrang Punia. He’s already coming off an unprecedented three Worlds medals and he’d be looking to make his first bite at the Olympics count. If the Indians shrug off their rust and hit the mark with their preparations over the next few months, there’s a very strong possibility that the wait for a delayed Olympics might be a worthwhile one.

– Jonathan Selvaraj

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