C A Bhavani Devi made history on Sunday when she became the first Indian fencer to reach the last 16 of the ongoing World Fencing Championships. Although she succumbed to a defeat at the hands of Romania’s Bianca Pascu (in Individual Women’s Sabre event) at the SYMA Sports and Conference Centre in Budapest, Devi’s performance keeps her in firm contention for a slot in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Losing narrowly by just one point (14-15), the 25-year-old made her mark in the fencing circuit by jumping 23 places in rankings after the completion of the event. She currently holds the 44th spot, which boosts her chances of qualifications for the Olympics.
Earning the distinction of being the first Indian to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Fencing Championship held in Canberra, Australia last November, Devi has carried on with the momentum.
At the 2019 World Fencing Championships, which began on July 15, Devi began her campaign against Tunisia’s Azza Besbes (ranked 61) in the Round of 64. The Chennai-born fencer won the contest by a margin of 15-10, despite starting off slowly.
In the next round, where she was up against Canada’s Gabriella Page (ranked 36), the underdog pulled off a blinder. Bhavani kept pace with the Canadian’s advances from the beginning itself, before falling to a dire 11-14. But, she made history by overturning Page’s three match points to become the first Indian to reach the pre-quarters of a World Championship soon after. With four consecutive touches right in the face of defeat, she eventually won the match 15-14.
Bhavani hopped into the pre-quarters, hoping to make it into the last eight, but her run was brought to a grinding halt by Pascu (ranked 19) as she lost the contest. The Indian fencer fell way behind by 5-13, before making a comeback to level it at 14-14, bringing the match right down to the wire.
Pascu didn’t falter thereafter and grabbed the match point, and as it turned out, went on to win the bronze along with Greece’s Theodora Gkountoura. Ukraine’s Olga Kharlan won the gold medal after defeating Russia’s Sofya Velikaya on Sunday itself.
Starting off on July 24 next year, Tokyo 2020 will have competitive medals in all the three disciplines. In the individual sabre event, each match will consist of three 3-minute rounds with a rest period in between them, where the objective is to score 15 touches as soon as possible. In case of a tie at the end of the three rounds, there is a 1-minute sudden-death period.
The qualification for the Tokyo Olympics next year is primarily done based on world rankings, both team and individual on April 4, 2020. After eight teams qualify based on their rankings, the fencers in the team event will also compete for the individual event along with 10 other individual fencers from countries that do not have a team.
Of these 10 individuals, two will be the highest-ranked eligible fencers in Europe, two from Asia-Oceania, one from Africa and one from Pan-America. For the rest of the four spots, there will be continental qualification tournaments in April 2020, where Bhavani can punch her ticket to Tokyo in her Women’s Individual Sabre event. Owing to her massive jump in rankings, from 67 to 44, her chances of qualifying for the Olympics as the first-ever Indian fencer through the Asian qualifiers have increased by leaps and bounds.
Apart from her success at the 2019 World Fencing Championship and the gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Fencing Championship, Bhavani Devi has also received two gold medals, one each at the 2012 Commonwealth Championship, and the 2014 Tuscany Cup. Evidently, knowing or unknowingly, she is slowly putting India on the world fencing map.
Though it is not an official ranking event, Ready, Steady Tokyo Hockey, the test event for the 2020 Olympic Games is crucial for both the Indian men and women’s teams—this is where they will be getting their first feel of the Oi Hockey stadium in Tokyo. This is also where they can take stock of what needs to be fixed before the make-or-break Olympic qualification events in October-November.
It is a particularly crucial event for the women’s team under Dutch coach Sjoerd Marijne, as they take on world No 2 Australia, world No 11 China and world No 14 Japan. With India ranked 10th in the world, this is a solidly competitive outing for them. Marijne’s squad will begin their campaign against the hosts, who have already qualified for the Olympics, in the opener on Saturday.
“It is a good break for us to play the test event as we have trained very hard and also, we want to play these matches to see what information we get out of that (regarding our preparations),” Marijne said. “Though Australia is a very strong team, we can never underestimate China because they made very good progress with the Pro League and also Japan is a really good team. We will play four really high-level matches and it will be perfect for us at this moment.”
Since he took over the reins for the second time before last year’s Asian Games, Marijne has seen the team improve with every tournament.
“With every tour we have done very well. The most important thing for me is that we keep learning from our mistakes,” he says. “In Spain, we did very well and also in Malaysia, Korea and in the FIH Series Finals, which we had to win. We handled the pressure well as we played some strong teams in the Series Finals.”
Though the men’s team (ranked No 5) will take on comparatively weaker opponents in New Zealand (world No 8), Malaysia (No 12) and hosts Japan (No 16), it will still be an important event for coach Graham Reid as he has picked an experimental side, having rested regular skipper Manpreet Singh, goalkeeper PR Sreejesh, defenders Birendra Lakra and Surender Kumar, besides forward Akashdeep Singh. It will be a big test for drag flicker Harmanpreet Singh as he will be leading the side and also for forward SV Sunil, who is making a comeback from an injury-enforced break.
Juniors Nilam Sanjeep Xess and Jarmanpreet Singh are likely to get a look-in, as are Ashis Topno and Shamsher Singh, on their debut tour.
“We have a great opportunity to test a younger bunch of players in the matches against Malaysia, Japan and New Zealand. They are good teams to play against and we are now adjusting well to our coach’s ideas,” the 23-year-old Harmanpreet said. “It is a huge responsibility to have been given the captaincy, and I am looking forward to stepping up and delivering for the team.” The Indian men will open their campaign against Malaysia on Saturday.