Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik will be the star-cast of the National Wrestling Championships which starts on Friday.
At the start of 2018, both Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik had had a season to forget. Vinesh has an opportunity to test her fitness while a struggling Sakshi Malik will look to re-invent herself in the absence of the male stars.
After winning silver medals at the Asian Championships last year, both failed to medal at the World Championships and by the time Pro Wrestling League began in January, the only gold medal they had to show was at the Commonwealth Championships, a tournament which has a reputation of having a field weaker than the national-level championships in India.
Vinesh was forced to skip the World Championship in Budapest due to a last-minute elbow injury. She was in imperious form following the historic gold-winning effort at the Jakarta-Palembang Asian Games.
While Vinesh is now India’s bright hope at the Tokyo Olympics, Sakshi has fallen behind with doubts being raised if the she can repeat her performance from the Rio Games, where she finished with a bronze medal.
Vinesh is one of the most formidable athletes and if she is fit, it is highly unlikely she could be troubled by any of her compatriots. The Railways athlete will compete in the 57kg instead of the 50kg category in which she won three gold medals this season.
"For Nationals I won't reduce weight. The competition here won't be very strong and I have several important tournaments coming up in the next few months, so I have to be consistent in maintaining (weight) for those event," Vinesh told PTI when asked about the change in her weight category.
The 24-year-old said it is important to compete at Nationals because she lost a lot of time after the Asian Games due to the injury.
"Now I have a chance to restart with the Nationals. I won't say it is warm-up for me but it is good if I get into some competitions before bigger tournaments ahead. It helps on getting that mindset," she said.
She remains favourite for the gold but Vinesh says she can't name any strong opponent.
"I know lot of wrestlers from the senior camp but there will be lot of juniors competing for the first time. I don't know many of them, so I have to see how it goes," she said, adding that her hunger for success only got stronger after injuries halted her progress.
A shot at redemption for Sakshi
In complete contrast, Sakhi's career graph has taken a nosedive after her historic bronze medal at the Rio Olympic Games. She could win only a bronze at the Gold Coast CWG in a not-so-strong field while returning empty-handed from the Asian Games before suffering a humiliating exit from the World Championship.
The 62kg will be a battle between Sakshi and the celebrated Geeta Phogat, who has lost a bit of her sting of late.
Ritu Malik, who had lost the bronze play-off at Budapest, will compete in the 65kg while Railways' Navjot Kaur will compete in 68kg.
Like Sakshi, two time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar is also struggling and has decided to skip the event along with Bajrang Punia, who is injured.
Also missing from action is Sandeep Tomar, who too has been an exciting prospect.
Their absence has taken a bit of sheen off the Nationals but it could help in figuring out a new line of wrestlers in the 74kg and 65kg categories. Though Bajrang, at the moment, looks almost invincible, a next generation of grapplers will give India a strong option in the 74kg.
Jitender Kumar and Vinod look the next best options but they are yet to establish themselves as strong replacements for Sushil. Jitender will compete in the 77kg here while Vinod will be a contender in the 74kg.