By Mark Etheridge
Jacob Maliekal is the only South African badminton player to have provisionally qualified for the Rio Olympics as the deadline date came and went earlier this month.
The world ranking as of 5 May, was used to determine the Olympic Qualifying list for Rio 2016 and Maliekal qualified in the singles with a world ranking of 78 and the African continent’s highest ranked player.
To be eligible for selection to Rio he had to be in the top 100 when the cut-off period came.
Maliekal told Road to Rio 2016 from his base in China: ‘It’s been one real rollercoaster of a ride with blood, sweat and tears and I’m so happy and relieved that it all paid off.
‘The qualifying period had many ups and downs, I was leading my continental compatriot, Uganda’s Netherlands-based Edwin Ekiring, for periods and then was behind until the last month.
‘So I felt a lot of pressure, starting from January through till the beginning of March as I needed to get some good results to take the top continental spot.
‘In Europe I had my coach from Malaysia with me and we spoke a lot, this really helped me and I played well in Europe, reaching a quarter-final in the competitive French International and followed it up with two more quarter-finals in Peru and Tahiti, where I beat seeded players. I felt a huge load off my shoulders in Peru when I reached the quarter-finals as this meant I’d taken the lead in the race to Rio.’
That meant that Tahiti was something of a bonus. ‘I played very relaxed and this helped me to reach another quarter-final. It was an amazing feeling that it all came to an end… and to know that I’ve qualified was just a cherry on top.’
Maliekal went on to pay tribute to all those who helped him reach his goals. ‘I’m grateful to my family and friends for all the support as well as my coaches and sponsors, Kawasaki Club, Badminton South Africa and SASCOC for supporting me to the end.’
Previously based in Malaysia, Maliekal said that personal highlights of his road to Rio were the gold medal he won at African Games in Brazzaville, Congo last year as well as getting to the quarter-finals at the French International. ‘ I beat the fifth seed Misha Zilberman of Israel as well as top Polish player Michal Rogalski.’
As for his preparations at this point and further. ‘I’ll just be back here in China and preparing to do my best. I’ve been playing better recently and hope to improve and be in a good condition to perform at the Olympics.’
Narrowly missing out qualifying for Rio were the country’s ace doubles pairing of Wiaan Viljoen and Andries Malan, they ended just one spot off the qualification rankings. Said national coach Chris Dednam: ‘They ended 51st on the world ranking. They’re the highest African pair as well, but they needed to be 50 and above to qualify.’
‘They missed it by one ranking position and 32 ranking points. When you consider that every round in a tournament counts about 700 points, they had to advance one round further in one of their tournaments and they would have qualified. That’s how close it was and they are very disappointed!’
‘Jacob, Wiaan and Andries now join Cameron Coetzer this week in the national men’s team participating in the Thomas Cup finals from 15-22 May, the World Men’s Team Championships.
‘That’s after they won the African preliminaries of the Cup during February in Mauritius. Prakash Vijayanath, who was also part of the team, is not available for the finals due to exams.’
South Africa have been drawn in the same group as Denmark, Taipei and New Zealand.