All England Open 2018: Saina Nehwal faces tough draw; all eyes on Sindhu, Srikanth to end 17-year wait

The draw in a major championship has often been seen to be rather cruel to those ranked just outside the seedings list. And so it is that Indian shuttle queen Saina Nehwal, who sits at No 11 in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, has been drawn by the computer’s random placement program, beyond the eight seeds. She will run into top-seed Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei in the opening round of the prestigious All England Badminton Championships that kick off in Birmingham on Wednesday.

It is the worst possible draw that the Indian ace, who turns 28 on 17 March, could have been handed out, for she has been totally unable to unravel the Tai mystique in recent times. While she trails Tai 5-9 in their 14 career meetings, the vital statistic that needs to be considered here is that she has not beaten the Taiwanese ace in the past five years since the Swiss Open in March 2013, and has lost to her on the last seven occasions that they have clashed.

Saina Nehwal faces Tai Tzu Ying in the tournament-opener. Reuters/ File

Saina Nehwal faces Tai Tzu Ying in the tournament-opener. Reuters/ File

Indeed, in their most recent three meetings, the margin of Saina’s straight-sets defeats has been steadily increasing, to the point where she was beaten by Tai in the Indonesia Masters in January this year by a crushing 9-21, 13-21 scoreline. This compares poorly with the 15-21, 16-21 loss she suffered at Tai’s hands in the 2016 edition of All England.

The sole consolation for Saina is the fact that Tai has shown a tendency in the past to implode in important tournaments, and despite her undoubted pedigree, she has neither a World Championship title nor an Olympic medal to show for her dominance on the international circuit over the past four years. But, to offset that shortcoming, it can be pointed out that she will be the defending champion in Birmingham, having won the All England crown last year at the expense of Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon.

While Saina will have to produce something extraordinary to go past the speedy, strokeful Taiwanese, her compatriot and World No 4, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu has been handed an equally-challenging draw — a potential quarter-final with Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, who had pipped her in the final of the 2017 World Championships in Glasgow.

In her lung-opener in the vast Birmingham Arena, the Hyderabadi runs into Thailand’s Pornpawee Chochuwong, whom she has beaten in straight games in their only previous meeting, at the Indonesia Open in June 2017. If she clears this hurdle, as she should, she will take on the winner of the first-round match between China-born American Zhang Beiwen and Thailand’s Nitchaon Jindapol.

Sindhu’s record against both players gives cause for concern. She is locked 2-2 in four previous meetings with Zhang, having lost to the US player on the last two occasions that they have clashed, the most recent being the India Open last month — at 20-22 in the third and deciding game. That particular scoreline appears to be something of a nemesis, for she had lost to Okuhara by an identical margin in the 2017 World Championship final.

The Indian’s record against Jindapol is a better, at 2-1, with a victory in their most recent meeting at the Korea Open in September last year. Technically, Sindhu is a faster and more aggressive player than either of her projected second-round opponents, and should elbow them aside for a quarter-final meeting with Okuhara. The pint-sized Japanese should make the last-eight grade after a first-round clash with Pai Yu Po of Chinese Taipei, and a subsequent outing against either Malaysia’s Soniia Cheah or Indonesia’s Fitriani Fitriani.

As for the Indian men, the No 3 seed, Kidambi Srikanth has the best chance of bagging his first All England crown, after being blessed with a relatively easy draw. Opening his campaign with a first-ever meeting with 31-year-old Frenchman Brice Leverdez, ranked 23rd in the world, the 25 year old Srikanth has doughty Englishman Rajiv Ouseph or China’s HuangYuxiang blocking his path to a projected quarter-final meeting with Chinese Taipei’s No 8 seed, Chou Tien Chen, winner of the German Open last Sunday.

All these players have been placed in the lower half of the draw, where the most dominant players, at least on paper, are the No 2 seed, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, and the No 6 seed, Lin Dan of China. The 35 year old Lee and 34 year old Lin are slotted in the final quarter of the draw, and are therefore headed for a last-eight stage meeting that will be the 40th in their long and illustrious careers that have run concurrently. The Chinese five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist leads their head-to-heads 27-12.

Of the other Indians in the draw, HS Prannoy, now recovered from the troublesome corns on his foot, has been given a difficult initial hurdle in the shape of Chinese Taipei’s Chou, to whom he has lost on all the three occasions that they have met. The most recent result was the 19-21, 16-21 loss for Prannoy in the French Open in October last year; and the World No 12 Indian will have to step up a couple of paces if he hopes to get past the Taiwanese for a second-round meeting with either of two Indonesians, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting and Tommy Sugiarto.

The third and last Indian in the men’s singles draw (there are no qualifying rounds in this tournament, which is one of the elite competitions on the newly instituted World Tour), Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth, bumps into the No 5 seed, Son Wan Ho of South Korea, in his very first foray on court. The Indian could hardly have been saddled with a worse opponent, since both players adopt the defensive style of play, and the Korean is simply faster and steadier.

Praneeth will have to work out a much more aggressive strategy to counter Son’s sound defence, and make a dent in the 0-3 adverse record he has against the Korean, a former World No 1. The portents look far from promising, for Son had won their Hong Kong Open clash last November by a comprehensively dominant 21-8, 21-16 scoreline.

While concluding this analysis of the top Indian players’ chances at the prestigious All England, it is apt to return to the introduction of this article, where the cruelty of the draw for non-seeded players, especially those ranked just outside the top eight in the world, was discussed.

Hong Kong’s 23-year-old Ng Ka Long Angus, who was runner-up at the German Open on Sunday, scalping a number of top players including China’s Lin Dan and Shi Yuqi along the way, has been drawn to play top-seeded Dane Viktor Axelsen, the reigning world champion, in his opening round. Angus, who is ranked ninth on the BWF computer, and narrowly missed being seeded at Birmingham, trails Axelsen 0-6 in career meetings, and thus faces an early exit from the glamorous competition.

But, lo and behold! Angus need not spend sleepless nights thinking about his anticipated seventh successive loss to Axelsen. The Danish world champion was a last-minute casualty, pulling out of the All England with an ankle injury sustained during final practice before the competition.

Since there are no qualifying rounds to this tournament, Angus will, in all likelihood, get a bye in his opening round, and go through to a more comfortable second-round match against the winner of an all-Japanese first-round clash between Kenta Nishimoto and Kanta Tsuneyama. Such, on the flip side, is the luck of the "dastardly draw"!

Published Date: Mar 14, 2018 15:25 PM | Updated Date: Mar 14, 2018 19:59 PM

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