Hong Kong: For the third time in badminton history, Indian shuttlers made both the men’s and women’s singles finals of a stellar BWF Super Series event, the Hong Kong Open Badminton Championships at the Hong Kong Coliseum on Saturday night.
Reigning Indian national champion Sameer Verma, who had to come through the qualifying rounds of this key event in the international Super Series calendar, played brilliant attacking badminton to shock Denmark’s vastly experienced world no.3, Jan O. Jorgensen, in two straight – albeit tight – games, at 21-19, 24-22, to barge into the men’s singles final.
Just under an hour later, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu showed that her China Open Super Series title win last week had been no flash in the pan, when she notched up a rather facile 21-14, 21-16 triumph over local hope Cheung Ngan Yi. In the process, she gained a measure of revenge against the Hong Kong player for the conquest of compatriot Saina Nehwal in the quarter-final, the previous day.
For the record, Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal had reached the singles finals of the 2014 China Open and the 2015 India Open; and both had emerged victorious on both these occasions.
While Sindhu, who has been in sparkling form during the past fortnight, had been widely expected to reach her second successive Superseries final, the story of the night was the superlative performance of the small-built, boyish-looking Sameer against the player who currently stands atop the qualification charts for the year-end Destination Dubai Super Series finals.
The younger of the two Verma brothers, who trains along with Sindhu at national coach Pullela Gopichand’s academy, showed speed, aggression and stamina as he out-manoeuvred the Dane, who had lowered the colours of world and Olympic champion Chen Long in the latter’s own den. And when the going got tough in the closing reaches of the second game, Sameer revealed that he was temperamentally solid as well.
Ranked 40 places below Jorgensen in the BWF ladder, the Indian had precious little with which to work his game plan, for he was crossing swords with the muscular, heavily tattooed Dane for the first time. But that lacuna could not be seen in his demeanour as he faced Jorgensen with confidence, and employed tactics calculated to unsettle the more fancied player.
For the entire duration of the opening stanza, Sameer remained ahead and Jorgensen was forced to play catch-up. The Dane initially tried to play short, sharp rallies, but found Sameer’s reflexes up to the task. Easily countering Jorgensen’s smashes, the Indian built up a 7-2 lead, and maintained a slim advantage going into the mid-game breather.
At this stage, Jorgensen piled on the pressure to level scores at 14-all and 16-all. A couple of unforced errors by the third seed allowed Sameer to power to 20-17, but Jorgensen saved two game-points and inched up to 19-20 with a couple of craftily constructed points. The Indian, however, played a blinder of a point, launching an all-court attack, to pocket the first game.
A minor lapse of concentration, possibly at the relief of winning the first game, saw Sameer trail 1-7 as Jorgensen began catching the shuttle earlier at the net. But the stocky Indian pulled up his socks to narrow the margin to 5-8. Jorgensen indulged in his patented rally game for a while, thinking he could tire out his perky antagonist, and slowly inched his way to 20-17.
Just as it appeared that due order would be restored to the semi-final joust, the youngster from Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) completed a couple of amazing retrievals and then caught Jorgensen with a steep cross-court jump half-smash, to level scores. There was no doubt that Jorgensen was shaken by the young upstart’s rally; and, though he forced a fourth game-point to 21-20, he looked somewhat tentative, and Sameer would not be denied what was the best victory of his career.
The euphoria at Sameer Verma’s victory had barely died down among the small group of Indian supporters in the stands, before P V Sindhu strode out to battle with Cheung, who was cheered on court by her own home crowd. The Indian was aware that a victory in this semi-final would guarantee her a title match with Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying, who had earlier repeated her recent China Open triumph over world champion Carolina Marin.
Watched from the stands by father Ramana on one of the rare occasions that the former volleyball international has deigned to watch his daughter play in the arena, Sindhu used her superior height and reach to dominate rallies against her 23 year old, 5’ 5” rival. The Indian dragged Cheung to all corners of the court and often finished off the rallies with a steep cross-court smash or half-smash, a weapon that Sameer had employed with such success in the previous match.
An initial 4-2 advantage for Sindhu was nullified by Cheung at 4-all, and both remained within a point or two of each other until the Indian carried a slim 11-9 lead into the mid-game break. The local girl found several of her strokes drifting out along the backhand sideline, due to the cross-drift in the stadium, but Sindhu also had to hold back on power while tossing, as she was playing with the drift in the opening game, and over-hit the bird on several occasions.
Sindhu then stretched her lead to 15-11, and thereafter, remained at least four points ahead as the Hong Kong player tried vainly to break her rhythm. She used her smashes liberally, often following up strongly at the net to finish off any blocked or weak returns. With minimal further fuss, the opener was wrapped up at 21-14 in a matter of 18 minutes.
Cheung switched tactics in the second game, attacking much more and using a overhead sideline smash to repeatedly catch Sindhu out of position. This particular weakness has been noticed in Sindhu’s game, which has otherwise witnessed a huge improvement in net-play and physical fitness of late. The two went into the game interval with Sindhu’s nose being just ahead at 11-10.
That extra edge in speed and fitness in Sindhu’s game was very much apparent in the closing reaches of the second stanza, when the Indian took the shuttle early at the net and repeatedly bamboozled her opponent with either a sharp dribble or a flat flick clear to the baseline. She moved smoothly to 15-11, and then 18-14, before wrapping up the contest at 21-16.
Sindhu will have her work cut out on Sunday against the mercurial, strokeful Tai Tzu Ying. The Taiwanese has beaten every one of the world’s top players in the past year, but has shown her inconsistent side, losing occasionally to players ranked well below her. With her improved speed and fitness, Sindhu would be able to match Tai if she can read her opponent's deceptive strokes.
Sameer Verma, however, has an outstanding chance to bag his first Super Series title, as he questions the abilities of local star Ng Ka Long Angus, who, at 22, is exactly the same age as his opponent, but is ranked 25 places higher , at No.18. Angus had an easy 21-19, 21-7 victory on Saturday against his compatriot Hu Yun, but is unlikely to find his feisty final opponent in as subdued a mood.