India's hopes for a singles 'double' at the Hong Kong Open Super Series badminton took a tumble on Sunday, with Sameer Verma and Pusarla Venkata Sindhu going down in contrasting styles to their more fancied opponents in the final.
While Sindhu ran up against a rampaging Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, and was beaten at 15-21, 17-21 in a matter of 41 minutes, the lion-hearted Sameer kept Hong Kong's Ng Ka Long Angus on the court for 50 minutes, and took him the full distance before capitulating 14-21, 21-10, 11-21 in the battle of unseeded players.
For either the 18th ranked Angus or the 43rd ranked Sameer, the men's singles crown would have been the first Super Series title. Despite his lower ranking, Sameer had a 2-0 head-to-head career record against the powerful, muscular local lad who, at 22, was exactly the same age as the reigning Indian national champion.
Considering the fact that Angus had been beaten in the second round of the China Open a week earlier by Sameer's compatriot and fellow Gopichand Academy trainee, HS Prannoy, and also given that Sameer had shocked world No 3, Jan O Jorgensen of Denmark in straight games in the semi-final a day earlier, the feisty Indian had a great chance of bagging the gold.
However, three important points had to be taken into account - one, that Angus had been one of the most improved players in the world this year; two, that he would come out firing on all cylinders, and employ all-out aggression (the same tactics that Sameer had hoped to use against him); and three, the crowd at the Hong Kong Coliseum would get solidly behind their man and lift his spirits, particularly at the end of the second game, when he looked somewhat out of sorts.
In addition, Sameer was guilty of employing the erroneous tactic of excessive net-play against a player who is very strong in this area. Tight net dribbles had worked well on the previous day against Jorgensen, but Angus gave Sameer less time to catch the bird early at the net, and was ever vigilant to tap even slightly flighted returns.
It would have helped the Indian if he had pinned Angus to the baseline more, while being careful enough to avoid mid-court clears which the Hong Kong player was able to demolish with powerful smashes. The hustling tactics which Sameer used in the second game, while winning it with much to spare, failed to work in the decider because the Indian was himself hustled into committing errors.
Sameer had the worst possible start to the match, as he repeatedly netted easy shots and conceded a huge 7-1 lead to his taller opponent. Once he settled, though, he began matching Angus stroke for stroke, often hustling him into errors by giving him insufficient time to execute his strokes.
Nevertheless, they went into the lemon break with Angus holding a comfortable 11-5 advantage. It was at this stage that the Indian showed his fighting spirit, began dictating the rallies, and reduced the margin steadily to 12-13. At this stage, coach Luan Jin, a former All England champion, indicated to his ward with a hand gesture that he should shorten the rallies and go all out on the attack. The result was a quick 21-14 verdict in Angus' favour, in just 15 minutes of play.
The reverse shook the spunky Indian up. He went on the attack, and was quick to pounce on anything even marginally short of length, to open out a handy 7-2 lead in the second game. He enlarged this to 11-5, and then powered further ahead to 17-7. Realising that the second game was had gone out of his control, Angus allowed Sameer to complete the formalities of pocketing the 16-minute game at 21-10.
A resurgent Angus hit the ground running in the decider. Egged on by a vociferous home crowd, he smashed his way to 4-1 and 9-4 before crossing over for the second half of the final game at 11-4. Sameer simply did not know what hit him, and his half-hearted attempts at net-play saw him commit a string of mistakes at the tape, allowing the local lad to seal a potentially match-winning lead of 15-6.
Sameer was only able to reduce the margin of defeat as Angus yet again outmanoeuvred the Indian at the net, and sent a return past the hapless Indian, to seal victory at 21-11 in a decider that lasted 19 minutes. The win made Angus the first player from Hong Kong to win a Super Series title.
Though beaten by an opponent who was distinctly superior on the day, Sameer was by no means disgraced. His lion-hearted showing throughout the tournament would have won him many hearts, and is bound to do his Badminton World Federation (BWF) ranking a world of good.
When the lists are made next week, we should see Sameer at around the No 25 mark. It is not bad at all for one who was actually promoted to the main draw because of late withdrawals by some of the higher-ranked players who decided to give the final Super Series tournament of the year a miss as it would not materially affect their ranking or secure them a berth in the Destination Dubai Super Series grand finals.