It is far more difficult to stay at the top than to get there. This is what Roger Federer, arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, had said shortly after he attained the World No 1 ranking for the first time in February 2004.
History, though, will show that the Swiss maestro stuck like super-glue to the Numero Uno spot for a record four years and six months, before he was toppled from his lofty pedestal by Rafael Nadal on 18 September, 2008.
India Open winner Pusarla Venkata Sindhu is still only No 5 in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, and is still some distance from emulating fellow countrywoman Saina Nehwal’s feat of reaching the very top of the world rankings. But she has already been served a rude reminder that she will henceforth be firmly in the sights of a host of ambitious young shuttlers who will seek to drag her down from the stratosphere.
Barely 60 hours after winning the India Open, her second Super Series title after the 2016 China Open, Sindhu was unceremoniously bounced out in her opening outing of the $600,000 Malaysian Open Super Series Premier tournament in Sarawak, a much smaller city than the capital Kuala Lumpur, in this badminton-mad country.
A sellout crowd at the Stadium Perpaduan watched in disbelief as a slim, spiky-haired Chinese teenager, who turned 19 on 3rd January this year, made light of her unseeded status, and gunned down the lanky Sindhu by an 18-21, 21-19, 21-17 margin, in an hour-and-eight-minute long encounter which consisted of exhausting and long-drawn rallies.
Chen Yufei, who has crept up almost unnoticed to the World No 13 spot in the BWF rankings, drove the 5’ 11” tall No 6 seed to distraction by her never-say-die retrieving and almost unwavering accuracy, to notch up her first victory over a top-ten player.
Yufei is one among a rich crop of Chinese teenagers who have shown a pleasing readiness to take over from the old guard of Wang Yihan, Wang Shixian and Li Xuerui, all of who are either retired or injured, and have not taken part in any international competition since the Rio Olympics last August.
Yufei had opened her 2016 campaign from the 50th position in the BWF rankings, and worked her way steadily up to 18 by the end of the year. She has further improved her ranking by five spots as of end of March this year, gathering precious points by reaching the final of the Swiss Open that followed the All England Championships, and finishing runner-up to compatriot Chen Xiaoxin, another upcoming youngster from the world’s most populous nation.
Nevertheless, Sindhu should not have been troubled by her relatively inexperienced Chinese antagonist, particularly after she took the opening game without undue trouble. But, from the midway stage of the second game, Sindhu’s face began revealing her inner tension as the unforced errors began mounting. She also seemed unable to force herself mentally to come up with the answers to the constant barrage of returns from the indefatigable Chinese girl.
It appeared that the will to fight had been drained from her system after the physical and emotional efforts she had had to put in, to knock out Saina Nehwal, Sung Ji Hyun and Carolina Marin in quick succession, before winning the India Open in New Delhi. Chinese legend Lin Dan had spoken for the need for a decent gap between successive Super Series competitions, to give the players a chance to get their mental and emotional equilibrium back.
If Sindhu’s exit at Yufei’s hands was a shock, there was also a substantial blip on the Geiger Counter when her compatriot, Nehwal, was shown the door by another 19-year-old who has amazingly become something of a veteran on the women’s circuit, the No 4 seed Akane Yamaguchi.
The diminutive 5’ 1” Japanese dynamo, who will clamber out of her teens on 6 June this year, beat the 27-year-old Indian 19-21, 21-13, 21-15, in a 56-minute first-round match that followed a somewhat similar course to that of the Sindhu-Yufei encounter. The Fukui native simply wore down a less-than-fully-fit Saina, who later admitted to her coach Vimal Kumar that she had felt exhausted and leaden-footed by the midway stage of the decider.
India's silver lining
The sole silver lining for India was the performance of 29-year-old Ajay Jayaram, who was in an entirely different league from Chinese player Qiao Bin, five years his junior, and ranked four places below the Indian, at No 23. Jayaram won handily at 21-11, 21-8 in exactly a minute over the half-hour mark; and earned a second-round meeting on Thursday with fourth seeded Dane, Viktor Axelsen.
It was hard to work out which Indian competitor was unluckier to lose on the day — former national champion B Sai Praneeth, who took the legendary Lin Dan the full distance, and was really unfortunate to be on the wrong side of an 18-21, 21-19, 21-18 verdict, or the mixed doubles combination of Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy, who had a match-point against the Danish pairing of Kim Astrup and Line Kjaersfeldt, but could not convert it, and ended up vanquished by a 19-21, 21-19, 21-23 scoreline.
Praneeth pipped Dan at the tape in the first game, in which the Indian did most of the attacking, while the Chinese left-hander appeared content to defend and simply stay in the rallies. The Indian zoomed away to a 6-1 lead in the second, which he enlarged to 7-2. And there he unaccountably got stuck, committing a string of errors as Dan began using his sideline smashes more and strung together a reel of nine straight points, to go into the break at 11-7.
Praneeth fought back to restore parity at 14-all and stayed with Dan until 17-all. Here, he missed the easiest of net dribbles, to trail by a point. Still, while serving at 19-20, he had a chance of leveling the score, but succumbed to a sizzling Dan overhead crosscourt smash which he could only parry out of court.
When the Chinese star opened up a 11-6 lead in the decider, the writing appeared to be on the wall. At 16-11, it appeared over, bar the shouting. But the Indian mounted a late offensive, and reduced the margin to 15-17 and then 16-18. A shuttle that landed on Dan’s baseline gave Praneeth the service at 18-20, but the man from China put in a supreme effort, and finished the absorbing 71-minute duel with another trademark sideline smash to his rival’s backhand.
Yet another bad luck tale, that left only Jayaram to carry the Indian flag forward in the tournament, was the loss suffered by the country’s top men’s doubles combination, Manu Attri and Sumeet Reddy at the hands of Chinese Taipei's of Liao Kuan Hao and Lu Chia Pin, by a 21-18, 18-21, 17-21 scoreline.
It would seem that the Malaysian doubles expert Tan Kim Her, who has been working for the past year with the top Indian pairs, needs to instill the killer instinct in his wards. Far too often have they succumbed with victory in sight, and have, on occasion, been guilty of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!
Published Date: Apr 06, 2017 10:17 am | Updated Date: Apr 06, 2017 10:17 am