Currently in the form of her life, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu put up a ‘smashing’ (it was hard to resist the pun) performance at the Koramangala Indoor Stadium on Tuesday to quell the challenge of Korea’s world no.3, Sung Ji Hyun, and power Chennai Smashers to a 4-3 Premier Badminton League (PBL) victory over previously unbeaten Mumbai Rockets.
With the four points that Chennai picked up from their penultimate pool clash against Mumbai, they took their tally to 14 points from four ties, and made sure of their entry into the semi-finals, to be held in New Delhi on Friday.
Since Mumbai (who finished their five pool engagements with 19 points) and Lucknow’s Awadhe Warriors (on 18 points, with a tie in hand against Chennai) having qualified earlier, it has left Bengaluru Blasters and Hyderabad Hunters in a straight battle for the fourth semi-final spot.
Hyderabad, who are on 9 points at the moment, have the edge here, for they take on defending champions Delhi Acers in their final pool encounter on Thursday, and require just three points from it to overhaul Bengaluru, who have completed their five league fixtures with 11 points, and can only watch helplessly from the sidelines.
The Acers, who had won the inaugural PBL title last year at the expense of Mumbai Rockets, continue to languish in the cellar this time, and are out of semi-final contention, with a mere 6 points from four outings.
Chennai’s final league match against Awadhe, in Bengaluru on Wednesday, will determine the two teams’ final placings on the league table, and determine their respective semi-final opponents. The rules have the table-toppers playing against the fourth-placed team, while Nos. 2 and 3 battle it out against each other.
In order to make sure of their semi-final berth, Chennai had to slip it across Mumbai; and the latter squad, which was not facing qualification problems, obligingly fielded a relatively weak combination for the mixed doubles, widely expected to be Chennai’s trump. And thus it was that Chirag Shetty was handed his first gallop of the tournament in the company of Polish doubles specialist Zieba Nadiezda, against the powerful husband-wife pair of Chris and Gabrielle Adcock.
Gaby, as she is known, had returned to the fray after taking one match off – Chennai’s previous outing against Delhi – due to indisposition, and she took a little time adjusting to the windy conditions in the compact stadium. That was sufficient to allow Chirag and Zieba to pip the British pair 11-9 in the opener; and open up the possibility of a debilitating trump loss.
However, once Gaby settled down, the difference in class between the two pairs was obvious; and the Adcocks raced through the rest of the match for a 9-11, 11-2, 11-7 victory, only for their steady march to be interrupted marginally towards the end of the decider by a couple of uncharacteristic errors from the left-handed Chris.
The brace of points that the English pair contributed reversed the lead that Haseena Sunilkumar Prannoy had given the Rockets by settling the pretensions of his senior in the Pullela Gopichand Academy, former Olympian Parupalli Kashyap, in straight sets at 11-9, 13-11.
It was the fourth time in the tournament that Prannoy was showing off the steel in his nerves by winning a game or match over the extra points, when concentration and control need to be at their peak. The Mumbai lad’s outstanding control over his strokes was the difference between the two players, as also the fact that Kashyap continues to struggle with his reflexes after his return from a leg injury.
Prannoy has won all his five matches for Mumbai this year as their No.2 singles player behind Ajay Jayaram, replicating the manner in which Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto (6-0) and compatriot Jayaram (3-0) had enjoyed unbeaten runs in last year’s PBL, and propelled the Delhi Acers across the finish line.
The world number 21 ranked Sugiarto has been in equally good touch for Chennai this year, with three wins in the four matches that he has played, the solitary blemish coming against Bengaluru Blasters’ world number 3, Viktor Axelsen.
Jayaram stung him into action by winning the opening game, the reverse bringing out the beast in the Indonesian. Sugiarto went into overdrive, with lightning-fast movements on court, well directed power-packed smashes and a sound defence that gave very little away. The final scores of 8-11, 11-2, 11-5 tell their own tale of the Chennai star’s dominance.
But for fans of Indian badminton, the match of the evening was Sindhu’s clash with her conqueror in the BWF Super Series grand finals in Dubai last month, Sung Ji Hyun. Sindhu has looked very good in this tournament, her movements swift and sure, her fitness exemplary, and, most of all, her unceasing aggression giving her the edge over virtually all her opponents, barring Olympics champion Carolina Marin.
In the head-to-head, the 21-year-old Sindhu held a 6-4 lead over the 25-year-old Korean in ten meetings, with four of their jousts having gone the full distance. The Indian, lustily cheered on by the Bengaluru crowd, used her height and reach to rain down smashes from all angles on Sung, who began looking increasingly helpless as the match progressed.
Sindhu had the advantage of height and reach, fast conditions and faster shuttles as compared to those that are used in most international tournaments; and she was relentless in her attack. She kept using the smash to both flanks against Sung’s patented deep, high service, to seized control of almost all the rallies whenever her rival served.
Sung was forced to switch to the low, short serve in the second game because she just did not know how to counter Sindhu’s relentless attack. Her discomfiture was also apparent when she found it hard to control the shuttle in the unpredictable drift inside the stadium. She is a player who relies on length and accuracy to move her opponent around the court and into the corners; and her shots kept floating out along the backhand sideline and baseline.
The Olympic silver medallist’s facile 11-8, 12-10 triumph provided Chennai with the point the team required to make sure of a semi-final spot, as also to ensure a tie win over the Rockets by a 4-1 margin.
The final encounter – in which the strong Mumbai doubles pair of Korean Lee Yong Dae and Thai Nipitphon delivered two points for their trump with a ridiculously easy 11-3, 11-5 triumph over Chris Adcock and Mads Kolding – proved to be of academic interest, and only succeeded in reducing the margin of defeat to 3-4.
Further interest in the final league stages of the competition will be centred around the projected clash between Sindhu and Saina Nehwal on Wednesday night. However, the chances are that it may not take place, since Saina would prefer to take the day off to save herself for the semi-finals.
It is on the cards that Awadhe will hand a cap to the talented 23-year-old Rituparna Das, who has been knocking on the doors of the country’s Uber Cup squad for the past couple of years, and would relish the opportunity of parading her wares against the pride and joy of the Chennai Smashers squad.
Final Score: Chennai Smashers beat Mumbai Rockets 4-3 (Parupalli Kashyap lost to H. S. Prannoy 9-11, 11-13; Chris Adcock and Gabrielle Adcock (trump) beat Chirag Shetty and Zieba Nadiezda 9-11, 11-2, 11-7; Tommy Sugiarto beat Ajay Jayaram 8-11, 11-2, 11-5; P. V. Sindhu beat Sung Ji Hyun 11-8, 12-10; Chris Adcock and Mads Pieler Kolding lost to Lee Yong Dae and Nipitphon Phuangphuapet (trump) 3-11, 5-11)