It was nothing more than a stroll in the park for ninth-seeded Indian Pusarla Venkat Sindhu, as she barely broke sweat while settling the pretensions of Hungary’s Laura Sarosi in her opening outing at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Nor was Kidambi Srikanth, the third of India’s singles contingent at Rio, unduly stretched by Mexico’s Lino Munoz in his lung-opener in his three-player round-robin group.
However, Saina Nehwal, who is hoping to improve on her bronze medal winning performance of the 2012 London Olympics, was put through the grinder to some extent by Brazilian Lohaynny Vicente before progressing in straight sets at 21-17, 21-17.
But the two doubles pairs in the fray – Jwala Gutta with Ashwini Ponnappa, in the women’s doubles, and Manu Attri with Sumeet Reddy in the men’s paired event – were battered into submission by crack combinations ranked way above them.
Sindhu’s display gave the handful of Indian supporters much to cheer about. So dominant was she that Sarosi was not permitted to touch double-figures in either of the two games that the two antagonists played. After some initial level pegging, Sindhu galloped to a 11-4 lead, and kept her foot on the gas pedal for the rest of the encounter, wrapping it up at 21-8, 21-9.
Basically, there yawned a massive gulf in class between the two players. Sindhu was just too speedy and powerful for the hapless Hungarian, and was always in control of the rallies. One must, however, sound a word of caution to those expecting an equally facile outing on Sunday against Canada’s Chinese-born Michelle Li, who has produced strong results against most of the world’s leading players.
It was hard to understand Saina’s relatively leaden-footed display against Vicente, who predictably received full-throated support from her home crowd as she took on the No five seed. Perhaps it was the fact that the Brazilian was not expected to give the Indian star any real trouble, that accounted for Saina’s difficulty to really get into the match.
Some felt she was extending the rallies in an effort to get a feel of the playing conditions, while others felt she was having difficulty getting her mental level up to scratch, in the face of such a potentially easy encounter. Whatever the real reason was, Saina was matched stroke for stroke by Vicente in both games, and she rarely appeared in full control of the pace and trend of the match.
It must, of course, be pointed out that, when the chips appeared to be down, Saina was able to pull out that something extra, and reel off the final four points of the first game after it was tied at 17-all. It was a similar shambolic performance by the Indian in the second game, with the local player deceiving her formidable opponent quite a few times, much to the delight of the partisan crowd.
In all probability, Saina’s next and final group match against Marija Ulitina of the Ukraine will follow a similar pattern. No doubt she is saving her mental energy for the sterner battles ahead of the group stage, when she will in all probability run into the dangerous Thai, Porntip Buranaprasertsuk, in the pre-quarter-finals.
As for Srikanth, whose form has dipped and fluctuated after the phenomenal high he achieved at the 2014 China Open when he lowered the colours of four-time world champion and double Olympic gold medallist Lin Dan, he was at his aggressive best in the opening game against Munoz, but then appeared to ease off in the second.
The 23-year-old Indian scored repeatedly with his leaping sideline smashes and lightning follow-up to the net in the opening stanza, but made several unforced errors in the second, when the Mexican prolonged the rallies and pinned his rival to the back of the court.
Munoz levelled the scores at 17-all, and caused a few wrinkled brows in the Indian camp with some accurate strokeplay. Srikanth pulled up his socks in the nick of time, to breast the tape without further loss; and the final 21-11, 21-17 scoreline showed that the No nine seed’s victory had been convincing.
Srikanth may get a slightly sterner test in his last group match when he runs into Sweden’s Henri Hurskainen, who is basically not much more than another journeyman on the badminton circuit. On current form, the Indian looks good enough to be considered a dark horse for an entry into the medal rounds.
In stark contrast to the performances of the three Indian singles contestants, their compatriots in the doubles events had precious little to show for their efforts. Jwala and Ashwini were not expected to break through the tight defence of the top-seeded pair of Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo; and they didn’t. Sadly, they could not fathom the Japanese duo’s attack pattern, either, and surrendered meekly.
What was disheartening about the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallists’ display was that they appeared to be just going through the motions. Their shoulders slumped repeatedly, and their over-all body language was poor. The stream of errors that flowed from their rackets, especially in the second game, did not foster confidence that they could progress deep into this event.
Olympic debutants Attri and Reddy, who had actually opened India’s badminton challenge at these Olympics in the morning, were up against the world’s second ranked combination of Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan of Indonesia; and produced a far better display than was expected of them.
The Indians did lose at 18-21, 13-21, but they were by no means disgraced. The wily Indonesians were in control throughout the first game, and decided thereafter that the upstarts needed to be put in their place. One can expect doughty performances from Attri and Reddy in their two remaining group encounters, but it is hard to see them finish first or second in the four-team group, to seal a quarter-final spot.