Without a doubt, the biggest gain for Indian badminton in the past fortnight, when the final two Super Series tournaments of the year were played in the extended reaches of the world’s most populous nation, was the showing of 22-year-old Sameer, the younger of the two Verma brothers who contested the last Indian national final.
Yes, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu distinguished herself by reaching the finals of both the China Open and the Hong Kong Open, winning the former for her maiden Super Series title, and bowing out in the title round of the latter.
But the lanky 21-year-old Hyderabadi’s performances did not occasion as much surprise as those of her Gopichand Academy batchmate, as she had bagged even greater laurels in the past, including bronze medals at two World Championships and silver at the last Olympics; and looked capable of scaling the heights at any time.
In comparison, Sameer had no previous feather in his cap that stood out from the rest of his relatively modest achievements. His BWF ranking, which has been hovering in the 35 to 45 range over the past one year, did not guarantee him a place in the 32-player main draw of any Super Series event, if all the big players chose to participate.
Several of Sameer’s compatriots are ranked ahead of his current 43rd position. Kidambi Srikanth (12), Ajay Jayaram (19), H S Prannoy (25) and B Sai Praneeth (36) are all sitting on higher rungs in the BWF ladder, even as his elder brother Sourabh occupies the 45th position, two spots below him.
Only Srikanth, amongst these worthies, has a Super Series title under his belt — he had bagged the 2014 China Open and 2015 Indian Open. All of them have had wins over stronger players, but these have not been among the top half-dozen. Sameer himself has beaten players of the calibre of Vietnam’s Nguyen Tien Minh, China’s Wang Zhengming, Japan’s Sho Sasaki and Hong Kong’s Hu Yun, but names like Lee Chong Wei, Lin Dan or Victor Axelsen were not among his scalps.
Further, any such victories over higher-ranked players were mainly one-offs. We often read of a Prannoy or a Jayaram accounting for a noted player, but none of the Indians, barring Srikanth, had been able to string a proper campaign together in a single tournament, that is, a Super Series event. The boys had, of course, been able to win some of the "minor" Grand Prix Gold events, but had failed to make an impression in a premier Super Series tournament.
All that changed in Hong Kong. Sameer, promoted to the main draw of the Hong Kong Open after last-minute withdrawals by several of the higher-ranked players, finally showed commendable consistency by conquering four players — Japan’s Takuma Ueda (ranked No 47) and Kazumasa Sakai (No 52), Malaysia’s Chong Wei Feng (No 53) and then the really big fish, Denmark’s Jan O Jorgensen (No 3) — on the way to the title round.
The rankings are somewhat deceptive, since they do not reflect the highest point that a particular player has reached during his career. Ueda, for example, had occupied the 17th spot in the world in 2014, before drifting down the rankings to his current level. Jorgensen was ranked No 2 in the world, the highest he has reached, on 21 January this year.
The carping critics might cavil at the fact that three of the players whom Sameer bested were ranked below him. But, to beat those three, then to score over the world’s third best player on current form, and still have enough in the tank to take Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus (ranked no 18) the full distance before capitulating was a heartening performance, by any standards.
Just how much Sameer has gained by his maiden entry into a Super Series final — he was a bundle of nerves in the initial reaches of the final against the home hope — will be seen when he opens his campaign in the Macau Open (not a Super Series event) on Tuesday.
The Hong Kong Open runner-up will get a chance to lead a strong Indian contingent into an event that has been a prime favourite of P V Sindhu; she has won the title thrice in the past, and will be itching to take home a fourth trophy from the island that houses one of the world’s most famous casinos.
Sindhu has shown pleasing consistency in the course of the last fortnight, thus providing a firm riposte to those who have stressed about its lack as being the most glaring weakness in her game. She put together a winning streak of nine matches before having it broken in the Hong Kong Open final by Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying.
At the China Open earlier, she tamed the Chinese dragon in its own den, scoring command victories over their youth brigade of He Bingjiao (at 22-20, 21-10) in the quarter-final and Sun Yu, ranked one spot above her (21-11, 17-21, 21-11) in the final.
With Wang Yihan, Wang Shixian and the badly injured Li Xuerui fading from the scene, the Chinese have placed their faith in the left-handed He Bingjiao and the strongly built Sun Yu, to be the future guardians of their badminton legacy. It was extremely creditable for Sindhu that she could lower the colours of these two players in front of their heavily partisan home crowd.
In between the two new pillars of Chinese badminton, Sindhu accounted for the dangerous South Korean Sung Ji Hyun, daughter of former international Sung Han Kook and Kim Yun Ja, and currently ranked No 6 in the world. The battling 11-21, 23-21, 21-19 victory, after saving a clutch of match-points against her, was a very significant step in the Indian’s progress towards the upper echelons of the BWF ladder.
With her China Open performance having secured for the Indian the last berth in the year-ending Destination Dubai grand finals in mid-December — where the world’s top eight singles players and doubles pairs will vie for the top prize — her admirers will be keen to see whether her exploits of the past fortnight have indeed been the indicator of a strong, new, consistent world-beating Sindhu.