The end result was not at all unexpected, but the comprehensive 3-0 demolition of India by top seeds and defending champions China provided a somewhat lop-sided picture of the manner in which Friday’s quarter-final of the Sudirman Cup mixed team badminton championships panned out, on Australia’s Gold Coast.
The luck of the draw left India’s best two matches — the women’s singles and doubles — listed fourth and fifth in order of play. By the time PV Sindhu could start thinking of warming up for her clash against the left-handed He Bingjiao, and the combine of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy could mentally psyche themselves up for their projected fifth and final match of the tie, China had wrapped up the proceedings by winning the first three matches with a degree of comfort.
There was never any doubt about the all-round strength of the Chinese side, which was really spoilt for choice in the matter of whom to field against the Indians. The Chinese think-tank decided to rest the world’s top mixed doubles player, Zheng Siwei, and fielded the No 2 ranked combination of Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong.
They also took the option of nominating He Bingjiao in place of the higher-ranked Sun Yu, but they allowed the two-time reigning world and Olympic champion Chen Long to take on Kidambi Srikanth, possibly remembering the manner in which the Indian had lowered the colours of five-time former world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist Lin Dan in the 2013 China Open final, in front of the latter’s home crowd.
The manner in which the recently formed mixed doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Ashwini Ponnappa started against Kai and Yaqiong, it appeared as if the Indians were bent on extending their giant-killing run that had witnessed the exit of former champions Indonesia at their hands, by a 1-4 scoreline, at the group stage.
The hard-hitting 16-year-old Satwiksairaj was totally pumped up, and unleashed a barrage of power-packed smashes that the Chinese pair found difficult to handle. And even when they did manage to get the shuttle back, the returns were relatively weak, allowing the 27-year-old Ashwini to intercept and cut short the rally. The opening game was in the Indians’ satchel at 21-16, in a matter of 22 minutes.
That one game happened to be the full extent of the Indian team’s success in the entire tie. There were no other pickings for them. Kai and Yaqiong have not reached their exalted status in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings for nothing. Gradually, they managed to flatten out the rallies, alternatively flicking their returns high and deep to force the Indians to hit ineffectually from the baseline, and neutralising Ashwini’s attempts to intercept the returns.
There was a brief flicker from the Indians towards the end of the match as they strove desperately to stave off the inevitable. But they could not halt the inexorable march of Kai and Yaqiong towards a 16-21, 21-13, 21-16 victory, in a match that lasted three minutes beyond the hour mark.
The next encounter saw Srikanth making a game effort to disrupt the smooth, accurate play of the current world and Olympic champion with some hustle and bustle, specifically with overhead smashes down Chen Long’s forehand sideline. But the superbly fit, lanky Chinese ace had far too much control to be in any serious trouble at any stage of the 48-minute match, and won handily at 21-16, 21-17.
India chose to ignore the claims of their top pair, Manu Attri and B Sumeet Reddy, and instead asked Satwiksairaj to play his second match of the tie in the company of Chirag Shetty against the highly accomplished Fu Haifeng and Zhang Nan. It turned into a highly traumatic experience, as the Chinese duo steamrolled the Indians at 21-9, 21-11 in a minute under the half-hour mark.
Not unexpectedly, the wily old-timer Haifeng was the standout player in the tie, and often made the Indians look amateurish with his deceptive placements from the back and his uncanny net-rushing interceptions. The match would have impressed upon the Indian team bosses the inadvisability of asking a 16-year-old to turn out in two matches against the strongest all-round team in the world.
Although India were beaten at the last-eight stage of the competition, they can take heart from the fact that they have revealed the nucleus of an all-round team that could be a real threat to the powerhouses of the sport in a couple of years’ time. The marked improvement in their doubles performances, in particular, should stand them in good stead in the years to come.
China, of course, marched serenely forward, for a semi-final meeting with Japan, who settled the pretensions of Malaysia by a 3-1 scoreline in the other quarter-final in the top half of the draw. The other semi-final, in the bottom half of the draw, will be contested between Korea and Thailand, who beat higher ranked opponents in Chinese Taipei (seeded No 4) and Denmark (ranked No 2), respectively.
Malaysia’s only win came from the racket of Lee Chong Wei, who is currently the world’s second-ranked player behind Korea’s Son Wan Ho, but who has spent a total of 221 weeks between 2010 and 2017, ranked at the very top of the heap. Chong Wei won the men’s singles tie against Kenta Nishimoto without breaking a sweat.
However, his compatriots failed to emulate his sterling example, with the women, especially, proving far too weak for the powerful Japanese. Malaysia’s toughest loss was in the men’s doubles, with their combination of V Shem Goh and Tan Wee Kiong being outwitted by Keigo Sonoda and Takeshi Kamura at 21-17, 16-21, 21-11.
It was shocking to see the second-seeded Danes being shown the exit door by Thailand, who showed exceptional skill in the paired events to pip the European champions by a 3-2 scoreline. Despite runaway victories by World No 3, Viktor Axelsen, and the men’s doubles combination of Mads Pieler Kolding and Mads Conrad-Petersen, the Thais took the remaining three matches, to register the biggest surprise of this year’s Sudirman Cup.
Denmark were joined at Brisbane airport for the flight home by the fourth-seeded Chinese Taipei squad, who were unable to re-create the magic of their 3-2 group stage win against the sixth-seeded Koreans, and were shocked by a 3-1 scoreline in Thursday’s other quarter-final.
After Korea’s men’s doubles duo of Choi Solgyu and Seung Jae Seo had the measure of the Taiwanese twosome of Lee Jhe-huei and Lee Yang for a 21-16, 14-21, 21-17 verdict, the two top-ranked singles players in the world, ranged in opposite camps, won their matches, but not without considerable difficulty.
Tai Tzu-ying, who took over the No 1 position from Carolina Marin in the closing weeks of 2016, and has held on to it with authority ever since, held on grimly in the second game against Sung Ji Hyun, to beat the Korean 21-14, 26-24, for Taiwan’s only point of the tie.
Then Son Wan Ho, who was installed atop the men’s singles rankings for the first time earlier this week, celebrated his elevation to the No 1 spot by edging Chou Tien Chen at 13-21, 21-18, 23-21, and taking Korea to a 2-1 tie lead. That left the women’s doubles combination of Lee So Hee and Chang Ye Na the task of completing the formalities by eclipsing Hsu Ya Ching and Wu Ti Jung at 21-13, 21-18.
If the student of the game can be so bold as to look a day ahead, he would predict a China versus Korea final. The Koreans have far too much firepower to be held back by Thailand, but the Japanese could well run the Chinese close. Saturday evening’s semi-final will find China relying on their men, and Japan on their women, to pull them through this fascinating penultimate round encounter.
Published Date: May 27, 2017 16:05 PM | Updated Date: May 27, 2017 16:05 PM