Smooth as silk in his court movements, and with a single-minded focus on the outcome. Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth’s majestic march in the 2017 Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold badminton championships proved unstoppable for his semi-final opponent, Pannawit Thongnuam of the host nation, as the third seeded Indian powered to a facile 21-11, 21-15 victory at the Nimibutr Stadium on Saturday.
However, the joy of Indian fans at having Praneeth on the doorstep of his first Grand Prix Gold title was tempered to a large extent by the loss that the queen of Indian badminton for the past decade, Saina Nehwal, suffered at the hands of another Thai, Busanan Ongbamrungphan in the last semi-final of the day. The fourth ranked Busanan eclipsed the second-seeded Saina by a 21-19, 21-18 scoreline, earning the right to meet her fellow-countrywoman, Ratchanok Intanon, in Sunday’s final.
There could be no two opinions that the 24-year-old Praneeth’s badminton skills were far superior to those of Pannawit, three years his junior, and acknowledged as one of the fittest badminton players in Thailand, not least because he often plays in all three events open to him – singles, doubles and mixed.
It had been superior lasting power that had enabled Pannawit to eliminate his top-seeded compatriot and defending champion, Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk, in the quarter-finals the previous day. But the third-seeded Praneeth gave the 21-year-old giant-killer no chance of dragging the match over the full distance. He simply outpaced and out-stroked the young upstart, being in full control of the lion’s share of the rallies.
On this performance, as also his showing in his three earlier rounds, in which he has not dropped a single game, the Indian will be the marginal favourite to take the title in this $120,000 tournament, at the expense of fourth-seeded Indonesian teenager, Jonatan Christie, who claimed his own berth in the final by handing out a 21-9, 21-18 hiding to the competition’s other giant-killer, Malaysia’s Joo Ven Soong.
This first meeting between Praneeth and Christie promises to be a humdinger, for the 19-year-old Christie has played equally compelling badminton in this competition, and has also not dropped a game in four outings, in which an impressive 21-15, 21-19 quarter-final triumph over fifth-seeded Frenchman Brice Leverdez is included.
There is also little that one can deduce from their current rankings on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder – Praneeth is ranked 24th against Christie’s 27th spot, though it must be underscored that the Indian has never cracked the top 20, whereas the Indonesian had secured the 19th ranking at exactly this time, last year.
Among the worthy opponents that Christie has encountered in the past, he leads Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus 2-1 in career meetings, and owns a 2-2 head-to-head record against China’s 2017 All-England runner-up Shi Yuqi. However, the recent Singapore Open Super Series winner, Praneeth, has an equally impressive record against worthies like Kidambi Srikanth (2-0) and Japan’s Kento Momota (2-0), who is about to re-surface on the circuit after serving out a temporary doping ban.
While Sai Praneeth’s career graph has shown a steady upward trend over the past few months, Saina Nehwal has yet to re-discover the combination of speed, stamina and steely temperament that had propelled her to the world No 1 spot for several weeks between April and October 2015. Currently ranked outside the top ten, the Indian ace continues to struggle with her rehabilitation in the wake of a career-threatening right knee injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
There were a couple of worrying trends noticed in Saina’s performances in this tournament, particularly in the course of her semi-final defeat at the hands of the 13th ranked Busanan. One was her slower movement on the court, compared to the days before she incurred the knee injury. She appears to be facing some difficulty, both while putting her full weight at the baseline on the surgically repaired right knee, and pushing back with the right leg after flexing the knee fully while stretching for a shot.
Saina’s problem in this sphere was amply evident when Busanan repeatedly pushed her to the deep forehand corner, and attacked the defensive drop shot that the Indian was invariably forced to play. It either resulted in an outright point or gave the Thai the upper hand in the rally that ensued.
Busanan also cleverly employed the dribble to Saina’s forehand net area, and gained control of the rally when the Indian was slow to reach the shuttle, and forced to retrieve it nearer the floor than the tape. But it must also be conceded that Busanan, whose game has otherwise been seen to be relatively straightforward, has developed a couple of deceptive shots, including a cross-court flick at the net, no doubt from watching her illustrious compatriot, Ratchanok Intanon.
The other problem that Saina faced was in closing out games – a shortcoming she has rarely displayed through her decade-long international career. Giving in to a bout of nerves with the finish line in sight has been a malady that has plagued her Uber Cup team-mate and former sparring partner, PV Sindhu; but this has never been an issue with Saina.
The 27-year-old Hyderabadi’s fighting qualities have never been in question; and she has been known to come from behind to get her nose ahead at the finishing line. In Bangkok, though, she repeatedly faltered when she had a decent lead, and found it tough to pull out the game-winning point.
It happened in the second game of the quarter-final against Japan’s Haruko Suzuki, when she overturned a two-point deficit at 15-17, to move to match-point 20-19. But she could not wrest that all-important 21st point, and had the mortification of seeing Suzuki bag the game with a three-point burst. It is another story that her rich experience helped her to a runaway triumph in the deciding game.
There was a repeat performance in both the games against Busanan, whom Saina had beaten thrice earlier in her career, without reply from the Thai. The Indian had a potentially winning 17-13 lead in the opening game, but could only watch in dismay as her opponent turned the tables with a five-point reel to go up 18-17, and maintained that small advantage to pocket the opener at 21-19. Most of the points that Saina conceded were through unforced errors, and not as a result of her rival’s positive play.
Yet again, in the second stanza, the Indian went into lemon-time with an 11-8 lead, which she maintained until 13-10. Then, in a trice, Busanan had neutralised the advantage to 13-all, thanks to a trio of nervous errors from Saina. Now brimming with confidence, and with the bit firmly between her teeth, the 21-year-old Nonthaburi-born Thai girl breasted the tape in style, for her first victory over Saina in four meetings.
In Sunday’s final, Busanan will take on her Uber Cup team-mate, Ratchanok Intanon, to whom she had narrowly lost in the final of the 2013 Thailand Open, in a year when the latter was at the very peak of her powers. Ratchanok was not unduly extended when handing the China-born American, Zhang Beiwen a 21-18, 21-15 beating.
Sunday will witness Busanan contesting the Thailand open final for the third time. In addition to the 2013 summit clash, she also won a place in last year’s title round, but ended up second-best to Japan’s Aya Ohori at 23-25, 8-21. With Ratchanok not being in the sublime form she was when she won the world crown four years ago, this could well be Busanan’s chance to hit the big league and power into the world’s top ten.
Published Date: Jun 04, 2017 15:47 PM | Updated Date: Jun 04, 2017 15:47 PM