Champion one year; first-round casualty the next. That was the fate of Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, whose 2016 All England women’s singles triumph seemed a distant memory as she was ruthlessly cut down to size by a margin of 21-15, 21-14, by the resurgent Saina Nehwal, in the opening round of the 2017 All England Super Series Badminton Championships in Birmingham on Wednesday.
Being the defending champion carries its own set of pressures; and the bubbly Japanese, who will turn 22 years of age on 13 March, seemed painfully aware that she was coming unseeded into this year’s championship after dropping out of the world’s top ten, thanks to an injury layoff. Indeed, the All England was her maiden international foray this year, and the rust in her game was obvious.
Although bolstered to some extent by the knowledge that the eighth seeded Indian was also easing back gradually into top-flight international competition after a serious knee injury suffered at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Okuhara would have been aware that her head-to-head record against Saina was nothing to write home about – a solitary victory in six meetings since the two first bumped into each other in January 2013.
Indeed, on the last occasion the two had clashed, in the 2016 Uber Cup final, Saina had recorded a thumping 21-18, 21-6 victory, to comprehensively reverse the 14-21, 6-21 result of their previous meeting in the 2015 Dubai Super Series Finals, a tournament that Okuhara had gone on to win at the expense of the redoubtable 2011 world champion, Wang Yihan of China.
Basically, the 5’1” tall Nagano native is not an accomplished strokemaker like Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying or Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon. Her biggest plus points are her swiftness of foot, tremendous physical fitness and nagging accuracy. If the second of these attributes is adversely affected as a result of having to come back from injury, her foot speed and accuracy of stroke-making are immediately compromised.
Saina, who had played in the Hong Kong Open and Macau Open in the closing stages of 2016, and then in the Malaysia Masters in the opening weeks of the current year before taking five weeks off to prepare for the prestigious All-England Championships, appeared better prepared than her young Japanese rival, and kept her nose ahead throughout the 38-minute contest.
The Indian ace’s facile victory over the Rio Olympics bronze medallist has earned her a pre-quarter-final meeting with Germany’s Fabienne Deprez, who knocked out Frenchwoman Delphine Lansac in a tough first round encounter by a margin of 19-21, 21-15, 21-18. On current form, Saina is an odds-on favourite to sideline the 65th ranked native of Lyon, and progress to the quarter-finals, where the No 3 seed from South Korea, Sung Ji Hyun, would most likely be awaiting her.
Apart from Saina’s encouraging performance, the opening day of the 2017 All England produced a string of disappointments for Indian competitors. PV Sindhu and HS Prannoy in the women's and men’s singles respectively were the only other Indian victors, as Kidambi Srikanth, Ajay Jayaram and three Indian doubles combinations were eliminated in their opening outings.
No 6 seed Sindhu sailed through untroubled against Denmark’s Mette Poulsen by a margin of 21-10, 21-11, in a minute shy of the half-hour mark, thus easily reversing the result of their only other previous encounter that had taken place at the World Junior Championships in April 2010. The Rio Olympics silver medallist is a totally different player from the stringy, lanky 15-year-old who had lost to Poulsen in a tough three-game battle, seven years ago; and stayed firmly on course for a second round meeting with Indonesia’s Dinar Dyah Ayustine.
While the 23-year-old Indonesian is unlikely to trouble the in-form Sindhu in what will be their first-ever meeting on Thursday, the Hyderabad lass is expected to tread a tougher path than compatriot Saina in a tournament in which she has never progressed beyond the second round.
Sindhu has to find a way to get past top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying at the last-eight stage before she can think of a possible semi-final clash with Saina, who had ended runner-up to world champion Carolina Marin of Spain in the 2015 edition of the All England. Sadly, only one Indian can make the women’s singles final this time as both have been lumped together in the top half of the draw.
Prannoy, whose never-say-die spirit had netted him seven victories without a defeat in the Premier Badminton League (PBL) in January this year, flirted with disaster as he trailed by a match point in the second game of his opening round match against another 24-year-old, China’s Qiao Bin. But after teetering on the edge of the precipice, the 21st ranked Prannoy mounted a stirring fightback to down the 24th ranked Chinese player 17-21, 22-20, 21-19 in an absorbing battle lasting an hour and 22 minutes.
The result of what proved to be the longest singles match of the opening day earned Prannoy a pre-quarter-final meeting on Thursday with China’s Tian Houwei, who managed to pip Indonesia’s top hope, Tommy Sugiarto, by a 21-19, 21-18 scoreline. The Indian, who had shown sparking form during the PBL, but failed in his bid for a maiden national title last month, would fancy his chances against Houwei, whom he has not encountered earlier in official international competition, but whose no-frills, no-deception style would suit him well.
Prannoy’s Homeric triumph over Qiao Bin, however, failed to inspire Srikanth, whose profligate ways in the opening game against Zhao Junpeng, prevented him from notching a straight-games triumph over the 21-year-old Chinese player, ranked 53rd by the Badminton World Federation (BWF). Srikanth tried to keep the rallies short, as is his wont, but faded away in the deciding game, to lose 19-21, 21-19, 12-21 to a player ranked 24 rungs below him in the BWF ladder.
Yet another Chinese player, the 27th ranked Huang Yuxiang, was to account for Jayaram, ranked eight places above him, at No 19. The 29-year-old Jayaram proved competitive in the opening stanza, but then ran out of steam, to capitulate 19-21, 13-21, and leave Prannoy the sole Indian male player in the second round of this year’s All England.
Despite considerable improvement over the past year when they have been training under the watchful eyes of Indonesian coach Tan Kim Her, the top Indian men’s doubles pairing of Manu Attri and Sumeet B Reddy were edged out 21-19, 10-21, 21-18 by Peter Briggs and Tom Wolfenden of the host nation, in a 47-minute thriller.
While the Indian mixed doubles combination of Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy lost a 49-minute encounter to Koreans Yoo Yeon Seong and Kim Ha Na by a 19-21, 20-22 scoreline, the women’s doubles duo of Poorvisha S Ram and Meghana Jakkampudy went down to the Chinese Taipei combination of Hsu Ya Ching and Wu Ti Jung 19-21, 12-21. With their exit, the Indian doubles challenge at this year’s All England came to an end.
Updated Date: Mar 09, 2017 15:36 PM