All England Championships: Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu exit in contrasting style to put paid to Indian hopes
While Saina staged a gallant fight all the way to the finishing line, Sindhu was given a humbling lesson by the top seed Tai Tzu Ying.
India’s high-flying flag-bearers at the 2017 All England Super Series Premier Badminton Championships were brought rudely down to earth on Friday, albeit in contrasting fashion; and, with the defeats of Saina Nehwal and Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, the Indian challenge in Birmingham stuttered to an end.
While eighth-seeded Saina staged a gallant fight all the way to the finishing line, going down to South Korea’s No 3 seed, Sung Ji Hyun, by 20-22, 20-22 in a ding-dong quarter-final battle lasting 54 minutes, her sixth-seeded compatriot Sindhu was given a humbling 35-minute badminton lesson by the world’s No 1 player and top seed, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, with a one-sided 21-14, 21-10 verdict.
The somewhat earthy Hindi saying “nazakat se hajamat” (being given a haircut with neatness, politeness and elegance) could ideally have been applied to the eagerly-awaited Tai-Sindhu encounter, in which the Taiwanese star used artistry and deception to pummel Sindhu into submission, and extend her head-to-head record over the Indian to a healthy 6-3.
So complete was Tai’s dominance that Sindhu was in the match only for the first half of the opening game, when she went into the lemon break with a small 11-9 advantage. The Taiwanese player literally executed balletic dance moves on the court as she repeatedly reached the shuttle early and used her trademark disguised drop shots liberally, to have her rangy rival abjectly guessing her next move.
It was also a joy for the connoisseur of the game to witness the manner in which Tai worked out the way of adjusting to the diabolical drift in the stadium. While playing with the breeze in the first game, she invariably held back her tosses a bit, striking them with controlled power, and being willing to trust her defence if they travelled only up to mid-court and gave her rival the chance of using the smash.
In top-level badminton, control over the net is a pre-requisite, for it is from the net that a player gains ascendancy in a rally. Tight dribble, wristy crosscourt drop, late flick clear – any of these strokes can be employed when the player reaches the net early, but paradoxically, executes the stroke late. Tai controlled the net throughout the match, and the split-second delay with which she executed her shots had the Indian lunging late or stumbling in an ungainly manner.
One wonders at the reason for the heavy strapping on Sindhu’s right knee, but it certainly did not appear to hamper her court movements in the initial reaches of the match as she traded long rallies with Tai without showing signs of discomfort. Yet, she also appeared far more subdued than her normal fiery self, and the shrieks of self-encouragement that normally accompany her rally-winning shots were conspicuous by their absence.
The No 6 seed ended up mostly rooted to the centre of the court as she found it hard to work out whether her antagonist was going to employ the smash or the drop; and, if the drop, to which net corner. In addition, because she kept reaching the shuttle late, she was always chasing the bird, and was never in a position to execute her deadly overhead smashes.
The real problems for the Indian cropped up after the mid-game interval in the opening stanza, when the top seed slipped into rhythm and unfurled all her exquisite strokes from the backcourt, particularly the deft drops that died in the corners on Sindhu’s side of the court.
In a trice, Tai captured eight of the next nine points, zooming from 9-11 to 17-12, and then 18-13, before wrapping up the 17-minute first game at 21-14 with a successful challenge for a stroke that landed on Sindhu’s baseline, but had been called out by the linesperson.
The 22-year-old Taipei girl’s overwhelming dominance of the rallies continued into the second game when she played against the drift, and could now give full rein to her arsenal of wristy strokes. In deference to coach Pullela Gopichand’s suggestion, Sindhu tried going on an all-out offensive, but buried several hurriedly executed smashes into the net.
A 5-2 advantage for Tai swiftly became 8-3, and the Taiwanese girl went into the interval with a 11-5 lead. Sindhu tried switching to Plan B – prolonging the rallies in an effort to induce a false stroke from her opponent, but she lacked Tai’s shuttle control with the drift, and several of her tosses sailed long.
There was an all-too-brief rally from Sindhu as she slashed a 6-14 deficit to 9-14, but Tai recovered swiftly, and stretched the lead over her downcast rival to 16-9. The Taiwanese star was now coasting majestically towards the finishing line, and wrapped up the 18-minute game for the loss of a solitary further point.
There were hopes that Saina, if not Sindhu, would come through the quarter-final challenge, and at least emulate her feat of being runner-up at the 2015 edition of this prestigious tournament. Saina had shown in her earlier two matches that she was playing at close to her best, particularly in the manner in which she had downed defending champion, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan, in her opening encounter.
On the day, there was really nothing between Saina and Sung. Both players found it easy to counter the wiles of the other. Both probed the baseline corners with excellent length and accuracy, and were alert to retrieve the drops that punctuated the lengthy, exhausting rallies. Both defended well against the opponent’s smashes, particularly Sung, who had no terrors for Saina’s patented body smash.
After trailing initially, the 27-year-old Saina hit a purple patch with some sound and error-free play, to go into the breather with a handy 11-7 lead. Within minutes, the lead was neutralised by the 25-year-old Korean. The Indian once again moved ahead to 16-12, but Sung – as she did, time and time again during the course of the match – staged a comeback, and tied the scores at 17-all.
The Korean held two game points at 20-18, but the Indian would not be denied, and revealed her famous fighting qualities to draw level. But two errors in the extra-points duel proved extremely costly, and Sung pocketed the opener at 22-20, to put one foot in the semi-final.
The second game was almost a mirror-image of the first; and after both players refused to allow the other to take a runaway lead, Sung was the first to break away to match point at 20-17. Yet again, Saina fought tooth and nail to restore parity with a couple of well-directed smashes, but could not take the match to a decider as the Korean bagged the two all-important points, to close out the keenly fought encounter.
With Tai being in such regal form, and the world and Olympic champion Carolina Marin having been aced by the 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand, in an absolute humdinger of a quarter-final, the stage is set for the world’s two most talented stroke-makers to aim for a summit clash at the expense of China’s Sun Yu and Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi; and provide badminton lovers across the world with a truly epic All England final on Sunday.
Japan fought all the way, missing some key players, but China were superior across the four contested matches on Saturday.
A struggling Kidambi Srikanth was outplayed by his world number 2 opponent and Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Viktor Axelsen, who won the first match 21-12, 21-13 in 38 minutes.
It was a second straight 5-0 win for India, with the team having beaten the Netherlands by an identical margin on Sunday.