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Asia Badminton Championships: India's Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Sameer Verma stride confidently into quarter-finals

There was never any doubt about the overwhelming superiority of India’s shuttling triumvirate at the Badminton Asia Championships in Wuhan on Thursday.

The three S’s of Indian badminton – Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Sameer Verma – refused to allow Wednesday’s first-round loss of the fourth ‘S’, Kidambi Srikanth, to disturb their playing rhythm, as they picked off their respective opponents in straight games, to seal their quarter-final berths in the $400,000 prize money competition.

 Asia Badminton Championships: Indias Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Sameer Verma stride confidently into quarter-finals

India's Saina Nehwal in action at the Badminton Asia Championships in Wuhan. AFP

Seventh-seeded Nehwal scored the easiest of the three triumphs, at 21-13, 21-13, over South Korea’s Kim Ga Eun, remaining on court for 38 minutes while scoring her second career win in as many meetings with the 21-year-old Korean. The 2015 World Championships silver medallist will next face third-seeded Akane Yamaguchi, who has always proved a huge stumbling-block for the 29-year-old Haryanvi.

Sindhu, the No 4 seed, suffered her by-now-familiar attack of nerves in the closing reaches of her second-round clash against Indonesia’s Choirunnisa Choirunnisa, but still managed to take five minutes less than her senior compatriot while disposing of the 19-year-old Indonesian by a 21-15, 21-19 scoreline.

The 2016 Olympic silver medallist and two-time (2017, 2018) World Championships runner-up will cross swords with another talented teen, China’s Cai Yanyan, who had no trouble disposing of Hong Kong’s Yip Pui Yin at 21-9, 21-15. Sindhu had beaten the 19-year-old Chinese in three close games at the recent Singapore Open, the only occasion that the two have met on the international circuit.

Well as Saina and Sindhu played, the most impressive victory from among the Indian trio came from Verma, who scored his third triumph in five meetings with Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus, who sits on the 16th spot in the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) rankings, just one place behind Sameer.

The two adversaries battled for 43 minutes before the Indian could close out a 21-12, 21-19 win, which was all the more noteworthy since Sameer had lost to Angus on the last occasion that the two had bumped into each other – at the Hong Kong Open in November 2016. Of course, the Indian is a vastly improved player from what he was when he lost on the Hong Kong man’s home turf, two-and-a-half years ago.

Both Sameer and Angus, who had struggled through long-drawn encounters on the previous day against Japan’s Kazumasa Sakai and Indonesian sixth seed, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, could have been expected to feel the rigours of those battles in their bones on Thursday.

In the event, the 24-year-old Indian was by far the lesser affected player, and moved with alacrity on the court, showing minimal discomfort while stretching and lunging to produce fine blocked returns of smashes and net-hugging dribbles. Sameer was especially at the top of his game in the opening stanza, taking vast leads of 14-6 and 16-10, and giving the Hong Kong player little respite in the rallies by producing clears and drives of immaculate length along the flanks.

The Indian looked to be on the high road to victory when he grabbed a potentially match-winning 16-11 advantage in the second game. But the never-say-die scrapper that Angus is, he not only erased the deficit, but also took a slim 18-17 lead. Sameer, whose cool temperament has always been a major asset, did not panic, and managed to hold out for an outstanding win.

On Friday, Sameer will run into China’s 2018 All England champion and No 2 seed, Shi Yuqi, who leads the Indian 4-1 in career meetings. Of these encounters, three have taken place within the last six months, with Sameer first winning in straight games at the Denmark Open in October 2018, but losing in three games at the year-ending BWF World Tour grand finals in Guangzhou, after holding match-point.

Shi also won their clash at the 2019 Malaysia Open, earlier this month, by a 22-20, 21-23, 21-12 scoreline. What this indicates is that there is virtually nothing between the two antagonists, and that the 15th ranked Sameer matches his World No 2 ranked rival stroke for stroke. Certainly, the Indian stands a 50-50 chance of making the semi-finals from the bottom half of the Badminton Asia men’s singles event.

Thursday’s action at the Wuhan Sports Centre was noteworthy for the fact that the top three seeds in the women’s singles had their hands full while disposing of opponents ranked much lower in the pecking order. In the wake of the last-minute withdrawal of Taiwanese World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying, the pride of place in the seedings has gone to local girl, Chen Yufei, who recently leap-frogged Japan’s 2017 world champion, Nozomi Okuhara, for the World No 2 position.

Playing in front of her home crowds at the Wuhan Sports Centre, the 21-year-old Chen was a bundle of energy against former world junior champion, Gregoria Mariska Tunjung, but managed to produce her third victory in four meetings over the 19-year-old Indonesian, by a 15-21, 21-14, 21-15 margin. There was not the faintest doubt that the Chinese girl was far the better player, but jangling nerves made it tough for her to translate that superiority into points.

Okuhara, seeded No 2, revels in playing long matches while administering her own version of slow Chinese torture to her opponents. She conceded the first game to Malaysia’s Soniia Cheah, but then wore down her rival to register a 17-21, 21-12, 21-15 victory, and a berth in the quarter-finals against left-handed He Bingjiao. The Chinese fifth seed took exactly half an hour to put a smooth end to the challenge of Vietnam’s Nguyen Thuy Linh at 21-16, 21-13.

Like Okuhara, her compatriot, Akane Yamaguchi, was raked over the coals by Singapore’s relatively unknown Yeo Jia Min, who made the Japanese third seed look little better than an amateur in the second game which the unseeded player won at 21-8.

A major upset loomed on the cards as the Singaporean pulled back from a 14-18 deficit in the decider to come within a point of restoring parity. However, the poker-faced Yamaguchi kept her cool in the home straight to run out a 21-18, 8-21, 21-17 winner; and seal her quarter-final spot against Saina, whom she leads by an imposing 7-2 margin in career head-to-head meetings.

Interestingly, the two ran into each other four times in the course of the 2018 season alone, and the stocky Japanese powerhouse ended the victor thrice, including their last encounter at the Hong Kong Open last November. But Nehwal would remember the tightness of the 21-19 score in the decider of that encounter, and assure herself that she still has it in her to upset the Japanese player’s applecart.

The Indian badminton fan would be keen to see if any one of these three fine shuttlers can go the extra mile in Wuhan, and bag the continent’s singles title which has been won by an Indian just once in the competition’s 54-year history – in the inaugural edition in 1965, by the famous returning machine, Dinesh Khanna.

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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 16:11:05 IST