There was a procession of Indian shuttling talent at the Badminton Asia Championships on Friday, but not headed in the direction that the sport's supporters in this country would have liked.
India's three flag-bearers in the singles quarter-finals of the prestigious $400,000 prize money competition at Wuhan were all swept off their feet by younger Chinese and Japanese opposition, leaving the country continuing a 53-year long wait for an Asian champion and emulate the 1965 feat of returning machine Dinesh Khanna.
While fourth-seeded PV Sindhu and Sameer Verma spent minimal time on court while bowing to Chinese stars Cai Yanyan (21-19, 21-9 in 31 minutes) and 2018 All England champion, Shi Yuqi (21-10, 21-12 in 36 minutes) respectively, the durable veteran, Saina Nehwal, ran herself almost to a virtual standstill while battling the indefatigable third seed Akane Yamaguchi of Japan.
Although Nehwal ended up on the wrong side of a 21-13, 21-23, 21-16 verdict, she willingly underwent the slow Chinese torture by one of the two Japanese queens of attrition (the other being second-seeded Nozomi Okuhara) for an hour and nine minutes, i.e. two minutes longer than the combined on-court efforts of her totally outclassed compatriots, Sindhu and Verma.
In a way, it was just as well that Indian badminton-lovers back home were deprived of the opportunity of seeing televised coverage of their representatives getting cut down to size, since none of the three matches featuring their country's players were held on the solitary TV court.
Much had been expected of the unseeded 24-year-old Verma in light of his fighting performances in four out of five previous encounters against Shi, one year his junior. But the Dhar native was totally flat on Friday and had nothing to offer by way of cheering material to the handful of Indian supporters that would have thronged the Wuhan Sports Centre.
Shi made the head-to-head count 5-1 in his favour as he comprehensively dominated the match with his dazzling footspeed and aggressive strokeplay. The Chinese star, who is being touted as the natural successor to the fading former multiple world champions Chen Long and Lin Dan, led from start to finish in both games, barring an all-too-brief 1-0 lead to the Indian at the start of the second game.
When Shi consolidated his 11-5 lead in the opening game to 16-5, it only remained to be seen to what extent the Indian could reduce the margin of victory. A storming leap to 10-1 in the second stanza virtually sealed the encounter in the Chinese player's favour and though Verma produced a late four-point burst to close in from 8-17 to 12-17, that remained the full extent of his resistance.
Sindhu appeared just as flat as her compatriot had before her and did not look capable of repeating her recent Singapore Open triumph over Cai. Sindhu trailed 7-13 in the lung-opener before she played her best badminton of the match to put together a seven-point burst and re-take the lead at 14-13. But she slipped again to 15-19 and though she put everything she had into trying to win the game, she was pipped at the tape by her 19-year-old antagonist.
The 23-year-old Olympic silver medallist stayed with her rival until 6-7 in the second game, but then seemed to lose heart completely. A series of beautifully constructed points from Cai seemed to take the wind out of Sindhu's sails and she had very little to contribute during the rest of the duel. The second-game rout enabled the Chinese teenager to draw level with Sindhu at 1-1 in the career head-to-head stakes.
It was the 29-year-old Nehwal, one of the oldest female players on the circuit, who salvaged some prestige for Indian badminton by giving Yamaguchi a trying time before running out of gas in the closing reaches of the decider. The eight-year age difference between Nehwal and her younger Japanese opponent proved to be the major difference when it all boiled down to who could last the distance.
In what was a battle between two former World No 1s, the pocket-sized Japanese was able to notch up her eighth win over Nehwal in ten career meetings.
Yamaguchi's dominance over Nehwal was not apparent until the match had run through for almost an hour, during which time there was little to separate the two. The Indian eschewed her usual starting trouble, to match her opponent point for point and be actually ahead 11-10 at lemon-time in the first game. Nehwal, however, wilted after the breather and conceded eight straight points to effectively lose her chance of taking a one-game lead.
The second game saw a see-saw battle all the way, until the Indian nosed ahead to 18-14, but could not prevent the Japanese from neutralising the lead at 19-all and forcing match-point at 21-20. This was the point at which Nehwal summoned strength from some hidden reserve and grabbed the second game with a three-point burst.
Despite having to play long, exhausting rallies, Nehwal remained on the ascendant in the decider and took what seemed to be a decisive 11-6 lead at the change of ends. But that is when Yamaguchi moved up a gear in pace and aggression. One interminable rally at 11-14 helped Yamaguchi knock the breath out of Nehwal's lungs and catch up with her antagonist at 14-all, never to look back.
In the semi-finals on the morrow, Yamaguchi will take on top-seeded Chinese, Chen Yufei, who played within herself to put an end to the hopes of another Japanese, Aya Ohori, by a 21-17, 21-19 margin.
The other penultimate-round encounter will feature the unseeded Cai Yanyan, against her fifth-seeded compatriot, He Bingjiao. The 21-year-old Chinese southpaw was full value for her 21-16, 23-21 success over the 2017 world champion and No 2 seed, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan.
There were few surprises among the men, barring the withdrawal of two-time former world champion and No 4 seed, Chen Long, as a result of an injury he picked up during his comfortable 21-16, 21-7 second-round triumph on Thursday over Malaysia's Chong Wei Feng.
Chen's prospective quarter-final opponent, Nguyen Tien Minh, went through to a semi-final meeting with the reigning world champion, Kento Momota. The top-ranked Japanese left-hander was dragged over the full distance by China's Lu Guangzu before he could seal a 16-21, 21-11, 21-14 victory in 69 minutes.
The other semi-final will feature Shi Yuqi against third-seeded Chou Tien Chen who won a tight and highly entertaining clash against Japan's mercurial Kenta Nishimoto 22-20, 24-26, 21-15.
There was a pall of gloom amongst the packed audience when the news filtered through that living legend Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia was unlikely to return to competitive badminton in the immediate future, much less vie for a berth in his country's team at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The 36-year-old had already announced his withdrawal from the forthcoming Sudirman Cup team event but it was ascertained on Friday that there had been further bad news on the state of his nose cancer problem. The Malaysian's doctors have strongly advised him to refrain from getting back to the courts in the foreseeable future. Since his primary raison-d'être in returning to the courts was to play in next year's Olympics, there is now intense speculation about his future in the sport.
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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2019 19:52:55 IST