For Indian badminton lovers, the very mention of the Australian Open World Tour badminton championships brings back nostalgic memories of the most successful year that the country’s premier player, Kidambi Srikanth, had in 2017. Srikanth won the Indonesian, Australian, Denmark, and French Open titles, and joined Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, and Chen Long in the exclusive club of players to win four Superseries titles in a single year.
If anything, Srikanth went one better than those three illustrious shuttling greats by being runner-up in another Superseries tournament that year, the Singapore Open, in which he was edged in three games in the title match by his compatriot and fellow-trainee at the Pullela Gopichand Academy, B Sai Praneeth.
Alas, those heady days for Indian badminton seem shrouded in the mists of time, as the latest edition of the Australian Open, being played at the Sydney Olympic Park, does not feature Srikanth (who had defeated Chen Long in the 2017 summit clash) in the list of entrants to the $150,000 prize money Grade 5 tournament. Nor does it feature Saina Nehwal, who had won the Australian Open twice — the 2014 edition at the expense of Spain’s Carolina Marin, and the 2016 competition at the expense of China’s Sun Yu — but has opted out this time on grounds of fitness. However, PV Sindhu, Sameer Verma, HS Prannoy, and B Sai Praneeth will all be vying to win their first tournament of the year.
Although the monetary rewards in Sydney may not be very lucrative, the 7,000 points that the singles winners stand to rake in would be extremely useful in shoring up their standing in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings on the 26-tournament circuit, and in the race for the cash-rich, season-ending World Tour finals, to be held in Guangzhou in mid-December.
Sindhu, seeded third this year, has been bracketed in the lower half with China’s No 2 seed, Chen Yufei, who had played a stellar role in her country’s fabulous 3-0 win in the Sudirman Cup last month, with a fighting victory over Japanese stonewaller, Akane Yamaguchi. The world’s top two players, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei and Yamaguchi, have skipped the Australian Open this year.
The lanky Hyderabadi opens her campaign on Wednesday against Indonesian qualifier, Choirunnisa Choirunnisa (one of a couple of Indonesian girls with identical names and surnames, the other being Fitriani Fitriani), and should not find it difficult to go through to a second-round meeting with one of two women from Thailand who play each other in the opening round, Pornpawee Chochuwong and Nitchaon Jindapol.
The 23-year-old World no 5 possesses a 3-0 career head-to-head advantage against Chochuwong, having beaten her twice last year — at the All England and Indonesia Open. Sindhu has a similarly imposing 5-1 record against Jindapol, with her only loss in six meetings coming at the Syed Modi International in 2016. The Indian looks good to reach the quarter-finals, and play China’s seventh-seeded Li Xuerui.
Among men, Verma owns the highest seeding at No 6, and, first up, gets a chance to avenge himself against his shock conqueror at last month’s Sudirman Cup, Lee Zii Jia. The first meeting between the two had proved exceedingly costly for India’s chances of making further progress in the mixed team tournament, as they had been edged out by the odd match in five, and ended winless in their group.
Should Verma solve the Zii Jia riddle, he will come up against either Taiwan’s Wang Tzu Wei or Malaysian qualifier, Cheam June Wei; and has the wherewithal to eliminate either. All these players are bracketed in Japanese fourth seed, Kenta Nishimoto’s quarter of the draw.
The 26-year-old Sai Praneeth has a tricky initial outing against South Korea’s Lee Dong Keun, two years older than him, and, at 22, ranked two places above his 24th spot. The Korean leads their career head-to-heads 2-1, having last beaten Praneeth in a close three-game encounter at the September 2017 Japan Open. Their winner is expected to come up against second-seeded Indonesian, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting.
Two other Indians will be parading their wares in Sydney — Prannoy, who runs into the No 8 seed from China, Lin Dan, in his lung-opener; and Parupalli Kashyap, who takes on Thailand’s Suppanyu Avihingsanon.
Prannoy, who has slipped from a top-ten position to No 26 on the BWF ladder, has a 2-1 career lead against the 35-year-old left-handed Chinese legend, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and five-time world champion, but now firmly in the eventide of what has been an outstanding career.
The 32-year-old Kashyap, now ranked 38th in the world, takes on the 27th-ranked Avihingsanon, who is three years his junior. The two have met only twice earlier, and the score stands at 1-1, with the Indian having won their most recent meeting at the 2017 China Masters. The one who breasts the tape in this match will encounter the victor of the Prannoy-Lin Dan duel.
India’s top two men’s doubles pairs, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty and Manu Attri-Sumeeth Reddy, have been drawn to clash with one another in the very first round. Theirs has been an intense rivalry, with Attri-Reddy having downed their younger opponents in the 2017 Indian Nationals finals in Nagpur over the extra points in the decider of a truly pulsating duel.
Since that time, however, Rankireddy-Shetty pair has improved substantially and should find it well within their powers to score over their compatriots, and progress to the second round, where the reigning world champions and No 2 seeds from China, Liu Yuchen and Li Junhui, will most likely await them.
India’s only worthwhile women’s doubles combination of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy have been handed a challenging draw, giving them chances of reaching the quarter-finals if they play to their true potential. Sadly, they have no performance worthy of mention in the first half of 2019; and need to change that status.
In their opening round, the Indians clash with South Korea’s Baek Ha Na and Kim Hye Rin, who admittedly are no pushovers. If they win, they take on the fourth seeds from Indonesia, Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu. All these pairs are bracketed in the top quarter of the draw with top-seeded Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara of Japan.
In the mixed doubles, India sent a solitary combination in a tough and crowded event. Unfortunately, Rankireddy and Ponnappa fell at their very first hurdle, losing on Tuesday to Wang Chi-Lin and Cheng Chi Ya of Chinese Taipei by a 21-17, 12-21, 21-16 scoreline.
Tuesday — when the two qualifying rounds of the singles events, and the opening round of the mixed doubles, were held — also witnessed the eclipse of the talented young Lakshya Sen, who barreled through his first match against Malaysia’s Soo Teck Zhi at 21-8, 21-8, but then fell to the wiles of Thai southpaw, Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk by a 11-21, 21-23 scoreline.
Had Lakshya managed to win the extra-points duel in the second game, it is likely he would have qualified from the preliminary rounds at the expense of the fatigued Tanongsak. The Thai won himself a first-round main-draw spot opposite another qualifier, Indonesia’s Chico Aura Dwi Wardoyo, and is favoured to go through for a possible second-round joust with Indonesia’s No 3 seed and 2018 Asian Games champion, Jonatan Christie.
Updated Date: Jun 04, 2019 16:43:39 IST