Trust Kidambi Srikanth to ruin what would have been a perfect day for India’s singles exponents at the Badminton Asia Championships in Wuhan!
Even as compatriots Sameer Verma, PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal cleared their opening round hurdles with varying degrees of difficulty, the 26-year-old Srikanth belied his fifth seeding by surrendering in straight games at 16-21, 20-22 in 44 minutes to the relatively unknown Indonesian, Shesar Hiren Rhustavito, one year his junior and placed 43 places below his eighth spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.
On reflection, one realises that Rhustavito is not quite as unknown as he had been made out to be. The native of Sukoharjo (Central Java) appears to have been a late bloomer, in comparison with his younger, more accomplished compatriots, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting (aged 22) and Jonatan ‘Jojo’ Christie (21).
Both these seeded worthies, who appear to reserve their best performances for their native Indonesia, were incidentally ejected from the $400,000 prize money competition on Wednesday – with No 6 seed, Ginting, losing at 23-25 in the third game to Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus, and No 8, Christie, being tamed at 18-21, 21-19, 21-10 by Japan’s mercurial, but unpredictable, Kenta Nishimoto.
But, to return to Rhustavito, who owns bragging rights for his title triumph at the 2018 Vietnam Open World Tour Super 100 tournament, at the expense of 30-year-old Indian, Ajay Jayaram, in the final. The 51st ranked Indonesian also has the distinction of winning the Indonesia International tournament for the past four years. In the 2018 edition, he lowered the colours of fellow-countryman and 2007 World Championship runner-up in Kuala Lumpur, Sony Dwi Kuncoro.
Nor was Rhustavito crossing swords with Srikanth for the first time at the Wuhan Sports Centre; he had beaten the Indian in three tough games at the 2011 World Junior Championships. Perhaps memories of that defeat returned to haunt the Guntur lad, but who was simply not in his element on Wednesday; and dissolved in a spate of unforced errors at crucial stages during the encounter.
The Indonesian was ahead by at least a couple of points right through the opening game, after he forged ahead from 6-all, following some tight initial skirmishes. Try as he might, Srikanth could not prevent Rhustavito from clinching the opening stanza, despite coming close at 16-18.
The Indian broke out into 16-11 and 18-13 leads in the second game, during his only period of clear dominance in the match. But he continued to be uncomfortable, and put several smashes out along the sidelines and into the net. The man who had been almost unbeatable during the 2017 season meekly allowed his opponent to catch up with him at 19, and overtake him during the extra-points duel.
While Srikanth’s indifferent form continues into the meat of the 2019 season, Sameer Verma’s judicious selection of tournaments in which he needs to participate showed him in sparkling form. The Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) native was able to reverse a 1-2 deficit in head-to-head meetings with Kazumasa Sakai, and extract revenge for his losses to the Japanese at the 2017 All England and the 2018 Indonesia Masters.
The 24-year-old Sameer won the encounter at 21-13, 17-21, 21-18, in seven minutes past the hour mark, producing a strong thrust in the decider when trailing 7-11 and 9-13, to neutralise at 15-all, and stay ahead at the finish-line with an impressive display of ice-cool temperament and abundant stamina.
The Indian will next bump into Ng Ka Long Angus, who saved a match-point at 22-23 in the decider to eliminate Indonesian sixth seed, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, at 25-23 in an interminable 74-minute battle, one of the longest clashes of the opening day’s lengthy programme.
That match was second in length only to the 79-minute marathon in which third-seeded Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei administered the knock-out punch to Thailand’s Kantaphon Wangcharoen at 23-21, 17-21, 21-16.
The two Indians in the women’s singles took contrasting paths to the second round. Fourth-seeded Sindhu was all business as she mowed down Japan’s Sayaka Takahashi, in two minutes short of the half-hour mark, by a facile 21-14, 21-7 scoreline; and took her career head-to-head record against the Japanese left-hander to 4-2, with wins in their last three encounters.
Sindhu’s older compatriot, Saina Nehwal, had to labour for one minute over the hour to score a richly-deserved 12-21, 21-11, 21-17 victory over the hugely talented Chinese teenager, Han Yue, who had held a 1-0 career head-to-head advantage, going into this Badminton Asia duel.
Saina had been comprehensively beaten by the 19-year-old Han at 18-21, 8-21 in the Syed Modi International in November 2018; and experienced her by-now-familiar starting trouble in the opening game. However, she settled into her groove from the start of the second game, and stepped on the gas pedal after 15-10, to leave her rival gasping in bewilderment.
The 29-year-old Indian held only a wafer-thin 11-10 advantage at the change of ends in the decider, but she harnessed all her experience to move ahead to 14-10, and then 17-14. There were a few furrowed brows when Han restored parity at 17-all, but experience once again managed to hold out against the effervescence of youth, and Saina scrambled home without losing any further points.
In Thursday’s second round, Saina will take on South Korea’s 21-year-old Kim Ga Eun, who struggled in the second game before overcoming Indonesian Ruselli Hartawan at 21-12, 21-19. Saina has bumped into Kim on one earlier occasion, at the Korea Open in September 2018, and beaten her in straight, albeit tight, games at 21-18, 21-18.
As for Sindhu, she will take on the Indonesian Choirunnisa Choirunnisa, who was promoted from the qualifying ranks, and managed to win her first round match against Malaysia’s Lee Ying Ying by a 21-17, 21-15 verdict. Sindhu has never encountered the 20-year-old Indonesian before, but should be a shoo-in to progress to the quarter-final, where a pleasant surprise awaits her — no thorn-in the-flesh named Sung Ji Hyun in her anticipated progress to the last-four stage.
The South Korean, who has an even 8-8 career head-to-head record against Sindhu, including victories in their last three meetings, was shown the exit door on Wednesday by Cai Yanyan of the host nation by a 21-15, 16-21, 21-19 margin in an entertaining match lasting an hour and six minutes. Sindhu can now relax, secure in the knowledge that she has beaten the 19 year old Chinese (albeit in three games) at the recently concluded Singapore Open, in what has been their only meeting to date.
Should the Hyderabadi be able to clear Choirunnisa and Cai Yanyan from her path, she can look forward to a semi-final joust with second-seeded Japanese Nozomi Okuhara, who had beaten her at the same stage of the Singapore Open. Provided, of course, Okuhara can make the last-four at the expense of local favourite and No 5 seed, He Bingjiao, who looms at the quarter-final stage.
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Updated Date: Apr 24, 2019 21:46:54 IST