By the end of Friday, after a quartet of quarter-final matches had been done and dusted at the Wuhan Sports Centre in all five disciplines of the Badminton Asia Championships, it was difficult for a supporter of Indian badminton to figure out whether the day had been memorable or disappointing.
India’s two elite singles exponents of the shuttle sport, Kidambi Srikanth and PV Sindhu, who had been seeded Nos 1 and 3 respectively in a glittering field that boasted the best players from the continent, put in eminently forgettable performances to be bounced unceremoniously out of the competition.
On the other hand, the evergreen Saina Nehwal who, at 28, qualifies to be called a veteran of the international circuit, and her Pullela Gopichand Academy fellow-trainee, HS Prannoy, both unseeded, produced sterling displays of power, accuracy and unflappable temperament to slay their quarter-final rivals and barge into the penultimate round, to be played on Saturday.
So, then comes the classic question: what does one examine first — the good news or the bad news?
Perhaps it is best to deal first with the indifferent news, not least because it involved the match that preceded all the others, and one that the entire Asian continent was looking forward to — the third duel in the course of the last fortnight between Srikanth and Malaysian old-timer, Lee Chong Wei, with the statistics of their two recent clashes showing one match all.
The 25-year-old Indian had shocked Lee in straight games in the mixed team final of the recently concluded Commonwealth Games (CWG) — a result that was mainly instrumental in India bagging their maiden badminton team gold by a 3-1 margin. But the Malaysian had come roaring back like a wounded tiger to beat Srikanth in three games and annex the individual singles gold.
That one-win-all result was an informal head-to-head count, for the matches of the CWG are not counted in the records maintained by the Badminton World Federation (BWF), since it is not a tournament that is open to all players in the world. The official records show Lee holding a 4-0 advantage over Srikanth in career meetings; and the Malaysian made it 5-0 in Wuhan with a comprehensive 32-minute long 21-12, 21-15 trouncing that the Indian will find hard to live down.
It was clear that Lee had entered the court with a well thought out strategic plan — he himself played the kind of speedy aggressive game that his rival had done in the CWG team final, while simultaneously putting a tight cap on Srikanth’s aggression. Simply put, he did not allow the top seed to outpace or outhit him, but kept him on a tight leash that eventually throttled the Indian.
From a relatively quiet start that produced a 3-all position, the Malaysian moved on the court like greased lightning, controlled the net brilliantly, and leapt to 7-4 and then 13-5 leads before wrapping up the opening stanza easily at 21-12.
The pattern of the second game was similar; only, this time, Srikanth tried much harder to stay on his antagonist’s heels. The closest he came to Lee was at 8-10, but his prodigality permitted the Malaysian to power ahead to 15-8, before easing the pressure a little to allow Srikanth to reduce the final margin of defeat. However, at no stage of the match was his overwhelming superiority ever in doubt.
Like Srikanth, Sindhu had an off day at the office, and capitulated to South Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun at 21-19, 21-10.
It was bewildering to watch the Hyderabadi squander the 12-9 and 16-12 leads she had so painstakingly built up in the first game. Frankly, there really was nothing outstanding in Sung’s game; all that the Korean had to do was keep the shuttle in play and watch her rival trip over her own feet in an effort to commit hara-kiri. Once Sindhu was hauled in at 16-all, her all-too-familiar end-game blues kicked in, and Sung cantered past the post.
The second game was downright depressing. Sindhu’s error count soared as she repeatedly over-hit her tosses or struck the bird out along the sidelines to concede 7-2 and 9-4 leads. But when the Indian closed the margin to 9-11, her legion of admirers thought that a fightback was on the cards. Alas, they were too sanguine. Sung, whose bubbling energy was in stark contrast to Sindhu’s careworn frown, streaked away with 10 of the final 11 points as her Indian opponent simply threw in the towel.
By contrast, the other Indian in the women’s singles quarter-finals, Saina, appears to have hit such a rich streak of form that she looks good to go all the way in this regional tournament. Playing against another dangerous Korean, Lee Jang Mi, who had shown Thailand’s 2013 world champion Ratchanok Intanon the exit door on the previous day, the CWG gold medallist won comfortably at 21-15, 21-13.
The Indian was in arrears for most of the first game, but refused to let the deficit worry her. The moment she recovered her rhythm, Saina overturned 3-8 and 9-13 deficits to restore parity at 13-all, and then simply streaked to the tape, notching up seven aces to her opponent’s solitary one. There was only one player in the contest in the second game. Saina burst out to 8-0 and 12-2 leads, and then simply rammed home the advantage with her trademark body smashes, to give Lee scant chance.
It remains to be seen how Saina tackles that consummate stroke-maker, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, on Saturday. The great deceiver that she is, Tai treated Chinese left-hander He Bingjiao with near-contempt in front of the latter’s home crowds, to dish out a 21-14, 21-9 pummelling in just a minute over the half-hour mark.
The 12th ranked Saina has a losing 5-10 record against the world’s best player; and what is most depressing is the fact that she has lost the last eight matches to the Taiwanese, dating back from November 2014. In other words, she has not beaten Tai in three-and-a-half years; and, on the most recent four occasions, not even looked remotely like taking even a game off the 23-year-old World No 1.
Joining Saina in the semi-finals was Prannoy, who was saddled with playing the final match of the schedule. Let us say, the Kerala-born shuttler slayed a few demons on Friday. He should, by rights, have lost his quarter-final to the No 2 seed from South Korea, Son Wan Ho, and twice came within two points of doing so. But, belying his unhappy reputation of blowing truckloads of match-points, the 10th ranked Indian came from behind to edge the Korean by a 18-21, 23-21, 21-12 scoreline.
An unaccountable lapse in concentration at 13-all in the first game saw the Indian allow Son to barrel through to 20-14; and, although, he staged a minor comeback to 18-20, the Korean would not be denied the opener. Prannoy was in full cry in the second, and broke out to a 10-3 lead, but Son pulled the chestnuts out of the fire by catching up with the Indian at 14-all.
Amidst tension that was palpable enough to be cut with a knife, Prannoy pulled back from 18-19, and eliminated the errors in his game to win over the extra points, 23-21. That was just the tonic he needed to step on the gas pedal in the decider, and leave the 30-year-old Korean gasping in his wake. From 6-all, Prannoy zoomed to 12-7 and 16-8, making the issue safe with a five-point burst at the very end.
The conqueror of the second seed has next been given the task of trying to lower the colours of the No 3 seed and defending champion from China, Chen Long. True to his Christian name, the 2016 Olympic gold medallist played the lengthiest match of the day, taking an hour and 26 minutes to stave off a strong challenge from Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus, and make the last four with a 22-24, 21-15, 21-17 victory.
Chen looked to be on the way out of the tournament he had won last year at the same venue, when he trailed Angus 6-10 in the second game after losing the opener narrowly over the extra points. But once he steadied himself, there was no stopping him, and he pulled away from 14-all, to win without further ado. He was 12-7 ahead in the decider before Angus made a supreme effort, and went ahead to 14-13. That effort cost him dearly, and the local favourite was able to close out the match.
Chen clashes in Saturday’s semi-final against Prannoy with a 3-1 lead in career meetings. He will, however, be a mite discomfited to recall that it was Prannoy who scored his only win over the two-time former world champion at the Indonesia Open Superseries Premier in June last year. Still, on current form, the discerning will give the Chinese star the edge in what promises to be a no-holds-barred contest.
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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2018 11:06:04 IST