India’s report card on the opening day of the Badminton Asia Championships in Wuhan made somewhat unimpressive reading. Though all the singles title hopefuls, except Sameer Verma, safely vaulted their initial hurdles, a couple of the fancied horses from the Pullela Gopichand Academy stable made heavy weather of their opening gallops, while the doubles challenge, barring one pair each in the men’s and women’s doubles, was wiped out.
Even as Verma expectedly made an early exit at the hands of the left-handed seventh seed from Taiwan, Chou Tien Cheng, albeit after a doughty battle, the cherry on the Indian cake was the outstanding performance of young Shlok Ramchandran and MR Arjun, who notched up a fighting straight-sets win at 25-23, 23-21 over South Koreans Chung Eui Seok and Kim Dukyoung, quarter-finalists at the last World Championships in Glasgow.
Ramchandran and Arjun were joined in the second round of the doubles by Meghana Jakkampudi and Poorvisha S Ram, who fought tigerishly to pull the coals from the fire, saving a match-point in the second game of their opening encounter at the Wuhan Sports Centre against Singapore’s Wong Jia Ying Crystal and Ong Ren-ne, while winning at 14-21, 22-20, 21-17.
The wins of the two Indian doubles pairs made up for a disastrous mass exit of the other Indian combinations in the fray. The most disappointing loss was suffered by national champions Manu Attri and B Sumeet Reddy, who went down at 14-21, 16-21 to the Thai pair of Bodin Issara and Nipitphon Phuangphuapet in the last match of the day in what was an exhausting schedule of first-round matches.
World No 5, Kidambi Srikanth, who was fortunate to have been seeded No 1 in this tournament, since the draws were made at a time when he headed the ranking list of the Badminton World Federation (BWF), huffed and puffed against Kenta Nishimoto of Japan, ranked eight places below him at No 13, before coming through at 13-21, 21-16, 21-16.
This was the 25-year-old Indian’s third and most difficult triumph against the Japanese player, whom he had beaten without much ado at the Singapore and French Open Superseries tournaments last year. Although he did not suffer from his usual starting trouble, Srikanth played a distinctly untidy, error-strewn game while letting Nishimoto put together a seven-point reel from 10-8 to 17-8 before wrapping up the opening game.
The Indian took an early 12-5 lead in the second stanza, but still allowed his rival to close the gap to 11-13, before cantering away to 20-13, and then the game for the loss of a further three points. Srikanth was not headed off in the decider after he broke away from 5-all to take a decisive 15-6 lead, and put the issue beyond doubt. He now runs into Hong Kong’s Wong Wing Ki Vincent in Thursday’s second round.
HS Prannoy was equally wayward in the second and third games against Thailand’s Kantaphon Wangcharoen after taking control of the lung-opener from parity at 12-all. He staged a sterling fightback from a 9-14 position in the second game to neutralise the Thai’s advantage at 18-all, but could not pocket the game.
It was anybody’s match as the two moved from 9-all in the decider to 16-all, with no more than a point separating them, and Prannoy making the kind of nervous mistakes that were guaranteed to give palpitations to his most ardent supporters. However, the Indian pulled away to 18-16, and then kept that slim advantage till the tape, to run out a 21-15, 19-21, 21-19 winner.
Prannoy will now take on Chinese Taipei’s World no 11, Wang Tzu Wei, who was responsible for the tournament’s biggest upset when he accounted for China’s No 6 seed, Lin Dan, by a 15-21, 21-9, 21-16 scoreline. There was no doubt that Super Dan felt the weight of his 34 years as he trailed the speedy, aggressive Taiwanese player 0-6 and 2-15 in the second game; and simply could not sustain the thrust he had to make in the decider to claw back from 0-5 to 10-all.
Prannoy trails Wang 1-2 in career head-to-head meetings, having lost to him in their most recent encounter at the Korea Open in September 2016. But there is no doubt that the Kerala-born player would prefer to meet the Taiwanese, rather than the legendary two-time Olympic gold medallist and five-time former world champion.
Last year’s Singapore Open champion, B Sai Praneeth, was also sorely troubled by Thailand’s Suppanyu Avihingsanon, before breaking the stranglehold that the Thai player had on him, to win by a 13-21, 21-11, 21-19 verdict. Like Prannoy, Praneeth had a 19-17 lead in the decider before losing the advantage, and having to pull out all stops to crawl over the finishing-line.
The Indian’s next opponent will be the two-time former world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, Chen Long, seeded third at this year’s event. The lanky Chinese did not even break sweat as he decimated a hapless qualifier from Jordan, Bahaedeen Ahmed Al-Shannik at 21-8, 21-8. Strangely, Chen and Praneeth have never clashed earlier, and it will remain to be seen whether the former Indian national champion can put a spoke in the smooth-striding Chinese ace’s wheel.
India’s two pre-eminent female stars, Saina Nehwal and Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, won their opening matches in contrasting styles, with the two-time Commonwealth Games gold medalist strolling unconcerned through the tie against Singapore’s Yeo Jia Min by a 21-12, 21-9 scoreline in just 33 minutes, while the third-seeded Olympic silver medalist had her hands full while subduing the belligerent Chinese Taipei girl, Pai Yu Po, at 21-14, 21-19 in 44 minutes.
Sindhu next runs into Chen Xiaoxin of the host nation, and should win with something left in the gas tank. But Saina will be stretched to the limit while trying to subdue another Chinese, Gao Fangjie, who scored the day’s other major upset by knocking out reigning world champion, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan, at 21-15, 23-21.
The diminutive Japanese girl’s desperate attempts to stretch the match into a decider fell just short of her Korean coach Park Joo Bong’s hopes, for there is no doubt that she would have had the upper hand if the match had gone the full distance. But the records reveal that the 19 year old Chinese player has a 2-1 lead over Okuhara in career meetings, and Saina will not be able to take things lightly against Gao in what will be their first career meeting.
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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2018 23:33:05 IST