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Badminton Asia Championships: Saina Nehwal breezes past Gao Fangjie; Kidambi Srikanth sets up Lee Chong Wei quarter-final

Four Indians, two each in the men’s and women’s singles, made the last-eight stage of the Badminton Asia Championships, but the attention of badminton-lovers will be focused firmly on Kidambi Srikanth versus Lee Chong Wei, Mark III, that will roll out of the Wuhan Sports Centre showroom on Friday evening.

The third chapter of this intense new rivalry, to take place within the space of a fortnight, will unfold at the quarter-final stage of the ongoing competition, after both protagonists had taken contrasting routes past their second-round opponents on Thursday.

The top-seeded Indian spent exactly four minutes on court as his bustling rival from Hong Kong, Wong Wing Ki Vincent, retired injured while trailing 2-7 in the opening game, but the No 5 seed from Malaysia was asked several tough questions and kept on court for a minute over the hour mark by Indonesia’s Anthony Sinisuka Ginting before he could scramble to a 16-21, 21-9, 21-11 victory.

 Badminton Asia Championships: Saina Nehwal breezes past Gao Fangjie; Kidambi Srikanth sets up Lee Chong Wei quarter-final

File image of Saina Nehwal. AFP

The 25-year-old Srikanth had beaten the Malaysian veteran, a full decade his senior, in straight games at 21-17, 21-14 in the team championship final of the recently concluded Commonwealth Games (CWG), but had then suffered a 21-19, 14-21, 14-21 reverse in the individual gold medal summit clash. Their third encounter in this short span of time will determine who is the better player on current form.

Of course, in view of the fact that the CWG is not an event open to all players in the world, the results are not considered by the Badminton World Federation (BWF) in the official head-to-head statistics; and the records continue to show Lee as lording it over Srikanth by a 4-0 margin. The Indian will have to swiftly rediscover the unbridled speed and aggression with which he had caught Lee shell-shocked during the team final in which India grabbed the gold medal with a 3-1 triumph.

Srikanth’s entry into the last eight via the short route on Thursday diverted attention from two outstanding performances by Indian singles exponents – Saina Nehwal’s comprehensive 21-18, 21-8 pounding of the dangerous Gao Fangjie in front of the Chinese teenager’s home crowds; and World no 10, HS Prannoy’s display of grit and gumption against Chinese Taipei’s 11th ranked Wang Tzu Wei, that netted him a 16-21, 21-14, 21-12 victory in four minutes under the hour.

Self-confidence is an amazing ally, and, when paired with inherent determination, can yield an unbeatable combination. So it was with Saina, who was literally bubbling with confidence after winning all her matches for India in the mixed team event of the CWG, and then cutting her fellow-countrywoman, PV Sindhu, down to size in the individual title stakes.

Gao, who had knocked out the No 5 seed and reigning world champion from Japan, Nozomi Okuhara, in her opening outing in Wuhan, had no idea what to expect from Saina, as they had never bumped into each other earlier. The Indian actually started slowly, trailing 5-10 and 8-12 before catching up with her teenaged rival at 14-all, and then simply not looking back. Each time the Chinese player came close, Saina produced a quick ace to maintain a two-point advantage.

The second game was strictly one-way traffic. From 4-3, Saina took a massive leap to go into the mid-game interval without conceding a further point. From that point onwards, the inexperienced Chinese youngster’s game simply disintegrated. Amidst sporadic, but brief, bouts of mutiny from Gao, Saina cantered gracefully across the finishing line, to earn a quarter-final meeting with South Korean Lee Jang Mi, who vanquished Thailand’s 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon.

In a battle of two 23-year-olds who neither asked for nor gave any quarter, the doughty Korean wore down the strokeful Thai by a 19-21, 21-17, 21-15 scoreline in a match that lasted an excruciating hour and 12 minutes. Fitness – or rather, a lack of it – was Intanon’s undoing, but she may just have done the 28-year-old Saina a good turn by extending Lee to such an extent that the combative Korean may be a little stiff and not quite at her agile best on Friday.

As for Prannoy, who has earned for himself the unwanted reputation of blowing match-points in tight jousts, the Indian managed to stay as strong mentally as physically, against an opponent who was still struggling to descend to Earth from the euphoria of having lowered the colours of the great Lin Dan the previous day.

Prannoy went about his task with clinical efficiency, shrugging off the disappointment of losing the opening stanza after having led all the way to 15-11, before allowing the Taiwanese World No 11 to grab ten of the next eleven points, and pocket the first game.

The Indian kept his nose ahead all the way in the second game, leaping out to a 9-2 lead before wrapping up the game at 21-14 and restoring parity. The equanimity with which he handled the rallies provided a premonition of more assured play to come in the decider. Prannoy did not disappoint, leading from start to finish for a 21-12 verdict, in what was practically a mirror-image of the second game.

With third-seeded Sindhu also powering through to the quarter-finals with a workmanlike 21-12, 21-15 win over the host nation’s up-and-coming Chen Xiaoxin, two days after the Chinese youngster’s 20th birthday, the only Indian singles player to be shown the exit door on the day was Bhamidipathi Sai Praneeth, who bowed out without a whimper to the Chinese No 3 seed, Chen Long, at 12-21, 12-21 in just 39 minutes.

Praneeth, it must be said, has not been playing at anywhere near the level that had netted him the Singapore Open crown in June last year, at the expense of compatriot Srikanth; and he was easily outpaced and outsmarted by Chen. On this form, the two-time former world champion (2014, 2015) and 2016 Rio Olympics gold medallist can safely be installed as a hot favourite to defend the Badminton Asia men’s singles title he had won last year at the very same venue.

The smooth-striding 29-year-old Chinese star next runs into Hong Kong’s eighth-seeded Ng Ka Long Angus, against whom he has a mediocre 2-2 career record, having beaten the Hong Kong player in this very tournament last year, but losing to him in the year-ending Superseries grand finals in Dubai last December.

The winner of this quarter-final will cross swords with the victor of the duel between Prannoy and South Korea’s No 2 seed, Son Wan Ho. The essentially defensive 29-year-old Korean player has dominated past exchanges with the Kerala-born Indian, and leads 3-1 in their head-to-heads.

The revealing statistic here in that they traded wins on the two occasions that they clashed in 2017, with Prannoy coming on top 24-22, 21-9 in the mixed team event of the Badminton Asia championships in February, and Son returning the compliment, 21-13, 21-18, in the Denmark Open in October. Friday’s result will be a toss-up, with the Indian, five years younger than Son, holding a slight advantage.

Friday’s matches will start at the Wuhan Sports Centre at 5 p.m. (2:30 p.m, IST), with the opening clash being the lip-smacking, eagerly awaited duel between Kidambi Srikanth and the charismatic Lee Chong Wei, a biographical film on whose life is currently running to packed houses in his native Malaysia.

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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2018 23:01:00 IST

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