It was not to be, for the two Indian shuttlers in the singles semi-finals of the Badminton Asia Championships. The opposition proved just too strong and focussed when it came to crunch time.
Unseeded veteran Saina Nehwal, yielding five years in age to a supremely talented opponent, and ranked a dozen places lower than the Taiwanese top seed she faced in Saturday’s penultimate round in Wuhan, did everything but make the long-reigning World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, walk the gangplank.
When the dust settled on the titanic, high-quality 45-minute encounter, it was Tai who was credited with a 27-25, 21-19 victory that took her through to Sunday’s summit clash against the No 6 seed from China, Chen Yufei. The latter was far more clinical in her 21-12, 21-13 demolition of the seventh-seeded South Korean, Sung Ji Hyun, who had conquered the third seed, PV Sindhu, in Friday’s quarter-finals.
Similarly, World No 10 HS Prannoy, who was just outside the seedings list for this prestigious tournament, threw down the gauntlet to the two-time former world champion and 2016 Rio Olympics gold medallist, Chen Long, dragging the lanky Chinese star all over the court in the course of some entertaining rallies. But when it came to the final denouement, the 29-year-old defending champion had all the answers, and proceeded regally into the title round with a 53-minute, 21-16, 21-18 triumph.
Chen, who appears virtually unbeatable on home turf, runs on Sunday into surprise finalist, Japanese left-hander Kento Momota, who heralded his return to the very top, where he belongs, with an outstanding 21-19, 21-14 win in five minutes shy of the hour mark, in an exhausting battle of attrition against the No 5 seed from Malaysia, Lee Chong Wei.
Neither Saina nor Prannoy were disgraced by the manner of their defeats, unlike what had happened the previous day to their higher-ranked compatriots, PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth. Prannoy had appeared to stand a better chance against Chen than Saina did against Tai, if only due to the fact that the Kerala-born shuttler had scored his only victory in four meetings with the lanky Chinese ace, on the most recent occasion that they had crossed swords.
Indeed, Prannoy should have been more in the thick of things in the closing reaches of the opening stanza, for he held early leads of 4-0, 7-5 and 9-7 before Chen, egged on by the vociferous, partisan crowd, caught up at 9-all and 11-all, and then took the lead, never to be headed off again. What hurt the Indian was the spate of errors, many of them unforced, that allowed the home player to pocket eight of the next nine points.
The World No 3 led from start to finish in the second game, switching gears on each of the two occasions that the Indian restored parity — at 3-all and 12-all. Both players hit some amazing backhand shots when seeming to be totally out of position, but Chen remained the more accurate of the two, and stayed ahead by at least a point all the way to the finish line. Prannoy chased him all the way to the tape, but in vain.
On paper, Saina had negligible chances of winning against Tai, who is already being spoken of as one of the greatest players of all time — at the tender age of 23. The Taiwanese had won all eight of their most recent meetings since 2014, to hold a 10-5 lead in the matter of career head-to-heads. On the last three occasions that they had clashed, Saina had not even been able to stretch the match over the full distance.
But on Saturday, the Indian national champion came in high on confidence in the wake of her recent exploits in international badminton, while Tai did not seem quite as lethal on the day as she usually is. Nevertheless, although constantly questioned by the gritty Indian, the elegant Taiwanese thoroughbred invariably appeared to have the answers.
Both players held four game-points each in the protracted first game, and Saina had two more in the second, during the utterly absorbing and high-quality duel that stretched over three-quarters of an hour.
When she build up a 15-9 advantage in the opening game, Tai seemed headed for yet another easy victory. But Saina had other ideas. Pushing her battered, repaired body to the limits, the Indian stayed doggedly with her deceptive rival, reading most of her wristy drops and late flick clears, to force Tai into pulling the trigger too early and hitting wide of the lines. Catching up at 15-all, the older woman barged ahead to 20-18.
Two line challenges on heart-stoppingly close line decisions — a successful one by Tai, followed by an unsuccessful one by Saina — allowed the Taiwanese to draw level in the 27-minute long game, and then engage in a nerve-jangling extra-points duel that finally went the way of the top seed.
Though realising that she had blown her best chance of winning the match by conceding the first game, Saina showed the heart of a lioness, and fought all the way in the second. When the Taiwanese led 10-7 and 13-9, the writing appeared on the wall, since her demeanour did not lack for bounce, while Saina was visibly slowing down. And when the Indian reeled off four points in a row from 15-17, to lead 19-17, there was every chance that she would force a decider.
Alas, it was not to be. Tai’s superior fitness weighed in the balance, and her unflappable temperament allowed her to grab the next four points, to score her 11th career win over the Indian in 16 meetings, including the last nine in a row. Still, when the two clash again, as they must, Saina can approach the match in a more equable frame of mind, knowing that she can match the Taiwanese girl in most departments.
One cannot conclude an analysis of the semi-final proceedings at the Badminton Asia tournament without dwelling on the details of the eagerly awaited Lee Chong Wei-Kento Momota encounter.
Lee had seemed in irresistible form when he had decimated the challenge of Indian top seed, Kidambi Srikanth, in a quarter-final the previous day. But the 35-year-old Malaysian wore himself out, trying to outlast the 2012 junior world champion in interminable rallies, and had to leave the closing pages of his answer-booklet blank, as he ran out of answers in the closing reaches of the opening game.
On hindsight, one can spot the dilemma that Lee was faced with against the hugely-talented 24-year-old Japanese southpaw. It was double jeopardy. If he tried unbridled aggression, he risked burning himself out within a game, in the face of the water-tight defence that Momota possesses. If he bided his time before striking, and tried the rallying game, he had to win the match in straight games, for it was not going to be easy lasting three games against a strong, fit player 11 years his junior.
Lee went for the latter option, and was dismayed at seeing it boomerang on him, as had happened to the No 4 seed, Shi Yuqi of China, against Momota the previous day. The Malaysian was at an advantage almost right through the first game, being ahead at 5-1, 9-6 and 16-13; and with a potentially game-winning 19-16 lead.
But when the Japanese player, recently back on the circuit after a one-year suspension for indiscipline and gambling in a casino, took the final five points with a nerveless display, opting for deep, probing tosses and amazingly-controlled netplay, he broke the spine of Lee’s resistance. After battling till 7-all in the second game, Lee visibly wilted, and was a passenger for the rest of the encounter.
While it appears that Tai Tzu Ying will not be headed off by Chen Yufei in her quest of the women’s crown on Sunday, Chen Long will not be able to take things lightly against Momota. The Olympic gold medallist has won every one of their four earlier meetings by the short route, but the two have not clashed for over two-and-a-half years since the Korea Open in September 2015.
Chen will certainly launch the final step of his title defence as a 65:35 favourite in the second of the five matches on Sunday. But the prodigal son from the Land of the Rising Sun may yet have the final say.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Apr 29, 2018 00:38:22 IST