BWF World Tour Finals: Kidambi Srikanth’s vastly improved showing gives hope; PV Sindhu disappoints again

PV Sindhu must tailor her training before the Tokyo Olympics towards improving her agility and speed of foot, to complement her power.

Shirish Nadkarni January 30, 2021 10:46:33 IST
BWF World Tour Finals: Kidambi Srikanth’s vastly improved showing gives hope; PV Sindhu disappoints again

File image of Kidambi Srikanth. AFP

Kidambi Srikanth may have lost all his three group matches in the delayed $1.5 million prize money 2020 World Tour finals, but the agonisingly close manner of his defeats and his ability to go the full distance in encounters lasting well over an hour each gave rise to hope that the Indian badminton ace was returning to the kind of form that saw him end 2017 as the best shuttler on the international circuit.

By contrast, PV Sindhu continued on her wayward ways; and, although she did redeem a bit of prestige by comprehensively beating the tournament’s sensation, Pornpawee Chochuwong of Thailand, in her final group match, the victory came in the course of an inconsequential encounter when there was no pressure at all on either combatant, as the Thai girl had qualified and Sindhu had been eliminated, regardless of the result of their clash.

In the two Super 1000 tournaments that preceded the World Tour finals at Bangkok’s Impact Arena, Srikanth had provided brief glimpses of his return to world-beating form after nearly three years in the wilderness. His 21-12, 21-11 demolition of sparring-partner Sourabh Verma in his lung-opener in the Yonex Thailand Open showed him out to be the fast, aggressive player that had won four Superseries titles and one runner-up spot in the 2017 season.

However, a calf injury forced him to withdraw from the fray before entering the court for his second match against Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia. The 27 year old took the court less than a week later, to hammer local lad Sitthikom Thammasin into submission by an almost identical scoreline to the Sourabh Verma match, but had the misfortune of being forcibly withdrawn from the competition after his room-mate, B Sai Praneeth, tested positive for COVID-19.

Finally cleared of the stigma of being a carrier of the dread disease, Srikanth re-entered the Impact Arena and played three group matches on successive days, losing at 21-15, 16-21, 18-21 in 77 minutes to the third seed and 2019 World Championship runner-up, Anders Antonsen of Denmark; at 21-19, 9-21, 19-21 after 78 minutes to Wang Tzu Wei of Chinese Taipei; and at 21-12, 18-21, 19-21 in an hour and five minutes to Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus.

There was one common thread running through all his three performances – a storming start and the capture of the opening game, loss of speed, power and concentration in the second stanza, and the inability to close out the matches in the decider, even when he seemed to have his opponent pinned to the mat.

Against Antonsen, who had recovered from a bout of COVID-19 in early-December, and appeared well short of his vaunted fitness levels, Srikanth broke away from 13-all in the first game to rush to the tape, made up an initial deficit of 10-16 in the second to come within striking distance at 15-16, and was actually ahead by a whisker at 17-16 in the decider before throwing it all away with a string of errors, losing five of the final six points.

Against Wang, who was to remain unbeaten at the group stage and has been drawn to clash again with Antonsen in Saturday’s semi-finals, Srikanth blew 16-12 and 18-16 leads in the first game to just about squeak home, was totally outhit and outmanoeuvred in the second game, and conceded 13-17 and 16-20 leads to his rival in the decider. Although he came agonisingly close at 19-20, he just could not claim that 20th point which would have taken the match into an extra-points shoot-out.

So dominant was Srikanth in his final group match against Angus Ng, that he barrelled through the opener with minimal fuss, and had a chance of closing out the match in straight games when he led 16-15 in the second. Strangely, after 18-all, he seemed to lack the self-belief that he could close out the encounter, and fell back into errant ways. The decider was a similar tale, with the Indian making up a lot of leeway from 8-12 to actually go ahead at 15-14, and pull back again from 17-19 to 19-all.

In all three matches, a common feature was the Indian’s haste to try and close out the encounters by the short route, and some wayward smashing into his opponents’ right sideline. And yet, Srikanth showed good strategic sense by exhibiting exemplary patience while attempting to tire out opponents like Antonsen, who had shown suspect lasting powers – against compatriot Hans Kristian Solberg Vittinghus in the semi-finals of the Toyota Thailand Open, less than a week earlier.

In other words, Srikanth emerged with good marks in the stamina parameter, and his ability to continue playing even with an irritating injury like a calf muscle strain. He also scored well in the strokeplay, net control and aggression stakes. On the flip side were his loss of concentration in the second game at a time when he should have been the one applying relentless pressure, and his lack of self-belief that he could end up a winner in the close matches.

The heartening feature of his performances in Bangkok was that he seemed to have rediscovered the spark that had made him such a feared competitor on the world circuit. He appears to be back on the right track towards being a world-beater.

As for Sindhu, she continued on her maddeningly inconsistent ways. Her awesome record of a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics, plus one gold, two silver and two bronze medals at the six World Championships between 2013 and 2019 shows that she is a big tournament player. At most other events, however, her performances have been well below her wonted potential.

After suffering confidence-denting losses against Mia Blichfeldt of Denmark and Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand in the two tournaments that preceded the World Tour finals, Sindhu was fortunate to find a spot in the prestigious competition which she has won once in 2018, and been runner-up in 2017, as a result of the withdrawal of several top Japanese and Chinese shuttlers.

Sindhu lost a tight opening match against World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei at 21-19, 12-21, 17-21; was thoroughly beaten at 18-21, 13-21 by local hope Intanon; and ended her campaign in the tournament with a 21-18, 21-15 win over Chochuwong, who had stunned the badminton world by scoring over both Tai and Intanon in her previous matches.

What was apparent in Sindhu’s mien was her enhanced musculature, mute evidence of the hard work she would have put into her training in the UK over the past couple of months. But the added power in her smashes clearly came at the cost of agility and footspeed; her mobility seemed hampered. There was also that old failing of poor body language – of constantly having a worried look on her face when she was a couple of points down in the course of a game.

Sindhu played well against Tai in the first game, making up considerable leeway to catch the strokeful Taiwanese at 16-all and 19-all, to bag the opener at the tape. She was completely outplayed in the second stanza, and also trailed throughout the decider, only coming within striking distance at 17-19 through a supreme effort, before capitulating. She was thus unable to repeat her come-from-behind win over Tai at the quarter-final stage of the 2019 World Championships in Basel.

The Indian led almost the entire way in the opening game against Thailand’s 2013 world champion Intanon, but lost her way at the tape after the two were deadlocked at 18-all. She remained in the contest only until 11-12 in the second game, after which she fell away in a flurry of mistakes and some delectable strokes from her rival.

Having thus been eliminated from contention for a place in the play-off semi-finals, Sindhu came to the match against Chochuwong with a clear mind, and played some of her best and most dominant badminton. She was literally on fire, but was no doubt helped by the fact that the Thai girl, after having ensured her qualification for the semi-finals through victories in her first two group encounters against fellow-countrywoman Intanon and Tai, had clearly decided to preserve her energies for the play-offs.

Though the Indian badminton fan will rejoice at Sindhu’s relatively facile 42-minute conquest of the local hope, the analyst would refuse to read too much into the result. The match would have had an entirely different hue if it had been “live”, considering the manner in which the 23 year old Chochuwong had played earlier against the two most strokeful and deceptive players in the world.

The fact must be repeated that Sindhu can never be written off in the big tournaments. However, in the face of a brilliant return to top form of reigning Olympic queen and three-time world champion, Carolina Marin of Spain, the aspirations of Tai Tzu Ying to win at least one of the biggies, the emergence of young threats like Chochuwong and Korea’s An Se Young, and the impending return of the formidable Japanese and Chinese, the Indian must tailor her training before the Tokyo Olympics towards improving her agility and speed of foot, to complement her power.

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