China Open 2018: Kidambi Srikanth faces major challenge at scene of his greatest triumph; PV Sindhu gets easy draw
In 2018, Srikanth has sadly failed to get beyond the quarter-final stage of any international tournament, apart from the Commonwealth Games on Australia's Gold Coast, where he bagged an individual singles silver and assisted the Indian squad to a team gold.
For Indian sporting fans, the very mention of the China Open badminton championships recalls to mind the scene of their premier male player, Kidambi Srikanth's greatest triumph.
It was at this tournament, four years ago, that a 21-year-old lad from little-known Ravulapalem in interior Andhra Pradesh scored a straight-games triumph over one of the game's all-time greats, if not the greatest of them all. The straggly bearded Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy trainee bearded the lion in his own den, handing out to two-time Olympic gold medallist and five-time world champion Lin Dan a 21-19, 21-17 defeat in front of the latter's adoring home crowds.
Much water has flown under the bridge since that career-changing triumph proceeded to take Srikanth on a crazy roller-coaster ride that saw him win only one more Superseries title at his home tournament, the India Open, in 2015, before scaling dizzy heights in 2017 by pocketing four Superseries titles and one runner-up finish.
Those four Superseries crowns put him on a lofty pedestal along the likes of living legends Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei and Chen Long, who had all achieved that feat in earlier years. Srikanth also spent one heady week at the pinnacle of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, even though it happened due to a technicality, with world champion Viktor Axelsen being docked the points he had bagged in a 2016 tournament that had been pushed back due to the crowded schedule in 2017.
However, since thrashing Axelsen in the latter's home tournament, the Denmark Open, on his way to notching a runaway 21-10, 21-5 victory over South Korean veteran Lee Hyun Il in the final, and then brushing aside Japan's Kenta Nishimoto in the final of the French Open in November last year, the Indian ace has struggled to string together five wins on successive days that would give him a tournament triumph on the newly constituted World Tour.
In 2018, Srikanth has sadly failed to get beyond the quarter-final stage of any international tournament, apart from the Commonwealth Games on Australia's Gold Coast, where he bagged an individual singles silver and assisted the Indian squad to a team gold. In tournaments which have been open to the world's elite, he has flopped miserably, and seen his world ranking slide from No 3 at the beginning of the year to a current No 8.
It is against this backdrop that he enters this year's China Open, a premier World Tour 1000 event, being held at the Olympic Sports Center Xincheng Gymnasium in Changzhou from Tuesday, where the very first mouth-watering singles clash will feature the soon-to-be-35 Lin Dan against the bubbly 21-year-old Indonesian, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, who missed the recent Asian Games gold medal by a whisker.
Srikanth, seeded seventh this time, will clash with the redoubtable Dane, Rasmus Gemke, on Wednesday. The two have never clashed before, but Gemke is an exciting talent with a vast array of strokes, especially the backhand, in the classical Danish fashion; and is also smooth enough in his movements to give the Indian few chances of bringing that deadly overhead smash into play.
Should the 25-year-old Srikanth cross that opening hurdle, he will take on the winner of the first-round clash between Dutchman Mark Caljouw and Thailand's Suppanyu Avihingsanon. A victory in this second round will thrust him into a quarter-final duel with the hottest player on the circuit, recently crowned world champion Kento Momota of Japan.
The two have clashed on nine occasions, and Srikanth trails 3-6 against the 24-year-old Japanese left-hander, with losses on the most recent four occasions that they have crossed swords. It is with a heavy heart that the Indian badminton fan would skip putting his shirt on his fellow-countryman to make it 4-6 against Momota.
The only other Indian in the men's singles fray, HS Prannoy, faces off in his opening round against the No 8 seed, Ng Ka Long Angus of Hong Kong. Very little separates the two players in almost all departments of the game, and the Kerala-born shuttler has every chance of progressing to the next round, where he will encounter the winner of the joust between Kanata Tsuneyama of Japan and Indonesian Jonatan Christie, winner of the Asian Games gold medal.
If Christie comes through, as is likely, it will be the second consecutive tournament in which he and Prannoy will be clashing in an early round. Prannoy will once again fancy his chances, for he had scored an outstanding 21-18, 21-17 win over the 20-year-old Christie in last week's Japan Open, before being escorted to the exit door by Christie's compatriot, Ginting. A win would propel Prannoy into a quarter-final with China's second-seeded Shi Yuqi, in the last quadrant of the 32-player draw.
As for the Indian women, it is the usual two suspects, Saina Nehwal and Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, in the fray. In the sheer euphoria of the memory of Srikanth's 2014 win, it should not be forgotten that Saina had won the China Open in the same year, whipping Japan's Akane Yamaguchi 21-12, 22-20 in the final. She also reached the final of the competition in the following year, but had to settle for second place after a loss to the then rampant Li Xuerui of the host nation.
This time, Saina has a veritable minefield to negotiate before she can even consider a third China Open final. She has a lung-opener on Tuesday against South Korea's 26-year-old Sung Ji Hyun, whom she has engaged in 11 previous duels, and holds an impressive 9-2 lead. Sung has said in the past that she dislikes playing against the temperamentally solid Indian; there is little reason to feel that she can narrow the chasm that exists between them.
If Saina overcomes her opening challenge, she will face the winner of the match between fifth-seeded Chen Yufei of the host nation and left-handed Sayaka Sato of Japan. All these players are bracketed in the same quarter of the draw as third-seeded Sindhu, who, incidentally, is also a previous China Open winner, having edged Sun Yu in three games in the 2016 version of the tournament.
The tall Hyderabadi has to deal initially with a Japanese player, whose first name sounds uncannily similar to that of Sindhu's senior compatriot at the Gopichand Academy – Saena Kawakami. Vaulting that hurdle on Tuesday will put the No 3 seed in line with a clash against the winner of the tie between Beatriz Corrales of Spain and Busanan Ongbamrungphan of Thailand. Both are eminently manageable, though the Thai has sorely troubled Sindhu on occasion.
All these players are grouped in the third quadrant of the draw, while the final quadrant has No 2 seed, Yamaguchi, and local No 7 seed, He Bingjiao. At the top of the draw, unsurprisingly, is Chinese Taipei's World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying, whose aura of invincibility has developed numerous cracks of late. The Taiwanese ace will face a test of fire in the quarter-final against the three-time world champion and Olympic gold medallist, Carolina Marin, fresh from her successful defence of the Japan Open title.
The soft-spoken Indian ace was not known for her aggression till five years back and it was chief national coach Pullela Gopichand, who had transformed her into an aggressive player ahead of the Rio Games.
Sindhu is one of the favourites for the gold, especially in the absence of defending champion Carolina Marin, who missed the Games due to an injury.
Sindhu added she used the break to learn more and focus on her technique and skills.