The burden of flying the Indian Tricolor at the $700,000 China Open Superseries Premier badminton championships has fallen squarely on the shoulders of PV Sindhu, but the World No 2 and second seed would be enormously cheered by the knowledge that her quarter-final encounter on Friday will not be against her recent tormentor, Japan’s reigning world champion Nozomi Okuhara.
Sindhu had lost two of her last three jousts to Okuhara, including the final of the 2017 World Championships by a heart-breaking 20-22 scoreline in the deciding game in what is considered one of the finest women’s singles matches in the history of the sport. Their most recent bout, at the Japan Open two months ago, had ended in an ignominious 18-21, 8-21 defeat for the Indian.
It would, therefore, have been with a lighter heart that Sindhu would have watched the diminutive sixth-seeded Japanese hobble off the court at Fuzhou’s Haixia Olympic Sports Centre on Wednesday, and concede her opening round clash against qualifier Gao Fangjie of the host nation, after just one point.
Not that the Hyderabadi would have wished any ill to befall Okuhara; she would only have been relieved that she would not be called upon to indulge in another physically and emotionally debilitating duel with her antagonist.
Sindhu cruised to a relatively effortless 21-15, 21-13 triumph in her second round duel on Thursday with another Chinese qualifier, 17-year-old Han Yue, ranked No 104 on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) computer. She has now been handed the task of crossing swords with the 19-year-old Gao, who was most impressive while eliminating the 21st ranked South Korean, Lee Jang Mi at 21-16, 21-15.
The teenager, ranked 89th in the world, is one of a rich crop of Chinese teenagers looking to make their mark on the international circuit. The highest rank she has achieved is No 72, in mid-June this year, but has since had limited opportunities to improve her ranking, since the Chinese badminton bosses use an iron hand while controlling their wards’ participation in tournaments outside the country. In the Macau Open a week ago, Gao lost a close hour-long match to her equally talented compatriot Zhang Yiman in the Round of 16.
Sindhu will hence have to draw on all her rich experience to win her maiden encounter with the Chinese shuttler, and progress to a penultimate round meeting with the winner of the last-eight clash between two left-handers, Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin of Spain and China’s He Bingjiao. The Spaniard leads the head-to-head tally between the two southpaws by a 2-0 margin.
Earlier in the day, Japan’s No 5 seed, Akane Yamaguchi, had worn down India’s former World No 1, Saina Nehwal, posting a convincing 21-18, 21-11 victory over the Indian ace, who had recently been crowned her country’s national champion for the third time in her illustrious career.
It was apparent that the strongly-built Yamaguchi won their clash in the first game itself by putting up a stout defence against the best of Nehwal’s body smashes, and reached every stroke her rival threw at her. So confident was the Japanese player that she used her tosses and clears from the net mostly along the centre of the court, avoiding the sidelines where the shuttle could have landed out in the stadium drift. The only time she went for the lines was when she employed the smash herself.
It is depressing to note the 1-4 career head-to-head deficit that Nehwal now sports against the 20-year-old Fukui native; and it is a piquant quirk of fate that the Indian’s latest 18-21, 11-21 loss to the super-fit Japanese ace took place on 16th November, the exact same day in 2014 when she notched her only victory over the then 17-year-old Yamaguchi at 21-12, 22-20 in the final of this very tournament.
As for HS Prannoy, the sole Indian left in the men’s singles after the opening-round exit of Sourabh Verma, the Kerala-born 25-year-old was dumped from the tournament by Hong Kong’s sprightly 21-year-old Lee Cheuk Yiu, who had been promoted to the tournament proper from the qualifying ranks, and had comfortably put away Chinese qualifier Zhou Zeqi in his first outing on Wednesday.
Lee has been making his way steadily up through the ranks, and Thursday’s newly issued BWF rankings list saw him improve three spots to the 50th position, even as Prannoy made his maiden entry into the world’s top ten by improving one spot from his 11th position of last week.
The Hong Kong player made light of the difference of 40 ranking places between him and Prannoy, and employed a relentless attack to eliminate the Indian ace by a 21-19, 21-17 verdict in a matter of 42 minutes. Lee was vociferously egged on by an understandably partisan crowd, as he adopted the classic singles dribble-and-smash pattern to tear deep rents in the Indian’s normally reliable defence.
Lee’s reward for his sterling second-round efforts was a quarter-final meeting with South Korea’s World No 3, Son Wan Ho, whom he will also be facing for the first time. Other than the eclipse of the two players seeded third — five-time former world champion Lin Dan, and South Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun — the tournament has seen all the other fancied players progress to the last-eight stage with minimum fuss.
The stellar quarter-finals on Friday will be as follows (seedings precede names, Q indicates qualifier, PFQ indicates promoted from qualifying):
1-Viktor Axelsen (Denmark) vs 5-Chou Tien Chen (Chinese Taipei),
Ng Ka Long Angus (Hong Kong) vs 7-Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia),
6-Chen Long (China) vs 4-Shi Yuqi (China),
PFQ-Lee Cheuk Yiu (Hong Kong) vs 2-Son Wan Ho (Korea)
1-Tai Tzu Ying (Chinese Taipei) vs 8-Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand),
Q-Ji Shuting (China) vs 5-Akane Yamaguchi (Japan),
7-He Bingjiao (China) vs 4-Carolina Marin (Spain),
Q-Gao Fangjie (China) vs 2-PV Sindhu (India)
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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2017 10:51:22 IST