Indian badminton supporters had the most satisfying Thursday when all three of the country’s remaining singles exponents—Saina Nehwal, HS Prannoy and Kidambi Srikanth—cleared their second-round hurdles at the Odense Sports Park, to barge into the quarter-finals of the $750,000 Denmark Open Superseries Premier championships.
The big story of the day was Prannoy’s measured 64-minute 21-17, 11-21, 21-19 victory over the No 7 seed from Malaysia, Lee Chong Wei, who had taken the court with the full intention of avenging his straight-games loss to the Indian in the first round of the Indonesia Open in June this year.
That the 35-year-old battle-scarred veteran could not achieve his objective despite his best efforts behooves to the credit of the Kerala-born, Hyderabad-based player, fully a decade his junior. There was the familiar control over length of stroke that is the hallmark of Prannoy’s game, and the unhurried defence in the face of some of the most powerful smashes struck by the wiry Lee.
But there can also be no doubt that Old Father Time has claimed his pound of flesh, and that the Malaysian, one of the hardest workers on the international circuit, was finding it increasingly difficult to last out the full length of a long-drawn encounter. The eight-point burst in the decider that catapulted Prannoy from a 10-13 deficit to an 18-13 lead, helped the Indian hold out in the closing reaches of the decider, when Lee pulled out all the stops in a final despairing effort at breasting the tape.
Meanwhile, Prannoy’s fellow-trainee at the Pullela Gopichand Academy, Kidambi Srikanth, justified his eighth seeding by narrowly squeaking past South Korea’s pugnacious Jeon Hyeok Jin by a 21-13, 8-21, 21-18 verdict in extremely trying playing conditions, with the cross-drift in the hall making shuttle control impossible from one side.
So pronounced was the drift that matches virtually became what tennis great Andre Agassi would have labelled a ‘crap shoot’. It explained why so many matches on the day had an identical pattern—one player winning the first game easily, only to lose the second by an equally huge margin. Like it happened to Prannoy against Lee, or to Srikanth against Jeon.
Further, the absorbing Indo-Korean pre-quarter-final contest was interrupted at 1-0 to Jeon in the deciding game, by a 50-minute long failure of the lights on Court No 3, on which the match was being played. It must have wreaked havoc in the concentration of both the opponents, as there was no saying when the lights would come back on at normal power.
In fact, Nehwal’s joust against Thailand’s Nitchaon Jindapol, which was to have followed Srikanth’s match on that diabolical No 3 court, had to be moved to Court No 2, on which the drift was a little less pronounced.
The two had played on eight previous occasions, with the Indian winning their first seven clashes, and World No 15 Jindapol finally getting herself on the scoreboard with a win at the Indonesia Open earlier this year.
The 27-year-old Nehwal, who returned last month to the Gopichand Academy after a three-year stint with the Prakash Padukone Academy in Bangalore, cannily started on the ‘bad’ side (from which even a slightly hard push sent the shuttle sailing out), with the thought that she could have the better side in the second game, and the second half of the third game, should the match have gone to a decider.
The Indian, currently ranked 12th in the world, managed to keep her nose ahead by a point or two throughout the first game, during which she had to play with great care to ensure that the shuttle did not drift out at the rival baseline, or along Jindapol’s backhand sideline. It was touch-and-go, and Nehwal did face the mortification of seeing a 20-18 lead evaporate in the face of a sustained onslaught by the 26-year-old Thai.
However, the Indian kept her cool to take the next two crucial points that won her the first game, and then showed a clean pair of heels to Jindapol in the second, to notch a 22-20, 21-13 victory.
Nehwal built up a 11-6 lead, capitalising on an inadvertent spate of over-hits from the Thai; then lapsed into error herself, allowing Jindapol to neutralise at 12-all, only to floor the gas pedal again, and canter to a well-deserved revenge win.
Nehwal earned herself a quarter-final bout on Friday against Japan’s diminutive Akane Yamaguchi, ranked fourth on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) charts. The two have clashed on two previous occasions, and the score stands level at 1-1, with the stocky, strongly-built Yamaguchi winning their most recent encounter, at the Malaysia Open in April this year.
The Indian’s fitness and performance, however, have improved dramatically over the past couple of months, and Yamaguchi will have her hands full controlling the player who opened her campaign in the ongoing Denmark Open with a resounding 22-20, 21-18 triumph over Olympic gold medalist and two-time former world champion Carolina Marin.
As for the two Indian men still in the fray, they will have to contend with the two top-ranked players in the world. Prannoy will cross swords with South Korea’s top seeded Son Wan Ho, while Srikanth will meet recently crowned world champion Viktor Axelsen of the host nation, in what will be a repeat of their Japan Open quarter-final, barely a month ago.
Neither Indian has a good record against his projected quarter-final rival. Prannoy trails the Korean World No 2 by a 1-2 margin in career meetings, but will be cheered by the knowledge that he had emerged victor in their most recent meeting in the Badminton Asia Mixed Team Championship in February this year, by a 24-22, 21-9 scoreline.
Son is one of the fittest players on the world circuit; and, being essentially a defensive player, believes in winning his matches by the long route. Never fazed by the loss of the first game, Son has worn his opponents down in the ongoing competition—Indonesian Anthony Sinisuka Ginting at 21-23, 21-17, 21-17 in the first round; and Denmark’s Anders Antonsen at 20-22, 21-14, 21-18 in the second.
Prannoy’s best chance is to go for a win in straight games, as he had done in the Badminton Asia tournament. The longer the match lasts, the better the chances of the 29-year-old Korean wresting victory by the excruciating Chinese-torture route! Not that Prannoy lacks for physical fitness, but if it is a question of degree of stamina, the weighing scale would tip on Son’s side.
As for Srikanth, the Andhra native will undoubtedly be put to the test by the second-seeded Axelsen, who ascended to the World No 1 position only after the last date for confirming entries to the Denmark Open had lapsed.
The improvement in the Odense-born, Copenhagen-domiciled Dane’s game after his breakthrough win at the season-ending Dubai World Superseries Finals in December 2015 has been marked; and he has simply not looked back. Axelsen had earlier lost in seven Superseries finals without winning a title, and was being cast as the perennial “best man” at someone else’s wedding. No longer.
The world champion, who will play in front of his home crowd, leads the head-to-head with Srikanth 3-2, the most telling statistic being that the towering Dane has won their three most recent encounters in straight games.
The aggressive 24-year-old Indian’s power game holds no terrors for Axelsen, who literally brushed Srikanth aside at 21-7, 21-12 in the 2017 Indian Open, and 21-17, 21-17 in the recent Japan Open. Srikanth will have to come up with something extraordinary to topple the 23-year-old champion from his perch in the badminton stratosphere.
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Updated Date: Oct 20, 2017 08:28:00 IST