Denmark Open Superseries Premier: PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth carry the weight of India’s aspirations
PV Sindhu, presently No 2 in the BWF rankings, and Kidambi Srikanth, who won back-to-back Superseries titles in Indonesia and Australia, are the strongest contenders from India.
After a reasonable gap of three weeks, following the conclusion of the Japan Open Superseries on 24 September, the badminton circus swings back into Europe with the Denmark Open Superseries Premier championships that will run at the Odense Sports Park from 17 to 22 October, and offer the world’s top shuttlers a shot at a rich purse of $750,000.
Following the ascension to the world throne of Denmark’s gangling Viktor Axelsen and Japan’s pint-sized Nozomi Okuhara in Glasgow, as also the belated return to form of Olympic gold medallist and two-time former world champion Carolina Marin at the Japan Open, the attention of the badminton world will be concentrated on these three fine players, who are all in the fray at Odense, though none of them has claimed the distinction of being top-seeded in the stellar singles events.
For India, the burden of carrying the hopes and aspirations of 1.2 billion of their countrymen will fall on the shoulders of PV Sindhu, presently placed on the second rung of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, and Kidambi Srikanth, whose back-to-back Superseries titles in Indonesia and Australia in mid-2017 had made him a front-runner at the last World Championships in Glasgow, only to flatter to deceive his vast army of supporters.
Of the two, it must be conceded that the 22-year-old Sindhu has the better chances of pocketing the Denmark Open crown. Placed on the opposite end of the draw as the top-ranked Chinese Taipei star, Tai Tzu Ying, the Hyderabadi, nevertheless, faces a tough initial examination at the hands of Chinese teenager Chen Yufei, ranked No 10 in the world. The two have clashed on three previous occasions, including twice in the course of this year; and the head-to-head record reads 2-1 in Sindhu’s favour.
The lanky Indian was beaten in three tough games by Chen at the Malaysia Open Superseries Premier in April this year, but stormed through their World Championship encounter, conceding just 13 and 10 points in the two games they were required to play. Indeed, so well did Sindhu play in this competition, that she went untroubled through to the final, where she lost to Okuhara after one of the longest, most absorbing and most bitterly contested encounters in the sport’s history.
If Sindhu can maintain the level of form she showed in Glasgow, she should be able to stroll through her second-round outing against unheralded opposition, and make her way through to the third round, where seventh-seeded He Bingjiao of China, South Korea’s Jang Mi Lee and rangy Japanese left-hander Sayaka Sato will be shooting for that pre-quarter-final spot opposite the Indian.
India’s erstwhile badminton queen, Saina Nehwal, has been given one of the toughest opening assignments in the 32-player draw — taking on the No 5 seed and two-time former world champion Marin of Spain. The Spanish southpaw, in the wake of a barren patch following her Olympic gold medal triumph in Rio last year, got her mojo back at the Japan Open, taking the title at the expense of fellow-left-hander He Bingjiao.
Marin has freely admitted that Nehwal was her toughest opponent on the world circuit in the 2013-2015 period; and that she only hit the summit at the 2015 World Championships after she and coach Fernando Rivas finally figured out a way of taming the Indian. But after three initial defeats at Saina’s hands, the Spaniard has turned the tables around so effectively, that she has won four of their last five clashes.
The two thus go into their ninth career meeting, deadlocked at four matches all, but with the knowledge that Marin has won their most recent two encounters — in Indonesia last year and Japan this year — in straight games, and in most convincing fashion. So, while Marin is steadily back on her way to the very top, after a few months of unconvincing performances, the Indian is still not at anywhere near her best, or where she was before that knee injury laid her low at Rio in August 2016.
One interesting point must be underscored here. Both Marin and Saina are in the third quarter of the draw, with whoever comes through from this section scheduled to bump into Sindhu at the semi-final stage — if the latter gets there. The top half of the draw features Chinese Taipei’s World No 1 Tai, third-seeded Korean Sung Ji Hyun, China’s No 6 seed, Sun Yu, and Japan’s eighth-seeded Okuhara, the reigning world champion.
Five Indians have made the cut in the 32-player men’s singles main draw, which is headed by World No 1 and bronze medallist at the Glasgow World Championships, Son Wan Ho. Axelsen, only a handful of circuit points behind the South Korean, gets the second seeding, with Chinese stalwarts Lin Dan and Shi Yuqi bringing up the third and fourth spots in the seedings’ list.
Of the Indian quintet, Srikanth is the only one to feature among the seedings, at the eighth spot. He has drawn a qualifier for his opening encounter, and then takes on the winner of the Brice Leverdez (France) versus Jeon Hyeok Jin (Korea) first-round clash. None of these players should bother the Indian, who looks set for a quarter-final joust with Axelsen, who is first required to get past Sameer Verma in the second round, after both drew qualifiers for their initial outings.
Amazing as it may seem, the 19th-ranked Sameer has clashed with the towering Dane just once in the course of their respective careers — and that was six years back, when they were both juniors. Axelsen edged the Indian at 21-19, 21-19 in the 2011 World Junior Championships, and went on to bag the crown. The two have subsequently bumped into each other in the Premier Badminton League, but the results of that masala tournament are not counted in the official head-to-head records.
Ajay Jayaram, who celebrated his 30th birthday barely a fortnight ago, has the redoubtable Chinese two-time Olympic gold medallist and five-time world champion, Lin, for his initial opponent. The records show that the two antagonists have met only once earlier — at the 2012 All England Superseries, when the Chinese legend scored a fairly comfortable 21-18, 21-15 triumph over Jayaram.
B Sai Praneeth, astride the 17th rung in the BWF rankings, has been given the task of taking on local favourite Hans Kristian Solberg Vittinghus, ranked nine places below him. Vittinghus actually leads their meetings record 2-0, having beaten the Indian in the 2013 French Open and 2016 All England. But Praneeth is a much improved player in the course of the past one year, and the Danish battler will not have matters all his own way.
The winner of this tie takes on the man who triumphs in the clash between Hong Kong’s No 5 seed, Chou Tien Chen and China’s Tian Houwei, who narrowly missed out on being amongst the elite seeds. And, to make matters even more complicated for the Indian, all these players are clustered in Lin’s quarter of the draw.
As for the No 15 ranked HS Prannoy, the 25-year-old Kerala shuttler bumps into Denmark’s Emil Holst, over whom he holds a 2-0 career advantage. However, the last time the two met was exactly three years ago, when Prannoy edged Holst at 30-28 in the deciding game of their heart-stoppingly close encounter in the 2014 Bitburger Open.
The Prannoy-Holst winner takes on No 7 seed, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, who crosses swords with Spain’s Pablo Abian in his lung-opener, and should win easily. The one who emerges unscathed from this foursome takes on top-seeded Son in the quarter-final, provided the stocky Korean gets the measure of Indonesia’s Anthony Sinisuka Ginting and Denmark’s Anders Antonsen in his first two rounds.
Before the start of the tournament proper on Wednesday, there is the little matter of the preliminary qualifying rounds, to be fought over on Tuesday. It has come to the lot of 31-year-old Parupalli Kashyap to take on Denmark’s Victor Svendsen in his opening match. Should he win, Kashyap will have to take on the winner of the match between Japan’s Takuma Ueda and Dutchman Erik Meijs, the same afternoon.
The only other Indian in the 16-player qualifying draw, Subhankar Dey, has an opening game against local lad Kim Bruun, one of a large army of Danes who have been accommodated in their home tournament. If Dey gets through his opener, he will have to face the formidable challenge of Japan’s Kazumasa Sakai or Denmark’s Rasmus Gemke.
Sakai, it will be remembered, powered his way from the qualifying rounds into the final of the Indonesian Open Superseries Premier, exactly four months ago, beating a bevy of quality players along the way before coming a cropper at the hands of India’s Srikanth. Dey will have to pull out all stops to qualify for the main draw.
In the women’s singles qualifying draw, the unheralded Anura Prabhudesai is the only Indian in the fray, and has been called upon to face Irina Amalie Andersen of Denmark in her lung-opener. Should she cross this round, she will face Chinese-born Canadian Michelle Li.
While there is no Indian entry in the qualifying rounds of the men’s and women’s doubles, the mixed doubles preliminary rounds will feature 17-year-old Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and 27-year-old Ashwini Ponnappa, who have been drawn against Danes Kristoffer Knudsen and Isabella Nielsen.
Should the Indians win, they would most probably run into yet another Danish combination, Mikkel Stoffersen and Susan Ekelund. It is a none-too-difficult ask; and the talented Indian pair has a gilt-edged opportunity of barging into the main draw.
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