By any yardstick, Saina Nehwal’s 22-20, 21-18 victory over fifth seeded Carolina Marin of Spain in Wednesday’s opening round of the women’s singles of the 2017 Denmark Open Superseries Premier badminton championships must be termed a triumph of grit, single-minded dedication, steely temperament and canny strategy.
Battling every conceivable demon in her mind after losing four of their last five encounters to the reigning European champion and two-time former world champion, and having had to battle back after a career-threatening knee injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics, a calm and coldly determined Nehwal turned the tables on her ferocious, screeching rival with a truly virtuoso display of controlled badminton.
The Indian’s brilliance revolved around two pivots – not allowing Marin to dictate the pace and trend of the rallies, and not permitting her feisty rival to take a runaway lead. The Spanish southpaw is at her most dangerous when she does the front-running, and when she uses her footspeed to be a half-step ahead of her antagonist in the rallies. Nehwal simply got every shuttle back, forcing Marin to go for risky strokes, and err in length and direction.
Just twice in the course of their 46-minute battle did the 27-year-old Indian allowed her 24-year-old left-handed rival to get on the ascendant – and that was for very brief periods, at 19-18 in the first game, and at the start of the second game, when Marin built up a slender 6-4 lead. Otherwise, Nehwal led throughout the match by at least a point or two, and by substantial 16-11 and 19-14 margins in the second stanza.
Unfortunately for the Indian cause at the $750,000 prize money tournament, Nehwal’s magnificent display against her much-accomplished rival failed to inspire her compatriot, second-seeded Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, as the rangy 22-year-old Hyderabadi went through her all-too-familiar game-closing blues, to lose by a 17-21, 21-23 margin to the dangerous 19-year-old Chinese, Chen Yufei.
Yufei, who is currently ranked 10th on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) computer, shrugged off the fact that she trailed Sindhu 1-2 in career head-to-head meetings, and that she had been thrashed by a 13-21, 10-21 scoreline at the World Championships in Glasgow, just two months earlier.
The Indian recovered after an indifferent start to go into the mid-game interval with a slender 11-10 lead, but found Chen snapping at her heels throughout the next few minutes, to be level at 17-all. There, Sindhu’s challenge dissolved in a spate of unforced errors, and the first game was gone without any addition to her own score.
Unable to move with the alacrity she had displayed in Glasgow, and lacking her usual power in her smashes, the lanky Hyderabadi muddled her way along in the second game, conceding leads of 3-7, 10-15 and 16-20, to stand on the brink of the precipice. Belatedly, pride came to the fore, and Sindhu fought back to level the score at 20-all, and again at 21-all, but the Chinese teenager would not be denied her hour in the sun.
As in the women’s singles, the five-man Indian challenge in the men’s singles has suffered drastic reduction; and only two men, eighth-seeded Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy, remain in the fray at the end of the opening-round matches.
While Ajay Jayaram and Sameer Verma were shown to have withdrawn before the start of the main-draw matches, Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth suffered a demoralising 10-21, 15-21 defeat at the hands of local favourite Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus. The wily Dane, who had beaten the Indian in the 2013 French Open and 2016 All England, made their career record 3-0 in his favour with a fluent performance.
Subhankar Dey, who had the distinction of making it through the preliminaries to the main draw after compatriot Parupalli Kashyap had failed on Tuesday in his bid to qualify (with an abject 4-21, 19-21 defeat at the hands of Japan’s Takuma Ueda), had the misfortune of coming up against Srikanth, who showed little mercy while taming him by a 21-17, 21-15 scoreline in just 35 minutes.
The 24-year-old Srikanth has a somewhat tricky match on Thursday against South Korea’s Jeon Hyeok Jin, two years his junior, and ranked 35th in the world. The two have met just once before – four years ago, in the 2013 Thailand Open, when the Indian had emerged a comfortable winner. But that result cannot be considered an indicator of current form.
Prannoy, the only other Indian left in the men’s singles draw, was stretched all the way to the tape by the host nation’s Emil Holst, before he could escape with a 48-minute 21-18, 21-19 win, to earn a second-round meeting with the No 7 seed, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia.
Although he trails the 35-year-old Malaysian 1-2 in career meetings, the Kerala player will be buoyed by the result of their most recent encounter – a thumping 21-10, 21-18 shock in the Indonesia Open Superseries Premier, four months back. Prannoy, incidentally, had also beaten Lee in the Premier Badminton League in India, when he had notched up seven victories on the trot, without a single loss.
Indian badminton fans will also look forward to Saina Nehwal’s second round encounter with Nitchaon Jindapol, the 26-year-old Thai who had beaten her at the Indonesia Open this year, for her first victory over the Indian in eight meetings. On current form, Nehwal looks an odds-on favourite to make their career record 8-1 in her favour after Thursday’s contest.
Meanwhile, teenaged doubles specialist Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who had come unscathed through two mixed doubles qualifying rounds in the company of Ashwini Ponnappa, was doomed to disappointment in his opening-round matches of the main draws in both the men’s doubles and mixed doubles.
The husky 17-year old Rankireddy virtually sleepwalked through his early-morning mixed clash against Denmark’s none-too-strong Niclas Nohr and Sara Thygesen, for a 19-21, 17-21 defeat. When he reviews a recording of the match, the Indian will realise that he would normally have won nine times out of ten against these rather ordinary Danes, ranked well below him in the BWF doubles ratings.
Rankireddy had thoroughly woken up by the time he had to play his men’s doubles match with Chirag Shetty against South Koreans Chung Eui Seok and Kim Dukyoung, but the Indians’ effort was insufficient to claim a place in the second round, as they went down after handily winning the first game, at 21-14, 18-21, 17-21.
India’s other three aspirants in the main draws of the paired events – Manu Attri with Sumeet B Reddy (men’s doubles), Ashwini Ponnappa with N Sikki Reddy (women’s doubles), and Pranaav Jerry Chopra with Sikki Reddy (mixed doubles) – were also shown the exit door, with the last-named combination having bowed out late on Tuesday night itself at the hands of the Irish brother-and-sister pairing of Sam Magee and Chloe Magee at 17-21, 15-21.
Attri and Sumeet Reddy managed to keep pace with the towering sixth seeded twosome of Mads Conrad-Petersen and Mads Pieler Kolding until 17-all in the second game after losing the first tamely, but could not get the points that mattered, and were eliminated at 13-21, 18-21.
But the unluckiest losers of the day were Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy, who held match-point twice, at 20-19 and 21-20 in the decider against Chow Mei Kuan and Lee Meng Yean, only to concede victory to the Malaysians at 21-15, 18-21, 21-23. The Indians actually won 60 points in the match against the Malaysians’ 59, but this statistic did not help them stave off defeat in the 68-minute first-round encounter.
This Denmark Open has also proved to be a huge disappointment for China’s top four male players. Five-time former world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist Lin Dan, seeded third, withdrew from the event at the last minute, while two-time former world champion Chen Long, fourth-seeded Shi Yuqi and upcoming Tian Houwei all had to taste defeat in their opening outings of this prestigious event.
There was not too much surprise in Tian’s 20-22, 14-21 defeat at the hands of the fifth-seeded Chinese Taipei player, Chou Tien Chen, but doughty 31-year-old Englishman Rajiv Ouseph’s facile 38-minute 21-19, 21-13 triumph over All-England runner-up Shi did cause several raised eyebrows.
No doubt the fans failed to remember that Ouseph had thrashed Shi at 21-12, 21-15 in the Indonesian Open Superseries Premier, exactly four months ago; and claims a 2-0 career head-to-head lead over the fast-rising 20 year old Chinese player, currently ranked No 4 on the BWF computer.
The biggest shock of the day was the manner in which Chen Long was outmanoeuvred and outplayed at 21-19, 22-20 by the most venerable player in the tournament, South Korean veteran Lee Hyun Il, who scored his third victory in eight meetings with the redoubtable Chinese sixth seed.
At the ripe old age of 37, Lee seems to have gained a sort of second wind in a two-decade long international career, and has risen to the 22nd spot in the BWF rankings. He has always troubled Chen with his unconventional style, immaculate defence and ability to go the full distance if needed; and had stretched the Chinese ace to three long, tight games at 24-26, 21-15, 17-21 at the Australian Open in June this year.
With all the stellar Chinese gone in the men’s singles, the path has been cleared for top-seeded Son Wan Ho and second-ranked Viktor Axelsen to eye a summit clash between them.
The Korean World No 1 struggled to tame Indonesia’s Anthony Sinisuka Ginting in three tight games, while the recently crowned world champion from Denmark sailed through untroubled against qualifier Takuma Ueda, conqueror of Kashyap in the preliminaries. On current form, Axelsen must be considered the hot favourite for the gold medal in his home tournament.
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Updated Date: Oct 19, 2017 11:39:53 IST