India’s flag-bearers, Kidambi Srikanth and PV Sindhu, have been given relatively easy draws in the year-ending Dubai Superseries finals, which kick off at the Sheikh Hamdan Indoor Stadium from the morning of Wednesday, 13 December.
In the preliminary group stage, during the first three days of the $1 million prize money five-day competition, two sets of four players will play against one another in a round-robin format. The top two from each group will clash in the cross-over play-off semi-finals (in which A1 will play B2, while B1 will take on A2), with the winners going through to the summit clash, to claim the richest prize in the sport.
Srikanth, by virtue of being second in the list on the strength of points garnered during the 2017 season, has been drawn in Group ‘B’ with China’s Shi Yuqi, Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen and Denmark’s reigning world champion, Viktor Axelsen. Group ‘A’ features South Korea’s Son Wan Ho, Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei, Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus and China’s two-time former world champion, Chen Long.
In the women’s singles, Sindhu, who finished fourth in the race to qualify for the season-ending grand finals, has been drawn in Group ‘A’, in the company of China’s He Bingjiao, and two Japanese players, the 27-year-old left-hander, Sayaka Sato, and the 20-year-old Akane Yamaguchi, who ended what was her best-ever season with 83,710 points — the most by any player, male or female.
The lanky Japanese southpaw, Sato, was actually 10th in the list of qualifiers, one spot ahead of India’s Saina Nehwal; but was called up into the final-eight after Spain’s 2016 Olympic gold medalist, Carolina Marin, and reigning world champion, Nozomi Okuhara, withdrew from the tournament, citing injury.
The other group features the current World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, South Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun, Thailand’s 2013 world champion Ratchanok Intanon and China’s Chen Yufei. Tai, with 94,259 points, actually had nearly 15,000 more points than second-ranked Yamaguchi (with 79,549), but was able to gather just 79,420 points in the race to Destination Dubai, thanks to her playing in just 13 tournaments, compared to Yamaguchi’s 83,710 points from participation in 18 championships.
What makes Srikanth’s task of qualifying for the semi-finals easier is the fact that he has an excellent 3-0 record in career meetings with the 21-year-old Shi Yuqi, and is deadlocked at 1-1 against Chinese Taipei’s Chou, with their last meeting taking place in this very tournament in 2015. The Indian has improved enormously since then, both in terms of speed and stamina, and is unlikely to be troubled by the Taiwanese.
That leaves Srikanth with just defending champion Axelsen to worry about in his group. The towering Dane, whose maiden title in the 2016 Dubai event broke the hoodoo of his having ended runner-up on seven previous occasions in Superseries tournament finals, is deadlocked at 3-all in career head-to-heads with Srikanth.
The Odense-born Axelsen had lost to the Indian in his home town, in the quarter-final of the Denmark Open Superseries Premier, on the last occasion that the two met. The scores, on that occasion, were 14-21, 22-20, 21-7 in Srikanth’s favour; and the triumph had reversed a three-match losing streak for the Indian at Axelsen’s hands.
With that mental fillip, of having beaten the Dane in his own den, the aggressive Srikanth could go all out to finish atop Group ‘B’. He would then be required to take on the second-placed player in the other group that features two players who have won this particular tournament earlier — Malaysia’s Lee in 2013, and China’s Chen Long in 2012 and 2014. Even if the Indian finishes with two wins and a loss, he would be strongly favoured to go through to the play-off semi-finals.
In a very similar situation as Srikanth is Sindhu, in Group ‘A’ of the women’s singles. The powerful, but inconsistent, 22-year-old Indian leads Japan’s Sato 2-1 in career head-to-heads, with victories in both their meetings in 2017 — at the Australian and China Opens — though both triumphs came after long-drawn battles. Sindhu also holds a comfortable 4-2 lead against Yamaguchi, having beaten the pugnacious Japanese in three of their last four stand-offs.
It is only Sindhu’s win-loss record against China’s left-handed He Bingjiao that gives some cause for concern. The Indian is a desperately tight 4-5 behind, but holds the distinction of having won their most recent clash — at the Korea Open, three months ago, by a 21-10, 17-21, 21-16 scoreline.
It should also be noted that neither of the two has let the other get away to a runaway lead. After losing their first two meetings in 2015-16, Sindhu has claimed victory on every alternate occasion that they have met, so close is their rivalry. The greatest advantage for He is the fact that Sindhu is distinctly uncomfortable playing against left-handers, and figuring out their deceptive strokes.
On the strength of her performance in the most recent Superseries tournament, the Hong Kong Open, where she defeated both Yamaguchi and Intanon in successive rounds before coming a cropper against Tai, Sindhu will be heavily favoured to make the semi-finals. If she should top her group, she will avoid a last-four clash with Tai, whose wizardry she has not been able to unravel, as her inferior 3-8 record against the Taiwanese shows.
Having had more than a fortnight, after the Hong Kong Open final on 26 November, to rest and recharge her batteries, Sindhu is expected to be in the right frame of mind and body to tackle the challenges thrown up by the Dubai Superseries finals. With Srikanth having taken a much longer period to get over his thigh strain and attain full fitness, the Indian challenge should be at its strongest when the world’s richest badminton tournament kicks off in the Arabian desert.
Updated Date: Dec 12, 2017 15:06:49 IST