What a major reversal of fortunes the year-ending Dubai World Badminton Superseries Finals have seen for the two leading Indian contenders for the stellar singles honours!
Kidambi Srikanth, who had won four Superseries titles during the year, and had seemed almost invincible at the end of the French Open, barely six weeks ago, crashed to his second successive straight-games defeat, and exited the race for a semi-final spot in the US$1 million prize money championship.
However, his compatriot, PV Sindhu, who went through an up-and-down 2017 season, put the smiles back on the faces of a galaxy of expatriate Indian fans here in the United Arab Emirates, by producing a commanding performance on Thursday, and sealing her spot in the last-four with one group match to spare.
The 22-year-old Sindhu hit top gear at the Sheikh Hamdan Indoor Stadium against Japan’s 27-year-old Sayaka Sato, and notched up a thumping 21-13, 21-12 win in a mere 36 minutes. The facile triumph took the Indian’s tally to 3-1 in four career meetings against the Japanese left-hander, with all three victories having come between June and December this year.
“Luckily, I did not feel any after-effects of (Wednesday’s) long match against Bingjiao, and my movement on the court was better than it had been yesterday,” said Sindhu. “I am happy to have qualified for the semi-finals, but would like to maintain the momentum in my last group match on Friday.”
Sindhu remained jointly atop Group ‘A’ with Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi, who carved out a 21-14, 13-21, 21-8 victory in 49 minutes over China’s He Bingjiao. The superior fitness and sustained foot speed of the 20-year-old Japanese top seed made all the difference in the final reckoning, as the stocky Chinese southpaw, having put everything she had into the second game, faded away in the decider.
Both Sindhu and Yamaguchi have two victories from as many matches, while Sato and He are without a win after two matches each. Friday’s clash between the two group leaders will provide a clear-cut result – it will decide which player will finally head the pool, and avoid a semi-final play-off with the winner of the other pool.
Group ‘B’, by contrast, was thrown wide open on Thursday when Thailand’s 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon, scored her second consecutive triumph in the competition. The 22-year-old Thai produced strokes of rare vintage in her 21-18, 21-17 verdict over Chinese Taipei’s equally strokeful and deceptive Tai Tzu Ying, winner of five Superseries titles in the 2017 season.
None of the women in this pool can, as yet, lay claim to a semi-final spot, since three of them could conceivably finish their group engagements with two victories apiece, just as three of them could finish with two defeats and one win each.
China’s Chen Yufei, a loser to Tai by the narrowest of margins on Wednesday, claimed a noteworthy 21-16, 21-13 victory over South Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun, and will take on Intanon on Friday in what will be the concluding group engagement for both. In Friday’s other Group ‘B’ tie, Tai will try to score over Sung, to keep herself in the race for a semi-final berth.
A victory for the Taiwanese ace over the thus far winless Sung will put her in the runner-up spot in the pool, provided Intanon scores over Chen, and tops the pool with three clear victories. But if Chen wins against the Thai, three players will end with 2-1 records, and only the number of games won versus games lost will determine which two go through to the penultimate reckoning.
Yet another scenario is possible – if Intanon beats Yufei, and Sung scores over Tai. In such a situation, the Thai girl will be the undisputed group topper, while the other three women will finish with two defeats against a solitary win each. It will then be time to pull out the calculators again.
There will be no such complications in Group ‘B’ of the men’s singles, after Srikanth, one of the leading contenders for the crown, was unexpectedly outpaced and outmanoeuvred by Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei, and went down by an 18-21, 18-21 scoreline in 43 minutes.
The Indian, who had lost in two straight games to Danish world champion Viktor Axelsen on Wednesday, thus remained winless after two outings, and cannot make the semi-finals even if he wins his last group match against China’s 2017 All England runner-up, Shi Yuqi.
The 21-year-old up-and-coming Chinese player conjured up the shock of the tournament by outlasting Axelsen by a 13-21, 21-18, 21-17 margin in a 73-minute humdinger. Shi’s crowning glory was his gritty comeback after trailing 2-9 in the decider, and the manner in which he overturned a 14-17 deficit to win the final seven points of the match against the defending champion.
This combination of results in Group ‘B’ meant that the Chinese, who had scored over Chou on the opening day of the competition by a 21-19, 21-17 verdict, was able to seal his semi-final spot with two victories and no defeats after two matches. The other semi-final berth will be occupied by the winner of the final group encounter on Friday between Axelsen and Chou, who have one win each.
There could, however, be a three-way tie in Group ‘A’, where the competition was reduced by the last-minute withdrawal of China’s Rio Olympics gold medalist Chen Long. Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus, who had lost in straight games to Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei on Wednesday, turned the form-book upside-down by lowering the colours of South Korea’s Son Wan Ho, by a 21-15, 13-21, 21-16 margin.
On Friday, if Son manages somehow to slip it across Lee, all three players would end up with a win and a loss apiece, and the semi-finalists will be decided on number of games won and lost. The chances, however, are that Lee will beat Son and top the group, with the Hong Kong player being the runner-up, and a surprise qualifier for the semi-finals.
Srikanth should really have been at least in the position that Angus finds himself. Normally a speedy, aggressive customer, the Indian found it difficult to match the scorching pace that Chou set from the very outset, and was repeatedly forced on the defensive. Starting badly with a 0-5 deficit, the Indian was unable to dictate the pace and trend of the rallies, as he is used to doing against most players; and trailed throughout the opening game.
The Taiwanese was as far ahead as 18-8 at one stage, before Srikanth launched a rearguard action that brought him very close to his opponent, who was starting to look increasingly nervy. From 12-20, the Indian wrested a half-dozen points in an unbroken reel, before Chou somehow managed to induce a mishit off a hard push to Srikanth’s body.
The Indian appeared to have regained the initiative in the second stanza, when he led by a point or two before opening out 13-9 and 17-14 leads. But he found it difficult to respond effectively when the 27-year-old Taiwanese upped his speed and controlled the net better to force the Indian into errors galore, and take seven of the final eight points, to seal a well-deserved victory.
“I lost momentum with the break I took after my victories in the Denmark and French Opens, followed by the Indian Nationals,” Srikanth said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have taken such a long break, and should have played in China or Hong Kong. But I had a strained thigh muscle, and thought the rest would do me good.
“Anyway, it isn’t something you can predict. You have to be at your best in tournaments like these where there are top players in all the matches. Chou played really well to pull out the second game, and I made too many defensive errors. Frankly, I am disappointed; I should have done much better.”
The Taiwanese, on the other hand, was understandably elated to stay alive in the world’s richest tournament, and now contemplates a decisive clash with world champion Axelsen on Friday.
“I tried my best today; I had nothing to lose,” Chou said. “We are all top players, so we are all at about the same level. Even yesterday, there was nothing much to separate me from Shi Yuqi. Today, I wanted to restrict his (Srikanth’s) attack, and I am happy to have won. Tomorrow, I will play Viktor. I think it will be a great match.”
What induces a feeling of desolation in the heart of the Indian badminton supporter is the fact that, even if Srikanth wins his third and final group match on Friday against Shi by a thumping margin, he cannot alter the script for the semi-finals. Win or lose, the Indian is destined to occupy the cellar of Group ‘B’ with the loser of the Axelsen-Chou tie. And that, for the winner of four Superseries titles this year, is the ultimate tragedy.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Dec 15, 2017 09:50:33 IST