In the uncompromising, dog-eat-dog world of highly competitive and immensely remunerative sport, there are no friends, and an athlete would not think twice about engineering the premature exit of a high-quality competitor.
If the average fan of a particular sport accepts this admittedly cynical viewpoint, he would not find it at all strange that the world’s most accomplished female badminton player was unceremoniously bounced out of a lucrative tournament by one she had considered to be a close friend.
Indeed, Chinese Taipei’s world No 1, Tai Tzu Ying, who has been sitting at the very top of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings right through 2017, considers Thailand’s 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon, to be one of her inner circle of friends, and not just on the international badminton circuit.
Yet, it was Intanon who was — intentionally or unwittingly — instrumental in eliminating Tai from contention for a spot in the women’s singles semi-finals of the year-ending Dubai World Superseries grand finals, a tournament that carries a total prize purse of US$1 million. And in the process, Intanon did India’s PV Sindhu a very good turn.
The Indian, along with Japan’s stocky powerhouse, Akane Yamaguchi, had already qualified for the last-four on Thursday itself, by remaining unbeaten after two matches each in Group ‘A’. Their final group clash on Friday would be played only to decide the group winner, who would be able to avoid the topper of Group ‘B’ at the semi-final stage.
The race to finish atop Group ‘B’ was thrown wide open on Thursday, when Intanon notched a brilliant 21-18, 21-17 triumph over Tai, who had, in the opening weeks of 2017, won five consecutive Superseries tournaments (six if one were to count the Dubai Superseries finals of December 2016) and gone 30 matches without a defeat at that stage.
Tai had herself to blame for her loss of momentum, for she had opted to participate in the World University Games in her home town of Taipei in August, at the same time that the BWF World Championships were being held in Glasgow. The 23-year-old Taiwanese was simply not the same all-conquering player in the months that followed the Worlds; and lost to her Thai pal in the Denmark Open Superseries Premier in October, and again in the China Open, a month later.
The two had gone into the Dubai group clash locked at 9-all in career meetings, a record that reflected that Intanon had been one of the very few players who had been able to unlock the secrets of Tai’s deceptive game. A match between the two is akin to being a feast for the gods, for both produce eye-filling and often outrageous strokes that draw gasps of awe from watching spectators.
There is thus reason to believe that Intanon’s Dubai triumph over Tai was no flash in the pan, being her third win over the Taiwanese in their last four meetings. But it is equally true that, of all the players left in the fray with a realistic chance of making the semi-finals, Tai was the most dangerous and the most unpredictable.
Therefore, when a chance presented itself of sidelining the Chinese Taipei ace, the Thai shuttle queen would not have thought twice about grabbing it. Quick, back-of-the-envelope calculations showed that three players — Intanon, Tai and China’s fast-rising Chen Yufei — had a chance of finishing their pool engagements with two wins and a defeat each, with South Korean Sung Ji Hyun occupying the cellar with two straight defeats, and one more expected at the hands of Tai.
Tai’s position was the most inferior, as she had beaten Chen in three tough games, lost to Intanon in straight games, and could, in the best-case scenario, end up with a net aggregate of +1 (four games won, three games lost). If the 22-year-old Thai could win just one game out of three against Chen, she would top Group ‘B’ with a 5-2 aggregate, and help the Chinese teenager, with a 5-3 net score, edge out Tai.
And that is exactly how matters panned out on Friday. Even before Tai could take the court for her final group clash against Korea’s Sung, Intanon had lost to Chen in three games, thus ensuring that both she and Chen qualified at the expense of Tai.
There are those who would pooh-pooh such a conspiracy theory, and claim that the 19-year-old Chen was full value for her success over Intanon, having beaten the Thai player on all the three earlier occasions that they had clashed. They will also point out how Intanon overcame a crushing 5-13 deficit in the decider to fight her way back to 15-16 and 18-19, before succumbing. They may also aver that Intanon’s heart was not in the match after she had won the middle game, and made sure of topping the group.
Whatever the truth of the matter, the combination of results in Pool ‘B’ has cleared the way for Sindhu to take over the position of tournament favourite. The Indian would not have been in this position if she had had to face Tai in either the semi-final or final, since she trails the Taiwanese 3-8 in career meetings, and has yet to work out the conundrum thrown out by her rich repertoire of deceptive strokes.
But, secure in the knowledge that Tai is out of the picture, Sindhu continued the good work she had done on Thursday against Japan’s Sayaka Sato, to power to an almost embarrassingly one-sided 21-9, 21-13 triumph in a mere 36 minutes over the other unbeaten player in the pool, top-seeded Yamaguchi. The cognoscenti would, however, have noted that the stocky Japanese played well within herself, and appeared to be saving herself for the sterner battles ahead.
The luck of the draw — a procedure followed, to pick by lots the semi-final opponents of the two group winners — has given Sindhu arguably the toughest assignment, that of taking on Chen, who appears the most dangerous of the women left at the last-four stage.
The Indian holds a slim 3-2 lead over the Chinese youngster in career head-to-heads, with four of their five meetings having taking place in 2017, and resulting in alternate victories. The most recent triumph was credited to Sindhu’s account — a 21-14, 21-14 win in the French Open at end-October, just nine days after a 17-21, 21-23 loss at Chen’s hands in the Denmark Open.
As for Intanon, she will face the kind of player she just does not enjoy playing — a never-say-die retriever, blessed with great accuracy of stroke and unlimited stamina, who simply does not know when and how to quit. Intanon trails Yamaguchi 7-9 in career meetings, and has lost three of their most recent four clashes, so it all points to a rough rite of passage for the Bangkok native.
If one goes by the form-book at these championships, the chances are that Sunday will witness a Sindhu-Yamaguchi clash for the richest prize in the sport.
Updated Date: Dec 16, 2017 11:33 AM