French Open Superseries: Kidambi Srikanth wins title at a canter, but worries rise over a knee niggle

As expected, nothing could come in the way of India’s Kidambi Srikanth claiming his fourth Superseries title of the year from five entries into the finals. Neither his rival in the $375,000 French Open Superseries men’s singles final, nor a somewhat worrying tight strapping under his right knee.

The fourth-ranked ranked Srikanth’s comfortable 21-14, 21-13 triumph on Sunday over the 40th-ranked Japanese player Kenta Nishimoto, who had fought his way to the final from the qualifying rounds, turned out to be a near-mirror image of the 21-12, 21-11 win that the Indian had notched in the Singapore Open in April this year.

French Open Superseries: Kidambi Srikanth wins title at a canter, but worries rise over a knee niggle

India's Srikanth Kidambi poses for photographers after he won the men's final of the French Open Superseries. AP

What may have given the 24-year-old Srikanth a vicarious thrill was the fact that he was playing against someone who was a dead-ringer for former Indonesian world champion Taufik Hidayat, who was good enough to win the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, and had also been peerless at the World Championships in Anaheim the following year, depriving the legendary Lin Dan from winning his first world title.

It must be underscored that the tight strapping under the knee appeared to be precautionary, and did not seem to affect either Srikanth’s general mobility nor his ability to reach the deep forehand corner whenever Nishimoto tested him in that area – something which could have been tough for a player with a right knee injury. The Indian’s quicksilver reflexes were on display throughout the match, as was his exquisite control over the pace and direction of his overhead shots that repeatedly perplexed the Japanese player.

The variety that Srikanth has with his overhead smash was just too much for Nishimoto to comprehend, and the Indian literally gained points with the stroke whenever he badly needed them, and sometimes when he did not!

Since Srikanth kept the shuttle down most of the time, and Nishimoto was forced to lift the bird to counter the Indian’s tight net dribbles, the cross-drift troubled the Japanese more than it did the Indian.

Srikanth boosted the shuttle only to the forehand deep corner, where it had every chance of veering into the court with the drift, and studiously and cleverly avoided clearing the shuttle to the deep backhand corner where it had a much greater chance of drifting out along the sidelines.

The Indian carefully cased out the Hidayat doppelganger in the initial rallies, fully digested his antagonist’s game and strokes, and only then pulled out the big shots. That gave Nishimoto an opportunity to go up 9-5, but that was the extent of his dominance. Srikanth went into the lemon break at 11-9, enlarged his advantage to 14-10, and then 19-12, before pocketing the opening stanza.

The Indian led from start to finish in the second game, with 10-2 and 11-6 leads, and simply coasted to the title. There was little that the bewildered Japanese qualifier, who had beaten Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei in his opening main draw joust, and then scored in the semi-final over Denmark’s upcoming Anders Antonsen, could do to stem the flow of points into Srikanth’s account.

“I am happy with the way it has gone for me in the last couple of weeks,” said Srikanth in the course of a courtside interview with two representatives of the Badminton World Federation (BWF). “There were some close matches, and I feel I was a little lucky to get through them. Otherwise, I felt I played reasonably well.

“I did not underestimate Nishimoto, who came through the qualifying rounds and beat Lee Chong Wei in the first round, and, in the semi-final, beat Antonsen, who had beaten (China’s former two-time world champion) Chen Long. I thought Nishimoto played really well on Saturday against Antonsen, so I felt it would be a tough match today. But in the end, I am really happy and satisfied with the way I played.”

Srikanth felt he had started his matches far too slowly in the quarter-final and semi-final, and wanted to avoid that aberration on Sunday. “I consciously played fast from the start,” he said. “Nishimoto is an aggressive, attacking player, so I wanted to avoid giving him the chance of controlling the rallies.”

The Pullela Gopichand Academy trainee agreed that his fitness had improved immeasurably over the recent past. “I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to last the full course of tight matches, but the way we have been training over the past 9-10 months, it has done its part,” he said. “I only wish to continue training in the same manner, because I have been able to see the reward with my own eyes.”

The Indian is likely to rise to the second spot in the world, behind world champion Viktor Axelsen, when the BWF rankings are announced next Thursday. Owing to the fact that there was a vast chasm between his ranking points and those of Axelsen before the Denmark Open, the premier spot is still out of his reach; and that could only change after the Destination Dubai Superseries grand finals (13-17 December).

With a slight niggle cropping up in his right knee, Srikanth is expected to cut down on the number of tournaments he participates in, before the Dubai grand finals. Having already qualified comfortably for that cash-rich tournament (in fact, he is currently at the summit of the leaderboard), he is assured of a place in the elite eight, even if he does not play another tournament in the next 45 days.

“I will take a decision on my participation in the remaining tournaments in South-East Asia (like the China Open Superseries Premier, the Hong Kong Open SS and the Macau Open), in consultation with my coaches, after I get back to Hyderabad,” he said, soberly.

“Basically, it is his (coach Mulyo Handoyo’s) call to decide on my participation in those tournaments. In any case, I don’t have any points to defend in these tournaments, so my over-all position (in the BWF rankings) will not change. So there is really no pressure on me to take part in them. I do want to become World No 1, but am not overly bother about that (statistic).”

Meanwhile, in the other finals that were decided at the Stade Pierre de Coubertin on Sunday, the World’s No 1 female player and top seed, Tai Tzu Ying, scored a facile 21-4, 21-16 win over Japanese giant-killer Akane Yamaguchi, the No 5 seed who had eliminated India’s World No 2, PV Sindhu, in the semi-finals.

It was almost embarrassing to watch the manner in which the supremely talented Tai dismantled Yamaguchi’s challenge. It appeared as if the stocky Japanese player had poured all her mental strength and emotion into the penultimate clash against Sindhu, and had nothing left in the tank with which to tackle the artistic and deceptive shots played by her rival.

Tai Tzu-ying (R) and Akane Yamaguchi pose for photos after Tai beat Yamaguchi 21-4, 21-16 in the women's singles final at the French Open Superseries. Getty

Tai Tzu-ying (R) and Akane Yamaguchi pose for photos after Tai beat Yamaguchi 21-4, 21-16 in the women's singles final at the French Open Superseries. Getty

Tai actually trailed her Japanese antagonist 4-5 in career head-to-heads, going into the French Open final, and had lost to Yamaguchi at 19-21, 12-21 in the Australian Open, earlier this year, the last occasion when the two had clashed. But the Taiwanese ace was in full flow on Sunday; and, barring a slight hiccup, when she allowed Yamaguchi to close to 16-17 in the second game, she remained fully in control of their 31-minute encounter.

There was a maiden Superseries title for the recently formed Indonesian pairing of Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu (Polii played with Krishinda Maheswari until recently), as they notched a comfortable 21-17, 21-15 triumph over South Korea’s Lee So Hee and Shin Seung Chan, another new combination (Lee had won the 2017 All England title Premier with Chang Ye Na). The Indonesians simply combined better than the Koreans in the long-drawn 54-minute encounter, the longest on the day of the finals.

The ageless Indonesian queen of the mixed doubles, Lilyana Natsir, was her usual reliable self at the net as she helped compatriot Tontowi Ahmad knock out the top-seeded Chinese combination of Zheng Siwei and Chen Qingchen at 22-20, 21-15. The French Open thus became one of the few tournaments in which the latter went home without a title, either the women’s or mixed doubles.

The fourth-seeded Indonesians have been world champions in 2013 and 2017, and also won the Olympic gold in Rio in 2016, but Natsir has had a much longer and illustrious career, winning the 2005 and 2007 world titles with the since-retired Nova Widianto, and has also been a silver medalist with Widiyanto at Beijing in 2008.

The closest clash of what turned out to be a disappointing final day’s programme was the concluding match on the card, the men’s doubles, in which the seventh-seeded Chinese Taipei combination of Lee Jhe-huei and Lee Yang scored over the Danish pairing of Carsten Mogensen and Mathias Boe, silver medalists at the 2012 London Olympics, by a 21-19, 23-21 verdict.

The victors had faced their tightest match in the semi-final, when they had pipped China’s Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng, the 2017 world champions at Glasgow, and fifth seeds, at 21-19, 13-21, 21-19. Zhang had won the gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics in the company of the wily veteran Fu Haifeng, since retired.

And so, another event in the annual badminton calendar has run its course; and the circus now moves to South-East Asia with the Macau Open Grand Prix Gold from 7 to 12 November, followed by the China Open from 14 to 19 November, and then the Hong Kong Open from 21 to 26 November. Another action-packed three-week schedule that will be hard on all those players who participate in all three competitions.

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Updated Date: Oct 30, 2017 12:50:12 IST

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