For the supporter of Indian badminton, the predominant emotion at the end of Saturday’s semi-finals of the $3,75,000 prize money French Open Superseries badminton championships was one of deep disappointment.
The manner in which India’s men’s singles exponents had played in the competition thus far, along with the way the draw panned out, had made it clear that either Kidambi Srikanth or his sparring-partner at the Gopichand Academy, HS Prannoy, would figure in the final. In the event, it was Srikanth who made his fifth Superseries final of 2017, the most by any male shuttler this year, by edging out Prannoy at 14-21, 21-19, 21-18, even after trailing 16-18 in the deciding game.
However, so much was expected of second-seeded World No 2, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, in the women’s singles semi-final against fifth-ranked Japanese powerhouse, Akane Yamaguchi, that her drab and dreary performance while being pummelled black and blue by the 20-year-old Japanese, at 14-21, 9-21 in a mere 38 minutes left a vast Indian television audience gobsmacked at the total lack of fight from the reedy Indian.
So utterly dominant was the fabulously fit and determined Yamaguchi that it was hard to believe the Indian had knocked out the sprightly upcoming Chinese teenager, Chen Yufei, with a commanding performance barely 24 hours earlier.
One sympathises with Sindhu’s beef that a vicious sideways drift at the Stade de Coubertin, which was much more pronounced this time than in previous years, made shuttle control a nightmare. But then, Yamaguchi had to deal with the same conditions, and she did so with considerable aplomb—mostly attacking, keeping the bird down, and comprehensively dictating the pace and trend of the rallies.
It was hard to believe that the 5’ 10” Sindhu had scored over her 5’ 1” Japanese rival on the last three occasions that they had bumped into each other, and led their head-to-heads by a 3-1 margin going into this match.
The Indian appeared to have forgotten that she possessed a telling smash that has troubled every one of her current antagonists on the world circuit. On the few occasions that she did employ the smash, there was neither power nor direction in it, and Yamaguchi either parried comfortably or controlled the returns with ease.
Let us say Sindhu was in the match until 14-all in the first game, briefly leading at 9-7, but going into the lemon break trailing by a solitary point. After 14-all, though, the Indian’s game disintegrated like a pack of cards, allowing Yamaguchi to string the seven points she needed to win the first game, in an unbroken reel.
Coaches Mulyo Handoyo and Arvind Bhatt tried to point out ways of reining in the Japanese player, but it appeared they were talking to a player whose hearing and assimilating abilities had gone for a toss. Yamaguchi adjusted her position in the driving seat with even greater precision, and revealed far faster reflexes in her interception of the parallel drives that Sindhu tried in sheer desperation. After all, they came to her at eye level, and induced the Hyderabadi to net the returns!
The one-sided semi-final left Yamaguchi with the unenviable task of facing Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying, who settled the aspirations of the defending champion from China, He Bingjiao, at 21-14, 17-21, 21-8, in the other last-four clash.
The Taiwanese ace, ranked No 1 on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) computer, pocketed the first game with comfort, but suffered a lapse in concentration after taking handy 12-7 and 13-9 leads in the second stanza, and made three costly errors while trailing 17-18. But she was back to her artistic and deceptive best in the decider, to give the Chinese left-hander no chance of extending the match further.
As for the penultimate round of the men’s singles, there was absolutely nothing to choose between the two Gopichand Academy trainees, who practice together so regularly that they know every nuance of each other’s game. Srikanth led their head-to-head 2-1 going into this encounter; and his edge in power and aggression was effectively blunted by his Kerala-born opponent vide an immaculate defence and the ability to push Srikanth back to the baseline with clears of perfect length.
It was only the recently-developed killer instinct and greatly improved physical fitness that permitted Srikanth to stage comebacks from 17-19 in the second game and 16-18 in the decider, to grab the last four points in the middle game, and the final five points in the decider of their entertaining 62-minute joust.
The success put the Ravulapalem (Andhra Pradesh) native into his fifth Superseries final, following title clashes in Singapore (the only final he lost, to compatriot Sai Praneeth), Indonesia, Australia, Denmark, and now here in France.
“Prannoy really played well today,” Srikanth conceded after the match. “The second and third games were pretty close, and could have gone either way. I made quite a few errors, mainly because it is always tricky when you are playing a fellow player or teammate, with whom you train 365 days in the year.
“He is also an aggressive player, and really hits hard when he gets going. There were times in all three games when I couldn’t even react to his smashes. Right now, I am feeling very tired, and I really hope I can recover for tomorrow’s game against Kenta Nishimoto. I am not worried about the result or anything; I am just bothered about doing well.”
Prannoy’s reaction to the match was: “I don’t think I played any false stroke in the end, or went wrong in any way. He grabbed the few chances that came his way, and that was the only difference between us. The shuttles were really fast, and it was difficult to control the return of the first attacking shot. Otherwise, I am pretty happy with the way things are going for me on the tournament circuit.”
On the morrow, the 24-year-old Srikanth, currently in the form of his life, will vie for his fourth Superseries title of the year against Japan’s Nishimoto, who continued his giant-killing run by taking the up-and-coming Dane, Anders Antonsen, in stride, with a fluent 21-17, 21-15 triumph in 49 minutes.
The two finalists have only clashed once before, when the Indian tamed the 23-year-old, 40th ranked Nishimoto with ease by a 21-12, 21-11 verdict at the Singapore Open, earlier this year. The portents all point to a repeat of that result, if not quite the one-sided scoreline.
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Updated Date: Oct 29, 2017 10:08:51 IST