For Indian badminton supporters, Friday was downright disappointing. Not so much the fact that both Indian shuttlers featuring in the singles quarter-finals of the Fuzhou China Open badminton championships crashed out of the $775,000 prize money competition, as the manner in which they made their exit.
Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, seeded third in the World Tour 750 event, blew hot and cold throughout the 69 minutes that she spent on the centre court of the Haixia Olympic Sports Centre, trying to find an answer to the fluent strokeplay of the eighth-seeded Chinese left-hander, He Bingjiao, before bowing out by a 17-21, 21-17, 15-21 scoreline. The lissome Indian succumbed yet again to her inability to close matches out after fighting hard to extricate herself from a self-created hole into a position of parity.
Compatriot Kidambi Srikanth, given the fifth seeding despite the fact that his recent performances have caused him to slide to the ninth spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, was on court for exactly half that time as he surrendered without a whimper to Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen, seeded one spot above him, by a 14-21, 14-21 verdict. The 25-year-old Guntur lad was limp and listless, and simply appeared to be going through the motions, as if he were facing the inevitable.
It was left to the youthful doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty to give a sterling fight to the resurgent two-time former world champion combination from Indonesia, Hendra Setiawan and Mohammed Ahsan, before being shown their place at 11-21, 21-16, 12-21, thus bringing the curtain down on the Indian challenge at Fuzhou. The Indonesians needed their entire store of doubles knowledge and expertise to subdue the battling Indians.
The impressive showing of the 17-year-old Rankireddy and 21-year-old Shetty needed to be appreciated in light of the fact that, apart from winning the World Championships with Ahsan in 2013 and 2015, Setiawan was also the world champion earlier with Markis Kido in 2007 and the Olympic gold medal winner at Beijing in 2008. The Indian duo had knocked out the seventh-seeded Danish pairing of Mads Pieler Kolding and Mads Conrad-Petersen in their opening outing in Fuzhou.
It must be underscored that Sindhu’s performance on the day was neither indifferent nor devoid of fight. The 23-year-old Hyderabadi was actually under the cosh for the greater part of the last-eight encounter, as the twinkle-toed Bingjiao dictated the pace and trend of the rallies for the most part, and allowed the rangy Indian few chances of getting behind or under the shuttle to execute her aggressive strokes.
What hurt Sindhu’s prospects was the familiar failing that has seen her lose every one of seven key international finals in the past 20 months – the inability to administer the Coup de grâce when the momentum has swung in your favour, and the opponent appears down for the count.
In the opening game, she failed to capitalise on a handy 8-3 lead, and allowed the 21-year-old Chinese to overturn an 11-13 deficit into a winning situation, with 10 of the final 14 points. After dominating the middle stanza with some positive play, the Indian was back to her prodigal ways by conceding massive leads of 6-12 and 8-15 in the decider.
Sindhu fought her way back from that near-hopeless 8-15 position, to step on the gas pedal and come within a point of restoring parity, at 15-16. With Bingjiao looking distinctly rattled, and her own strokes appearing sharp and incisive, all that Sindhu needed to do was to thrust the rapier home and canter across the finish line.
Instead, her fragile nerves appeared to fray and give way as the Chinese southpaw reverted to her earlier plan of going for the lines, particularly with the steep overhead crosscourt smash, to capture the final five points and ensure a place for herself in Saturday’s semi-final against the seventh-seeded Japanese, Nozomi Okuhara.
The diminutive 2017 world champion appeared to be doing nothing more than indulging in a light practice session against a club-standard player rather than her compatriot in Japan’s Uber Cup squad, Sayaka Takahashi, whom she pulverised by a 21-4, 21-10 scoreline. On current form, Okuhara is the odds-on favourite to shut the door on Bingjiao, whom she has beaten thrice this year without reply, in the course of a 4-0 career head-to-head score.
In the other semi-final, a refreshed and rejuvenated Carolina Marin will take on the other in-form youngster from the host nation, the No 4 seed, Chen Yufei. The Spaniard, a three-time world champion (2014, 2015 and 2018) and Olympic (2016) gold medallist, was in awesome form as she decimated the challenge of the quietly competent Chinese-American, Beiwen Zhang, by a 21-11, 21-13 margin in exactly half an hour, even as Chen wore down the 2013 world champion from Thailand, Ratchanok Intanon, at 15-21, 21-9, 21-11 in three minutes shy of the hour mark.
As for the men’s singles, three of the top four seeds made their way safely into the semi-finals with convincing triumphs over lesser rated opposition. Top-ranked reigning world champion Kento Momota of Japan easily outlasted the stonewalling South Korean, Son Wan Ho, at 21-17, 21-14 in a 46-minute battle of attrition, while the No 2 seed from China, Shi Yuqi, took 62 minutes to subdue the effervescent Indonesian, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, by a 16-21, 21-14, 21-14 scoreline.
Sixth-seeded Chen Long, who came through the quarter of the draw thrown open by the late withdrawal of the third-seeded Dane, Viktor Axelsen, was briefly troubled by another Dane, Anders Antonsen, before registering a 21-18, 21-16 triumph, while the No 4 seed, Chou Tien Chen, swept aside the listless Indian No 5 seed, Kidambi Srikanth, by a runaway 21-14, 21-14 margin.
Chou has been in excellent form in the last quarter of the ongoing season, and found Srikanth to be easy meat. The 28-year-old Taiwanese, who has climbed to No 3 in the world rankings, extended his winning head-to-head record against the Indian to 3-1, with straight-sets victories in their most recent three meetings.
Srikanth showed none of the determination and verve he had revealed on Thursday in the course of his noteworthy second-round triumph by a 10-21, 21-9, 21-9 verdict over Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto, a former World Championship bronze medallist. The Indian simply could not summon that extra edge in speed from his legs, and literally dragged himself around the court after parity at 10-all in the opening game. He did not capture the lead at any stage of the remaining part of the tie.
While badminton-lovers could look forward to two interesting semi-finals – Momota versus Chen Long, and Chou against Shi Yuqi – Srikanth and Sindhu were both left reflecting on just what has gone wrong with their 2018 seasons after their exploits in 2017. It appears evident that Srikanth requires some fresh coaching inputs, while Sindhu sorely needs the services of a sports psychologist to help her overcome her end-game blues.
Saturday’s semi-finals start at 1:00 p.m., China time (10:30 a.m., IST).
Updated Date: Nov 10, 2018 09:21 AM