At the end of an exhausting, crowded season, it has all come down to the last major challenge in the international badminton calendar, the $400,000 prize money Hong Kong Open World Tour Super 500 championships, to be held at the Hong Kong Coliseum from Tuesday, 13 November.
It is this hurdle that needs to be cleared before the peripheral players among the top eight aspirants in each of the five playing categories – men’s and women’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles – can assure themselves of sealing their respective places in the $1.5 million BWF World Tour grand finals, scheduled to be played this year in Guangzhou between 12 and 16 December.
There are, of course, a few minor competitions in the final fortnight of November – like the $150,000 prize money Syed Modi International in Lucknow, the $75,000 Scottish Open in Glasgow and the $250,000 Korea Masters in Gwangju – but they do not offer either the right quantum of prize money or the points that would attract any of the main contenders for the competition that will bid adieu to the 2018 season.
India, sadly, will have just one player in the circuit finals in Guangzhou – Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, currently sitting on the third rung in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, but featuring at fifth place in the list of players who will vie for the pot of gold in China. Whatever her performance in the Hong Kong Open, she cannot be dislodged from a berth in the grand finals.
The other two top Indian players who could have had a chance of getting into the elite eight are lying too far back in the rankings. Saina Nehwal, despite being ninth on the BWF computer, is only 21st in the list for Guangzhou, and simply cannot win enough points in Hong Kong to squeeze into the tournament. Similarly Kidambi Srikanth, also ranked ninth on the BWF ladder, languishes in the 19th spot on the list for the season-ending championships, and has no chance of qualifying.
Therefore, the Indian badminton supporter will have to look at the Hong Kong Open as a stand-alone event, offering players who have had an indifferent season by their own high standards, a chance at some sort of redemption. Sindhu, who has been without a title in 2018 despite making the finals of five World Tour tournaments, will have to really pull up her socks if she is to change her status of perennial runner-up.
The 23-year-old Indian takes on Thailand’s Nitchaon Jindapol, whom she leads 4-1 in head-to-head career meetings, having won on the last three occasions that the two have clashed in the two years 2017-18. However, Sindhu has been stretched over the full distance in their two most recent meetings – at the All England in March this year, and the individual event of the Asian Games in August.
Should she get past the hardworking Thai, Sindhu will take on the winner of the first-round clash between Japan’s Aya Ohori and South Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun. Whereas the Indian has a 5-0 record against Ohori, she has a much tighter 8-5 lead against Sung, having split the two matches they have played in the current year.
The Indian has a better than even chance of getting through her first two rounds, but the quarter-final will be quite another matter. The name that hits her in the face at the last-eight stage is that of the sprightly 21-year-old He Bingjiao. Sindhu trails 5-8 in career meetings, having lost to the Chinese left-hander on each of the three times they have clashed in the last four months – at the Indonesia Open in July, French Open in October and Fuzhou China Open last week.
Saina has a challenging opening round in Hong Kong, against second-seeded Akane Yamaguchi of Japan, who leads 6-2 in their eight career encounters. The 28-year-old Indian can, however, take heart from the fact that she reversed a trend of six consecutive losses dating back to April 2017, by beating the supremely fit Japanese in two straight games at the Danish Open, exactly a month back.
If Saina progresses beyond Yamaguchi, she has an outstanding chance of reaching the semi-finals, for she only has China’s Han Yue or a qualifier in her second round, and most probably the sixth-seeded Thai, Ratchanok Intanon, or the up-and-coming Chinese youngster, Chen Xiaoxin, in the quarter-finals. All these players feature in the lower half, and whoever comes through would bump into either Sindhu or Bingjiao at the semi-final stage.
India has four players in the main draw of the men’s singles. Fourth-seeded Kidambi Srikanth runs into Hong Kong’s Wong Wing Ki Vincent, and should fancy his chances of winning, for he holds a 7-3 career advantage, including three wins out of four clashes in 2018, and with victories in their most recent two meetings.
Their winner runs into the victor of the lung-opener between India’s HS Prannoy and Denmark’s Anders Antonsen, in itself a mouth-watering prospect. Prannoy, a top-ten player at the start of the year, has dropped to a dismal 23rd in the BWF rankings, but has the distinction of having easily won the only match he has played against the tall Dane – at the Japan Open last year.
Prannoy owns a 2-3 losing record against Srikanth, but beat his compatriot and sparring partner at the Gopichand Academy at the Indian Nationals in Nagpur last November. That triumph snapped a streak of three successive losses to Srikanth between 2014 and 2017, so the psychological edge rests with the Kerala-born shuttler.
Whoever makes the quarter-final will face one amongst three equally exciting players – eighth-seeded Kenta Nishimoto of Japan, Kantaphon Wangcharoen of Thailand and Ng Ka Long Angus of Hong Kong. None of these players will make it easy for the winner of the Srikanth-Prannoy clash to progress to a semi-final meeting with either of two Chinese seeds – No 2 ranked Shi Yuqi or No 5, Chen Long.
Chen, a two-time former world champion and Olympic gold medallist, has to first get past Malaysia’s Daren Liew, and then the winner of the first-round tie between India’s Sameer Verma and Thailand’s Suppanyu Avihingsanon. The latter two have never met earlier, but the dice would seem to be loaded in favour of the young Indian, who amazingly sits at No 9 in the Guangzhou qualifiers’ list, and could squeeze into the final eight if he puts in a good performance in Hong Kong, or if one of the top eight drop out for whatsoever reason.
The fourth Indian in the men’s singles, B Sai Praneeth, has a decent draw, with Thailand’s Khosit Phetpradab blocking his path to a second-round meeting with South Korea’s stonewaller and No 6 seed, Son Wan Ho. All these players figure in the second quarter of the draw dominated by Chinese Taipei’s No 3 seed, Chou Tien Chen, one of the two players currently in red-hot form (the other, of course, being top-ranked world champion Kento Momota).
India’s top-ranked doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty have been handed a really tough draw. They go into a first-round meeting with the unseeded veteran Danes, Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen, with the winner to play the top-seeded Indonesians, Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon, winners of the just-concluded Fuzhou China Open and the world’s top pair.
Manu Attri and B Sumeet Reddy have a challenging opening round against Thailand’s Bodin Issara and Maneepong Jongjit, who got into an unseemly fracas on the court four years ago (for which they suffered temporary bans), but have re-united earlier this year. Their winner plays the No 2 seeds from China, Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen, who will seek to erase memories of their narrow quarter-final loss in Fuzhou to compatriots He Jiting and Tan Qiang.
As for the top Indian women’s doubles combination of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy, they have an outstanding chance of lowering the colours of the No 2 seeds from Japan, Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo, whom they clash with in their opening round.
The Japanese duo, ranked No 1 in the world for most of 2017, have had an erratic record of late, and have been overtaken by a couple of their compatriots, whereas the Indians have a recent morale-boosting victory over South Koreans Lee So Hee and Shin Seung Chan, who bagged top honours at the Fuzhou China Open on Sunday.
Rankireddy and Ponnappa have also been handed a challenging draw in the mixed doubles. Pitted against Taiwanese Wang Chi-lin and Lee Chia Hsin in the first round, the Indians would look forward to crossing swords with the Danish combination of Mathias Christiansen and Christinna Pedersen, seeded fourth in the event. If they progress further, they would bump into the fifth-seeded Chinese duo of Zhang Nan and Li Yinhui, who have also seen their fortunes dip, of late.
But, of course, the eyes of the badminton world will be trained on the first-round men’s singles encounter between Momota and five-time former world champion, Lin Dan of China. The two are meeting in the opening round for the second straight tournament; and genuine lovers of the game will hope that the 35-year-old Chinese legend will be able to reverse the 15-21, 21-23 result that induced his exit in Fuzhou.
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Updated Date: Nov 12, 2018 23:23:00 IST