Hong Kong Open Superseries: PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, HS Prannoy keep India's challenge afloat
We take stock of India's progress after the first round action of Hong Kong Open Superseries.
A trio of India's fancied singles exponents — P V Sindhu, HS Prannoy and Saina Nehwal — vaulted successfully over their first hurdles in the Hong Kong Open Superseries on Wednesday, but Indian supporters had the mortification of seeing the rest of country's challenge being wiped out in the US$400,000 prize money competition.
On the opening day of the last Superseries championship of the 2017 season before the year-ending grand finals in Dubai in mid-December, the main topic of discussion was the walkover conceded by Denmark’s world champion and top seed, Viktor Axelsen, for reasons unspecified, to Japan’s Kazumasa Sakai, who had himself been promoted from the qualifying tournament to fill a hole in the main draw.
Axelsen’s absence providentially opened up the top-quarter of the draw for India’s male spearhead in the tournament, Prannoy, who had been scheduled to clash with the Dane in the second round. The Kerala-born shuttler will now be taking on Sakai, who had beaten him in the Indonesia Open Superseries Premier, in the course of a giant-killing run on the way to a losing summit confrontation with Kidambi Srikanth.
Actually, Prannoy was almost elbowed out of the competition in his opening foray itself, as veteran Hu Yun of the host nation gave him a torrid time in a match lasting a minute over the hour mark. The 36-year-old, who occupies the 21st berth in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings against the Indian’s 10th, matched Prannoy stroke for stroke before tiring towards the end, and ending up on the wrong side of a 19-21, 21-17, 21-15 verdict.
The Indian ace appears to be in better form at the moment than he was when he lost to Sakai in Jakarta in mid-June this year, and has an outstanding chance of avenging that defeat. If he beats Sakai, he would face another unseeded player in the quarter-finals – either Denmark’s Anders Antonsen or Frenchman Brice Leverdez, who accounted for the No 7 seed, Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei, in his opening round.
Among women, world No 2 and second-seed Sindhu struggled for the greater part of the 17-minute opening game against a low-ranked qualifier from Hong Kong, Leung Yuet Yee, but hit her straps in the second stanza, to emerge a 21-18, 21-10 victor. She next faces Japan’s Aya Ohori, who, expectedly, beat Russian Evgeniya Kosetskaya 21-13, 21-19.
Sindhu goes into the second round clash on the back of a 2-0 career head-to-head advantage over the 21-year-old Japanese, who was Asian junior champion in 2013, and has also been a silver-medalist at the 2013 BWF World Junior Championships. Ohori has had an excellent 2017, winning three second-rung titles – the US Open, China Masters and Thailand Masters – and Sindhu would do well to take her challenge seriously.
Nehwal, ranked 11th in the world and outside the seedings bracket in this competition, was kept on court for a good 46 minutes, and had to save a game-point in the second game, before she could tame Denmark’s Mette Poulsen at 21-19, 23-21. The 27-year-old Haryana-born shuttle queen will next take on China’s eighth-seeded Chen Yufei, who accounted for Chinese Taipei’s Chen Su Yu 21-15, 21-13.
All the other Indians in the singles' competition met their Waterloo at the hands of distinctly superior opponents. B Sai Praneeth, whose form has dipped considerably since he beat Kidambi Srikanth for the Singapore Open title in June this year, had no answer to the steady stream of shuttles directed at him by South Korea’s second-seeded Son Wan Ho, and was beaten at 8-21, 16-21.
Two-time former Indian national champion Sourabh Verma also found himself out of depth against Indonesia’s 2013 World Championship bronze medalist, Tommy Sugiarto, and was pulverised by a 21-15, 21-8 margin in exactly half an hour of desultory action.
Veteran Parupalli Kashyap, who had come through two rounds of the qualifying competition, was desperately unlucky to lose to fellow-qualifier Lee Dong Keun of South Korea. Kashyap was at his best in the opening game, but had to play the second game and the second half of the decider in the same direction as the drift in the hall. He lost 15-21, 21-9, 22-20.
Lee now has a great chance to go much further in the tournament, for he meets yet another relatively weak player, Khosit Phetpradab of Thailand, in the second round. The Thai player, who was promoted from the qualifying tournament, slipped it across China’s Huang Yuxiang at 21-16, 21-14. Both players feature in China’s fifth-seeded Chen Long’s quarter of the draw.
There was no joy for the other Indians competing in the paired events. Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Ashwini Ponnappa had failed on Tuesday to qualify for the mixed doubles main draw, being ousted in straight games by the none-too-strong Indonesian combination of Hafiz Faizal and Gloria Emanuelle Widjaja. The other good Indian duo of Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Sikki Reddy had failed to make the cut for even the preliminary rounds of the competition.
Late in the night on Wednesday, Indian national men’s doubles champions Manu Attri and Sumeet Reddy came unstuck against a recently formed scratch combination, Lim Khim Wah of Malaysia and Yoo Yeon Seong of South Korea, who had come through two qualifying rounds with impressive victories over same-country combinations from Malaysia and Korea.
Although the Indians were beaten by a 21-17, 21-17 scoreline, they were not disgraced, for they matched their rivals in the fast-paced rallies, and actually held a narrow 16-15 lead in the second game. It was game-finishing skills which they lacked, and control over their nerves, as they made a clutch of unforced errors at that crucial juncture, to exit the tournament.
Much unluckier than the Attri-Reddy duo was India’s top women’s doubles pair of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy, also the reigning national champions. The Indians came totally flat-footed into the contest with the Chinese pairing of Huang Dongping and Li Wenmei, to be smashed in the opening game at 21-11, but showed a lot of character to fight back and capture the second game at 21-19.
Ponnappa dominated the rallies from the baseline, while Sikki Reddy was deft at the net. The decider proceeded on even keel, with several lengthy and exciting rallies, until a couple of costly errors at 19-all cost the Indians the 55-minute encounter at 11-21, 21-19, 19-21.
This was one of five matches that the Indian women lost narrowly against quality opposition in Superseries tournaments during the ongoing season which, for them, has come to an end. No doubt their luck will turn in the new year.
Gopichand, who had guided Saina Nehwal and Sindhu to a bronze and silver respectively in the last two Olympics, believes Indian badminton players have a good opportunity to better their performance.
Sindhu has been clubbed in an easy Group J, also comprising Hong Kong's Cheung Ngan Yi.
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