Such is the aura of an Olympic medal, silver at that, we completely forgot that Saena Kawakami was not obliged to be mere fodder for Pusarla Venkata Sindhu. So relentless has been the hype and the chatter around the Saina Nehwal vs PV Sindhu quarter-final clash that the matches leading up to that have kind of become formalities, a side-show. Or so we thought. Till a 19-year-old Japanese, standing 5'3 in her socks decided it was time to scare a nation that still hasn’t quite shaken off the Rio hangover.
Kawakami has never come within sniffing distance of a Super Series; leave alone a Super Series Premier, which Sindhu won when she picked up the gold at the China Open and before that a runners-up spot at the Denmark Open, another Super Series Premier tournament. Kawakami has won the Vietnam Open, a GP tournament and the New Zealand Open, a GP Gold tournament. The Japanese has a ranking of 87 and her best ever has been 52. Sindhu is ranked fifth in the world.
There were no alarm bells ringing at the South Extension fire station when Kawakami went ahead 6-3 in the first game. The Japanese used the high serve, tossing up the shuttle strongly as Sindhu was caught in that tactical bind of trying to force a smash through or play a drop. If she played a drop, Kawakami was at the net. Sindhu led 11-10 and Kawakami kept using the high toss for her serves. Slowly and surely, Sindhu found her length and started forcing the Japanese around the court. Such was the accuracy of Kawakami’s serve that only once at 17-12, her serve dropped outside the baseline. At 19-13, Sindhu looked home safe but the Japanese fought to 16-19 before Sindhu wrapped it up 21-16.
At that stage, it seemed that the worst was over; the plucky Japanese had pushed the Olympic silver medallist and now she would be rolled over. But after a particularly longish rally, Kawakami took the lead 9-8 in the second game, Indian fans shifted alarmingly in their seats. Sindhu started using her reach to send flat shots to the corners, opening up some space in the middle court to hammer a few smashes. But the Japanese wasn’t rattled as she scrambled to pick up drop shots at the net which other players might have given up on.
After some brilliant punching and counter-punching by both, Sindhu led 20-18 and the door seemed wide open. But Kawakami to the amazement of everyone, equalized at 20-all and when Sindhu tapped an easy dribble into the net, it seemed destined to go into a third game with Kawkami leading 21-20. To the relief of Indian fans at Siri Fort courts, Sindhu reeled off three points and clinched the match 21-16, 23-21.
“I was playing against her for the first time,” Sindhu said after the match. “Some of the shuttles were fast and slow so had to control rallies in the match,” a visibly relieved Sindhu said. “She was leading 21-20 and anything could have happened. One more point and the game is over. But I fought back and took the game and the match.”
Sindhu was honest in her assessment. “At that stage, it is anybody’s game,” she explained, debunking the experience factor.
For the other gladiator in the pack, the win was easy and straight forward. Saina Nehwal, still not pressuring her knee or taking too many lunges, went through against Thailand’s Pornpawee Chochuwong 21-14, 21-12. In their last encounter, in the Malaysia Master, a GP Gold tournament, Saina had managed to scrape past the Thai 22-20, 22-20. In the second game, at one stage, Saina led 19-8 before gifting away some easy points.
“I did the same mistake as in the first round giving away easy points,” said Saina. “But I am happy with the score and also glad that I am improving.” Speaking about the quarter-final clash with Sindhu, Saina tried to downplay it, not willing to fan competitive flames over what she feels is not the ‘world championship.’ Yet she is looking forward to what she feels will be a good match. “It’s difficult to apply any form of strategy on this court as they are very fast and that one can hardly toss knowing they might go over the base-line,” Saina said. One wonders, how Kawakami tossed them high and got Sindhu into all sorts of knots.
Saina spoke about being positive for the quarter-final as ‘all players are in great shape’. “As I am coming back from an injury, I think I can play freely without the pressure of being fully fit,” she reasoned. “I need to be stronger in time for the World Championship. It’s not that I need to win but I need to give my best.” It actually sums up the rivalry between an Olympic bronze medallist and the silver medal winner.
Having watched both play at the India Open and despite Sindhu's struggles against Kawakami, it's easy to assume that Sindhu might come out as the winner. Even though both Saina and Sindhu say ‘experience’ has no place, it’s probably the very commodity that Saina might draw on. Downplay it as much as you can but winning against each other matters to both of them.
For the sake of home-grown talent making it to the quarter-finals of India’s only Super Series tournament, the three-game loss, 21-19, 14-21, 22-20 of Sourabh Verma would rankle. Thankfully, his brother, Sameer Verma moved into the last eight, the only Indian male player to do so.
There were hopes on Kidambi Srikanth putting it past the third seed Viktor Axelsen. But the score-line 21-7, 21-12 prompted Srikanth to say, “I just couldn’t get the length right and my feet were not moving.” Axelsen, a two-time finalist here praised his opponent after the match. “Today doesn’t change the fact that he (Srikanth) is a very strong player,” said Axelsen. “In other tournaments, the result might as well be different.” The Dane is now a favourite yet he doesn’t want to think about the final. “I don’t think of myself as a favourite and would focus on one match at a time.”
Sameer Verma’s quarter-final clash with Denmark’s Anders Antonsen should be interesting. The Dane is ranked higher at 26 with Sameer at 38, but the win at the Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold and reaching the 2016 Hong Kong Open, a Super Series tournament, should make Sameer confident of reaching the semi-final. After the win over Hong Kong’s Hu Yun, Sameer said, “I have brought about changes in my game by improving speed and have started attacking more.” On being asked about his chances of going further into the tournament, Sameer said, “Koshish hai ki tournament jeetun (My effort is to win the tournament)."
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Updated Date: Mar 31, 2017 09:49:19 IST