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India Open 2017: PV Sindhu, Viktor Axelsen annex stellar titles with commanding performances

Revenge is a dish best served cold, it is said. And so it was that India’s new badminton queen, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, who had to rest content with the silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games just over seven months ago, turned the tables on her Rio conqueror, Carolina Marin of Spain, producing a convincing 21-19, 21-16 verdict in the women’s singles title match of the 2017 Yonex Sunrise India Open.

Making full use of the adrenaline rush she would have got as a result of playing in front of her adoring home crowds at the Siri Fort Complex in New Delhi, the willowy Sindhu amply demonstrated to the Olympic and two-time world champion that she has become stronger, fitter and more tactically aware than she had been in Brazil; and that she will, in future, challenge both Marin and Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying for the accolade of the world’s best women’s badminton exponent.

 India Open 2017: PV Sindhu, Viktor Axelsen annex stellar titles with commanding performances

India’s PV Sindhu with Carolina Marin, celebrates after winning the India Open title. PTI

One cannot employ the accolades ‘graceful’ or ‘strokeful’ while describing the 6’1 tall Indian’s game. Those endless legs employ giant strides while covering the court with alacrity, rather than with the dancing footwork displayed by a Tai or a Ratchanok Intanon. Nor is there too much of the wristy deception of these talented stroke-makers, either from the back of the court or at the net.

Nevertheless, Sindhu is reaching the net earlier than when she played in the Olympics — a tactic that allows her to produce tighter net dribbles, at a higher point from the floor than before, and still retain the flexibility of using the late flick clear. She is using her height even better than before, especially while playing the overhead shots from the backhand side.

There are two newly-developed deceptive strokes that one saw her employ right through the tournament — a late flick clear from the backhand midcourt when she gives the impression of employing the drop shot; and an excellent crosscourt smash, played from behind her body, when she is pushed deep and high into the forehand backcourt. This extremely difficult stroke won Sindhu crucial points against the left-handed Marin, who kept anticipating the shot down the line on her own forehand.

The Hyderabadi girl need not really have been stretched in the first game in the way she was. She had just the start she could have wished for, streaking away to 6-1 and 7-2 leads; and should have gone into the lemon break in a much more comfortable position than a slim 11-9 advantage.

But the Spanish top seed, screaming lustily for every point won, as is her wont, fought tooth and nail to stay on Sindhu’s heels all the way through the second half of the opening game before actually going ahead to 18-17 for only the second time in the match, if one were to count her opening 1-0 ace.

A failed Marin sideline challenge brought Sindhu back on par at 18-all, but she dropped behind again at 18-19 in the face of a sizzling Marin kill. A tight net dribble that opened up the court for her to use the leap smash, and a lightning Marin tap that went wide of the sideline took Sindhu to game-point, and she kept her wits about her to win the final point to take the crucial opener at 21-19.

Sindhu once again took the initiative in the second game to play aggressively and build up a 7-5 lead. This time, she kept her nose well ahead, to go into the interval at 11-7. Sindhu put into practice what her coaches Pullela Gopichand and Indonesia’s Mulyo Handoyo (recruited recently to train Indian singles players) would have advised her during the break, and steadily widened her advantage to 15-10.

There was the expected Marin fightback, as the Spaniard narrowed the gap to three points, but Sindhu was not to be denied this time. She broke away again to 19-14, and the writing appeared on the wall, bar any last-minute Sindhu nerves that used to plague her in earlier years.

Finally, when a nervy Marin buried an overhead smash into the net after a short rally at 16-20, Sindhu had achieved what her senior, Saina Nehwal, had done two years earlier — notched up an India Open triumph. That the heart-warming victory, worth $24,375, was achieved in the presence of her father PV Ramana, a former national volleyball captain, was the icing on the cake.

The other stellar title up for grabs, the men’s singles, was bagged with minimal fuss by Denmark’s rangy No 3 seed, Viktor Axelsen, who has been touted by many knowledgeable students of the game to be a future world champion. The 6’4 Odense-born, Copenhagen-based Dane gave a 21-13, 21-10 badminton lesson to Chinese Taipei’s No 7 seed, Chou Tien Chen in a matter of 36 minutes.

The one-sided final brought home a second Super Series title for the 23-year-old Axelsen, for whom this was a third straight India Open final. His forays in 2015 and 2016 had ended in final defeats, giving him the unwanted reputation of a perennial wedding best-man. In fact, Axelsen had ended second best in seven Super Series tournaments over the previous three years before finally breaking the hoodoo in the 2016 Dubai Super Series grand finals at the expense of China’s Tian Houwei.

Denmark's Viktor Axelsen with his gold medal after winning the men's singles final match at India Open. AFP

Denmark's Viktor Axelsen with his gold medal after winning the men's singles final match at India Open. AFP

Amazingly enough, all the three doubles finals featured duos from the same country. For the most part, these were players who have been part of their respective countries’ national training camps, and have been practising against one another for the better part of the year, and therefore, know one another’s styles and playing patterns virtually blindfolded.

For that reason alone, just one of the three doubles title clashes managed to scale the summit, in terms of excitement for the packed audience — the mixed doubles, in which the current World Nos 1 and 2, all Chinese by nationality, laboured for an hour and four minutes before clinching the gold medal.

Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong, on paper the underdogs, managed to pip their top-seeded compatriots, Zheng Siwei and Chen Qingchen at 22-24, 21-14, 21-17. The skill levels of these two outstanding pairs were such that they kept snapping at one another’s heels right through the highly-entertaining contest, and it was hard to predict which one of them would carry the day.

Both combinations could be considered worthy successors to the crack pairing of Zhang Nan and the now-retired Zhao Yunlei, who had swept Olympic and world titles in their heyday in the first half of the ongoing decade. But, so high is the level of current international competition that Lu and Huang will have their hands full in trying to emulate the showing of Indonesians Tontowi Ahmed and Lilyana Natsir, who scored a hat-trick by bagging the India Open crown three years in a row between 2011 and 2013.

The mixed doubles, however, was not the longest match of the five finals on show. That distinction went, not unexpectedly to the women’s doubles clash, which dragged on for what felt like an interminable period, but was actually an hour and 12 minutes. No 7 seeds Shiho Tanaka and Koharu Yonemoto from Japan slipped it across their third-seeded compatriots Naoko Fukuman and Kurumi Yonao by a 16-21, 21-19, 21-10 scoreline.

Most women’s doubles matches these days feature excruciatingly long rallies, with first one pair using the long handle to rain down a series of smashes on its rivals, and then the action getting reversed, with the second pair doing the attacking and the first combination the defending. None of the women’s players in world badminton today appear to possess the raw power to tear through their opponents’ defences, so it is routine to see most rallies go beyond 40-50 strokes.

All the excitement in the women’s doubles clash was crammed into the second game which, had Yonao and Fukuman managed to win from a 19-all position, would have cut the encounter short at that stage itself. Tanaka and Yonemoto survived the battle of nerves, and showed a clean pair of heels to their demoralised fellow-countrywomen in the deciding stanza.

This, however, was one event which saw the total dominance of Japan, and bodes well for that country in the upcoming Uber Cup women’s international team championship. Three Japanese pairs reached the semi-finals (unseeded Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota being the third Japanese combination to enter the last four), despite their best women’s doubles pair of Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo, ranked No 1 in the world, not being in the fray in New Delhi.

The sole non-Japanese pair in the semi-finals was Korea’s top seeded Jung Kyung Eun and Shin Seung Chan, who were eased out by the eventual winners by a heart-rending 24-22 margin in the decider, after holding two match-points in a marathon 77-minute encounter. It had been a huge surprise to see the No 2 seeded Korean duo of Chang Ye Na and Lee So Hee being unceremoniously dumped at 21-10, 21-18 in their opening encounter itself by the Chinese pair of Huang Yaqiong and Tang Jinhua.

In normal course, the rich red meat of a men’s doubles encounter is the ideal advertisement for the game to a television audience. The power-packed smashing (with the shuttle often travelling at speeds in excess of 400 kmph), acrobatic retrieving, breathtaking anticipation and quicksilver reflexes of the four antagonists on court blend to provide a heady badminton cocktail to the audience in the stadium, as much as for the millions following the proceedings on the idiot box.

At the Siri Fort Complex, however, one of the two pairs contesting the final was in the zone, as it were. Indonesians Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, seeded No 4, displayed magnificent touch to clinically chop down their somewhat bewildered sixth-seeded compatriots, Ricky Karandasuwardi and Angga Pratama, by a runaway 21-11, 21-15 margin, in a minute under the half-hour mark.

Right through the course of the tournament, Gideon and Sukamuljo were in such supreme form that they dropped just a solitary game — in the course of their semi-final triumph over the seventh seeded Denmark pairing of Mads Conrad Petersen and Mads Pieler Kolding, at 21-14, 18-21, 21-9. The third game had proved to be an Indonesian blitzkrieg, leaving the giant Danes as shell-shocked as Karandasuwardi and Pratama were on Sunday evening.

The tremendous anticipation that Sukamuljo displays at the net, to cut short many a promising rally, and Gideon’s uncanny timing in the use of the fast drop from the rear of the court in preference to the power smash, make them currently the most potent men’s doubles combination on the international circuit. These qualities were also much in evidence during their straight-games quarter-final triumph over Russians Vladimir Ivanov and Ivan Sozonov, the 2016 All England champions.

Let us take note of the fact that three of the four world’s top-ranked combinations — Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong of Malaysia, Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda of Japan, and Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen of Denmark — were in the fray at the Indian Open; and all of them bit the dust at or before the quarter-final stage.

Therefore, following upon their gold medal showing at the 2017 All England Championships just three weeks back, Gideon and Sukamuljo, now sitting on a rich vein of form, would be heavily favoured to give Indonesia’s Thomas Cup squad a near-certain doubles point next month, no matter what the opposing team can muster against them, in the competition indicative of international men’s team supremacy.

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Updated Date: Apr 03, 2017 10:32:37 IST