Every dog has his day, goes the old saying. The truth of the axiom was proved at New Delhi’s Siri Fort Indoor Stadium on Friday, when Chinese-born American Zhang Beiwen registered her first victory in four career meetings over India’s pride and joy, Saina Nehwal, to barge into the semi-finals of the India Open World Tour badminton championships.
On what proved to be a disastrous day for Indian shuttlers, Zhang, who occupies the 11th spot on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, won the battle of the 27-year-olds by a runaway 21-10, 21-13 scoreline in two minutes over the half-hour mark, leaving top-seeded PV Sindhu the sole survivor from the host nation in the two stellar singles events.
The changeling we saw on court on Friday was not the Saina who had knocked out the likes of China’s Chen Yufei, compatriot Sindhu and Thailand’s former world champion Ratchanok Intanon, on her way to the Indonesian Masters final, where she had lost to Taiwan’s World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying. This particular Saina appeared exhausted by her exploits of the previous week, and was unable to raise a gallop against the Chinese-American, to whom she had never lost earlier.
It further spotlighted the reprehensible manner in which the BWF has been killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, cracking the whip on the players and making it mandatory for the top-15 stars to play at least 12 of 15 designated tournaments. And this, in a year which also has the Asian Team tournament, the Commonwealth Games and the Thomas/Uber Cup team events, all of which require turning out for the country.
It is, therefore, not surprising to find Saina writing to the Badminton Association of India to excuse her from the Asian Team event on the grounds that her ageing body is refusing to take such sustained punishment. It is not as if Saina can be accused of being anti-national, for she has consistently turned out for the country in the past, and owns the record of being the only player to have participated in every edition of the Indian Open since its inception 10 years ago, and has also won it twice.
Following Saina’s eclipse, her compatriot and defending champion, Sindhu, was left to carry the country’s flag in its home event. The lanky Hyderabadi, who had driven Indian badminton fans wild last year by winning the women’s crown, even as Kidambi Srikanth had ended supreme among the men, was far from convincing while eliminating Spain’s No 8 seed, Beatriz Corrales, at 21-12, 19-21, 21-11 after 54 minutes of battle.
Sindhu, who coasted through the opening game, played untidy badminton in the second stanza to fall behind at 11-19 and 13-20. Suddenly realising that she would be placed under enormous pressure if there was a decider, she tightened up and rattled off a six-point reel to come within striking distance at 19-20. But the Spaniard was able to take the contest to a third game which, mercifully, Sindhu won untroubled.
Shockingly, Corrales’ compatriot, Rio Olympic gold medallist, Carolina Marin, the No 2 seed, was bounced out of the tournament by Hong Kong’s sixth-seeded Cheung Ngan Yi, with the latter securing a 21-12, 21-19 verdict in a 48-minute encounter that happened to be their second career meeting. Marin had won their first meeting at the Malaysia Open, three years ago.
However, she was well below par on Friday, unable to raise her mental level after playing too much competitive badminton in the past couple of months. She had withdrawn from the year-ending Superseries grand finals in Dubai in mid-December 2017, citing injury, but had then gone into the Premier Badminton League (PBL) in India, where, as captain, she had helped Hyderabad Hunters to the title. Then had come the two Masters-level tournaments in South-east Asia, and now the India Open, leaving her looking almost as stale and tired in the India Open as Saina.
The exit of the second and fourth seeds left the top seed Sindhu facing Thailand’s No 3 seed, Intanon, in Saturday’s semi-finals, even as Zhang is to square off against Cheung. Intanon made the last-four grade with a routine 21-11, 21-11 win over the No 7 seed, Yip Pui Yin of Hong Kong.
So far as the men’s singles of the $350,000 event was concerned, the rather sparse crowd that had braved the Delhi winter cold to witness the quarter-final proceedings was left stunned and disappointed when all the three Indians – B Sai Praneeth, Parupalli Kashyap and Sameer Verma – who had made the last-eight stage of their home tournament were escorted to the exit door en masse.
There was not much surprise about eighth-seeded Praneeth’s 43-minute 15-21, 13-21 loss to Chinese Taipei’s No 3 seed, Chou Tien Chen, for the Taiwanese world No 7 player had not lost to the Indian in three previous meetings, all of which had taken place last year. So quick on his feet was Chou, and so much in control of the rallies, that he often toyed with Praneeth, who appeared a half-step slower on his feet than when he had won the Singapore Open Superseries title in mid-2017.
Nor did 31-year-old Kashyap really trouble China’s Qiao Bin in what was their second meeting in the past ten months. Having slipped it across the Indian veteran at the 2017 China Masters in three games, Qiao had the confidence to be authoritative while notching a 21-16, 21-18 triumph at the Siri Fort Stadium on Friday. Kashyap did show glimpses of his renowned fighting spirit when he made up a crippling 8-16 deficit in the second game, to draw level at 18-all, but he just could not force a decider.
As for Verma, who had knocked out Indonesian Tommy Sugiarto the previous day, the Madhya Pradesh native crashed to his second defeat in as many career meetings with Malaysian Iskandar Zulkarnain Zainuddin, who emerged from the qualifying rounds to barrel into the semi-finals of the year’s third international event.
The 23-year-old Indian, who slid from the 30th to the 41st spot in the new BWF rankings list, put up an insipid performance in the face of a fine, all-round showing from the 26-year-old Kuala Lumpur resident, who was far more aggressive than he had been the previous day against second-seeded Srikanth. The qualifier appeared to benefit from the pointers suggested to him by courtside coach and former Malaysian great, Misbun Sidek.
The 86th-ranked Zulkarnain, who has returned to international competition after more than a year on the sidelines, thanks to a slipped disc, won their 49-minute duel by a 21-17, 21-14 margin, drawing away from 13-11 in the second game, to win eight of the final 11 points, as the Indian repeatedly erred in length and made several unforced errors at the net.
The Malaysian giant-killer, who appears to be on a roll, will take on China’s No 4 seed, Shi Yuqi, in the semi-finals, while Chou clashes with the unranked Qiao Bin. The 21-year-old Yuqi has beaten Zulkarnain on the only occasion they have clashed earlier – at the 2016 French Open, 15 months ago – and is favoured to repeat that triumph.
The 25-year-old Qiao, ranked 35th in the world, actually leads Chou, three years his senior, 2-1 in career meetings, having beaten the third-seeded Taiwanese on the two most recent occasions that they have clashed, both in 2016. It remains to be seen whether the more fancied player can restore parity in their head-to-heads.
Updated Date: Feb 03, 2018 11:05 AM