India Open 2018: Kidambi Srikanth falls to Iskandar Zulqarnain's strong defence; PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal win easily

Legend has it that temperamental Malaysian hard-hitter Tan Yee Khan was so frustrated by the stream of returns that kept coming back from across the net, from the racket of Indian returning machine Dinesh Khanna that after narrowly missing the chance of closing out their badminton duel in the second game, he angrily broke his racket across his knee, exclaiming, “I have beaten all the world champions, but I just don’t know how to break down this wall!”

World No 3, Kidambi Srikanth would have understood the extent of the fiery Malaysian’s frustrations, and sympathised with Tan, for he went through a similar experience on Thursday in his India Open second-round encounter with a defensive player from the same nation, Iskandar Zulqarnain Zainuddin.

Iskandar Zulqarnain celebrates after his win over Kidambi Srikanth. India Open

Iskandar Zulqarnain celebrates after his win over Kidambi Srikanth. India Open

The 26-year-old Kuala Lumpur native, coached by former doubles Thomas Cupper, Hendrawan, retrieved shuttles from near-impossible positions like a man possessed, to bring the second seed of the $350,000 prize money tournament to his knees, and beat him by a 21-19, 21-17 scoreline in 43 minutes of absorbing action at the Siri Fort Indoor Stadium.

It marked the second time in four meetings that Zulqarnain has beaten Srikanth, the previous occasion being at the 2016 Malaysia Masters by a 27-25, 21-9 scoreline, in a match that reflected how the Indian’s speed and power deteriorated after losing the opening game narrowly to the Malaysian. However, the two times that Srikanth has won against Iskandar were both at the Syed Modi International Championships in India, in 2015 and 2016, by the score of 21-9, 21-12 on the latter occasion.

The inescapable conclusion, after an analysis of the foregoing set of results, is that Srikanth needs to be at his physical best to break through Zulqarnain’s defences. Not just in speed and power, but also in the stamina department. It can also be seen that the fitness levels of the Andhra Pradesh native, following his epochal twin wins at the Denmark Open and French Open last October, have deteriorated – and his results since that purple patch prove it.

Srikanth was beaten in the final of the Indian Nationals by compatriot and sparring partner at the Pullela Gopichand Academy, HS Prannoy, and then remained winless in three outings at the year-ending Superseries grand finals in Dubai in December last. This year, he skipped the Malaysia Masters and Indonesia Masters, claiming he had not yet reached his desired level of fitness; and his showing against Zulqarnain reinforced the feeling that he will take some time to get back into the swing of things.

Fortunately for supporters of Indian badminton, Srikanth’s exit from his home tournament was the sole blip in the roster of results, as all other fancied players from the country sailed into the quarter-finals without experiencing much difficulty. Former national champion, B Sai Praneeth, who had sidelined doughty Englishman Rajiv Ouseph in his opening round, was in fine fettle as he knocked out the dangerous Hu Yun from Hong Kong by a 21-10, 21-15 scoreline in exactly half an hour.

Veteran Parupalli Kashyap showed glimpses of the quality he had revealed at the 2012 London Olympics, by outlasting fellow-countryman Shreyansh Jaiswal at 19-21, 21-19, 21-12 in 64 minutes, while 23-year-old Sameer Verma continued on his strong run in this competition by knocking out the 2015 World Championship bronze medallist from Indonesia, Tommy Sugiarto, at 21-18, 19-21, 21-17, taking two minutes longer than the 31-year-old Kashyap had taken against the up-and-coming Jaiswal.

India’s two shuttle queens, Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, also made the last-eight stage with minimal effort, with the former notching a 35-minute 21-12, 21-11 win against Denmark’s Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt, while the top-seeded Sindhu was on court for two minutes less than her Uber Cup teammate, while administering a 21-10, 21-14 defeat to Bulgarian Linda Zetchiri.

PV Sindhu in action at the Siri Fort Complex. India Open

PV Sindhu in action at the Siri Fort Complex. India Open

The main threat to the two Indians’ title hopes in this championship, Carolina Marin of Spain, avenged her China Open defeat at the hands of the slim, tall Chinese teenager, Gao Fangjie, by a 13-21, 21-15, 21-11 verdict in an hour and 19 minutes, the longest, and arguably most entertaining, match of the day.

The two-time former world champion and Rio Olympics gold medallist recovered from a slow start, to progressively dominate the match against the Chinese player, ranked 50th on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) computer, with her swift movements and ceaseless aggression. And yes, her full-throated screams of self-encouragement at the end of every winning rally, were back in full flow.

With all eight seeded women taking their appointed places in the quarter-finals, Friday’s action will see Olympic silver medallist and top seed Sindhu take on the No 8 Spaniard Beatriz Corrales, and third-seeded Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand clash with No 7, Yip Pui Yin of Hong Kong, in the top half of the draw.

In the third quadrant, the fourth and fifth seeds, Saina Nehwal and Zhang Beiwen of the USA, respectively, will take on each other, in what will be their fourth career meeting. The Indian maintains a clean slate, having beaten Zhang on every one of the previous three occasions that they have clashed, the most recent being the China Open, last November.

That leaves Marin with the task of settling the pretensions of Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi, who packed far too many guns on Thursday for Thailand’s Thamolwan Poopradubsil, and pummelled the hapless 20-year-old, ranked 120th in the world, at 21-4, 21-7. The left-handed Spaniard is the strong favourite to win, having beaten Cheung on the only occasion they have met earlier, at the Malaysia Open, way back in 2015.

If the results in the bottom half of the draw pan out as expected, we could be in for the 10th edition of the Saina-Marin rivalry, which the Indian leads 5-4. Considering the fact that the 27-year-old Saina won their most recent encounter — at the Denmark Open in October 2017 — it would be a match worth going miles to see.

Updated Date: Feb 02, 2018 09:56 AM

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