India Open 2018: Kidambi Srikanth to lead hosts' charge, fit-again Saina Nehwal has a point to prove

The last-minute withdrawal of Danish world champion Viktor Axelsen, and the absence of the world’s top two female shuttlers, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei and Akane Yamaguchi of Japan, have taken some of the sheen off the Dr Akhilesh Das Gupta India Open badminton championships which kick off at New Delhi’s Siri Fort Indoor Stadium from today, a day after the legendary Prakash Padukone was conferred the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Badminton Association of India.

A vast number of Indian players will compete in Tuesday’s preliminary rounds to try and bag one of the four spots reserved for qualifiers in the main draws of the stellar singles events, where the action begins from Wednesday. With World No 2, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, also choosing to give the US$350,000 prize money tournament a miss, the top contender for the men’s singles title has been identified as India’s Kidambi Srikanth, who occupies the No 3 slot on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.

 India Open 2018: Kidambi Srikanth to lead hosts charge, fit-again Saina Nehwal has a point to prove

File image of Kidambi Srikanth. Reuters

Srikanth was actually seeded second, and placed at the bottom of the draw when it was made; and there he remains. Axelsen’s vacated spot at the top has been filled by Subhankar Dey, promoted from the qualifying rounds. It has resulted in clearing the top quarter of the draw for fifth-seeded HS Prannoy, who will open his campaign against a qualifier, and then has the winner of the match between Parupalli Kashyap and the dangerous Dane, Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus, to worry about.

As for Srikanth, who had won this event in 2014, he starts off against Hong Kong’s Lee Cheuk Yiu, and should then run into Denmark’s Emil Holst, who runs into a qualifier in his lung-opener. If all goes well, the 24-year-old Indian ace is expected to cross swords with another Danish player, seventh-seeded Anders Antonsen, at the quarter-final stage of the competition.

That match-up would take place only if the gangling young Dane eliminates Sameer Verma in his first match, and then goes on to win the second round, where he takes on the winner of the opening-round tie between Ajay Jayaram and Indonesia’s former World Championship bronze-medallist Tommy Sugiarto.

Other Indians in the draw have tough initial assignments — 2016 national champion Sourabh Verma runs into Chinese fourth seed, Shi Yuqi, while No 8 seed, B Sai Praneeth, ranked 15th on the BWF computer, has to contend with the solid defence and metronomic accuracy of Kerala-born English veteran Rajiv Ouseph, whom he has never played before.

In the women’s draw, the pride of place has expectedly gone to last year’s winner, PV Sindhu, who retains her World No 3 ranking in spite of her loss to compatriot Saina Nehwal at the quarter-final stage of the just-concluded Indonesia Masters. With as many as five of the top ten women choosing to skip the India Open, Saina has been given the fourth spot in the seedings list, and has a projected semi-final meeting with Spain’s Olympic gold medallist and No 2 seed, Carolina Marin.

Sindhu has been blessed with a relatively easy draw, with Denmark’s Natalia Koch Rohde standing in her way in the first round, followed by the winner of an encounter between India’s Vaidehi Choudhari and Bulgaria’s Linda Zetchiri. The 22-year-old Hyderabadi should keep her date with Spaniard Beatriz Corrales, the eighth seed, in the quarter-final, and progress to a penultimate round joust with the third-seeded 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand.

A rejuvenated and fully fit Saina, on the back of a brilliant performance in the Indonesia Masters, opens her quest for her second India Open title with an initial round against Denmark’s Sofie Holmboe Dahl. This would be followed by a duel with another Dane, Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt, provided the latter scores over India’s Reshma Kartik in the first round. Saina, who had won the India Open in 2015, is expected to clash with fifth seeded American, Beiwen Zhang, in the quarter-finals.

While the 27-year-old Haryana-born shuttler will be the cynosure of all eyes to determine that her showing at the Senayan Sports Complex in Jakarta was not a flash in the pan, a handful of other Indian hopefuls — including Ruthvika Shivani Gadde, Rituparna Das, Rasika Raje, Anura Prabhudesai and Vaishnavi Reddy Jakka – will no doubt go all out to show that they belong to this august company, and have not been placed in the main draw merely because the tournament is being played in India.

The men’s doubles event shows a strong field, with two of the world’s top three pairs — Indonesia’s Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon, and Denmark’s Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen — vying for top honours, and being placed at opposite ends of the 32-pair draw.

There are as many as 13 Indian pairs in the main draw of this event, and there will be plenty of domestic interest to determine just how much quality Malaysian doubles coach Tan Kim Her has managed to instill in his wards in an area that has been traditionally a weak point for the country in team competitions.

A lot of this focus will be on national runners-up Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who knocked out two seeded and highly rated pairs from Japan and Denmark en route to the semi-finals of the Indonesia Masters, and only lost to the world’s top rated duo of Sukamuljo and Gideon.

The Young Turks open their campaign against Hong Kong’s Chang Tak Ching and Hee Chun Mak, and should go through to a second round clash with fifth-seeded Mathias Christiansen and David Daugaard of Denmark, a match they are quite capable of winning. If they do, they will get another opportunity to show that they can do better against the World No 1 Indonesian pair than the 21-14, 21-11 drubbing they received last week in Jakarta.

Rankireddy’s unseeded mixed doubles combination with Ashwini Ponnappa will also be under the scanner, as will be the eight-ranked Indian pairing of Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy. The former take on a pair from the qualifying tournament, and have a projected second round meeting with third-seeded Malaysians, Tan Kian Meng and Lai Pei Jing, while the latter could enjoy a clear gallop through to the semi-final, following the last-minute withdrawal of an Indonesian combination that had earlier been seeded No 1 at the top of the draw.

Sikki Reddy’s partnership with Ponnappa has been given the No 6 seeding in the women’s doubles, and has a projected quarter-final meeting with Thailand’s fourth-seeded Phataimas Muenwong and Chayanit Chaladchalam, which is really a none-too-strong combination.

The Indians have an outstanding chance of progressing at least as far as the semi-finals in this tournament, for they are in the weaker half of the draw topped by Thailand’s No 2 seeds, Jongkolphan Kititharakul and Rawinda Prajongjai. The crack Danish world No 2 pairing of Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter-Juhl have been seeded No 1, and are clear favourites to win this event, but the Indians could well leave a mark on their home event.

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Updated Date: Jan 30, 2018 12:05:18 IST