New Delhi: India's Kidambi Srikanth secured a taxing three-game win over Hong Kong's Wong Wing Ki Vincent to march into the second round of the ongoing India Open on Wednesday. Egged by a vociferous home crowd, the World No 7 found enough will in his reservoir to overturn an 11-17 deficit in the final game to register a 21-16, 18-21, 21-19 win in 56 minutes.
Srikanth, the highest seeded Indian in the fray, started with good net control and used the corners well to reel in his smashes. However, Vincent proved to be a tough nut to crack.
Despite trailing in the opening exchanges, the Hong Kong shuttler ensured the lead never reached alarming proportions. At 7-7 in the first game, Srikanth's return found the net and Vincent took the lead. His high tosses and deceptive power kept Srikanth on the mid-court on most occasions, which translated into a higher percentage of errors at the net. Vincent led at the mid-game interval, 11-10.
Srikanth, though, came back well. His on-the-run smash that landed between Vincent's legs drew loud cheers from the partisan crowd and put him on a 13-12 lead. The Indian went on to win next five points on the bounce to take firm control of the proceedings. He reached the game point after Vincent's toss landed long, and took the opening game 21-16 as his opponent found the net.
In the pre-tournament media interaction, Srikanth had spoken about the challenges his 29-year-old adversary posed, the chief among them being familiarity. The duo has played with and against each other at the Premier Badminton League (PBL) in addition to 12 previous career meetings. Their matches are rarely one-sided, and as Vincent later admitted, it's much like one playing a mirror image.
"Playing Srikanth is like I am playing myself," Vincent told Firstpost after the match. "We have played a lot against each other, and I think his skill and net control are better than mine and my speed is better than his. So in a way, it's a very even contest. We always play a close match."
In the second game, Vincent surged to a healthy 7-3 lead. As the play wore on, Srikanth's resistance began to wilt under the powerful mid-court game of his rival. The two-point deficit swiftly became a five-point disadvantage as Vincent led 11-6, and soon 14-6.
Srikanth brought the crowd back to life with a wonderfully drilled smash, but soon handed back the advantage with an unforced error. As Vincent coolly collected points, Srikanth looked to be settling for a long haul, before the Guntur boy roared back to life with a series of points. 7-16 became 12-17, and eventually 18-20 before Vincent forced the decider.
"I was more stable in the second game, and was not rushing into things. I knew I had lost the first game and wanted to take it slow, and it paid off," Vincent said.
The World No 37 carried his momentum to the third game, and ably aided by a series of unforced errors from Srikanth, galloped to a 6-1 lead. For the better part of this passage, Vincent perched himself in the mid-court, dictating rallies and constructing some.
Srikanth sensed an opportunity when his opponent sent a particularly high baseline return, and began to pepper Vincent's left side. Just like that, the 1-6 deficit became 6-7.
Realising his rival's weakness at the net, Srikanth soon settled for short net rallies, rarely hitting the shuttle past Vincent. On occasions when he tossed high, Vincent responded with a smash that generally fetched him a point. At 9-9, Srikanth finally secured his first lead of the third game, but soon gave it away with a couple of return errors to head into the mid-game break trailing 10-11.
Somewhere in that two-minute break, something changed. The match was still inthe balance, and Vincent appeared more suited to arrest the swinging momentum.
Words of advice flowed from the crowd; some urged Srikanth to go for the kill, others offered him to go easy. Upon resumption, the Indian quickly slipped to a five-point deficit as unforced errors piled on. A netted return put Vincent just four points adrift of his only fourth win over Srikanth. 11-17, the scoreboard flashed.
"At this level, games will be high-paced and close. If you are among the top players of the world, you should be prepared for the intensity," Srikanth would later say.
Then began the rearguard. A Srikanth rocket-smash finally beat Vincent. As the crowd got behind him, Srikanth nailed two smashes on the trot to make it 14-17. Finally, an unforced error arrived from the hitherto unflappable Vincent. 11-17 had become 15-17.
Doubts grew, stakes rose, pressure mounted. Every point mattered now. Srikanth, who had appeared slightly jaded ten minutes back, began to move more freely on the court. He advanced with authority and attacked with conviction, finally drawing level with a trademark smash. 18-18 in the decider. A forehand drive to Vincent's right consolidated lead before another smash brought him on match point. Finally, at 20-19, Srikanth's resurgence reached a fitting culmination as Vincent hit wide. The crowd erupted and stood to applaud the two fine gentlemen who had just put up an exhibition. The two friends walked slowly to the net, smiled, and hugged.
Lest we forget, these badminton matches are being held in a wrestling hall. Call it providence or what you will, the KD Jadhav Wrestling Hall could not have found a better badminton match to meet its glowing pedigree.
"I was just thinking about giving him a good fight," Srikanth later said with typical nonchalance. "I am happy I pulled it off. It was also a good test of my fitness." Vincent, understandably, was more introspective. "I should have grabbed my chances, especially when I was 17-11 up in the third game. He just concentrated on the serve and return in the third game. He was always there on the net, and didn't let me push him back. I wasn't able to catch him on last few points," he admitted. The small mercies of hindsight!
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Updated Date: Mar 27, 2019 21:59:21 IST