India Open 2019 takeaways: Kidambi Srikanth shows he is yet to hit top gear; PV Sindhu stumbles in crucial final
From Kidambi Srikanth's loss in the final to PV Sindhu's stumble in semis, here are some key takeaways from the just-concluded India Open.
Srikanth was the top-seeded Indian man in the competition and lived up to his billing by reaching the final
PV Sindhu came unstuck against left-handed He Bingjiao in front of a sell-out home crowd in semis
A total of four Indian men made it to the last-eight stage, while six made it to last 16
New Delhi: The latest edition of India Open ended at the Capital's Indira Gandhi (IG) Indoor Stadium on Sunday, with Denmark's Viktor Axelsen and Thailand's Ratchanok Intanon being crowned champions in men's and women's singles events respectively. The last-minute pull-outs of top-seeded Chen Yufei and defending men's champion Shi Yuqi certainly took some sheen off the $350,000 World Tour Super 500 event, as did the non-participation of stalwarts like Kento Momota, Saina Nehwal and Carolina Marin. However, a clutch of memorable performances, especially in the singles draw, made sure the quality never dwindled.
Following are some of the key takeaways from India Open 2019
Kidambi Srikanth back, but not there yet
The World No 7 was the top-seeded Indian man in the competition and lived up to his billing by reaching the final before being outclassed by Viktor Axelsen in straight games. Coming off the back of a disappointing 2018 season, where he failed to win a single title, making it to the final of the New Delhi event certainly is a big deal for the Guntur boy. He played a series of long matches, most of which went to the decider and was understandably quite pleased with his overall performance. Srikanth — and India — will breathe a sigh of relief given the way his body held up over a week of gruelling badminton.
"I am just very happy with the way it has been over the last week. I don't really want to complain about long matches, because had I not fought that hard, I would not have reached the final today. I just want to take it the way it comes to me," he said after the summit clash.
Srikanth reached his first Superseries-level final in 15 months, ending a frustrating spell of a string of quarter-finals and semi-finals losses that headlined his career post the high of 2017. The 26-year-old's worrisome form over the past year was heavily exacerbated by a series of injuries and such was the pressure that at one instant, he implored the people to stop comparing his game to his 2017 form.
Technically, Srikanth's attacking game was on point, though he would do well to try and kill the games early. His game still relies a lot on his natural rhythm and on days when he struggles to move freely, Srikanth offers way too many chances to his opponent. One such day happened to be the final against Axelsen. While the Dane blazed away in typically ruthless style, Srikanth was slow to start and never really hit top form throughout the match.
Then, at 20-18 in the second game, he allowed Axelsen to run away with four consecutive points that ended his title challenge.
Chief national coach Pullela Gopichand, though, was happy with Srikanth's performance. "I think Srikanth's campaign has been good. He is a good player, there is no doubt about it. I don't see much of an issue with him, but yes, you have Momota, Viktor, Chen Long, Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei on the circuit. Although our guys are good, I still see a lot of scope for improvement.
"There are players who he finds it difficult to play against, that is also a fact. And he is stumbled against these players in the big matches and if he has to win the big medals he will have to beat those players. We need to figure a way out. What is good is that he is played with a certain level of consistency. Yesterday's match was a good revelation. He has played a certain kind of badminton which is I believe is an improvement. I am very happy with the way he has progressed technically. For him to get comfortable with that game and to win might take time but I believe he is on the right path," the coach said.
With Olympics qualifications on the horizon, India would hope Srikanth returns to his winning ways again.
Strong Indian men's field
The absence of some top draw international players meant one had enough opportunity to look at the Indian men closely and luckily, they didn't disappoint. A total of four Indian men made it to the last-eight stage — Parupalli Kashyap, HS Prannoy, B Sai Praneeth and Kidambi Srikanth — while six made it to last 16. In addition to Srikanth's first final in 15 months, India would be chuffed with the progress of Prannoy and Kashyap, while Praneeth built on his runners-up finish at the Swiss Open earlier in March.
Unseeded Prannoy set aside his gastroesophageal reflux issues to reach the quarter-final where a peerless Axelsen ousted him in straight games. Nevertheless, Prannoy had a good match against Denmark's Jan O Jorgensen, whom he beat in three games besides quelling the challenge of Kantaphon Wangcharoen in another three-game slugfest. Prannoy admitted that his fitness is still a work in progress, and was simply happy to be on the court again.
Parupalli Kashyap, the erstwhile face of India's men's badminton, also showed glimpses of his exciting past. His four-year wait for a title continued, but his quick reflexes and fast hands gave enough room for optimism. The 32-year-old admitted that he was surprised by the way his body held up and said he was still gunning for an Olympics berth.
"I don't just want to qualify. I want to be the medal contender because I have already played an Olympics and I don't want a participant's badge on my CV. It is not very exciting. I want to be a medal contender and for that, I want to work really hard. If I don't make it, whoever makes it should make sure to come back with a medal." he said.
Viktor reigns supreme
If there's one word that would describe Viktor Axelsen's campaign in New Delhi, it would be peerless. The tall Dane was clearly a cut above the rest and hardly broke a sweat en route his second India Open crown. He was never forced to three games and his longest match in the tournament was the 43-minute win over Parupalli Kashyap in the semi-final.
On court, Axelsen used his height and tremendous wingspan to great advantage, retrieving shuttles with metronomic consistency. He dictated the course of the matches and his relentless aggression always kept the opposition on tenterhooks. In the final, he was at his smashing best. While the 21-7 first game was a cakewalk, he saved two game points at 20-18 before grabbing two of his own to claim the trophy. Worryingly for India, he beat Prannoy, Kashyap, and Srikanth with ease, and none of the Indians had the game to match Axelsen's skills.
This, from a man who had, at the start of the tournament, claimed that he was not looking to peak yet, was an outstanding achievement. It also served as a sweet antidote to his All England final loss earlier in March. "It's always a confidence boost to win and after being in the All England final, this was a good way for me to sort of bounce back," he said after the match. Come Tokyo 2020, the current World No 4 will start as one of the podium favourites.
Encouraging start for coach Flandy Limpele
It's easy to fall into the trap of comparing India's doubles' scene with the success of singles players, but one must realise the uncharted road Ashwini Ponappa has been steadfastly traversing for a decade now. Ponappa, who started in the shadows of senior-pro Jwala Gutta, is now the warhorse in the doubles category, mentoring the likes of N Sikki Reddy. The duo lost to eventual runners-up — Indonesia's Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu — in the quarter-finals, and credited new coach, Indonesia's Flandy Limpele, for their improved game.
"It's hard to comment after just a week of training, but his methods have been really good. His defensive drills have already improved our game tremendously," Ponappa said after her quarter-final match.
Apart from Ponappa-Reddy, Aparna Balan-Sruthi KP pair also made it to the last eight. Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy beat compatriots Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Shivam Sharma in men's doubles quarters, becoming the only Indian doubles pair to reach the last-four stage.
PV Sindhu stumbles, again
Chen Yufei's withdrawal meant Indian ace PV Sindhu entered the tournament as the top-seeded player in women's singles, but her march to third consecutive India Open final was cut short by China's He Bingjiao in the semi-final. After a fighting 21-19, 22-20 win over Denmark's Mia Blichfeldt in quarters, she came unstuck against left-handed Bingjiao in front of a sell-out home crowd. what rankled most was the fact that the Indian led in both games, and on each occasion, the feisty Chinese punched back.
The Indian led 19-12 in the first game and then 20-16, but Bingjiao held her nerves even as Sindhu lost hers. The shift in momentum was palpable in the second game when she frittered a 14-11 and a 16-13 lead to relinquish the match. This was an excellent opportunity for the World No 6 to pocket her first title of the year, but Sindhu ended up on the wrong side of the result.
Former World No 1 Saina, who missed a lot of tournaments last year due to multiple injuries, moved to the second round after her opponent Czech Republic's Tereza Svabikova suffered a back injury and retired mid-way while lagging 20-22 0-1 in the opening round match.
Besides Srikanth, the other players withdrawn are Ashwini Ponnappa, Ritika Rahul Thakar, Treesa Jolly, Mithun Manjunath, Simran Aman Singh and Khushi Gupta.
Top seed Sindhu, a former world champion, took 36 minutes to get the better of 21-year-old Chaliha 21-7 21-18 and set up a last-four clash with Thailand's Supanida Katethong, seeded sixth.