Indonesia Masters 2019: Saina Nehwal remains lone Indian challenger after Kidambi Srikanth, PV Sindhu falter

On a depressing day for Indian badminton, when PV Sindhu simply failed to turn up in her quarter-final encounter against an imperious Carolina Marin, and Kidambi Srikanth allowed himself to be intimidated by the partisan crowd and the none-too-impressive reputation of Jonatan Christie, it was Saina Nehwal’s efficient performance against Pornpawee Chochuwong that ensured there remained at least one Indian standing in Saturday’s semi-finals of the $350,000 Indonesia Masters badminton championships in Jakarta.

It is true that Saina had the least difficult of Friday’s quarter-final assignments for the Indians, but it also had to be remembered that the 21-year-old Thailand player had easily eliminated Japan’s former World no 2, Akane Yamaguchi, on Thursday. The Indian, however, was in good nick at the Istora Senayan, and managed to take her career head-to-head record against Chochuwong to 4-0 with a comfortable 21-7, 21-18 victory in 33 minutes.

Srikanth, though, was at well below his best, and allowed Christie to get out of several sticky situations, particularly in the second game, by either smashing into the net or wide of the backhand sideline. The 2018 Asian Games gold medallist rode his fortune merrily to emerge a 21-18, 21-19 winner in 48 minutes, and go through for a semi-final reckoning on the morrow with Denmark’s Anders Antonsen.

 Indonesia Masters 2019: Saina Nehwal remains lone Indian challenger after Kidambi Srikanth, PV Sindhu falter

File image of Saina Nehwal. Reuters

Nevertheless, Srikanth remained in the reckoning until the very last point, when he could have dragged the tie to a decider. He misjudged the shuttle on his backhand baseline, and was refused a Hawk-eye challenge by the chair umpire on the grounds that he had taken too long to request the review.

In any case, replays showed that the Indian would have lost the challenge, since the shuttle landed bang on the baseline, and he had taken a foolish gamble to judge the bird at such a critical juncture in the match. In addition, it would have been a travesty of justice if he had managed to win the match against the local favourite, after such an error-strewn performance, and despite having had a clear edge in speed and power.

But the clash that had every Indian supporter shaking the head in horror was the show of extreme ineptitude by the No 2 seed, Sindhu, in the last-eight encounter against the fifth-seeded reigning world and Olympic champion from Spain. Marin emerged smoking from the blocks, and handed the Indian a painful lesson in speedy, aggressive play and intimidatory tactics, with a 21-11, 21-12 triumph.

The most harrowing statistic of the match, from the Indian point of view, was that Sindhu did not take the lead even once during the 37 minutes that she was on court. Not once during the encounter, when Marin barreled to a useful 6-1 initial advantage and built it up to 11-4 at lemon-time, did Sindhu look like the Olympic and two-time world championship silver medallist she is. Nor did she ever seem to remember that she was the highest seed left in the tournament, following the first-round eclipse of Japan’s 2017 world champion and No 1 seed, Nozomi Okuhara.

Marin appeared a half-step faster than her opponent throughout the match, and refused to allow the shell-shocked Indian to try and slow down the pace, that she could get a toehold in the rallies. The Spanish left-hander went for broke at every opportunity, aimed for acute angles, and was hardly worried if she failed to score on a couple of wayward shots. She simply got on with the job of closing out the match with minimal fuss.

Sindhu never looked in control of the rallies, and was invariably left chasing the shuttle. There was just one all-too-brief patch when she reduced the deficit from 7-14 to 10-14, but the Spaniard simply floored the accelerator pedal more, and took the final five points of the game, to stake an unshakable claim to the driver’s seat.

The second game went along similar lines, except for the fact that Marin took an even bigger lead of 11-3 at the mid-game interval, and never looked as if she would be deprived of her semi-final appointment with China’s third-seeded Chen Yufei, who staged a sterling rearguard action to leave Thailand’s 2013 world champion and No 7 seed, Ratchanok Intanon, breathless and beaten in a 14-21, 21-9, 21-15 result.

The other semi-final will feature Saina against Chinese left-hander, He Bingjiao, who comfortably eliminated her giant-killing compatriot, Chen Xiaoxin, by a 21-18, 21-14 scoreline, in the day’s shortest encounter, lasting a mere 26 minutes. Xiaoxin had claimed the prized scalp of top-seeded Okuhara in straight games on Wednesday, but could not counter the smooth all-round strokeplay of her fellow-countrywoman.

At 28 years of age, Saina concedes a seven-year age advantage to Bingjiao, and could find it difficult to match the Chinese southpaw’s speed. The Badminton World Federation (BWF) records surprisingly show that the two have never clashed with each other earlier, even though Bingjiao has crossed swords with another Indian circuit ‘regular’, Sindhu, on 13 occasions, and leads their rivalry 8-5.

Saina would do well to harness her rich experience, and gain swift mental ascendancy over Bingjiao before the match is too many points old – as she had done so well against Gregoria Mariska Tunjung of the host nation on Thursday. A slow, uncertain start, as she had experienced in her opening match against another Indonesian, Dinar Dyah Ayustine, could prove fatal to her hopes of making the final at this Indonesia Masters.

The other men’s singles quarter-finals on Friday featured a virtuoso performance from Japan’s reigning world champion and No 1 seed, Kento Momota, who appeared hell-bent on showing the local crowd favourite and No 7 seed, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, his proper place in the scheme of things; and won by a thoroughly one-sided 21-9, 21-10 scoreline that reduced the jampacked stadium to stunned silence.

The Japanese left-hander, who led Ginting 5-3 in career meetings, going into this match, but had lost two of their six encounters in 2018 alone, was in sublime form and made Ginting look as inept on the court as Marin had made Sindhu appear. It was as if Momota wanted to trample on the evil memory of his 18-21, 18-21 semi-final loss to Ginting in the individual event of the 2018 Asian Games, also in Jakarta.

Momota will clash on Saturday with the man whose world championship title he wrested at Nanjing in August last year – the sixth-seeded Dane, Viktor Axelsen, who produced his best showing of the past one year by eliminating the two-time (2014, 2015) world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, Chen Long of China, at 21-18, 21-14. The rangy Axelsen seemed inspired, and moved beautifully on the court, showing no traces of the ankle injury that had ruined his entire 2018 season.

In the other semi-final, Indonesia’s Christie, conqueror of Srikanth, will face off against Denmark’s unseeded Anders Antonsen, who ended the giant-killing run of Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia by a facile 21-13, 21-13 margin. Antonsen had impressed Indian badminton-lovers by doing a star turn for Mumbai Rockets in the recent Premier Badminton League; and had been named Emerging Player of the League.

It will be the first-ever meeting between two up-and-coming 21 year olds; and the talented Dane will need to make a fast and authoritative start if he is to counter the boisterous crowd support that Christie draws at the Istora Senayan. An entertaining match is on the cards, though for sheer quality, it is unlikely to match the other marquee semi-final between the two most recent world champions.

Updated Date: Jan 25, 2019 23:17:36 IST