No player worth her salt would like the title laid out for her on a platter, in the face of a crippling injury to her opponent in the course of a title encounter. But India’s Saina Nehwal had to accept the fact that the Indonesia Masters badminton women’s singles title would go to her by default after her Spanish rival, Carolina Marin, was forced to concede the final midway through the first game at Jakarta’s Istora Senayan.
The reigning World and Olympic champion, who was off to a flier and led 9-2 in the fourth summit clash on the day’s schedule, lept sideways to execute an overhead stroke and landed awkwardly on the right knee, which buckled under the strain and sent her crashing onto her backhand sideline, her face screwed up in pain. Saina, her own face full of concern, came across immediately to see if she could help, even as the Spaniard’s support staff rushed to their player’s assistance.
Marin, ever the fighter, was eventually helped to her feet, bravely opted to continue the battle from 9-3, and even won the next point with a smash and follow-up kill to the net. But when Saina engaged her in a longer rally and dragged her from the baseline to the net with an overhead crosscourt drop, the Spaniard bowed to the inevitable in recognition of the fact that the damaged knee would not let her continue.
With tears of pain and frustration flowing freely down her cheeks, the 25-year-old three-time world champion shook hands with the chair umpire and service judge, confirming her retirement from the duel at 10-4 in the first game, and limped off the court with her rival’s arm wrapped comfortingly around her shoulder.
It was a heart-warming, sporting gesture from Saina, who had suffered a similar injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and appreciated the prospect of long months of rest, recovery, (possibly surgery) and rehabilitation that lay before Marin before she could return to the high level of competition on the international badminton circuit.
“Indonesia is a lucky place for me since I have played in eight finals in this country,” Saina said to the courtside interviewer, after acknowledging the fact that she was not happy with the manner in which the Indonesia Masters 2019 title had come her way. And indeed, it was at Jakarta in 2009 that the Indian ace had bagged the first Superseries title of her career when she was still in her teens, and had won the World Junior crown in Pune, a few months earlier.
Saina’s first major World Tour title (not counting the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medal, since it was from a restricted field) since her knee injury in Rio in August 2016 came on a day when the underdog ruled the roost, at least in the two singles finals. Saina was definitely struggling against the speed and positive play of world champion Marin when she was fortuitously handed the title, and reigning men’s world champion, Kento Momota of Japan, remained on the backfoot throughout the final against unseeded upstart Anders Antonsen of Denmark.
It was the 21-year-old Dane, ranked 20th in the world, who sensationally came through the bruising 79-minute encounter with a magnificent 21-16, 14-21, 21-16 triumph, for his first World Tour title. No sooner had the gifted Antonsen won the final point, than he ran around the arena at the jampacked Istora Senayan in total delirium, pulling off his T-shirt and chucking it into the crowd to show off his toned upper body. He admitted to the courtside interviewer that his joy knew no bounds.
It was the biggest upset of the tournament, for Momota had shown a streak of total ruthlessness while disposing of Indonesia’s top hope, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, in the quarter-finals on Friday by a runaway 21-9, 21-10 scoreline, and the 2017 world champion from Denmark, Viktor Axelsen, in the semi-finals on Saturday by an even more impressive 21-15, 21-4 margin.
So dominant had Momota been, especially in those two matches, that few had given Antonsen any chance of even taking a game off the Japanese left-hander, let alone beating him. Momota had been on a diet of Danes through the tournament, eliminating Jan O Jorgensen in the first round, and Hans Kristian Vittinghus in the second, before Ginting got in the way of an all-Danish milieu for the Japanese ace in the tournament.
Antonsen, who had tamed Malaysia Masters winner Son Wan Ho of South Korea in his very first outing in Jakarta, and had also scored a competent 21-18, 21-16 victory over Asian Games gold medallist, Jonatan Christie, in the semi-finals, charged out of the blocks on Sunday, all guns blazing, against what is generally acknowledged as one of the most reliable defences in the world.
Fortunately for the Dane, Momota, possibly suffering an emotional letdown after his two earlier thumping successes, and not expecting his rival to put up such a sterling fight in view of the defeats he had suffered in all three of their previous meetings in 2018, was at well below his best form. Antonsen showed that he had the weapons to capitalise on his antagonist’s below-par mien, and remained on the attack throughout.
The jampacked crowd watched enthralled as the two slugged it out until 12-all in the first game, before Antonsen took the lead, never to relinquish it until he charged past the finishing-post in the opening game, as Momota helped his cause by repeatedly over-hitting the shuttle at the rival baseline.
However, in the second game, the Japanese got the advantage of playing against the stadium drift, and led from start to finish, to restore parity. But he lost his way after 8-all in the decider, and simply could not stir himself to raise a gallop after the change of ends, when he had the better side. Antonsen played like a man possessed, controlling the net and keeping the shuttle down to avoid over-hitting it; and raced to what was the best triumph of his young career.
Canny students of the game, including former All-England champion Morten Frost, had predicted last year itself that Antonsen was talented enough to challenge for the world title in a couple of years, but the young Dane appears to have mounted the challenge even earlier. His progress in the tournaments between now and the World Championships in August will be monitored closely to determine whether he can take over his country’s mantle from the clearly flagging Axelsen.
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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2019 08:21:46 IST