Indonesia SSP: HS Prannoy's patient gameplan pays off against Chen Long; Kidambi Srikanth breezes into semis

This snippet of vital badminton information could come straight out of the pages of Ripley's 'Believe It or Not': a male Indian shuttler has notched up victories on two successive days over (a) the player ranked World No 1 for a record period of time, and (b) the current world and Olympic champion.

It is amazing; it is unprecedented. But it did happen on Friday, the day of all quarter-finals in the $1 million prize money Indonesia Open Super Series Premier badminton championship.

HS Prannoy, who had administered a veritable hiding on Thursday to Malaysia’s top seed and defending champion, Lee Chong Wei, set the Jakarta Convention Centre alight on Friday by scraping past China’s two-time reigning world champion and Rio Olympics gold medallist, Chen Long, after a titanic 75-minute battle-royal, by a 21-18, 16-21, 21-19 verdict.

HS Prannoy reacts after defeating Chen Long in their quarter-final match at Indonesia Open. AP

HS Prannoy reacts after defeating Chen Long in their quarter-final match at Indonesia Open. AP

“This was a brilliant effort from Prannoy,” was the enthusiastic response from former Indian national champion and chief coach at the Prakash Padukone Badminton Academy, Vimal Kumar. “Beating two of the world’s fittest and most experienced players on the trot, and at the highest level of competition, is very creditable. Prannoy is coming out of an injury break; and that makes it even more spectacular.”

Indeed, the bearded 24-year-old Kerala-born Prannoy became the first Indian player to beat the three current greats of the game. In addition to his wins over Lee and Long, he also has the distinction of defeating China’s legendary five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist, Lin Dan at the 2015 French Open.

There was a double dose of joy for Indian lovers of the sport, when Kidambi Srikanth joined his fellow-countryman in the semi-finals with a clinically precise 21-15, 21-14 victory over Chinese Taipei’s giant-killer Tzu Wei Wang. The 22-year-old Taiwanese player, ranked 19th on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder, had disposed of China’s seventh-seeded Dan in the opening round, and then scored a second-round win over Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus, by coincidentally the exact same scoreline of 21-16, 21-18.

There were few weapons in Wei Wang’s armoury to which Srikanth did not have an answer; and the 22nd-ranked Indian dictated the pace and trend of the 37-minute encounter with his trademark overhead sideline smashes and good control over the net. Perhaps the Taiwanese player failed to realise that Srikanth, who made a miraculous recovery from meningitis in 2013, had been ranked as high as third in the world in June 2015, before being struck by an ankle injury last October.

There is now an even chance that two Indians will cross swords in the final on Sunday, as had happened in the Singapore Open last month, when Sai Praneeth and Srikanth got into a face-off for the title. Of course, for that to happen, Srikanth will have to produce a performance to rival that of Prannoy’s showing against Long, when he takes on South Korea’s recently installed World No 1 and second seed, Son Wan Ho, in the semi-final on Saturday.

Wan Ho, who had conquered India’s Praneeth in his opening match, but struggled over the full distance in the second round before putting Chinese qualifier Zhao Junpeng away, was more comfortable on Friday while sidelining the No 6 seed from Chinese Taipei, Chou Tien Chen, at 21-15, 21-17.

Nor will the unassuming Prannoy be inclined to take matters easy in his own semi-final against 27-year-old Japanese qualifier Kazumasa Sakai, who outlasted the doughty Englishman, Rajiv Ouseph, at 13-21, 21-16, 21-10, in a long-drawn 57-minute defensive battle.

In a tournament that has witnessed upsets galore, the 47th-ranked Japanese journeyman accounted for such worthies as Indonesia’s Sony Dwi Kuncoro and Hong Kong’s Wei Nan in the preliminary rounds; and then, in the main draw, for Malaysia’s Chong Wei Feng and then Emil Holst, shock conqueror of fellow-Dane and third seed, Viktor Axelsen.

There can be no two opinions that the induction into Gopichand’s coaching staff of Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo for the singles players and Malaysian Tan Kim Her for the paired events has brought a new dimension into the Indian players’ courtcraft and tactical planning. There was definitely a touch of the 2010 world champion Taufik Hidayat’s strokes, particularly the backhand, and brilliant economy of movement in Prannoy’s unhurried coverage of the court and execution of shots against Long.

The Chinese ace had only been seeded eighth, in view of the gradual drop in his BWF ranking, and the fact that he has been picking and choosing his tournaments after his Olympic triumph last August. However, he had appeared to be in good nick while disposing of the challenge of two dangerous players — Germany’s Marc Zwiebler (at 21-14, 21-14) and Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie (at 21-9, 21-7). His long-legged court coverage and precision of stroke against Christie, in particular, had been most impressive.

But Prannoy had come with his own gameplan. Realising that naked aggression, which had worked the previous day against Chong Wei, would not take the Chinese star by surprise, the Indian concentrated on playing the patient, rallying game, and only administering the ‘coup de grace’ when his rival was pulled out of position. It also helped that Prannoy was spot on with his line challenges, whereas the nervy world champion frittered away his own two chances by making ill-judged challenges.

Both players used the overhead crosscourt smash as point-winning strokes, and both used the net dribble liberally, though Long was swift enough to tap any shuttle that was even an inch over the tape. Prannoy led all the way until 10-7, when the match was interrupted by a defective overhead strobe which started flashing erratically.

Once the problem was fixed, Prannoy maintained his 11-7 lemon-time advantage and pushed ahead to 14-8 and 17-11, with help from a few Long errors. The Indian looked fully in control of the game at 20-15, but the tall Chinese player reduced the margin to 18-20, and briefly threatened to usurp Prannoy’s thunder.

The world champ was at his best in the second stanza, where he employed considerable disguise in his overhead smashes, using angle and placement in preference to raw power. Even so, Prannoy managed to prolong the rallies and get that extra shuttle back, to catch up with his opponent at 16-all. A speedy follow-up to the net behind a smash by Long, coupled with two foozled net dribbles and a poor baseline judgment from Prannoy were sufficient to give the Chinese the second game, and bring him back on par with the Indian.

Qualitatively speaking, the match attained dizzying heights in the decider, as both players fought for just that tiny advantage, and failed to get it. Both exploited the full contours of the court, and tried to gain control of the net, a spot where Long displayed some deft touches.

Yet, the antagonists remained deadlocked until Prannoy took a 16-13 lead, only to see Long neutralise at 17-all. The Indian kept his nerve, and inched to match-point, 20-18; and when Long hit an out-of-position backhand drive wide, Prannoy let loose a yell of joy and briefly pumped his fists, before swiftly recomposing himself. He had just achieved the unthinkable, and packed off yet another top international star.

“I really liked Prannoy’s composure, especially after the win against Chen Long,” Vimal said, pointing to a remarkable lack of celebratory histrionics in Prannoy’s mien after his triumph. “That clearly showed he is focused and ready for the next match. Such a performance will motivate many youngsters, and will help them to believe that, if they put in the effort and stay focused, they can excel at the highest level.”

It must be said that the Jakarta Convention Centre, venue of this year’s Indonesia Open, is fast acquiring the dubious reputation of being – like the infamous Court No 2 at Wimbledon – the graveyard of champions. With the top seeds in three of the five events having already been knocked out before the day of the quarter-finals, it was the turn of the player who had not been beaten in her six previous tournaments, to bite the dust.

The No 1 seed in the women’s singles, and currently the world’s top-ranked player, Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying, produced a distinctly sub-par performance on Friday, and had her 30-match winning streak snapped by an inspired Nitchaon Jindapol of Thailand. Like Chong Wei the previous day, the Taiwanese ace looked totally off-colour, and produced a performance liberally littered with errors in the first and third games.

Jindapol’s stunning victory, at 21-19, 8-21, 21-17, in exactly an hour, was almost a mirror image of the proceedings in her second-round match on Thursday against India’s Saina Nehwal, herself a former World No 1. In a semi-final featuring unseeded players, the Thai will take on Japan’s Sayaka Sato, who accounted for the No 3 seed and compatriot, Akane Yamaguchi, by a 21-17, 18-21, 21-18 scoreline.

The other semi-final will feature South Korea’s fifth-seeded Sung Ji Hyun against Chinese-American Zhang Beiwen, conqueror of India’s PV Sindhu in the pre-quarter-final. While the Korean sidelined Chen Xiaoxin at 21-6, 21-23, 21-14, the American eliminated yet another seed, Sun Yu of China, ranked No 6, at 21-15, 21-19.

The exit of the women’s singles No 1 seed left the Chinese mixed doubles pairing of Zheng Siwei and Chen Qingchen as the sole survivors of the carnage of top seeds in this tournament of topsy-turvy results.

Updated Date: Jun 17, 2017 10:22 AM

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