It could so easily have been an all-Indian men’s singles final.
It could equally easily have been a men’s singles final in which no Indians featured.
Eventually, an in-between, bittersweet solution was arrived at.
HS Prannoy had as many as five match points to finish his Indonesia Open Super Series Premier badminton semi-final in two straight games against Japanese qualifier, Kazumasa Sakai. He blew all five, and ended up losing the second and third games, along with the chance of making his first Super Series final.
Kidambi Srikanth trailed by a match point in the deciding game of a humdinger of a semi-final against World No 1, Son Wan Ho of South Korea, and could easily have joined his fellow-countryman and regular sparring partner, Prannoy, on the sidelines. However, he chose to fight like a cornered tiger, and converted his own third match point into victory, to remain alive in this elite competition.
Indeed, Prannoy who had sensationally eliminated two former World No 1’s on successive days, simply ran out of emotional energy, and succumbed to the 27-year-old Japanese journeyman, at 21-17, 26-28, 18-21. He was on court for an hour and 16 minutes, which was a minute more than he had been the previous day, while slipping it across reigning world and Olympic champion Chen Long.
Srikanth, on the other hand, dug deep into reserves that even he might not have believed he had, while lowering the colours of the South Korean, who was celebrating his World No 1 status for the third successive week, by a 21-15, 14-21, 24-22 scoreline. It was a scintillating battle that kept him on the only court laid in the Jakarta Convention Centre for four minutes less than his compatriot had taken earlier.
What the Srikanth-Wan Ho match lacked for sheer quality, in comparison with the Prannoy-Long encounter the previous day, it more than made up in drama and excitement, as it scaled dizzy heights in the extra-points duel in the decider, on a day when each of the first seven of the scheduled 10 semi-final matches in this $1 million prize money tournament went the full distance.
As the Indian squeezed that extra inch of pace from his exhausted body, and went for smashes from near-impossible angles in an all-out effort to close out the match, the packed audience could actually sense his implacable resolve to make his second consecutive Super Series final, after the Singapore Open summit clash which he had lost to compatriot Sai Praneeth.
That said, there was little at the start to indicate that the encounter was headed for such a fiery end. Srikanth’s angular face exuded fierce determination, and he moved with alacrity on the court to take 7-4 and 11-6 leads, dominating the rallies near the net. He had the mortification of needing to adjust to the heavy cross drift in the stadium that carried either wide or long, all the lofted clears to Wan Ho’s backhand.
The South Korean, on his part, looked strangely subdued, and concentrated on defending anything that his rival threw at him, without trying to force the pace. It allowed Srikanth, playing well within himself, to stay at least three points clear all the way — 12-9, 13-10, 14-11, after which he powered to an 18-12 lead. It was sufficient to nail him the opening game in just 17 minutes.
The World No 1 and second seed demonstrated a lot more enterprise in the second, keeping the shuttle down as much as possible, to avoid becoming a victim of the diabolical drift. Yet Srikanth, now playing from the better side and against the drift, was able to play his strokes without fear of their floating obliquely out, and appeared to have the match under full control when he led 13-10.
Unaccountably, and without warning, the Indian lapsed into a string of unforced errors that had him losing 11 of the next 12 points, to hand Wan Ho the second game on a platter, as it were. It was agonising for the handful of Indian supporters in the stands to understand how their player had suddenly gone off the boil, and why his timing was so badly off that he kept hitting his smashes into the lower half of the net.
The meltdown continued into the decider, and Srikanth kept finding the net with his smashes; else, he would have been able to build up a lead, rather than having his opponent staying within a point of his score. When they went into the change of ends with a solitary point separating them, one feared for Srikanth’s prospects, as the Indian looked distinctly peaked, whereas Wan Ho had stepped up a gear, and was attacking more than at any time earlier in the match.
No more than a point separated the two opponents all the way to the tape, until the No 2 seed stood at match-point 20-19. This is where the drama began building to a crescendo. Wan Ho’s hard push to Srikanth’s baseline was called correct by the linesman, and the match was technically over — but for the Indian mounting a line challenge. He was proved correct, as the bird had landed a centimetre long. 20-all.
That was the last chance that Son Wan Ho got to end the tussle. Srikanth wrested his own first match point with quicksilver movements and power-packed smashes, but mishit a return out along the sidelines to return to deuce. The Indian missed out on another match point, which the South Korean saved with some amazing defensive skills. But on his third match point, an utterly exhausted but alert Srikanth got back a lightning tap from Wan Ho with a reflex stroke that would have done a Lin Dan or a Lee Chong Wei proud.
Even amidst the delight of reaching his fourth Super Series final — he had won the 2014 China Open and the 2015 India Open, before losing the 2017 Singapore Open final — Srikanth would have felt a pang of sympathy for his Gopichand Academy batchmate, Prannoy, who had done everything except make what would have been his own first Super Series final.
Having taken down Malaysia’s top-seeded Chong Wei and China’s reigning world and Olympic champion Long on the two previous days, the 24 year old Indian would have been expected to have had the easier of the two semi-final assignments — to ease past Japan’s Sakai, a qualifier and rank outsider, currently ranked 47th in the world.
Prannoy, who has moved up from 29th to 25th in the latest Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings this week — still some way from the career-high 12th rank he had achieved in June 2015 — did not appear physically distressed after his titanic battle the previous day against Long, and started the contest brightly, with handy leads of 5-2 and 9-3, which he duly enlarged to 15-8 and 16-9.
It was at this point that Prannoy began displaying signs of human frailty — at least mental, if not physical. Sakai prolonged the rallies in much the same way as the Indian had against Long on Friday, gradually wore down his rival’s resistance, and induced errors. Although Prannoy tightened up after 17-14 to take the first game at 21-17, the portents in the second game looked far from encouraging.
Sakai took a huge leap to 12-5 and then 16-10; and it appeared as if the contest was headed for a decider. Prannoy, however, summoned some inner strength and slowly began pulling it back, point by excruciating point. From an inferior 15-18 situation, he reeled off four points to wrest the lead at 19-18. And when he stood at 20-19, it appeared as if he would make the final by the short route.
The Indian had not, however, made allowances for the tremendous fighting spirit that the Japanese player showed. He neutralised the danger. On four more occasions, Prannoy stood at match point, but Sakai showed skill and patience, and the willingness to await an error from his anxious antagonist. Prannoy, at 24-23, was not permitted to close out the match, despite playing a 38-stroke rally.
The Japanese, who has only a solitary Grand Prix title by way of the 2012 Russian Open, finally took the crucial second game on his own third game point; and, for Prannoy, that was the match. The misery of losing that game at 26-28, after five match points, would have mentally crushed anyone; and the Indian was no exception. Sakai remained ahead all through the decider; and though Prannoy put in a final despairing effort to reduce an 11-17 margin to 17-18, the writing was on the wall.
With the exit of the last seeded player, Wan Ho, from the men’s singles in this tournament of upsets, it was left to another South Korean, Sung Ji Hyun, to save the seeding committee its blushes. The fifth seed in the women’s singles had a topsy-turvy match against giant-killer Zhang Beiwen, mainly due to the strong cross drift in the hall, before subduing the unseeded American at 21-10, 8-21, 21-10.
In the final on Sunday, Sung will take on tall Japanese left-hander Sayaka Sato, who recovered from the loss of the first game to Thailand’s Nitchaon Jindapol, to eke out a hard-earned 13-21, 21-18, 21-14 triumph.
Totally outmanoeuvred in the first game by the speedy, strokeful Jindapol, Sato switched tactics in the second and repeatedly pulled her opponent to the backhand net corner — after noticing that the Thai girl had strained the hamstring on her left leg, and had difficulty pushing back on the limb.
As for the last remaining top seeds in a tournament that has seen lofty reputations being torn to shreds, the mixed doubles pairing of Zheng Siwei and Chen Qingchen survived the semi-final, to look forward on Sunday to the dubious prospect of facing Indonesians Tontowi Ahmad and Lilyana Natsir.
With Natsir returning from an injury lay-off, and playing as well as ever, the 2012 Olympic gold medalists will have the full-throated support of the home crowd as they attempt to complete a Grand Slam demolition of top seeds in the infamous Graveyard of Champions, as the Jakarta Convention Centre — used only because the regular venue of the Indonesia Open, the Istora Senayan, is under renovation — has come to be known.
Updated Date: Jun 18, 2017 13:40:25 IST