On four earlier occasions has India’s most successful female shuttler, Saina Nehwal, stood atop the winners’ rostrum at the Indonesia Open Super Series badminton championships.
The Indian proudly ascended the top step in 2009, when she beat China’s Wang Lin in the final; in 2010, when her final victim was Japan’s Sayaka Sato; and in 2012, when she put an end to the aspirations of China’s Li Xuerui. Saina suffered the heartbreak of narrowly missing the hat-trick in 2011, when she went down to another Chinese star, Wang Yihan, after holding match point in the second game. Yihan was good enough to win the World Championship later that year.
On Tuesday, in her lung-opener in the 2017 edition of the $1 million-prize money competition, the 27-year-old shuttle queen faces the unusual situation of going into the competition unseeded, after failing to find a spot in the top-10 Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings. With every one of the top-eight-ranked women participating, the 11th ranked Saina has been thrown to the wolves as one of the most dangerous floaters in the 32-player main draw.
Wolf No 1 in the Indian’s path is an old and familiar face, Thailand’s eighth-seeded Ratchanok Intanon, who amazed everyone by winning the World Championship gold medal in 2013, but who has since failed to live up to those lofty standards she set herself in her breakout year when she was still a precocious, hugely talented 18-year-old.
The two have clashed on a dozen occasions in the past, and Saina holds a slim seven-five advantage in their head-to-head clashes. But it must be remembered that most of the Indian’s victories came in the earlier years before her career-threatening right knee injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Two of those wins came in the title clashes of international tournaments on each other’s home turf, the 2012 Thailand Open and the 2015 India Open.
On current form, however, the 22-year-old Thai with exemplary court manners and deportment holds most of the aces, including a five-year age advantage over her Indian antagonist. Only a week back, Ratchanok captured the crown in her home tournament at the expense of fellow-countrywoman Busanan Ongbamrungphan, who had ended Saina’s challenge at the semi-final stage.
Saina, on her part, has the Malaysia Masters title that she won in January this year to show for her labours in international tournaments since her return post-rehabilitation. However, she continues to struggle with fitness issues, and looks distinctly tentative on the repaired right knee, even as Ratchanok has been showing greater signs of the form that won her the world crown, four years ago.
The Indian’s greatest hope lies in extending the rallies and keeping the shuttle in play for as long as she can, since Ratchanok believes in going for her shots and for the lines, and thus makes that many more errors. In addition, the Thai’s staying powers have always been suspect; and Saina’s chances of victory will increase exponentially, the longer the match lasts. Ratchanok can win in two games, but if Saina can extend the contest to a decider, she may well advance in the tournament.
Saina’s compatriot, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, opens her campaign against another Thai, Pornpawee Chochuwong, the very player Saina had beaten at 22-20, 22-20, while winning the Malaysia Masters earlier this year. The baby-faced Thai, who turned 19 on 22 January this year, has been making her way steadily up the rankings ladder, and is currently perched on the 20th step.
The two have never met before, but the fourth-seeded Indian, who will celebrate her 22nd birthday on 5 July, has shown reasonably good form since she unsuccessfully battled Spain’s reigning world champion Carolina Marin for the Olympic gold medal in August last year.
The lanky Hyderabadi won three titles, including two Super Series crowns at the 2016 China Open and 2017 India Open against some of the best names in the world, and also took home the Syed Modi International in the face of some lukewarm opposition. Sindhu was also a finalist at the 2016 Hong Kong Open.
However, in recent tournaments, she has had to swallow defeat at the hands of Taiwan’s world No 1 Tai Tzu-Ying (in the quarter-final of the All England Championships), Chinese left-hander He Bingjiao (at 22-24 in the third game of the Badminton Asia quarter-final), Spanish southpaw Marin (also in the quarter-final of the Singapore Open) and China’s Chen Yufei (in the round of 32 at the Malaysia Open).
It would appear that Sindhu has too much speed and firepower for the Thai teenager to counter; and the world No 3 (she has climbed up one rank since the Indonesia Open seedings were declared) is strongly favoured to take Pornpawee in her stride, and move into a second-round clash with either China-born American Zhang Beiwen or Indonesia’s Hanna Ramadini.
Meanwhile, in the tough qualification rounds of the men’s doubles, India’s fresh young pairing of the 16-year-old Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty vaulted across two hurdles, to barge into the main draw.
The Indians encountered some opposition in the opening game of their clash against locals Altof Barriq and Reinard Dhanriyano, but came through at 22-20, 21-9. In their subsequent round, they sidelined another pair of Indonesians, Sabar Karyaman Gutama and Frengky Wijaya Putra by a 21-18, 21-16 scoreline.
There were no Indians entered in the qualification rounds of the men’s singles, but a trio of Pullela Gopichand Academy trainees will showcase their talent in the main draw, which will be played from Wednesday.
Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth, ranked 15th in the world, and riding an unbeaten 11-match streak on the back of his title triumphs in the Singapore Open Super Series and the Thailand Open, has a tough opening round against South Korea’s second-seeded Son Wan Ho, who has climbed to the pinnacle of the rankings since the Indonesia Open seedings were announced.
Kidambi Srikanth, ranked one place above Praneeth at the moment, slowly appears to be recovering the kind of form that saw him beat the legendary Lin Dan in the final of the 2013 China Open. He too has a challenging opener against Hong Kong battler, Wong Wing Ki Vincent, ranked three places above him on the BWF ladder. The two have met thrice earlier, with the Hong Kong player holding a 2-1 lead, including a win in their most recent clash at the Korea Open last September.
The third Indian in the fray, Haseena Sunilkumar Prannoy, barely made it into the main draw, as his 29th ranking placed him on the borderline of the cut-off point. He also had serious visa problems, which only got sorted out at the last minute through the intervention of foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, on whose doors a desperate N Sikki Reddy had knocked, after all other avenues had been explored.
The 24-year-old Prannoy has the least demanding of the opening-round clashes for Indians in the men’s singles. He takes on Indonesia’s 21 year old Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, ranked 20th on the BWF ladder.
Ginting, though, cannot be under-estimated, for he had produced the star turn in Indonesia’s shock 3-2 Sudirman Cup group triumph against Denmark, lowering the colours of the towering Viktor Axelsen, who has recently risen to No 2 in the world rankings. He will also have the full-throated support of the partisan home crowds at the indoor stadium of the Jakarta Convention Centre; and that will be a huge factor in his favour.
None of the three men’s singles opening round clashes involving Indians promises smooth sailing. Yet, they all hold promise of an upset result, if only Gopichand’s wards can rise to the occasion in what promise to be tough conditions.
Updated Date: Jun 13, 2017 10:16 AM