Japan Open 2018: Kidambi Srikanth hits yet another stumbling block in journey to top against Korea’s Lee Dong Keun

What a sharp drop there has been in the space of just a few months, in the form of India’s top male shuttler, Kidambi Srikanth. Appearing virtually unbeatable in late-2017, after bagging four Superseries titles and one Superseries runner-up spot in a single season, the 25 year old Andhra Pradesh native has been struggling to re-ignite the spark that made him one of the most feared competitors on the international badminton circuit last year.

File image of Kidambi Srikanth. AFP

File image of Kidambi Srikanth. AFP

On Friday, the World No 8 Srikanth hit yet another stumbling-block in his disjointed journey back to the top after contracting a knee injury at the French Open last November, when he went down to South Korea’s Lee Dong Keun, a player ranked 25 places behind him in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) standings, at the quarter-final stage of the Japan Open badminton championships in Tokyo.

The 21-19, 16-21, 18-21 defeat in a gruelling 78-minute encounter at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza provided a stark reminder that the Indian will need to pull up his socks in no uncertain manner if he is to be a major contender at the 2020 Summer Olympics that are to be held in the Japanese capital in less than two years’ time. It mattered little that the 27-year-old Dong Keun had blasted his far more illustrious compatriot, fourth-seeded Son Wan Ho, at 21-13, 21-13 in the pre-quarter-final.

The Indian’s inability to keep his nose ahead in the match against the Korean stood out in stark contrast to the footspeed, accuracy, confidence and opportunism in closing out rallies at the slightest opportunity, that the host nation’s recently crowned world champion, Kento Momota, showed while handing five-time former world champion, Lin Dan of China, one of the most comprehensive defeats of the latter’s fabulous career.

The third-seeded Japanese left-hander, who turned 24 on the first day of the running month, was utterly merciless in his clinical 43-minute 21-8, 21-10 demolition of the two-time Olympic gold medallist, giving the man widely considered to be the greatest player of all time absolutely no chance of staging one of his trademark recoveries.

It is not that Super Dan played badly; but, at the ripe old age of 34, and conceding a full decade to his Japanese antagonist, the Chinese ace did not have either the pace or the penetration to put his speedy, fit rival on the back foot in front of Momota’s home crowds. In a way, it was sad to witness the on-court humiliation of one of the game’s legends, in much the same manner as 36-year-old, 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer’s sufferings at the hands of Australia's John Millman at the recent US Open.

However, another player abundantly gifted in the speed department, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting of Indonesia, was not so fortunate in another quarter-final against the 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark. Ginting, who had actually held match-point in the second game of his Asian Games gold-medal clash against compatriot Jonatan Christie, found the top-seeded defending champion a hard nut to crack, and capitulated by a 17-21, 15-21 scoreline in a minute shy of the hour mark.

On this showing, and on the strength of his earlier performances against Hsu Jen Hao of Chinese Taipei and Kenta Nishimoto of Japan, it can be safely concluded that Axelsen is over the ankle problem that had required surgery in January this year, and on his way back to the top of the heap.

The Dane’s semi-final joust with Momota on Saturday – a duel between the world champions of the past two years – is likely to decide the fate of the men’s singles trophy in this tournament, for it appears unlikely that either of the other two semi-finalists, Korean Lee Dong Keun or Khosit Phetpradab of Thailand, would trouble their winner. The latter, though, staked his credentials by downing two time former world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, Chen Long of China, by a 21-19, 24-22 margin.

Srikanth’s latest reverse to a far lower ranked player had signaled the end of the Indian challenge at the $700,000 prize money World Tour event. The other two main contenders, HS Prannoy and PV Sindhu, had been beaten in the second round on Thursday, by opponents they should have taken in their stride, while all the Indian doubles combinations also came to grief at the same stage of the competition.

There was some cheer for Indian badminton supporters when Prannoy exacted revenge from Jonatan Christie for his loss at the Indonesian’s hands at the recent Asiad. The Kerala-born Gopichand Academy trainee downed the talented Indonesian, who will turn 21 on the day of the Japan Open semi-finals, by an impressive 21-18, 21-17 scoreline, but was then shown the exit door in the second round by Christie’s fellow-countryman, Ginting, by a depressing 21-14, 21-17 margin.

As for the third-ranked Sindhu, the Indian completed another short, eminently forgettable stay in a Japan Open, by losing to up-and-coming Chinese youngster, Gao Fangjie. Sindhu had produced a rather unconvincing opening-round triumph over local girl, Sayaka Takahashi, recovering after a second-game brain-fade, for a 21-17, 7-21, 21-13 win.

But 19-year-old Gao matched Sindhu in all departments of the game, particularly in retrieving the bird from tough angles, and gave the Indian a 21-18, 21-19 humbling. Although Gao forms one of the vanguard of exciting young Chinese players who could be ripe for medals by the time the 2020 Tokyo Olympics come round, Sindhu is distinctly superior on paper – a fact that was conclusively proved when the Chinese teenager was roundly thrashed at 21-14, 21-12 by Aya Ohori of the host nation in the quarter-finals.

Ohori qualified to take on compatriot and 2017 world champion, Nozomi Okuhara, in one semi-final on Saturday, while reigning world champion and Japan Open defending champion, Carolina Marin of Spain, made the last-four grade in the bottom half of the draw, and will meet China’s Chen Yufei.

A perusal of that line-up would instantly lead to the sixty-four thousand dollar question – what was the fate of the top two seeds in the competition, the apparently unbeatable World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, and the No 2 seed, Akane Yamaguchi of Japan?

In what has been a tournament of shocks and surprises, resulting in the exit of the top four seeds in the women’s singles, Tai suffered a horrible day at the office in the second round itself, and was eliminated by 20 year old Chen Xiaoxin of China at 21-18, 21-14. Chen, in turn, was handily bounced out by Okuhara at the last-eight stage, by a 21-17, 21-16 scoreline, in a match that lasted 54 minutes of excruciatingly long rallies in which the staying power of the pint-sized Japanese weighed in the balance.

The other Japanese girl with limitless stamina, Yamaguchi, who has the reputation of being able to keep rallies going into eternity, was tamed at 21-13, 15-21, 21-15 in 68 minutes by another Chinese youngster who has been making waves for the past two years, fifth-seeded Chen Yufei. Yufei employed deception in the best Tai Tzu Ying tradition to repeatedly send Yamaguchi the wrong way, and force her into errors.

The other supremely deceptive warrior on the women’s circuit, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand, found the scorching footspeed and superior fitness of three-time world champion Marin a mite too much to counter, and capitulated at 21-18, 21-19, in a vastly entertaining 47-minute battle of cut-and-thrust. The result meant that Marin was firmly installed as the new favourite to retain her hold on the Japan Open title this Sunday.

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Updated Date: Sep 14, 2018 23:38:15 IST

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