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Japan Open Superseries: Arch-rivals PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara to cross swords yet again

Believe it or not, we are in for another match between the two fine exponents of badminton who provided the aficionados of the shuttle sport with two memorable finals in the space of the past three weeks!

World champion Nozomi Okuhara of Japan and India’s Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, who have spent a total of three hours and 13 minutes on the badminton court, battling each other to a virtual standstill in the World Championships and the Korea Open Superseries, are slated to complete a hat-trick of meetings inside a month, later this week, in the Japan Open Superseries at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium.

 Japan Open Superseries: Arch-rivals PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara to cross swords yet again

PV Sindhu celebrates her victory against Nozomi Okuhara at the Korea Open final. AFP

If the No 4 seed, Sindhu, gets past her first-round opponent, Minatsu Mitani, against whom she had substantial trouble in Seoul last week, and Okuhara is able to clip the wings of Hong Kong’s redoubtable Cheung Ngan Yi in her lung-opener in Tokyo on Wednesday, the two arch-rivals will pit their wits against each other on Thursday. Interestingly, the two have split two gold and two silver medals equally between them.

The keen follower of badminton would be tempted to ask the obvious question – how can two players who contested the most coveted title in the sport so recently be drawn to cross swords against each other so early in the competition? None of the eight seeded players in a draw of 32 could have met before at least the quarter-final stage.

The answer is as simple as it may be unexpected – Okuhara, despite pocketing the gold medal at the Worlds, is unseeded in her home tournament! With the closing date for entries being pegged at one month before the onset of the event, the rankings of the participating players on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) computer on that particular date – in this case, 19 August – were taken for the purposes of seeding.

Okuhara was ranked ninth in the rankings published on 17 August, and hence, did not merit a spot in the elite eight seedings. The only way she could have managed a seeding was if any one of the top eight ranked women had skipped the tournament. But that has not happened; and every one of the top eight, as on that date, are in the fray in Tokyo.

It seems dificult to believe that this tournament, which offers prize money of $325,000 has been able to attract every player in the world worth his/her salt, whereas the just-concluded Korea Open could not boast of such a comprehensive list, in spite of offering prize money of $600,000. Barring two-time former world champion Chen Long, who has chosen to sit it out for reasons unknown at this moment, every one of the world’s top singles players are present in Tokyo.

If only to appreciate just how tough the draws are in Tokyo, it can be revealed that the winner of the Sindhu-Okuhara match, in the lower half of the draw, is projected to clash in the semi-final with one among these outstanding players – two-time former world champion Carolina Marin of Spain (seeded fifth), Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi (seeded second) and India’s Saina Nehwal (unseeded).

Nehwal’s first opponent is Thai teenager Pornpawee Chochuwong, whom the Indian ace has beaten twice earlier this year, both times in straight games. If she gets through that none-too-challenging round, she will run into Marin, against whom she holds a 4-3 head-to-head advantage, although their most recent tussle, in the Indonesia Open Superseries Premier, ended in a 24-22, 21-11 win for the Spaniard.

India have a strong contingent of five players in the men’s singles draw, with only Kidambi Srikanth managing a seeding, at No 8. India’s premier male player could hardly have had a more challenging draw, for he takes on China’s unseeded Tian Houwei in the first round, and then the Indonesian, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting. The Indonesian shuttler bagged the Korea Open men’s singles title last Sunday, pipping compatriot Jonatan Christie at 22-20 in the third game of a desperately close final.

Other Indians in the fray also find their path strewn with major obstacles. Reigning national champion Sourabh Verma takes on five-time former world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist, Lin Dan of China. The winner of this duel encounters another Indian, B Sai Praneeth, who has a relatively easy opening test against a qualifier.

The winner among all these players is projected to clash in the quarter-final with top-seeded Korean, Son Wan Ho, provided the current World No 1 gets past Chinese Taipei’s Tzu Wei Wang or Korea’s vastly experienced veteran, 37-year-old Lee Hyun Il, who face off against each other in their first outing.

Another top Indian player, HS Prannoy, is scheduled to cross swords with the talented young Dane, Anders Antonsen, with their winner taking on the player who will come through the first-round bout between sixth-seeded Ng Ka Long Angus of Hong Kong and Taiwan’s Hsu Jen Hao.

All these players occupy the last quarter of the draw, in which 2017 All England runner-up, Shi Yuqi of China, is seeded second. Shi, who takes on the feisty Frenchman, Brice Leverdez, in his opening challenge, will most probably have to deal in the second round with India’s Sameer Verma, who has a qualifier to worry about for his tournament opener.

The sole Indian required to come through the qualifying rounds on Tuesday is 31-year-old Parupalli Kashyap, who has been handed a tough initial assignment against Denmark’s Emil Holst. If the Hyderabadi comes through this stern test, he would have to tame either Yu Igarashi of Japan or Pannawit Thongnuam of Thailand. He would then secure for himself a place in the main draw.

None of the singles players in the main draw have to take to the courts on Tuesday, which has been reserved for the qualification draws and the main draw of the mixed doubles. India’s only entry in the latter event, Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy, will duel with Japan’s Tomoya Takashima and Rie Etoh. Not an assignment that will cause furrowed foreheads in the Indian camp.

Reddy, however, faces a huge challenge when she and Ashwini Ponnappa clash with the third-seeded South Koreans Chang Ye Na and Lee So Hee, winners of the All England title earlier this year.

India’s best men’s doubles combination of Sumeet B Reddy and Manu Attri have been pre-qualified into the main draw due to some last-minute withdrawals of more illustrious pairs. But they face a tough initial outing against the eighth-seeded Chinese Taipei pair of Lee Jhe-Huei and Lee Yang.

If they somehow manage to slip it across the Taiwanese, they would have an excellent chance of progressing deep into the tournament, since they are ensconced in the top quarter of the draw, where the crack World No 1 Chinese pair of Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen withdrew at the last moment, and left the premier spot among the seedings vacant.

The place has gone to a none-too-strong Hong Kong pair, which was promoted from the qualifying rounds, and which allows the stronger pairs in that portion of the draw to dare to dream.

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Updated Date: Sep 18, 2017 20:32:03 IST

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