Four match-points in the bag, and one leg virtually in the semi-finals. That was the eminently desirable situation that India's fifth-seeded Saina Nehwal found herself in, after 55 minutes of waging a superbly strategic battle against the No 3 seed from Japan, Nozomi Okuhara, in a quarter-final of the $600,000 Korea Open badminton championships on Friday.
Knowing the great battler that she is, and given her soundness of temperament, the capacity crowd at Seoul's SK Olympic Handball Stadium were shocked to see Saina spending the next four minutes helplessly watching the pint-sized Japanese fight tooth and nail to capture the final half-dozen points, and eke out a 15-21, 21-15, 22-20 triumph in a minute under the hour mark.
Ironically, it was the very strategy she had employed with such astounding success in building up a 20-16 lead in the decider that turned and bit the veteran Indian star in the leg. Instead of employing her usual bodyline attack, Saina engaged Okuhara in lengthy tossing duels, pinning the 2017 world champion to her forehand baseline, and relying on the diabolical cross-drift in the hall to force errors from her antagonist.
The plan had worked like a dream until that point, for Okuhara had least expected the Hyderabad-based Haryanvi to engage her in a battle of attrition, instead of testing out her iron-clad defence and control over the deep toss that had helped the Japanese narrow their head-to-head record before this tenth career meeting to 3-6, with victories in their two most recent encounters.
For once, it was Okuhara who tried to cut short the energy-sapping rallies by slicing the shuttle across court from the deep forehand corner, and kept finding the net or the tramlines on her rival's forehand side. The same cross-drift kept Saina's deep tosses in, even when the trajectory of the stroke seemed to be initially taking the shuttle out along the sideline.
The manner in which the 28-year-old Indian managed to last the distance against an opponent five years her junior (both were born in March, in 1990 and 1995, respectively) bears mute testimony to the hard yards that she would have put in, under the watchful eyes of long-time coach, Pullela Gopichand, even as Okuhara would have further improved her own speed, agility and endurance under the tutelage of South Korean coach Park Joo Bong.
The only mistake that Saina made was in continuing with those bouts of repeated deep tosses at 20-16, when it had become increasingly clear that her own limited resources were fast running out. It was at this stage, when the Indian should have gone all-out to finish the match by the short route, that Okuhara employed the smash she had kept under wraps for the better part of the match, and placed it as far away from her rival as possible, to squeeze the life out of the leg-weary Saina.
Too late, at 20-19, did Saina realise her error, and tried to close out the match with a couple of sideline smashes; but by then, the momentum had shifted totally, and Okuhara was in full flow. And so it was that the 2010 and 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medallist - the news of whose forthcoming marriage to long-time beau, Parupalli Kashyap, made front-page news a couple of days ago - had to swallow the bullet, and accept the trauma of losing a match she should by rights have won. It was a classic case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Okuhara, who had beaten Saina's compatriot, PV Sindhu, by an identical third-game scoreline in that classic 2017 World Championship summit clash in Glasgow, went through for a penultimate round reckoning with fellow-countrywoman and top seed, Akane Yamaguchi, two years her junior and equally accomplished in the stonewalling department. The expected interminable rallies in the course of their impending duel on Saturday are bound to tire out even the casual spectator, sitting in front of his television screen, with the refrigerator within an arm's length of desire!
There was Korean interest in the other semi-final, as the darling of the home crowds, fourth-seeded Sung Ji Hyun, waltzed merrily through her quarter-final joust with yet another Japanese, seventh-seeded Sayaka Takahashi, winning handily at 21-15, 21-11. The 27-year-old Sung, daughter of former badminton internationals Sung Han Kook and Kim Yun Ja, was streets ahead of the left-handed Takahashi, one year her junior, and younger sister of accomplished doubles star Ayaka.
Sung will cross swords in the semi-final with the No 6 seed, American-Chinese Beiwen Zhang, who was marginally superior to Scotland's never-say-die fighter, Kirsty Gilmour, and won at 21-15, 21-19. Gilmour had claimed the distinction of knocking out the second-seeded Ratchanok Intanon at 21-18, 21-17, in her previous round.
The men's singles event was rendered the poorer by the withdrawal through injury of recently crowned world champion Kento Momota, who conceded a walkover to compatriot and fellow-Thomas Cupper, Kenta Nishimoto. The sixth seed will clash on Saturday with Chinese Taipei's No 4 seed, Chou Tien Chen, who gained sweet revenge for his semi-final reverse at the hands of Indonesian Anthony Sinisuka Ginting at last week's China Open, with a resounding 21-13, 21-11 win in just 39 minutes.
Chou thus prevented a third Indonesian shuttler from making the semi-finals, for Jonatan Christie and Tommy Sugiarto had already ensured earlier that there would be a man from their country in Sunday's final. Christie was a relatively comfortable 21-17, 21-16 win over Chinese qualifier Zhao Junpeng, who had shocked top-seeded Viktor Axelsen in his previous outing.
Sugiarto showed exemplary fitness and steely nerves while edging another qualifier, Heo Kwang Hee of Korea, in the second game after having lost the first; and then rode roughshod over the local lad in the decider, for a 15-21, 21-19, 21-9 verdict. It remains to be seen whether the 30-year-old veteran, a World Championship bronze medallist in 2014, can tame his ebullient, effervescent compatriot, who celebrated his 21st birthday earlier this month, shortly after winning the Asian Games gold medal.
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Updated Date: Sep 29, 2018 11:19:42 IST