Korea Open 2018: Saina Nehwal, Sameer Verma to lead Indian challenge as Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy withdraw
A near-full strength field in the men's singles, with a comparatively poor representation among the women – that is what the situation looks like, in the $600,000 Korea Open
A near-full strength field in the men's singles, with a comparatively poor representation among the women – that is what the situation looks like, in the $600,000 Korea Open badminton championships that took off at the SK Olympic Handball Stadium in downtown Seoul on Tuesday.
Even as three of world's top four male players – Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, Kento Momota of Japan and Son Wan Ho of the host nation – take to the courts from Wednesday morning, three of the top five women – Chinese Taipei's Tai Tzu Ying, India's P V Sindhu and Spain's Carolina Marin – have decided to take a much-needed rest after their exertions in the recently concluded Japan and China Opens.
China's reigning All England champion Shi Yuqi, who slipped to No 3 behind Momota in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings announced on 20 September, has opted out of the World Tour Super 500 competition. However, the legendary Lin Dan, who will shortly celebrate his 35th birthday and is currently 11th in the rankings, has thrown his hat into the ring, and will run into his old rival and former World No 2, Jan O Jorgensen of Denmark, in his lung-opener.
No doubt all these players will say a special prayer for the speedy return of their revered colleague from Malaysia, Datuk Lee Chong Wei, who has been diagnosed with early-stage nose cancer, and is reported to be receiving treatment in Taipei. It is highly unlikely that the three-time Olympic silver medallist will take part in any tournament in the residual part of the ongoing year.
Indian ace Kidambi Srikanth, who has slithered inexorably down the snake from the World No 1 slot (for a solitary heady week earlier this year) to No 8 in the rankings, was originally entered in the Korea Open, but withdrew at the last minute, along with his Gopichand Academy team-mate and regular sparring partner, HS Prannoy, ostensibly to rest and train for the second half of the European circuit, that will include the Denmark and French Opens.
In the absence of India's top two men shuttlers, as also the India No 3 and 2017 Singapore Open champion, B Sai Praneeth, there is just one Indian in the fray - 23-year-old former national champion, Sameer Verma, who will take on Denmark's Anders Antonsen on Wednesday.
It will be far from easy for the Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) native to beat the talented Dane, but should he do so, he has a mountain to climb in the next round, in the shape of the recently-crowned world and Japan Open champion, Kento Momota, seeded second at this Korea Open.
It could be déjà vu for both players, for they had clashed against each other in Seoul at the semi-final stage of the 2012 World Junior Championships, when Momota had gone on to win the gold, and Verma had had to settle for the bronze. In the past six years, their respective careers have taken widely divergent paths, with Momota heading inexorably for the summit, while Verma's ranking has done a yo-yo performance between the 18th and 35th rungs on the BWF ladder.
The only other Indian who tried his luck in the qualifying rounds, Ajay Jayaram, suffered a close 24-26, 18-21 defeat in the first preliminary round at the hands of China's Zhao Junpeng. Zhao, who went on to win his second qualifying round at 21-12, 21-14 against Hong Kong's Chan Yin Chak, and qualified to meet Danish veteran, Hans Kristian Solberg Vittinghus in the opening round of the main draw.
There is considerable interest in the prospects of Indonesia's Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, who beat four world champions - Lin Dan, Viktor Axelsen, Chen Long and Momota - en route to the gold medal in the just-concluded $1 million prize money China Open. The 20-year-old Indonesian has received his first-ever seeding in a tournament of the level of World Tour Super 500 - the seventh slot.
Ginting has been bracketed in the lower half of the draw along with Momota. Of course, before he crosses swords again with the Japanese left-hander, the speedy Ginting will have to get past Frenchman Lucas Corvee, and then the winner of the first-round match between Thailand's Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk and the dangerous Taiwanese, Wang Tzu Wei. At the quarter-final stage, he is slated to run into Chinese Taipei's Chou Tien Chen, whom he had beaten in the China Open semi-finals last Saturday.
Among the women, India is being represented by three-time national champion and former World No 1, Saina Nehwal, who has been seeded fifth in Seoul. The 28-year-old Indian ace will face two from amongst a trio of South Koreans in her opening two matches - Kim Hyo Min in the first round, and then the winner between qualifiers Kim Ga Eun and Lee SeYeon.
It is unlikely that either of these two rounds will pose any major problem for Saina, who should go through for a quarter-final duel with the No 3 seed from Japan, Nozomi Okuhara. Saina holds a 6-2 career head-to-head advantage over Okuhara, who had won the 2017 world championship in Glasgow at the expense of India's Sindhu in a 110-minute final that is rated one of the all-time classics of women's badminton.
Both Saina and Okuhara are clubbed in the top half of the draw, where current World No 2, Akane Yamaguchi, has been given pride of place. But the pint-sized Yamaguchi will first have to get past China's eighth-seeded Gao Fangjie in the quarter-finals, and that will be no easy task, given the 20- year-old Chinese player's rampaging recent form.
Thailand's 2013 world champion Ratchanok Intanon has been given the second seeding, and a much more comfortable run through to the final. The other seeded players in her half of the draw are Korean Sung Ji Hyun (4), American-Chinese Beiwen Zhang (6) and Japan's Sayaka Takahashi (7). Nevertheless, the deceptive, strokeful Thai could have her hands full with Sung, if only because of her less-than-optimal level of physical fitness.
While Srikanth staved off a stiff challenge from world no 71 France's Christo Popov 21-18 15-21 21-16 in an hour and 15 minutes, former world no 10 Prannoy saw off Malaysia's Liew Daren 22-20 21-19 in the opening round
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Sindhu, who had a superior 12-7 head-to-head record against the Japanese shuttler going into Friday's tie, was no match to her rival, losing 13-21 9-21 in a one-sided duel that lasted just 32 minutes
The final was close in the first round, but the Japanese ace managed to build a strong defence as Antonsen repeatedly made unforced errors.