There was a distinct reversal of roles for the Indian flag-bearers at the Malaysia Masters badminton championships in Kuala Lumpur Sports City on Thursday.
In a spate of India versus Hong Kong battles, seventh-seed Kidambi Srikanth, who had notched a comfortable 21-17, 21-11 win over Ng Ka Long Angus on the opening day of the World Tour Super 350 competition, struggled to put away Angus’ fellow-countryman, Wong Wing Ki Vincent by a 23-21, 8-21, 21-18 margin in 64 minutes, suffering an inexplicable meltdown in the middle stanza.
On the other hand, Saina Nehwal, who had beaten Deng Joy Xuan 14-21, 21-18, 21-18 on Wednesday, got the winds in her sails and cantered through for a facile 21-14, 21-16 win over Hong Kong’s top female player, Yip Pui Yin, currently ranked 34th in the world. It was Saina’s ninth win over Yip in 11 career meetings, and also marked the eighth consecutive time that the Indian has won against the Hong Kong player, stretching back to the 2010 Asian Games.
Srikanth had a strikingly similar record against Vincent Wong — an impressive 8-3 lead in 11 career meetings, going into Thursday’s match at the Axiata Arena. Given his excellent recent form in the Premier Badminton League (PBL), the Guntur native’s struggles were hard to fathom. He certainly cannot afford this kind of lapse of concentration against his quarter-final opponent, South Korea’s Son Wan Ho.
The fourth-seeded Korean seemed to enjoy dragging his second round joust against Thailand’s Kantaphon Wangcharoen over the full distance, and allowing his superior staying powers to weigh in the balance. Son did not mind losing the first game, so long as he could wear down the up-and-coming Thai; and eventually came through the 67-minute encounter by a 11-21, 21-12, 21-12 scoreline.
The 30-year-old Son holds a slim 5-4 lead over Srikanth in career head-to-heads; and had scored a 21-14, 21-18 win over the 25-year-old Indian on the last occasion they had met — at the 2017 World Championships in Glasgow. No matter how fit the Indian may be, he has to try and win this quarter-final by the short route, for it is extremely unlikely that he can outlast the super-fit, essentially defensive Korean.
Saina faces a similar, potentially exhausting experience in her last-eight clash on Friday against second-seeded Nozomi Okuhara, the 2017 world champion, even though her own fitness levels have improved significantly in recent months. The Japanese ace excels in playing the rally game, counting on her accuracy and fitness to squeeze the life out of her rivals — as she did with compatriot Aya Ohori on Thursday, with a 14-21, 21-11, 21-14 verdict.
However, Saina holds a noteworthy 8-4 lead over Okuhara in their dozen career meetings, and has won on the two most recent occasions that they have met — both times, in three games. The Indian’s victories in successive weeks in October 2018, at the Denmark Open and French Open, came in the wake of back-to-back losses at the Korea Open and the team event of the Asian Games, just weeks earlier. There is, thus, reason to hope for another Saina win in Kuala Lumpur.
There was just as much hope that Saina’s life partner, Parupalli Kashyap, would reverse the result of his earlier two meetings with Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, seeded sixth at this Malaysia Masters.
The 22-year-old Indonesian had won their most recent clash at the Hong Kong Open in November 2018, in straight games, and he repeated that feat on Thursday, winning 21-17, 25-23 in 53 minutes. The Indian, a full decade Ginting’s senior, held game-point twice in the second stanza and fought gallantly to save two match-points, before succumbing.
Meanwhile, in the paired events, the baby-faced 24-year-old Ni Ketut Mahadewi Istarani and her 28-year-old Indonesian compatriot, Rizki Amelia Pradipta, added another notable pair of scalps to their collection by showing Indians Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy the exit door with a hard-fought 50-minute 21-18, 21-17 victory in the women’s doubles.
The first-round conquerors of sixth-seeded Japanese Shiho Tanaka and Koharu Yonemoto went through to a quarter-final meeting on Friday with the No 2 seeds, Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo. The former World No 1 pair from Japan was given a thorough working over in the opening game by the Dutch duo of Selena Piek and Cheryl Seinen, before the established twosome found their bearings, tightened their famed defence, and accelerated away to a 21-19, 21-8 triumph.
The fact that fancied players are having a hard time at the start of a new season was proved on Wednesday itself, when the tournament could so easily have lost its top two men’s seeds. Japanese world champion and No 1 seed, Kento Momota, was actually dumped at 21-15, 14-21, 22-20 by compatriot and Thomas Cup teammate Kenta Nishimoto, making it quite apparent that a vast number of players are gunning for the 24-year-old left-hander who had an outstanding season in 2018.
Second-seeded Shi Yuqi could have met a similar fate, but managed to survive a tremendous upset by Frenchman Brice Leverdez by the skin of his teeth. The Chinese, winner of the 2018 season-ending World Tour finals in Guangzhou, was forced to save two match-points before squeaking home at 21-9, 18-21, 25-23 in their marathon 68-minute opening-round duel. Shi, however, had no such problems in his second outing, administering the knockout punch to Thailand’s Suppanyu Avihingsanon by a 21-8, 21-12 scoreline.
Eighth-seeded Tommy Sugiarto of Indonesia was another top-ten player who failed to survive the carnage on the opening day of the year’s first tournament; he went down at 21-23, 13-21 to Malaysian Daren Liew. Another Malaysian, Goh Jin Wei, had the full measure of Japan’s third-seeded Akane Yamaguchi, knocking out the diminutive dynamo from Japan by a ridiculously one-sided 21-14, 21-12 scoreline.
There were far fewer upsets on the second day, as the players got used to the local conditions and got a couple of matches under their belts. But there could be some unexpected results again on Friday, when the quarter-finals will be played. The Indian challenge, of course, has been reduced to the two singles stars who started the Malaysia Masters as seventh seeds in their respective events.
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Updated Date: Jan 17, 2019 17:55:36 IST