Pedigree will not be denied. Nor will indomitable spirit. Every time someone writes Saina Nehwal off, she has made it a habit of bouncing right back and cocking a snook at her detractor.
Given less than an even chance of winning her Malaysia Masters quarter-final against the No 2 seed, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan who is nearly six years her junior, India’s most consistent and decorated shuttler over the past decade lowered the colours of the 2017 World Champion by a 21-18, 23-21 scoreline, to march into the semi-finals of the World Tour Super 500 event at the Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur on Friday.
Unhappily, Saina’s exploits failed to sufficiently inspire her compatriot and Pullela Gopichand Academy batch-mate, Kidambi Srikanth, who made an indifferent, error-strewn start to his quarter-final against the No 4 seed, Son Wan Ho, and thus frittered away an outstanding chance of beating the South Korean in the quarter-finals. In spite of losing the first game over the extra points, Son battled his way to a 72-minute 21-23, 21-16, 21-17 decision over the seventh seeded Indian.
Srikanth’s best bet against the super-fit 30-year-old Korean was to win the match in two straight games, and not permit Son to wage a battle of attrition, as he had done the previous day against Thailand’s Kantaphon Wangcharoen, a full decade younger than him, but not anywhere near as accomplished in the stamina stakes. Ergo, the Indian needed to make a rampaging start to the match, and win the first game in quick time, so as to have plenty in reserve for when Son settled into the match.
Instead, Srikanth, who was only slightly behind at 4-5 in the career head-to-head count, was in such a prodigal mood at the outset that he conceded a huge 4-11 lead to the Korean at the breather; and then had to pull out all stops to try and pocket the opening game. The 25-year-old Indian finally managed to catch up at 13-all, and actually powered ahead to 17-14, winning 13 of the previous 16 points, before the startled Son restored parity, and the game went into an extra-points tug-of-war.
That massive effort on Srikanth’s part predictably told on his speed and court movements in the second stanza, particularly after he again had to put in a supreme effort to make up a 4-9 deficit, and catch up with his rival at 10-all. The Guntur native was very much in the game until 16-17, but Son then turned up the speed to gobble the next four points, and take the match to the decider.
The writing was on the wall, even though the battling Indian took reasonable 5-1 and 8-5 leads, only to have Son restore parity just before lemon-time and the change of ends. Once the Korean worked his way to 13-10 and 16-12 leads, Srikanth was always short of breath and under pressure. To his credit, he fought to the bitter end, but would have realised that it was his horror start that cost him the match.
Saina, still recovering from a lingering shin injury, had a similar implacable, but defensive opponent in the diminutive Okuhara, who had pipped the Indian’s fellow-countrywoman, PV Sindhu, for the 2017 World Championship gold medal in Glasgow, in a 110-minute final that is still considered one of the finest matches of all time. Okuhara threw down the gauntlet to her antagonist to try and make all the running in the face of her own accuracy and lasting powers.
But not for nothing has Saina been World No 1 in the rankings for a week in April 2015, and for nine weeks between mid-August and mid-October the same year. After recovering from her horrific knee injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she has worked her way back to full fitness, and fought her way back into the world’s top ten. She retained the ability to match her rival in the longer rallies, and to suddenly grab a couple of cheap points with tight netplay, followed by her trademark body smashes.
Nor was the Indian unduly concerned about her ability to last the full distance in a long-drawn encounter. Saina had sensationally beaten Okuhara in three games at both the Denmark Open and French Open in October last year, after losing two matches to the Japanese star at the Korea Open and the team event of the Asian Games, just weeks earlier. This was the rivals’ fifth meeting in the past six months.
The start was guarded and wary on both sides of the net, with the rivals trying to case each other out and identify the opponent’s strategy. The Japanese it was who made the first positive move, to break out from 9-all into a useful 15-9 lead. But the Indian responded swiftly by neutralising the advantage at 16-all; and outwitted Okuhara in the end-game for a deserving first-game win.
The second game witnessed a tight, even tussle until 14-all, when the tiny Japanese broke away into a four-point lead at 18-14 in the face of a few errors from the Indian. But Saina tightened up just in time, and used her superior experience to not only save two game-points at 20-19 and 21-20, but to win the encounter in straight games, and take their head-to-head count to 9-4 in her own favour.
In the semi-finals on Saturday, Saina will run into another long-term rival, the three-time reigning world champion, Carolina Marin of Spain. The fourth-seeded Spaniard hit peak form while administering a 21-13, 21-13 hammering in a matter of 38 minutes to South Korean eighth seed, Sung Ji Hyun, who had remained unbeaten in six matches in the recent premier Badminton League.
Marin has freely admitted that Saina used to give her sleepless nights at one time, and that she found the Indian the most challenging player on the circuit. The two are locked 5-all in career meetings, but it is significant that the Spaniard has won three of their last four encounters, even handing out a 21-6, 21-11 thrashing to Saina at the 2018 World Championships in Nanjing on the last occasion that they met.
Saina, who will turn 29 in two months’ time, has found the 25-year-old Marin’s footspeed hard to tackle, though she is not overly bothered by the left-hander’s overt and very vocal aggression. The Indian may be required to play a controlled game of attrition against the Spaniard, who is known to lapse into error and concede clumps of points in her effort to cut short the rallies.
The top half of the women’s singles draw has produced a surprise set of semi-finalists. Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, who won the World Championship as a teenager in 2013, produced the upset of the day when she humbled top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei by a 21-13, 21-14 scoreline, in a duel that lasted a minute beyond the half-hour mark, and featured two consummate stroke-makers,.
Intanon will clash on Saturday with 18-year-old Malaysian, Goh Jin Wei, who scalped her second seeded player of the tournament by leading China’s No 5 seed, He Bingjiao to the exit door with a 21-15, 21-16 verdict in 39 minutes. In her lung-opener on Wednesday, the Malaysian teen had scored an equally impressive triumph over the No 3 seed, Akane Yamaguchi of Japan.
Goh’s compatriot, Daren Liew, ensured that the men’s No 2 seed, Shi Yuqi of China, was also not spared the carnage of the fancied players. Liew notched a 55-minute 21-12, 16-21, 21-11 win over the player who had won the 2018 season-ending World Tour grand final in Guangzhou, barely a month back; and will take on Korean Son in the penultimate round on Saturday.
In the other men’s semi-final, China’s two-time (2014, 2015) world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist Chen Long, will take on Denmark’s 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen, seeded fifth. Chen, at No 3 the highest seed left in either of the two singles draws, outlasted Indonesia’s Anthony Sinisuka Ginting at 21-11, 22-20, while Axelsen had an almost identical scoreline against the surprise quarter-finalist, Malaysian qualifier Lee Zii Jia.
The Malaysian had reached the last eight stage with a second-round knock-out of Japan’s Kenta Nishimoto, the conqueror of his fellow-countryman and reigning world champion, Kento Momota, in the opening round. But he found the towering Axelsen’s steeply angled shots too hot to handle, and succumbed after a sterling fight in the second game, at 12-21, 20-22.
The 20-year-old Lee is already being talked about as a worthy successor to his namesake, the legendary 36-year-old Lee Chong Wei, who is understood to have conquered his nose cancer and is on the point of making a comeback to international badminton after a lengthy period on the sidelines.
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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2019 00:02:25 IST