Old Father Time would not be denied his pound of flesh. India’s Saina Nehwal, who had played a magnificent match on Friday to knock out the 2017 world champion, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan, in a quarter-final of the $350,000 prize money Malaysia Masters badminton championship, simply could not conjure up the same response from her nearly-29 year old legs in Saturday’s semi-final against Spain’s Carolina Marin, and succumbed by a 21-16, 21-13 scoreline in 40 minutes.
It is not that the Indian did not have her chances to upstage the three-time (2014, 2015 and 2018) world champion and 2016 Rio Olympics gold medallist, but whatever opportunities presented themselves to Saina were all concentrated in the first game. Marin, it must be remembered, had easily dismantled the challenge of South Korean Sung Ji Hyun by a 21-13, 21-13 margin on Friday, while Saina had had to struggle hard to get past the Japanese stonewaller by a 21-18, 23-21 scoreline.
Therefore, Saina, elder of the two, had her say in the match as long as her own legs were still relatively fresh and her formidable antagonist had not yet hit her peak decibel levels of self-encouragement and opponent intimidation. But once Saina slowed down a mite, midway through the opening game, her opponent seemed several times faster on the court, and got much more mileage from her admittedly sharper strokes.
Initially, the rivals cased out each other like two experienced fencers, probing for weak spots in the rival’s armour, and scoring with the occasional rapier thrust. Marin reversed Saina’s initial 5-2 lead with a seven-point burst to 9-5, but Saina closed the gap immediately to 9-all. Another four-point burst by the Spanish world champion was countered by Saina, who neutralised at 14-all.
This was the point at which the match turned irreversibly in Marin’s favour. A protracted exchange of strokes ended with the left-hander winning the point, and playing aggressively to grab five more, to reach 20-14. Saina, who slowed down perceptibly from this point, never led again in the course of the match, but for a token 1-0 advantage at the start of the second stanza.
It would not be erroneous to say that the Indian was comprehensively outplayed in the second game. Leads of 6-1, 9-4 and 11-6 gave Marin a stranglehold on the game; and she was certainly not one to relinquish the advantage. She was in total control of the net, and also produced some breathtaking overhead crosscourt drops from the left-hander’s backhand baseline corner, that had Saina struggling to even reach them.
In Sunday’s final, Marin will clash with Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, who settled the pretensions of precocious Malaysian 18-year-old, Goh Jin Wei, with a comfortable 21-16, 21-16 victory in just 36 minutes. Goh, who had eliminated two seeded players, Japan’s No 2 seed Akane Yamaguchi and China’s fifth seeded He Bingjiao, on her way to the penultimate reckoning, was often found going the wrong way on several occasions as Intanon made merry with her late wristy flicks.
The 23 year old Thai, who had won the 2013 world championship as a teenager, actually holds a 5-3 lead in head-to-head meetings with Marin, but the most relevant statistic is that the Spaniard has won their two most recent clashes – at the Malaysia Open in April 2017 and the Japan Open in September 2018.
The two matches have been close, but Marin has invariably held the edge in speed and physical fitness, though it must be stressed here that Intanon has improved her physical fitness considerably in the course of the past six months, and has been making a concerted effort to return to her pre-eminent position in the rankings.
As far as the men’s singles event is concerned, there was sore disappointment for the Malaysian home crowd when giant-killer Daren Liew had to concede a walk-over to South Korean fourth seed, Son Wan Ho. It was ascertained that Liew had suffered a groin injury in the course of his magnificent 21-12, 16-21, 21-11 victory over the Chinese No 2 seed, Shi Yuqi, the previous evening.
In Sunday’s final, Son will take on China’s two-time (2014, 2015) world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist Chen Long, who made a powerful statement by defeating Denmark’s 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen, seeded fifth, by a 21-13, 21-18 scoreline in 50 minutes. The final will be a fight between two 30 year olds, with the tall Chinese ace being strongly favoured to take Son in his stride.
Chen holds a 11-5 advantage in career head-to-head meetings against the Korean, but the two have not bumped into each other right through 2018, which was an eminently forgettable season for the Chinese player. Chen’s beautiful, economical footwork allows him to cover the court in a stride or two, while the shorter Son has to work much harder to reach the corners, which the Chinese star is bound to exploit.
Needless to say, Chen Long and Carolina Marin, whose medal pickings between 2014 and 2016 have run along amazingly similar lines (gold medals at the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, and the 2016 Rio Olympics) are odds-on favourites to grab the two singles titles in the new season’s first international tournament.
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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2019 19:46:11 IST