Malaysia Masters: Saina Nehwal takes on spunky Thai teenager Pornpawee Chochuwong in final

Will it be a truly memorable 19th birthday for Thailand’s Pornpawee Chochuwong? Does the 67th ranked teenager have it in her to lower the colours of one of the fiercest competitors on the women’s circuit – India’s Saina Nehwal – in Sunday’s women’s singles final of the Malaysia Masters Grand Prix Gold badminton championships?

Pornpawee, who?

 Malaysia Masters: Saina Nehwal takes on spunky Thai teenager Pornpawee Chochuwong in final

Saina Nehwal in action during her semi-final against Yip Pui Yin. PTI

Indian badminton-lovers would find a vague answer echoing forth from the far recesses of their memory. This talented youngster, who has shot up to a respectable height of 5’ 6” in the course of the last four years, was first seen in India in December 2012 as a tiny, wafer-thin girl, who covered the court with alacrity and possessed an arsenal of deceptive, eye-filling strokes, reminiscent of her illustrious compatriot and 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon.

It was in the Tata Open in Mumbai that the then 14-year-old Pornpawee made spectators sit up and take notice of her considerable talents as she steam-rolled the far more experienced Aditi Mutatkar, then ranked No 4 in India, by a facile 21-12, 21-12 scoreline. The baby-faced Thai went on to lose to another Indian, PC Thulasi, in a desperately close quarter-final encounter, at 19-21 in the deciding game.

Pornpawee has not been able to unravel Thulasi’s awkward, unconventional game, and trails 0-2 in head-to-heads against the Pullela Gopichand Academy trainee, but has beaten Thulasi’s Uber Cup team-mate, Tanvi Lad, comfortably at 21-15, 21-15 in the 2015 Tata Open. She also accounted thrice in three meetings, all during 2015, for the pint-sized Saili Rane, last year’s winner of the Bahrain Open.

Among other Indians she has beaten, is the recently retired former national champion Sayali Gokhale, whom she edged in the 2013 Macau Open in three games, at 21-19, 10-15, 21-15. The one other time she played in India, Pornpawee was beaten in the 2015 Syed Modi International by reigning world champion Carolina Marin of Spain, without a whimper, at 21-11, 21-13.

The Thai teen, understandably, has a losing record against every one of the current top-ten players in the world, but will be jousting for the first time with Saina Nehwal, who dropped outside the top ten in November 2016, following her two-and-a-half month-long inactivity after a knee surgery.

But make no mistake, the Thai girl has earned her place in the Malaysia Masters final. After scoring a convincing 21-10, 21-17 quarter-final victory over little-known Indonesian Dinar Dyah Ayustine, Pornpawee notched up a fighting 21-19, 20-22, 21-18 victory over the redoubtable Hong Kong star, Cheung Ngan Yi, in a rousing semi-final on Saturday.

The memory of Cheung’s victory over Saina in the 2016 Hong Kong Open is still fresh in Indian badminton lovers’ minds, as also the fact that Saina turned the tables on her 23-year-old Hong Kong rival during the course of the recent Premier Badminton League. But it is hard to give full credence to the latter win, as it was achieved in the gimmicky T20 format of the game.

Therefore, the fact that Pornpawee beat Saina’s Hong Kong Open conqueror Cheung, should cause a tiny warning bell to ring at the back of the Indian’s mind. This Thai teenager is a product of the phenomenal rise in interest in badminton in the immediate aftermath of Ratchanok Intanon’s momentous victory at the 2013 World Championships. She also gets a consistently high level of quality practice in her home country, at the lengthy periodic badminton camps held in Bangkok.

Therefore, while Saina is odds-on favourite to win the Malaysia Masters title, it would be foolish to take the Thai teen lightly. Saina’s rehabilitation is well on track, and an ambitious youngster, whose ranking may be low, but who has the wherewithal to trouble the Indian ace, stands in her way.

Pornpawee, who?

Pornpawee Chochuwong, regular practice partner of former world champion Ratchanok Intanon. That’s who.

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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2017 13:11:15 IST