It’s all systems go for India’s top male shuttler, Kidambi Srikanth, as he emerges from a lengthy six-week rest period to make an assault on the men’s singles crown of the Malaysia Open, the first of four back-to-back World Tour badminton tournaments to be contested on the South-East Asian circuit over as many weeks.
The 24-year-old Indian, who has been seeded fourth despite the fact that he has fallen to the No 7 position in the latest Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, has every chance of barging through to the final of the $750,000 prize money event at the newly built Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur Sports City.
At the time the entries closed, a month back, Srikanth was ranked fourth in the world; and has ridden on that advantage to be drawn in the lower half with South Korea’s No 2 seed, Son Wan Ho, against whom he has an even record, trailing 4-5, with a loss in the 2017 World Championships in Glasgow, the most recent occasion that they have played, but a brace of triumphs before that meeting.
The only other seed in this half is Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen (ranked No 6), while Malaysian Daren Liew has been promoted from among the reserves to take the berth vacated by the erstwhile No 8 seed, HS Prannoy of India. Of course, the dark horse in this tournament is the in-form Japanese left-hander, Kento Momota, who is unseeded and is scheduled to cross swords with Son in the second round.
The top half of the draw is jampacked with big names, led by top-seeded reigning world champion Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, and featuring recently crowned All England champion Shi Yuqi of China (seeded No 3), two-time former world champion Chen Long, also of China (No 5) and Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei (No 7), who has bagged three silver medals at the Olympics and also been runner-up at the World Championships on three occasions, plus one retrospective disqualification for doping.
To add to the ‘Rush Hour’ in the top half, legendary Chinese ace Lin Dan, a five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist, is unseeded in this competition, and has been given the challenge of facing compatriot Shi Yuqi in the second round, provided he crosses his opening hurdle in the shape of England’s doughty defender, Rajiv Ouseph.
It is to be hoped that Srikanth shakes off the rust from his game swiftly, for his lung-opener in the Malaysia Open on Wednesday is against the former world No 2, Jan O Jorgensen of Denmark, who recently returned to the circuit after almost a year’s absence due to injury. Srikanth boasts a 3-2 winning head-to-head record against the Dane, and has beaten him on the last two occasions that they have clashed, including at the Indonesia Open, exactly a year ago.
Should Srikanth get through his initial outing, he could run into fellow-countryman and sparring partner, B Sai Praneeth, who has been drawn to play Chinese Taipei’s dangerous Wang Tzu Wei in his opening round. Praneeth, currently ranked at No 21, could well find this a bridge too far, for he owns a losing 0-2 record against the 15th ranked Taiwanese, having lost in straight games to Wang at the Korea Open in September last year, albeit a tight 24-26 in the second stanza.
The only other Indian in the men’s singles draw, the world No 19, Sameer Verma, has an equally challenging opponent in his opening round, in the shape of former World Championship bronze medallist, Tommy Sugiarto of Indonesia, who occupies the 24th slot in the BWF rankings.
However, it must be remembered that, after making the semi-finals in the 2014 Worlds in Copenhagen, Sugiarto has been on a downward spiral, and suffered a narrow defeat against the 23-year-old Verma in the only match they have played so far – at the India Open in February this year. Should the Dhar native repeat his victory over the Indonesian, he would have to contend with the No 5 seed, Chen Long, who is favoured to brush Thailand’s Kantaphon Wangcharoen aside in his opening duel.
In the women’s singles, there is room in the draw only for the two “usual suspects” from India, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, seeded third, and placed in the same half of the draw as the peerless Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei; and Saina Nehwal, whose No 10 world ranking precludes the chances of her being seeded in this competition.
After a lengthy rest (she had skipped the Uber Cup finals in May this year), Sindhu will open her campaign against Japan’s left-handed Aya Ohori, whom she has beaten convincingly on each of the three occasions that they have met earlier. The odds-on favourite to make the next round, Sindhu would clash with either Malaysia’s Lee Ying Ying or Chinese Taipei’s Chiang Ying Li, neither of whom should trouble the lanky Hyderabadi, who is barely a fortnight shy of her 23rd birthday.
In the quarter-final, however, the 2016 Olympic and 2017 World Championship silver medallist is slated to clash against two-time former world champion and No 5 seed, Carolina Marin of Spain, who first has to negotiate a treacherous portion of the draw in which the likes of Cheung Ngan Yi of Hong Kong and Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour lurk. Marin has beaten Gilmour fairly regularly, especially in the European Championships, but will not find the Hong Kong player easy meat.
Meanwhile, Saina, who was the silver medallist behind Marin in the 2015 World Championships in Jakarta, and also bagged a bronze in the 2017 Worlds in Glasgow, takes on Hong Kong’s Yip Pui Yin on Tuesday, comfortable in the knowledge that she holds a 7-2 career head-to-head advantage over Yip, having won against the Hong Kong player on the last six occasions that they have met.
Saina’s further progress in the tournament is barred by the player against whom she held as many as four match-points in their most recent encounter in the Uber Cup finals, before surrendering – Japan’s World No 2, Akane Yamaguchi. Saina literally did everything but beat the diminutive Japanese dynamo, and led 20-16 in the decider of their long-drawn encounter, but ended up suffering her fifth consecutive loss in six meetings with Yamaguchi. It remains to be seen whether she can reverse this trend of defeats, and go deep into the draw.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Jun 25, 2018 23:35:35 IST