New Zealand Open: Fitter, faster Jonatan Christie too good for Sai Praneeth in semis, sets up summit clash with Lin Dan

Praneeth should have won in straight games, for he held a slender 17-15 lead in the second game after winning the first with a degree of comfort. But Christie's superior fitness stood out.

Shirish Nadkarni May 05, 2018 23:00:45 IST
New Zealand Open: Fitter, faster Jonatan Christie too good for Sai Praneeth in semis, sets up summit clash with Lin Dan

Nostradamus, in his morose, gloomy manner, could hardly have better predicted the course of the Sai Praneeth-Jonatan Christie men’s singles semi-final of the New Zealand Open Badminton Championships in Auckland.

A preview of the clash in these columns had stated thus: “Christie has lost to Praneeth on the only occasion that the two have met earlier, but it was a desperately tight, three-game affair in the Thailand Open in June last year, when the Indian, winner of the Singapore Open shortly thereafter, was playing at his best. The young Indonesian’s fortunes have improved considerably since then, and Praneeth will find it a tough ask to repeat his victory of last year.”

New Zealand Open Fitter faster Jonatan Christie too good for Sai Praneeth in semis sets up summit clash with Lin Dan

File photo of B Sai Praneeth. Reuters

The 20-year-old Indonesian’s 65-minute 14-21, 21-19, 21-8 triumph on Saturday over the former Indian national champion, five years his senior, decisively revealed how his enhanced physical fitness over the past year became the dominant factor in the Jakarta native’s reversal of the 17-21, 21-18, 21-19 loss he had suffered at Praneeth’s hands in the Thailand Open in June 2017.

Christie, who was seeded second behind China’s Lin Dan in the US$150,000 prize money competition, currently occupies the 14th position in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, four rungs above Praneeth. It represents a small slide from the 11th rank the Indonesian had held right through the month of March, at the time one spot ahead of Praneeth, whose best world ranking of No 12 was achieved on March 15 this year.

The tousle-haired Indian looked decidedly the better player in the opening stanza, matching the young Indonesian in the matter of foot-speed, exercising good control in the long rallies, and forcing the impetuous Christie to pull the trigger earlier than was needed. The manner in which the duel panned out, the Indian should have won in straight games, for he held a slender 17-15 lead in the second game after winning the first with a degree of comfort.

Even when Praneeth fell behind 18-19, but restored parity immediately, he had a great chance of closing out the match. But Christie was brimming with fight, and refused to cave in. He defended stoutly, and turned the tables on his opponent by killing off a short Praneeth lift from the net with a powerful jump smash, and then winning a short exchange of parallel hitting when the bird glanced off the Indian’s racket out of play.

That sounded the death-knell of Praneeth’s challenge. His body language in the decider was terrible; it was as if he had come out from the short break between games in a despondent mood, not at all confident of his chances of lasting the full course against a rival who became speedier and bouncier with each point. Christie was quick to grab a 6-1 lead, being swift and decisive in pouncing on anything at the net that was even an inch above the tape.

The Indian found the 11-4 mid-game leeway too much to make up, and began looking a half-step slower in the rallies. Against an antagonist who maintained a scorching pace, but cleverly mixed his overhead smashes with drops that died at the net and caught Praneeth flat-footed more than once, the Indian looked like his gas tank had run dry.

Leads of 14-5 and 16-6 gave Christie a massive cushion. It became increasingly apparent that it was curtains for the Indian, who lacks a killer smash and relies on his all-court play and accuracy. Since Praneeth could not match the pace of the rallies, the decider was over in a jiffy, leaving the young Indonesian with the task of facing the top-seeded Lin in Sunday’s final.

It was a joy for the badminton aficionado to watch the veteran Chinese legend literally toy with South Korean giant-killer Kwang Hee Heo, victor over India’s Ajay Jayaram and Thailand’s No 8 seed, Kantaphon Wangcharoen, in his previous two rounds. Lin would entice the qualifier every couple of rallies with some loose shots, and give him hope, only to shut the door with a deceptive unreturnable stroke.

It took Lin 53 minutes to record a 21-16, 21-16 win, but for most of the encounter, it looked as if the five-time former world champion was participating in a practice session. The Chinese left-hander played possum until 11-all in the first game before stepping on the gas pedal, to move to 15-11 and 18-12, before comfortably wrapping it up. He took such a massive leap to 15-6 in the second that the Korean, game trier though he was, had little chance of catching up.

On current form, ‘Super Dan’, as he is widely known, is raging hot favourite to bag the title. Nevertheless, on paper, Christie has a gilt-edged opportunity of levelling their career head-to-head scores. Amazingly, though the 34-year-old two-time Olympic gold medallist leads their rivalry 3-2, he has lost the most recent clash between them —by a 19-21, 16-21 scoreline on his home turf at the China Open in November last year.

Vengeance will no doubt be on the wily Chinese ace’s mind as he faces off on Sunday against the combative Indonesian, 14 years his junior. Theirs will be the penultimate match of five finals that are scheduled to start at 1:00 pm (06:30 am IST) with the mixed doubles.

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