New Delhi: If anyone had announced before the Premier Badminton League (PBL) semi-finals that Mumbai Rockets would take a mere two matches to trounce Hyderabad Hunters, and that the remaining three matches in the tie would not need to be played, such a person would have been laughed out of sight!
But that is exactly what transpired at the Siri Fort Stadium on Friday night, as Korea’s world number three, Sung Ji Hyun, produced an outstanding performance to lower the colours of Hyderabad’s trump and ace-in-the-hole, world and Olympic champion Carolina Marin, to deliver a negative mark against the Hunters’ name; and then, Mumbai’s trump, Haseena Sunilkumar Prannoy, made it six wins out of six at this year’s PBL while delivering the coup-de-grace to Sameer Verma.
Those two results gave Mumbai an unbeatable 3/-1 lead, which could not have been overtaken by Hyderabad, even if they won all three of the remaining encounters. And thus, the Rockets zoomed into the final where they will take on the Chennai Smashers, who had earlier upset the applecart of league table toppers Awadhe Warriors by a convincing 4-1 scoreline.
The latter tie finally produced the answer to the conundrum of who is India’s best woman singles player at the moment. But it also contained two shock results, the second and more decisive of which was the loss of Awadhe’s trump men’s doubles combination of Markis Kido and Goh V Shem to the scratch Chennai pairing of Mads Pieler Kolding and Chris Adcock in two straight games.
Awadhe, which trailed 2-3 until the start of the fifth and final clash, needed the two points from the Indonesian-Malaysian combo, which could not deliver them. The raw power and steep angles that the towering Kolding produced, combined with the quicksilver reflexes and stupendous court coverage of the human dynamo that Adcock is, prevailed over the Asian pair’s wiles on the day.
The earlier surprise result was the loss suffered by the English husband-and-wife combination of Chris and Gabrielle Adcock, who went down to the Thai world number 12 ranked twosome of Bodin Issara and Savitree Amitrapai in the opening match of the tie. The Adcocks are ranked eight places higher than the Thais in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, and were strongly favoured to give the Chennai team a flying start in their campaign to win the PBL trophy.
But Bodin’s uncanny sense of positioning and left-handed deception, especially with sharp drops hit with a smash action, helped the Thais to recover from a slow start, and steadily overpower the Brits. Bodin and Savitree had obviously done their homework well, for they anticipated every flick serve that Gabrielle employed (and it must be said, she overdid that serve), and hit crosscourt body smashes on her to gain the ascendancy in several key rallies.
After Parupalli Kashyap produced a commanding performance for Chennai to comfortably down a shell-shocked Vincent Wong Wing Ki with a display of controlled aggression, and Kidambi Srikanth cut the normally reliable Indonesian, Tommy Sugiarto, down to size in straight games, the spectators settled down for the clash that all of India was holding its breath to witness – the current poster girl of Indian badminton, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, versus the undisputed queen of the sport in the country over the past eight years, Saina Nehwal.
It is debatable who would have felt the pressure of the situation more – the 26-year-old veteran of the circuit, Saina, who was coming back after a serious knee surgery, or the willowy, hard-hitting 21-year-old Sindhu, who has been in devastating form since the Rio Olympics in August last year, and who was adroitly named trump for the tie by the Chennai Smashers.
For the badminton aficionado, who has been following the game closely over the years and is conversant with the form guide, the 11-7, 11-8 scoreline in favour of Sindhu should not have come as a surprise. Saina’s earlier performances in this year’s PBL showed that she was gradually getting back to her best, but by her own admission, she still lacked that fine edge in fitness and foot speed which she would have needed to slip it across her former Gopichand Academy stable-mate.
In addition, the pacy conditions at the stadium, and the fast shuttles being used in this tournament (which national coach Gopichand, who has been testing them for consistency before each day’s matches, admitted required ‘tipping’ to slow them down to an acceptable speed) favoured the taller and more aggressive Sindhu, who used her height and reach to best advantage to bring the shuttle down at the slightest opportunity.
Sindhu thus paid Saina back for a reverse she had suffered at her senior’s hands in the first Indian Badminton League in 2013, the sole occasion that the two players had met in international competition. Saina, at the time, was in her salad days and totally injury-free; and she had put up a majestic performance at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Dome in Mumbai while brushing aside a teenaged Sindhu.
No doubt the Chennai Smashers spearhead today is older, more mature and a far more complete player than the 18 summers she had put behind her when the two had crossed swords, but there was no disguising the two players’ dislike of each other when they perfunctorily touched hands at the net while studiously looking away from each other, at the end of the encounter.
Even as the Chennai team celebrated its maiden entry into the final, after Kolding and Adcock had administered the coup de grace to Kido and Goh in the all-important men’s doubles trump match, the Hyderabad Hunters made a bold bid to book the final spot opposite them by nominating world, Olympic and European champion Carolina Marin as trump in their opening gambit against Mumbai Rockets.
The Spaniard, who normally bubbles with confidence and barely controlled aggression on the court, must have relished the chance of gaining revenge against Sung Ji Hyun for the reverse she had suffered at the Korean’s hands when the two sides had met during the league stage. She made a storming start to her bid for two tie points by being a game up, literally before Sung could get her wits together.
But the Korean, touted to be the most improved female singles player in the world in 2016, was not going to give in so easily. Playing against the drift from the opposite end in the second stanza, she began to assume ascendancy in every long rally that the two antagonists played, controlled the length of her strokes beautifully, and was full value for her relatively facile success in that game.
The immense pressure that the slam-bang 11-point format places on the stronger (on paper, that is) player, as also the weight of her team’s expectations that she would deliver the trump points, told visibly on Marin in the decider. These factors, and Sung’s nagging accuracy to the back of the court, forced her into a string of unforced errors that she would probably not have made in the regular 21-point format, or if she had been playing for herself, rather than for her team.
It was amazing to see Sung literally coasting in the third game, simply prolonging the rallies, playing error-free badminton at both the net and in the deep corners, and letting her left-handed rival make mistakes while trying to force the pace and cut the angles. Contrary to the exhausted smile she had given the crowds when she had beaten Marin in their group clash, the Korean looked fresh as paint at the end of their semi-final encounter, which ended when Marin buried a forehand drive in the net.
Hyderabad had a chance of erasing the negative mark against their name when the 2016 Hong Kong Open finalist and reigning Indian national champion Sameer Verma took the court against Prannoy, on whose shoulders rode Mumbai’s trump card.
The 23-year-old Sameer is a regular sparring-partner at the Gopichand Academy of the Kerala player who is a year older than him, but Prannoy had had the better of the exchanges when the two had clashed earlier during the league phase, and had run out a 11-6, 11-7 victor.
Prannoy, who is brimming with confidence at the moment, having not lost a single match in six outings in this year’s PBL, was smooth as silk in his court movements and exercised fine control over his large repertoire of eye-filling strokes as he won the first game without being extended much. But it was Sameer who grabbed the initiative in the second, hustling his older rival and forcing errors, to stand at 10-6, a point away from forcing a decider.
It was here that Prannoy showed his hunger to excel, and an iron-clad temperament to neutralise the lead and drag the match over the extra points. Amidst nail-biting suspense, the Mumbai ace forced errors from Sameer against every hard-earned positive point that the Hyderabad player took, until the score touched 13-all. One supreme effort, and Prannoy was punching the air in triumph as the Rockets bench exploded in an outburst of delirious joy.
And so, on to what promises to be a keenly contested final on Saturday between the two hungriest sides in this edition of the PBL, which has been a runaway success for the sheer excitement it has provided over the first fortnight of the new year.
Chennai Smashers beat Awadhe Warriors 4-1 (Chris Adcock and Gabrielle Adcock lost to Bodin Issara and Savitree Amitrapai 11-9, 8-11, 5-11; Parupalli Kashyap beat Vincent Wong Wing Ki 11-4, 11-6; Tommy Sugiarto lost to Kidambi Srikanth 12-14, 7-11; P. V. Sindhu (trump) beat Saina Nehwal 11-7, 11-8; Chris Adcock and Mads Pieler Kolding beat Markis Kido and Goh V. Shem (trump) 11-3, 12-10)
Mumbai Rockets beat Hyderabad Hunters 3/-1 (Sung Ji Hyun beat Carolina Marin (trump) 6-11, 11-6, 11-5; H. S. Prannoy (trump) beat Sameer Verma 11-8, 15-13)
Updated Date: Jan 14, 2017 14:03:20 IST