“And then, there was one."
The words of the famous nursery rhyme find ready application in the situation in which Mumbai Rockets find themselves, after handing out a narrow 4-3 defeat on Friday night to the only other unbeaten team in this year’s Premier Badminton League (PBL), Awadhe Warriors, in the latter’s own den, the Babu Banarasi Das Stadium in Lucknow.
For the second tie in a row, Haseena Sunilkumar Prannoy played the star turn for Mumbai, winning his vital trump match against Hong Kong’s Vincent Wong Wing Kee. Prannoy, who had beaten Hyderabad Hunters’ trump Sameer Verma in Mumbai’s earlier tie, played a brilliant tactical match against a speedier opponent, producing a nail-biting 14-12, 9-11, 11-8 triumph that gave the Rockets a winning 4-1 lead, with Awadhe’s trump mixed doubles pair unable to overhaul that score in the final clash.
As Mumbai head the league table with three wins in as many outings, they are in the exalted position of being in the semifinals even before they have played their remaining two round-robin ties. They are closely followed by Awadhe Warriors, who could consider themselves to be distinctly unfortunate to have lost to Mumbai after their top men’s singles player, Kidambi Srikanth, held a brace of match-points in the second game of his clash with the doughty Ajay Jayaram.
Had Srikanth managed to convert even one of those two match-points, the tie result would have been exactly reversed, to 4-3 in favour of the Lucknow side. It was unforgivable that, with his physical resources fast dwindling, the top-rated Indian squandered the sudden-death point at 14-all by serving into the net. He was more or less a passenger in the decider, after taking a medical time-out early in the game.
Thus it was that the 29-year-old Jayaram managed to secure his first victory over Srikanth in five meetings, in a scrappy encounter littered with unforced errors from both players, and which only scaled the heights in the second game. The speedy Awadhe player, six years younger than his opponent, had dominated the opening game, moving beautifully on the court and controlling the rallies, to snatch six points in a row from 5-all.
Realising the potency of Srikanth’s overhead jump smash, which he could hit along the sideline or across court with barely any change in action, Jayaram cleverly used the ploy of pushing his rival repeatedly to the forehand baseline corner, from which Srikanth could not get the angle and traction required for his dreaded hit. As the second game wore on, the rallies became much more even, as the Mumbai player clawed his way back into the match.
“I started off badly, but managed to hang in there,” said Jayaram later. “Getting back the momentum was hard. Towards the end of the match, I thought he (Srikanth) got tired; he is still not fully fit after coming back from a right foot injury.”
Before the Srikanth-Jayaram match, Mumbai had got off to the ideal start they had wanted when Lee Yong Dae and Nipitphon saved one match-point in the third game of their highly entertaining clash against Markis Kido and Goh V Shem, and secured the opening point of the tie with a 11-7, 3-11, 13-11 verdict.
Just how unpredictable the 11-point game can be in this T20 version of badminton could be seen when the Korea-Thai pair had the first game fully under control, but totally lost their way in the second. Again, after taking a runaway 8-3 lead in the decider, Lee and Nipitphon were reined in as their opponents secured six points in a row. They recovered in the nick of time, in an absorbing tussle in which there was absolutely nothing to choose between the two pairs.
But the match of the evening was the eagerly awaited women’s singles between the current world No 3, Sung Ji Hyun and local star Saina Nehwal, seeking to test her speed and fitness after her return from a debilitating knee injury. Saina had a healthy 6-1 lead in their last seven career meetings, but recent results had seen the Indian losing to world and Olympic champion Carolina Marin earlier in the week, whereas Sung had beaten the Spaniard during the Hyderabad-Mumbai PBL clash.
It must be said that Saina passed the stern test with flying colours. Sung, unfazed by the prospect of having to play a defensive shot as her first return, consistently employed the deep high serve to force her rival to launch the rally from the baseline, while Saina preferred the low short serve that allowed her to play an attacking return.
The two antagonists fought tooth and nail for every point in the first game, never letting more than a point separate them, until the Korean served for the first game at 10-9. But the Indian would not be denied, and pushed her nose ahead at the tape, to bag the opener at 12-10.
A nasty slip on her right foot near the net during the opening stages of the second game seemed to unnerve Saina, and she slowed down a half-step, to allow Sung to open out a huge 6-2 lead, and pocket it without further ado at 11-4.
But she came out for the decider with all cylinders firing, an intimidating frown on her face as she concentrated hard to take control of the rallies. Both players pushed each other hard, and played deep, probing rallies that propelled the shuttle to every corner of the court. Saina never relinquished the 6-2 lead that she had painstakingly built up at the change of ends, and eventually won in a canter at 11-5.
What was most heartening about Saina’s display in the closing reaches of the encounter was her ability to up the pace for a couple of vital points; she could not have done that with a lower level of physical fitness – even though she herself thought she was still well below her desired level at the moment.
Not surprisingly, the Indian ace rated her match with Sung to be the best she has played since her return to competitive badminton after knee surgery. She acknowledged the contribution that crowd support made to her effort at a centre where she has never lost a match.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” she said. “Beating the world No 3 – what more can one ask for? At least, now I know that I can compete with the best in the world. My fitness is still only 50%, and the knee has to become much stronger. But I’m working hard on it.”
And, knowing the work ethic of a woman touted to be the hardest working player on the badminton circuit, there is little doubt that, if her knee holds up to the punishment which she is inflicting on it, Saina Nehwal will surely muscle her way back into the top echelons of the Badminton World Federation rankings.
Results: Mumbai Rockets beat Awadhe Warriors 4-3 (Lee Yong Dae and Nipitphon Phuangphuapet beat Markis Kido and Goh V. Shem 11-7, 3-11, 13-11; Ajay Jayaram beat Kidambi Srikanth 5-11, 15-14, 11-5; Sung Ji Hyun lost to Saina Nehwal 10-12, 11-4, 5-11, H. S. Prannoy (trump) beat Vincent Wong Wing Kee 14-12, 9-11, 11-8; Nipitphon Phuangphuapet and Zieba Nadiezda lost to Bodin Issara and Savitree Amitrapai (trump) 4-11, 8-11)
Updated Date: Jan 07, 2017 13:54 PM