In the end, there was no need to pull out the calculators, and examine the various permutations and combinations by which the fourth and final semi-finalist of this year’s Premier Badminton League (PBL) would be determined.
For all the delicious possibilities that could have opened up if Delhi Acers had come to the Siri Fort stadium with fight on their minds, the almost total lack of drive and gumption on the part of the PBL defending champions allowed Hyderabad Hunters to hammer nail after nail into their coffin, for a thumping 5-2 final verdict.
The Hunters, who had needed just three points from their final league encounter to pip Bengaluru Blasters and the Acers and secure the last semi-final berth, finished with 14 points, behind table-toppers Awadhe Warriors (21 points), Mumbai Rockets (19) and Chennai Smashers (18).
Bengaluru (nine) ended a solitary point ahead of the hapless Delhi Acers (eight), who had remained glued to the cellar for most of the second half of the pool stage, and simply could not rouse themselves from their stupor after suffering comprehensive 6/-1 washouts at the hands of Mumbai and Awadhe on the third and fifth days, respectively, of the fortnight-long competition.
The rules of the league had stipulated that the top two qualifiers would not meet each other at the semi-final stage, but that their opponents would be decided by a draw of lots between the third and fourth placed teams.
Thus it is that the Lucknow team will cross swords with Chennai, while Mumbai take on Hyderabad for the right to vie for the top prize in the Rs 6 crore prize money tournament. Both ties will be played at the Siri Fort stadium in the capital on Friday.
All the portents had pointed towards Hyderabad securing the three points they needed against the Delhi team, and leap-frogging Bengaluru into fourth place on the league table. The Hunters were bound to place their trump on world and Olympic champion Carolina Marin, who would have been the raging hot favourite to decimate the challenge of either Nichaon Jindapol or Tanvi Lad, and deliver two points for her side.
That left Hyderabad needing just one point from the remaining four matches to achieve their objective. The general expectation was that Delhi would make it tough for their opponents to get that vital third point by fielding the current world numbers two and four, Jan O Jorgensen and Son Wan Ho, in the men’s singles, with a trump riding on the broad shoulders of the bearded Dane.
Delhi, however, shot themselves in the foot by dropping the Korean, and playing young Siril Verma in the second men’s singles, even as Hyderabad reposed their faith in Sameer Varma in preference to B Sai Praneeth, who had garnered mixed results in the three matches he had played in earlier rounds.
No other Verma holds any terrors for Sameer, who had had beaten his elder brother Sourabh in the final of the 2016 Indian national championship, and had a winning 3-0 record against Siril in head-to-head meetings.
Nevertheless, the Varma versus Verma encounter did not have quite the start that Hyderabad had expected, and the entire team watched from the bench in some consternation as Siril controlled the rallies against an error-prone Sameer, and pocketed the opening game at 11-8.
That was just the wake-up call that the 2016 Hong Kong Open finalist required. He gained control over his nerves, shed the initial diffidence and pulled out all the strokes from his considerable arsenal, even as he stepped on the accelerator. The result was a beggarly five points in two games for the Delhi player who had sought the label of giant-killer, but ended up being comprehensively steamrolled.
Hyderabad did not really expect that 16-year-old Satwik Sai Raj would deliver a point for them, particularly as the Andhra Pradesh teenager and his Hong Kong-based partner Chau Hoi Wah were up against the rich experience of Vladimir Ivanov and Jwala Gutta. But they rubbed their eyes in disbelief as the match panned out into a three-versus-one encounter, with the Indian left-hander doing all she possibly could to assist the Hyderabad twosome to garner the points!
A plaintive-looking Ivanov, who has himself not been in the best of form throughout the competition, could do precious little to stem the flow of points in favour of the opposition, as an immobile Jwala committed every error in the book, and then some, to hand the match to Satwik and Chau on a platter by a shocking 3-11, 4-11 scoreline.
Delhi received a shot in the arm when Jorgensen finally decided that he had better justify the expenditure incurred by his team in picking him up at the PBL auction. Englishman Rajiv Ouseph, who had suffered just a solitary defeat in each of the two editions of the PBL, and had otherwise proved a tower of strength for his team, did not know what hit him as the Dane played his best match of the tournament.
Swift, sharp, positive and aggressive, Jorgensen showed the Briton that the gulf in rankings between No 2 and No 16 existed for a very good reason. While the unflappable Ouseph had shown fine temperament and court-craft against his rivals earlier in the tournament, he found his defence torn to shreds repeatedly by the Dane’s well-placed smashes and interceptions of flat clears.
With the two teams tied on points at two-all after three matches, it was up to Marin to take Hyderabad over the line. And the Spaniard looked in great fettle as she blasted her way to a 7-1 lead against Thailand’s slightly built, unassuming Nichaon Jindapol.
And then it all started unravelling. Perhaps feeling the pressure of being the trump for her team, and being saddled with the responsibility of delivering those two all-important points, the 23-year-old southpaw saw her concentration and control disintegrating before her very eyes.
Jindapol, who has to her credit a solitary win over the Spaniard nearly four years back, revealed a pleasing array of strokes, and cashed in on Marin’s repeated errors along her backhand sideline, with the shuttle flying out, possibly due to the strong cross drift in the stadium, to not only restore parity, but actually go ahead at 10-8.
Showing all her fighting qualities, Marin clawed her way back into the game, which proceeded, point by excruciating point, to a sudden-death situation at 14-all. At this point, Marin hit a return off a high, deep serve by Jindapol to the Thai girl’s forehand down the baseline, and the Delhi Acers player judged it out. A player challenge was inevitable, and Hawkeye judged the bird to have landed on the outer edge of the line. Game to Marin, 15-14.
That was all the leeway that the world and Olympic gold medallist needed to get her game back on court. A mere eight minutes later, she raised both arms in triumph as the scoreboard showed her as a 11-4 victor, and the instrument of Hyderabad Hunters’ march into the semi-final.
Thereafter, it was only of academic interest that the crack Malaysian combination of Tan Boon Heong and Tan Wee Kiong was able to increase the final winning margin to 5-2 with a clinical 11-8, 13-11 victory over Ivanov and his regular partner Ivan Sozonov, the reigning All-England champions.
There were several spectacular rallies in this men’s doubles clash between two quality pairs, but spectator interest and enthusiasm were lukewarm at best since the basic raison d’etre for the three-hour, five-match tie was already out of the way. Hyderabad had successfully hunted down their semi-final spot, leaving the deposed title holders to lick the kind of wounds they would never have imagined could have been inflicted on them by any of the five other teams in this year’s tournament.
Scores: Hyderabad Hunters beat Delhi Acers 5-2 (Sameer Verma beat Siril Verma 8-11, 11-3, 11-2; Satwik Sai Raj Rankireddy and Chau Hoi Wah beat Vladimir Ivanov and Jwala Gutta 11-3, 11-4; Rajiv Ouseph lost to Jan O Jorgensen (trump) 5-11, 7-11; Carolina Marin (trump) beat Nichaon Jindapol 15-14, 11-4; Tan Boon Heong and Tan Wee Kiong beat Vladimir Ivanov and Ivan Sozonov 11-8, 13-11).
Updated Date: Jan 13, 2017 19:30 PM