PBL 2017: Sung Ji Hyun, HS Prannoy heroics power Mumbai Rockets past Hyderabad Hunters

Mumbai: Mumbai Rockets’ newest acquisition, Korea’s world number three, Sung Ji Hyun, was the unexpected hero of her side’s narrow 2-1 triumph over Hyderabad Hunters in their needle Premier Badminton League (PBL) clash at the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium on Wednesday night.

In a spectacular cut-and-thrust encounter that went the full distance and produced badminton of the highest quality, the fresh-faced Korean matched reigning world, Olympic and European champion Carolina Marin stroke for stroke, and just managed to get her nose ahead at the tape for a 11-7, 7-11, 14-12 verdict, to put her team in the driver’s seat.

But Mumbai lost their way when their highly rated mixed doubles combination of Korean Lee Yong Dae and Poland’s Zieba Nadiezda were unexpectedly pipped at the finishing line by 16-year-old Satwik Sai Raj Rankireddy and Canada’s Chau Hoi Wah, at 13-11, 10-12, 14-15.

With Mumbai having designated Lee and Zieba as their trump, the negative point for the defeat caused their 2-1 lead to evaporate, and left Hyderabad, with their trump match yet to come, poised at 2-1 to register their second win in three ties in the tournament.

Mumbai Rocket's Ji Hyun Sung. Image courtesy: pbl-india.com

Mumbai Rocket's Ji Hyun Sung. Image courtesy: pbl-india.com

But it was a night for trumps to bite the dust. Hyderabad’s reigning Indian national champion Sameer Verma, riding on the back of a 2-0 career head-to-head record against Haseena Sunilkumar Prannoy, succumbed to the intense pressure of the situation; and, despite breaking into handy initial leads in both games, went down at 6-11, 7-11, to hand the tie to Mumbai.

Once again, the unique scoring system for the tie had the Hunters pulled down by their -1 point for the lost trump, while Mumbai leapfrogged them to reach the same 2-1 level they had attained at the end of the third clash of the five-match tie.

The hosts had made a great start to the evening when their men’s doubles combination of Lee Yong Dae and Thailand’s stocky powerhouse, Nipitphon Phuangphuapet, proved a tad too positive for Hyderabad’s redoubtable Malaysian pairing of Tan Boon Heong and Tan Wee Kiong, and was not extended while winning at 11-9, 11-5.

It was the genius of Lee, who has achieved a world number one ranking in the past in both men’s and mixed doubles with four different partners that swung the match Mumbai’s way. The Korean’s defence appeared well-nigh impregnable, and he simply could not be passed in the parallel hitting duels. He constantly varied the pace, angle and power of his smashes, and his amazing anticipation permitted him to make several adventurous forays to the net, where he was able to cut rallies short.

The Korean ace’s Thai partner gave him sterling support with some sustained hefty smashing which put the Malaysians constantly under the cosh, for even marginally weak returns were ruthlessly finished off by Lee. It was amazing for the badminton lover to know that three of the four players on the court (Nipitphon being the exception) had hit the Mount Everest of the world doubles rankings at one time or another.

The men’s doubles triumph set the stage for Sung, who has been widely acknowledged as one of the most improved players in the world over the past year. The 25-year-old Korean, daughter of two former badminton internationals, has a knack of starting the season slowly, and putting on a finishing spurt in the closing weeks of the year.

Thus, she had reached a career-high world ranking of number three in October 2015, but began 2016 at the number eight spot. With consistent performances through the year, she had elbowed her way back to the number three spot, reinforced by her entry into the title round of the BWF Super Series grand finals in Dubai last month.

Nevertheless, Sung’s record against Marin was dismal, to say the least. She had lost six of their seven encounters, including the last four in a row. In their most recent joust, she had received a bruising 12-21, 16-21 drubbing at the Spaniard’s hands in the quarter-finals of the Rio Olympics.

Few of Mumbai’s even most ardent supporters expected Sung to deliver a point for the team against Marin, who had convincingly beaten the two top Indians, PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal, in her earlier fixtures in PBL. But the Korean was in a determined mood, and actually outpaced the Spanish southpaw in the opening stanza. The mercurial Marin, not to be outdone, upped the pace in the second game, and bagged it without much ado.

That reverse stung Sung into going back to doing what she had done best in the opening game – maintaining an iron length on her tosses and clears to the corners of the court, and interspersing them with sharp drops that had even the speedy Marin stumbling. It was amazing to see Sung’s accuracy in the lengthy rallies, given the diabolical windy conditions in the stadium.

Mumbai Rocket's HS Prannoy in action. Image courtesy: pbl-india.com

Mumbai Rocket's HS Prannoy in action. Image courtesy: pbl-india.com

Arguably, the best women’s singles badminton of the tournament, in terms of sheer quality, was produced in that decider. Neither player was prepared to concede an inch as they traded strokes to every deep corner and exploited the net with late deceptive flicks. Both had match-points in hand, but each time, found the rival restoring parity. The final two points of the clash produced a brace of vintage rallies; and it was the world champion who wilted, netting twice to hand the match to an ecstatic Sung.

With Mumbai sitting on an unexpected 2-0 lead, as they had done on the previous day against Delhi, Ajay Jayaram, a two-time Dutch Open champion, came on to try and extend his unbeaten run in the PBL. The Mumbai lad was pitted against Rajiv Ouseph, a Kerala-born Englishman, who boasted a 5-2 record in the tournament, including a narrow loss to Kidambi Srikanth, two days earlier.

The canny Ouseph did not fall into the same trap that world number two Jan O Jorgensen had, against Jayaram. He showed greater patience, and waited for the bustling Jayaram to make the mistakes. The Briton is far from being a stylist – his movements are hardly graceful, but they are economical and adequate enough to get him to every nook of the court. And he has a powerful and well-directed smash on the chosen few occasions that he cares to employ it.

Both games were close until the half-way mark, but it was Ouseph who played more steadily and without mistakes in the second halves against the Mumbai player, who appeared to run out of ideas as to where his next point was going to come from. The Hyderabad player overturned a 5-8 deficit in the second game, reeling off half-a-dozen points to seal a richly deserved straight-games victory.

Mumbai’s ploy of placing their trump on the mixed doubles backfired when Lee Yong Dae and Zieba Nadiezda were reeled in by an outstanding performance by Satwik Sai Raj and his Hong Kong born Canadian partner Chau Hoi Wah, who is better known as Cathy.

Frankly, it would be difficult for anyone to accept that the strongly built Satwik is a 16-year-old, but there is no denying his talent. The husky Andhra lad is blessed with one of the most powerful smashes on the circuit and also possesses excellent mixed doubles sense, as he had demonstrated when winning the Tata Open last month.

There was absolutely nothing to separate the two combinations, and the eventual scores (11-13, 12-10, 15-14 to Hyderabad) bore mute testimony to the closeness of the match. Lee Yong Dae, possibly suffering an emotional letdown after playing the lead role in the men’s doubles victory earlier in the evening, was nowhere near his best.

However, what needs to be stressed is the fact that the Indian teenager refused to be intimidated by the Himalayan reputation of his Korean opponent, and took him on in an intrepid manner that had every spectator applauding warmly in admiration.

It all came down to the final match of the tie – whether Hyderabad could cash in on their trump and win the tie by a 4-1 margin, or whether Prannoy, victor on the previous day over world number four, Son Wan Ho, could beat Sameer Verma for the first time in three meetings, and boost his team to a 2-1 tie triumph.

The manner in which Sameer started, it seemed he was in a hurry to catch the next available flight to Lucknow, where the next few battles in this year’s PBL are to be played. He broke away to a 5-0 lead before his rival had even taken his opening breath, and went into the interval with a 6-4 lead. And there, he stayed! Prannoy, who settled down to his task well, controlled all the rallies after the break and forced errors from the 23-year-old Sameer, to canter home at 11-6.

The second game was a mirror-image of the first, except that Sameer had to work harder to get into the lemon break with a slim 6-5 advantage. The youngster from Dhar, in Madhya Pradesh, could manage just one more point in the match; and it was small consolation that he played a fine rally at match-point down, and was unfortunate to finish at the losing end. Prannoy’s heroics saved his team the blushes.

Thus it is that Mumbai Rockets, which had seemed the weakest of the six teams on paper at the start of PBL, has managed to maintain a clean slate after two matches, even as defending champions Delhi Acers, who had appeared to be the strongest all-round team before the onset of the tournament, remain winless after two outings.

The Acers are in very real danger of making a premature and inglorious exit from this year’s competition even before the half-way stage, unless they can lower the colours of the only other unbeaten team in the League, Awadhe Warriors. The problem for Delhi is that this contest will take place on Thursday in Awadhe’s bastion, Lucknow, the third of the five centres hosting PBL matches.

Scores: Mumbai Rockets beat Hyderabad Hunters 2-1 (Lee Yong Dae and Nipitphon Phuangphuapet beat Tan Boon Heong and Tan Wee Kiong 11-9, 11-5; Sung Ji Hyun beat Carolina Marin 11-7, 7-11, 14-12; Ajay Jayaram lost to Rajiv Ouseph 7-11, 8-11; Lee Yong Dae and Zieba Nadiezda (trump) lost to Satwik Sai Raj and Chau Hoi Wah 13-11, 10-12, 14-15; H S Prannoy beat Sameer Verma (trump) 11-6, 11-7)

Updated Date: Jan 05, 2017 14:08 PM

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