How does a potentially winning 4-3 score turn into what is, on paper, a comprehensive 0-5 rout? How does a side attract such wretched luck that not even one match point out of seven, spread across three matches, gets converted into a victory? How does a team fail to break the duck even after its icon player has convincingly defeated her rival icon in the evening’s marquee clash?
The answers to all these uncomfortable questions came to hosts Hyderabad Hunters the hard way when they lost three of the five matches in their Premier Badminton League (PBL) tie against Awadhe Warriors on Monday, after four of their players had come several times within a single point of victory.
B Sai Praneeth held three match points in his clash against Vincent Wong Wing Kee, Rajiv Ouseph had two against Kidambi Srikanth, and the crack Hyderabad men’s doubles combination of Tan Boon Heong and Tan Wee Kiong had two match-points against fellow Malaysians Markis Kido and Goh V Shem.
Not one of these seven match points could be converted into victory; and all three matches ended in 13-11 triumphs for Awadhe in the deciding game. The most unkindest cut of all, as the bard would have said, was dealt when the loss of Hyderabad's trump men’s doubles team negated the brilliant straight games victory notched up earlier by the reigning world and Olympic champion Carolina Marin against Awadhe’s pride and joy, Saina Nehwal.
Rarely can a team have so much of dreadful luck on a single night! Awadhe’s admitted warriors, currently riding on a wave of euphoria, could find it a sobering thought that, had Hyderabad’s match points been converted into wins in all three of the hotly-contested matches, the host team would have posted a comprehensive 5-2 win, with Awadhe’s two points coming only from a richly deserved trump win by their Thai mixed doubles combination of Bodin Issara and Savitree Amitrapai.
The portents of what was to come on Monday night could be seen in the first clash between Sai Praneeth, playing in front of his home crowd at the Gachibowli Stadium, against Vincent Wong. The 2013 Indian national champion had the advantage of having played on the match court a day earlier, and so, would have had a better understanding of the conditions which Srikanth later described as “tricky, with too much drift”.
Sai took advantage of Vincent’s nervy start as the Hong Kong player tried to adjust to the playing conditions, and ran up good initial leads of 3-0 and 4-1 before going into the lemon break at 6-5. The Awadhe player settled down after the interval, and showed patience while keeping the shuttle in play, and built up a 10-8 lead.
At this stage, a superb backhand cross court drop from the backcourt appeared to have kissed a lunging Sai’s racket before landing out in the side lobby. Even as Vincent celebrated the game win, the chair umpire called it Sai’s point as he felt the shuttle had landed out. Video replays, upon Vincent’s challenge, were inconclusive as to whether Sai had got in a touch before the shuttle was 'dead'; and the umpire’s verdict stood.
Rattled by the controversy, the Hong Kong player capitulated at 11-13, but turned on the pressure in the second game to win it comfortably at 11-6 with some exquisite netplay.
There was nothing to separate the two in the decider, and Vincent looked to have the match in his pocket when he led 8-5. However, Sai, revealing a wide range of shots and a potent jump smash, grabbed five points in a row to get to match point 10-8.
Sadly, the Hyderabad player could not convert either of those two gilt-edged opportunities, nor one more which he got at 11-10. The doughty Vincent, showing a strong defence in the face of a barrage of smashes by Sai, remained rock-steady and won the day, to put Awadhe ahead.
All the drama in the eagerly awaited women’s singles encounter between Saina and Marin was concentrated in the opening game in which the Indian star, showing no signs of the severe knee injury she had suffered during the Rio Olympics, kept reeling the effervescent Marin in.
The Spanish left-hander was definitely swifter on her feet than she had been at the BWF Super Series Finals last month, and her full range of deceptive shots were on display. Marin also dictated most of the rallies, as is her wont, and therefore, had many more outright winners than her opponent.
The world and Olympic champion appeared to have the first game well under control when she held a 9-5 lead, but the hardworking Indian prolonged the rallies and forced errors from the Spaniard who was trying all she could to finish them off. After Saina restored parity at 9-all, Marin had four game points and Saina one, as the game moved inexorably into the first sudden death situation of this year’s PBL.
Marin’s measured half smash to Saina’s backhand, after a lengthy rally at 14-all, sealed it for the Hyderabad Hunters star; and from that point on, it seemed a different match altogether. Marin moved up a couple of gears; and Saina, perhaps beginning to feel the after-effects of her knee surgery, simply could not keep pace.
The Spaniard, who got vociferous support from the crowd (and acknowledged it at the courtside interview after the match), powered into a 8-0 lead, moving with breathtaking speed and hitting the shuttle with great deception. Even though she took her foot off the gas pedal at 9-1, Marin was far too good a player to be headed off. As she herself revealed after the match, she is still a little short of her best after recovering from a leg injury.
With the needle encounter in their pocket, Awadhe Warriors went on to take a 3-1 lead when their trump mixed doubles pair of left-handed Issara and Amitrapai were just a tad too good for young Satwik Sairaj and Chau Hoi Wah, although the 11-9, 12-10 scoreline made the match appear closer than it was.
Then it was time for the ebullient Srikanth to take on the unflappable Englishman Ouseph, who had won five of his earlier six encounters in the PBL. The eight times English national champion relied on his tight defence to blunt the sustained aggression of Srikanth, who was playing his first tournament after recovering from a stress fracture of the right foot.
Being the frontrunner that he is, Srikanth powered into a 6-2 lead, but lapsed into errors to allow Ouseph to pull back to 6-all. Thereafter, they went neck-and-neck, pulling the game over the extra points. Both players tried to boss the net, indulging in dribbles and counter dribbles, but it was Ouseph, more than Srikanth, who showed the greater alacrity in tapping slightly high returns.
After losing the first game at 11-13, the Indian, who had reached a career-high world ranking of No 3 in 2015, upped the pace and had the better of the exchanges at the net, to restore parity on game scores. He went for outright winners on more occasions, but also committed more errors, while the wily Ouseph played the percentage game to perfection.
There was very little to separate the two rivals in the deciding game, and it was not surprising to see it go to 9-all. Ouseph reached match point first with a lightning tap at the net, but then foozled the easiest of sitters at the net, to allow Srikanth back into the match. The Englishman had another match point at 11-10, but netted an easy smash from midcourt with Srikanth totally out of position, and having literally given up the ghost.
One does not give Srikanth these kind of opportunities twice, and get away with it. Ouseph could not; and Awadhe had a tie-winning 4-1 lead, instead of the 3-2 score it should have been, had Ouseph crossed the finish line.
The result of Hyderabad’s trump match that followed would not have made a difference to Awadhe, except in the matter of the eventual scoreline. In a battle between two Malaysian pairs who know each other’s game by heart, the heroics of veteran Markis Kido made the difference at the end when the Awadhe pair saved a couple of match points, and made it the first occasion in this year’s PBL when a trump has failed to come good.
Thus it came to be that Hyderabad Hunters, who had posted a come-from-behind 4-3 victory over Chennai Smashers on the previous night, were forced to face a 0-5 drubbing at the hands of Awadhe Warriors, losing four of the five encounters. But it would be a sporting wager to take, should both teams face each other again at the knockout stage at the business end of the tournament, that there could well be a different winner!
Scores: Awadhe Warriors beat Hyderabad Hunters 5-0 (Wong Wing Kee Vincent beat B. Sai Praneeth 11-13, 11-6, 13-11; Saina Nehwal lost to Carolina Marin 14-15, 5-11; Bodin Issara and Savitree Amitrapai (Trump) beat Satwik Sairaj and Chau Hoi Wah 11-9, 12-10; Kidambi Srikanth beat Rajiv Ouseph 11-13, 11-7, 13-11; Markis Kido and Goh V. Shem beat Tan Boon Heong and Tan Wee Kiong (Trump) 7-11, 11-8, 13-11)
Updated Date: Jan 03, 2017 11:54 AM