South Korean doubles specialist Kim Sa Rang did the star turn for Bengaluru Blasters, delivering three points for his team, including the vital trump, in the Blasters’ pulsating, comeback 4-3 semi-final triumph over Premier Badminton League debutants, Ahmedabad Smash Masters, on Saturday.
Taking on the onerous responsibility of playing the trump match for Bengaluru in the company of wily Danish veteran Mathias Boe, Kim also rounded off a memorable evening for his team by combining with Andhra left-hander N Sikki Reddy in the fifth and final match of the tie, to break the 3-3 deadlock that had resulted at the end of his captain Viktor Axelsen’s singles win over Ahmedabad’s HS Prannoy.
Bengaluru could actually have romped into the final two matches earlier, when Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour produced the performance of a lifetime in doing everything but lower the colours of Chinese Taipei’s World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying, in what was expectedly the trump match for the Ahmedabad side.
The Scottish World No 16, who has been runner-up over the past two years to Spaniard Carolina Marin in the European Championships, barreled through the opening game at 15-8, and stood tantalisingly within reach of the finishing post, at 12-8 in the second game. Sadly, the 24-year-old Bengaluru player froze up, even as the scent of victory wafted through her nostrils, and let the Taiwanese ace unravel the slipknot of the noose that she had so painstakingly placed around the latter’s neck.
The storming manner in which Ahmedabad’s second-string singles, Sourabh Verma, began the five-match tie, it seemed as if the Gujarat side was gunning for the PBL title in its debut season. The 2015 Indian national champion was like a gazelle on the court, dribbling and smashing with elan, and moving his Bengaluru rival, left-handed Malaysian Chong Wei Feng, all around the court, for an unbelievable 15-2 opening-game triumph.
But Chong managed to shake off the jitters in the second game, and matched Verma stroke for stroke, to stage a heart-warming rearguard action, and wrest the second game over the golden point, at 15-14. There was, however, little doubt about the superiority of the Indian in the decider, as he proved just that wee bit quicker and more aggressive, especially at the net, to run out a 15-2, 14-15, 15-10 winner.
The fact that Bengaluru were wary of Prannoy’s enviable record over the last two PBLs could be seen in the manner in which they did not nominate world champion Axelsen as their trump for the tie, but instead, took a calculated risk in pushing Kim and Boe forward as their pick for the bonus point against the Ahmedabad duo of Lee Chun Hei Reginald and Kidambi Nandagopal.
It is a piquant fact that 28-year-old Kim has bid farewell to his national team — the Korean announced his retirement at the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics — while the 37-year-old Boe continues to play top-level doubles in over a dozen tournaments annually on the international circuit, in the company of compatriot Carsten Mogensen.
Yet, the spectators packing the Gachibowli Indoor Stadium could not tell that Boe was almost a decade older than Kim, as the Dane showed commendable reflexes and the opportunism at the net that is so essential in doubles, while his partner executed those power-packed leaped smashes, interspersed with deceptive drop shots, and rounded off with that trademark endearing smile, whether he won or lost the point.
Dispassionately speaking, the match failed to rise to the heights, as both sides made errors galore, and there were few of the rough-and-tumble rallies that characterise men’s doubles at this level. The second half of the second half was marked by a string of unforced errors by Reginald, allowing the Bengaluru duo to power to a 14-8 lead. The Indo-Hong Kong combination was only able to reduce the margin of their defeat at the end, and bowed out by a 15-13, 15-12 scoreline.
Leading 2-1 after two matches, Bengaluru would have been forgiven for writing off the women’s singles, which Ahmedabad had nominated as their trump. But the spunky Gilmour refused to lie down and take the beating she was expected to, at the hands of the mercurial girl genius from Taipei.
The Scot took full advantage of playing the first game against the drift, and a certain level of complacency on Tai’s part, to zoom from the mid-game break score of 8-7, to pocket the first game at 15-8. The Taiwanese failed to adjust to the strong air flow from her side of the court to the other end, and pushed as many as five clears out at Gilmour’s baseline in the second half of the opener.
The confidence boost that Gilmour got from winning the first game so easily translated into an almost error-free performance in the second, as she grabbed a 8-5 lead at lemon time. The Scot actually dictated the pace and trend of the rallies against the world’s best player, and executed several jump smashes with power and precision, to build up a 12-8 lead, and stand on the brink of a tremendous upset win.
But one does not become World no 1, and win six Superseries tournaments in a year on the intensely competitive circuit, for nothing. Tai, who had the distinction of being the first Taiwanese to win the prestigious All-England crown in 2017, dug deep into her mental reserves (there was no problem on the physical side for one of the fittest players in international badminton), and slowly but surely clawed her way back.
One could say, in hindsight, that the difference between the two players in the closing stages of that top-class second game was that Tai did not believe she could lose, while Gilmour was aghast at the fact that she was actually winning! Once the 22-year-old Taiwanese ace moved past her rival at 12-all, there was no stopping her inexorable march to a gritty, yet posed, 8-15, 15-13, 15-8 win.
That set the stage for the Ahmedabad Smash Masters’ captain, Prannoy, to try and show the world that the PBL, with its truncated, TV-friendly scoring format, was his favoured territory. It was probably the best chance for the World No 10 to slip one over the reigning world champion, Axelsen.
But winning the elusive world crown at Glasgow in August 2017 has done wonders for the confidence of the towering, 6’4 Dane; and he remained a step ahead of the Indian national champion throughout their contest that ended in a 15-11, 15-14 triumph for the Bengaluru Blasters’ skipper. Not even when he trailed 13-14 in the second stanza did a frown of unease furrow the brow of the man from Odense.
Everything now depended on the final match of the tie, the mixed doubles, featuring the most successful pair in this PBL Bengaluru’s — Kim and Reddy, who had been beaten in only one of their five previous encounters in the league. Taking on the all-left combination of Hong Kong’s Law Cheuk Him and Denmark’s Kamilla Rytter-Juhl, the Bengaluru pair proceeded to wrap up the tie with a hard-earned 15-12, 13-15, 15-9 victory.
Again, looking at the clash with the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that there was not much to separate the two combinations. Law matched Kim in both power and the delicate manoeuvres that are an essential part of mixed doubles, while the tall Rytter-Juhl was as efficient at the net as Reddy. Where the Ahmedabad pair was let down was in the service department — Rytter-Juhl, who has been having trouble with her service throughout the season, dumped innumerable serves into the net, to concede several cheap points whenever the two pairs were on level terms.
Bengaluru Blasters now take on Hyderabad Hunters in Sunday’s final at the Gachibowli Stadium. It appears almost certain that the teams will nominate their respective skippers, Axelsen and Carolina Marin, as their trumps, particularly as Marin has an unblemished record against Gilmour, and Axelsen leads 3-1 in career head-to-heads against Hyderabad’s B Sai Praneeth, with the latter’s sole win having come as back in 2010.
Of course, Hyderabad might just take a calculated risk, and push forward Korean veteran, Lee Hyun Il, as their trump against Malaysian Chong. If that happens, and the 37-year-old Lee comes up trumps, it might just prove the vital point that separates the two best teams in this year’s league, for the top prize in PBL 3.
Updated Date: Jan 14, 2018 12:10 PM