PBL 2018: Lee Hyun Il, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy's crucial contributions power Hyderabad Hunters to maiden title

Two players at the opposite ends of the age spectrum in this year’s Premier Badminton League (PBL) — South Korean veteran Lee Hyun Il and India’s teenaged doubles sensation, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy — did the star turn for first-time finalists Hyderabad Hunters, and helped them annex the PBL title and the winners’ cheque of Rs 3 crores, with a hard-fought 4-3 win over Bengaluru Blasters in an enthralling final at a jampacked Gachibowli Indoor Stadium on Sunday.

Left-handed Lee, at 37 the oldest singles player in the event, has emerged from two retirements to ply his trade as a professional in Malaysia. Hyderabad, somewhat expectedly, took the gamble of naming the unflappable Lee as their trump in the second men’s singles tie against Bengaluru’s bustling Subhankar Dey, and the Korean duly delivered the goods by taming Dey with a 15-7, 15-13 verdict.

Hyderabad Hunters players celebrate their triumph: Image courtesy: Twitter/@CarolinaMarin

Hyderabad Hunters players celebrate their triumph: Image courtesy: Twitter/@CarolinaMarin

And after the tie scores were level at 3-3 with just one match left to decide the destination of the trophy, the 17-year-old Satwiksairaj, youngest of the doubles players in this year’s tournament, produced a power-packed performance in the company of Indonesian Pia Zebadiah Bernadette to take the mixed doubles at 15-11, 15-12 at the expense of the hitherto unbeaten Bengaluru twosome of South Korea’s Kim Sa Rang and N Sikki Reddy.

It was a truly rousing final that went the full distance, in much the same manner as the previous year’s summit clash, when Chennai Smashers had eased out Mumbai Rockets by an identical 4-3 margin. Delhi Acers had won the opening edition of the competition in 2016, with the unfortunate Mumbai squad failing to take the final step in the last match of the tie, and ending runners-up. Coincidentally, all three finals have had a 4-3 winning scoreline.

The title clash was the very antithesis of the meeting between the same two teams in the final league encounter only three days earlier, when Hyderabad had won all five matches (with Bengaluru captain, world champion Viktor Axelsen, being rested, after the team’s qualification for the semi-finals had been assured) to produce a 6-(-1) whitewash. This time, Bengaluru put in a vastly improved showing to ensure that the tie went down to the wire.

Nevertheless, Bengaluru’s discomfiture in the fifth and deciding clash on Sunday was, to a large extent, due to the fact that, after ending up fourth on the points table, they were required to play their semi-final and final on consecutive days, without a rest. It seemed almost unfair that their rivals had had a rest day on Saturday, after winning their semi-final against Delhi Dashers on Friday by the short route. But then, those were the rules made before the onset of the tournament, and they had to be followed.

The Blasters’ doubles mainstay, the ever-smiling Kim Sa Rang, had perforce to be fielded in both the doubles events on both the days; and by the time the last match of this year’s PBL, the mixed doubles, came round, he looked a physical wreck. After all, the 28-year-old Korean, who won his men’s doubles with Mathias Boe earlier in the evening, is no longer a regular fixture on the international circuit, having retired from national duty at the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics; and therefore, is unlikely to be training as hard as the active contemporary players.

The elimination of the Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi teams before the day of the finals had ensured that there would be a new PBL winner on Sunday. It was the yellow brigade representing Bengaluru that took the first positive step by dealing their red-clad rivals the first blow on the chin by grabbing the men’s doubles point. Kim and Boe played an outstanding match, to reverse their earlier group-stage defeat at the hands of Indonesian Markis Kido and Korean Yoo Yeon Seong, by a facile 15-9, 15-10 decision.

Kido and Yoo have both been world doubles champions and ranked No 1 in their salad days. Kido won the world title in 2007 and the Olympic gold in 2008 with Hendra Setiawan, while Yoo, a year younger than the Indonesian, was one half of the deadly pairing with Lee Yong Dae that dominated world badminton between 2013 and 2016. The two had combined well to score over Kim and Boe three days earlier, but were left gasping by the storming show that the honorary Bengalureans put up.

Then came the turn of cold, consistent professionalism to take centre stage, in the wake of the passionate performance put up by Kim and Boe. Hyderabad’s trump card, Lee Hyun Il, one of the fittest players on the circuit despite his advancing age, played a cool, smart game against the hustle and bustle of Subhankar Dey, to record his sixth victory in seven PBL-3 outings by a 15-7, 15-13 margin.

Willing to play long, deep, probing rallies to his opponent’s heart’s content, Lee always looked as if he had plenty of time to play his shots and keep the shuttle in play. His best strokes, that caught Dey napping time and again, were a late wristy flick from the net and the sharp overhead sideline smash to Dey’s backhand, that earned him points galore. The Indian tried hard and fought gamely, especially in the second game, but Lee always looked in full control of the match.

Those supporters of Indian badminton who had hoped that World No 16, B Sai Praneeth, would show Bengaluru’s captain and trump, Viktor Axelsen, a trick or two, were doomed to disappointment when the gangling 6’ 4” Danish world champion put the Indian firmly in his place with a commanding display of aggressive badminton, backed by ballet-like footwork and truly cerebral courtcraft.

Praneeth, who had impressed one and all with his length and control while playing Delhi Dashers’ Tian Houwei in the first semi-final, had no answer to the manner in which Axelsen stayed in control of the rallies, and the spate of powerful smashes that he hit when the Indian erred even slightly in length. Totally outplayed by the Dane, Praneeth sprayed the shuttle all over the place, clocking up big numbers in the “unforced errors” column.

Axelsen’s untroubled 15-8, 15-10 trump triumph, his sixth win in this year’s PBL without a reverse, powered his team to a 3-2 lead, and a very real chance of taking the title, considering the fact that Korean doubles powerhouse Kim and Sikki Reddy were to play the fifth and final match after Kirsty Gilmour’s anticipated surrender to Hyderabad’s captain, Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin.

There were no shocks in that women’s singles, as Marin was on a mental high, boasting a 6-1 career head-to-head record against the Scotswoman, and with her solitary defeat coming four years ago. The Spaniard had also beaten Gilmour in their group clash three days earlier, and was simply bubbling with confidence when she took the court against the player whom she has beaten convincingly in the finals of the last two European championships.

There is little to write about in this match which was thoroughly dominated by the player who was to earn the soubriquet of Most Valuable Player of the Tournament. Marin’s sole aberration, after coasting through the first game at 15-8, was when she made seven successive unforced errors midway through the second game when leading 8-4 at the mid-game interval.

The spate of mistakes by the Spaniard allowed Gilmour to grab the lead at 11-8, and spark a faint hope that she could take the joust to a decider. In trying to force the issue, though, she played into the wily Marin’s hands, and allowed the two-time former world champion to reach match-point 14-12. Although Gilmour was able to neutralise this advantage, Marin produced an ultra-aggressive display at 14-all to take the golden point with a series of smashes to which the Scot had no answer.

Everything thus hung on the result of the mixed doubles, with the Bengaluru pair’s unblemished record in this PBL giving them the upper hand on paper. Sikki Reddy did lose one mixed doubles match, but that was in partnership with Manu Attri, when Kim was rested from the onerous responsibility of playing two matches in every tie. By comparison, Satwiksairaj and Pia Bernadette had lost two of their five previous encounters.

The main problems that Bengaluru faced were the fatigue pervading Kim’s limbs at having to play a fourth tough match in two days, and the vociferous crowd support to the Hyderabad team. These issues, combined with the fact that Sikki Reddy chose just the day of the finals to be relatively off-colour, while Satwiksairaj had adrenalin pouring out of his ears, produced an almost routine 15-11, 15-12 victory for the home team, and the 4-3 tie result that won them the coveted trophy.

Thus, although Bengaluru Blasters appeared to be the most balanced team on paper among the eight that vied for the PBL trophy over 23 days, the crown was eventually captured by Hyderabad Hunters, thanks to all-round teamwork, a virtuoso performance from their captain, Carolina Marin, some clever strategizing on the placing of the trump, and that final ‘X’ factor — full-throated crowd support that rattled the rafters of the Gachibowli Stadium and lifted the team to the heights.


Updated Date: Jan 19, 2018 13:15 PM

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