The major talking points of the second leg of the Premier Badminton League’s third edition (PBL-3) were more sparkling performances from the rackets of those representing newcomers Ahmedabad Smash Masters, and the absence, for “strategic reasons”, of reigning Olympic champion Carolina Marin from the Hyderabad Hunters’ line-up against the Gujarat team.
Badminton aficionados, who had been bitterly disappointed when PBL-3 had failed to start with the expected high-voltage clash between Indian aces Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu in the opening Awadhe-Chennai fixture in Guwahati, felt just as much let down when the eagerly anticipated duel between two-time former world champion Marin and current World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying, failed to take place at New Delhi’s Siri Fort Complex.
Tai, totally unperturbed at seeing the unheralded Rasika Raje across the net in place of the feisty Spaniard, proceeded to put the substitute firmly in her place, to record her second consecutive easy triumph, and build upon the hard-earned three-game mixed doubles triumph registered by Hong Kong’s Lee Chun Hei Reginald and Denmark’s Kamilla Rytter-Juhl over Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Indonesia’s Pia Zebadiah Bernadet, younger sister of the charismatic Markis Kido.
World No 10, HS Prannoy, who has been having a dream run in the PBL for the past two seasons, took his record to 9-0, with his second PBL-3 win — this time, a facile straight-game ‘trump’ victory over B Sai Praneeth. Recently crowned Indian national champion, Prannoy had remained unbeaten in seven outings in PBL-2, and had won his eighth straight match with a hard-earned 15-10, 15-14 verdict over Wang Tzu Wei, the World No 11 from Chinese Taipei, during the Guwahati leg.
The heroics of Prannoy and Tai have meant that Ahmedabad have to win just one match of the remaining three in each fixture, to ensure that they remain unbeaten in the tie. Reginald Lee has been fielded in both the men’s and mixed doubles, while the second men’s singles has been played by Sourabh Verma. So long as the two lead singles players maintain their form, it is almost a foregone conclusion that the Gujarat squad will be one of the four teams to make the play-off semi-finals.
The fight for the other three places, however, remains wide open. The chances of the other newcomers, North Eastern Warriors, have faded to a large extent, with their third consecutive defeat in the league, this time at the hands of Awadhe. The 3-4 tie result was not for want of trying, for the green brigade’s Wang Tzu Wei played a speedy, attacking game to put World No 4, Kidambi Srikanth on the defensive, and eke out a richly-deserved three-game triumph.
Similarly, the Assam team’s Chinese-born Canadian, Michelle Li, did everything but beat Nehwal, but the 27-year-old Awadhe captain, who looked rusty after three weeks on the sidelines with an ankle injury, scrapped like a cornered tiger to pip her rival at 6-15, 15-13, 15-13, in an edge-of-the-seat encounter. The result did add to Nehwal’s reputation as a never-say-die fighter, but did not engender much confidence in the Awadhe ranks for the sterner battles ahead.
Defending champions Chennai Smashers, who had lost their opening tie to Awadhe in Guwahati, made amends by posting their first victory in PBL-3, a 4-3 repeat of their PBL-2 final triumph over Mumbai Rockets. Chennai’s skipper Sindhu had to huff and puff while slipping across Chinese-born American, Zhang Beiwen, at 12-15, 15-7, 15-9; and continued to look tired and stale. She will have her task cut out for her when she encounters even tougher opposition in the form of Tai, Marin, Sung Ji Hyun, et al.
The result of the tie teetered on a single ‘golden’ point — at match-point 14-all in the second singles between Chennai’s French import, Brice Leverdez, and Mumbai’s 2016 national champion Sameer Verma. The latter had recovered from the 14-15 loss of the opening game to take the second stanza convincingly, and made up ground in the closing reaches of the decider to level the scores at 14-all. With the Indian serving, Leverdez took an all-or-nothing approach against the low serve, leaped to the net and tapped it on Verma’s body, to secure the all-important point.
On hindsight, one could say that Mumbai erred in nominating youngster MR Arjun instead of South Korean doubles legend, Lee Young Dae, for the mixed doubles in the company of Gabriela Stoeva, against the World No 5 husband-and-wife pairing of Chris and Gabrielle Adcock, in Chennai’s trump match. Arjun played his heart out, no doubt, and was by no means disgraced, but he lacked the especial expertise of his Korean team-mate, and surrendered the decider of the encounter rather tamely at 9-15, 15-13, 9-15.
Mumbai, who had opened their PBL-3 campaign with a storming win over Delhi Dashers (who were then without their mixed doubles ace, the just-married Ashwini Ponnappa), thus slipped a little, to lie in the bottom half of the eight-team table.
The Rockets were required to pull up their socks against Bengaluru Blasters, whom they played on New Year’s Day in Lucknow, but instead, they slipped to an all-time low by losing all their five matches for a 6-(1) loss. Mumbai’s negative points position in the tie was occasioned by the loss of Sameer Verma’s trump match to Malaysian Chong Wei Fung; and the result put them firmly in the cellar in the league.
As for the Dashers, who also lost their first tie on home ground at the Siri Fort Complex against Bengaluru Blasters on December 28, blasted their way back in their valedictory home match against Hyderabad Hunters on New Year’s Eve. The comprehensive 5-0 win over the Hunters was made possible by an all-round team effort, in which giant Russian Vladimir Ivanov and Hong Kong’s Wong Wing Ki Vincent played starring roles.
Ivanov, who had won the All-England men’s doubles title in 2016 in the company of left-hander Ivan Sozonov, had had a poor time in Delhi’s first two ties, but hit peak form on the final day of 2017, to open his team’s account against Hyderabad with a crushing 15-9, 15-11 win over Markis Kido and Yoo Yeon Seong. The Hunters had clearly not bargained for such a result, and they fell further into the red when they lost their second match, their trump in the shape of Korean veteran Lee Hyun Il.
Delhi’s Vincent Wong and Mumbai’s Sameer claimed the distinction of being the only two players in PBL-3 to be involved in the three ‘trump breaks’ that had taken place until the results of the Bengaluru-Mumbai tie on New Year’s Day. Vincent went from zero to hero, with a fighting, come-from-behind victory over Hyderabad’s 37-year-old Lee, the oldest player in the singles competition.
Wong had been the villain when he had been beaten in his own trump match in Guwahati by Sameer in the Delhi-Mumbai tie. On Sunday, as the sun set for the final time on 2017, the volatile Hong Kong player pulled the rabbit out of the hat with a stirring 13-15, 15-11, 15-4 triumph over the Korean old-timer, winning the second game narrowly, and then trampling all over his demoralised rival in the decider.
The Delhi player’s histrionics at the end of the match, when he pulled off his shirt and slung it into the crowd, was reminiscent of a similar charged-up, chest-baring, jersey-waving demonstration by the then Indian cricket captain, Sourav Ganguly, from the balcony at Lord’s 15 years ago, after India had overhauled the massive England total of 326 in the NatWest Trophy final.
If Wong plays his remaining matches for the Dashers with the same passion and perseverance as he did against Lee, he may well get the opportunity of indulging in an encore before the league runs its course on 14 January. As for Sameer, he would have been left licking his wounds after he performed the hero-to-zero act, with his unexpected capitulation to Bengaluru’s Chong on Monday causing his heroics against Delhi’s Wong to be consigned to the status of a pleasant, but distant, memory.
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Updated Date: Jan 02, 2018 13:05:37 IST