Singapore Open: Kidambi Srikanth, Sai Praneeth to vie for title after commanding semi-final victories

Close friends and regular sparring partners, Kidambi Srikanth and B Sai Praneeth, both 24 years old, created history on Saturday by becoming the first set of Indians to barge into the men’s singles final of a prestigious Super Series badminton tournament.

File photo of Kidambi Srikanth. Getty Images

File photo of Kidambi Srikanth. Getty Images

Praneeth, who had played tough back-to-back three-game matches on each of the previous three days of the Singapore Open to reach the semi-finals, was in total command against Korea’s Lee Dong Keun, and won by a lopsided 21-6, 21-8 scoreline. Srikanth had to overcome a poor start in his third career meeting with Anthony Sinisuka Ginting (they had stood at a win apiece) before hitting top gear, to show the Indonesian the door, with an impressive 21-13, 21-14 win in 42 minutes.

Only 19 times in the history of the Superseries has a men’s singles final featured players from the same nation; and only three nations have claimed this unique honour – China 17 times, Indonesia and Denmark once each. Thus, having Praneeth and Srikanth facing each other in the Singapore Open final was a dream come true for their coach, Pullela Gopichand.

Praneeth, normally more a defensive than attacking player, simply bamboozled the strapping 26-year-old Korean, ranked No 35 on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder, five places below his Indian rival. So dominant was Praneeth’s strokeplay, and so smoothly did he glide across the court, that he was 11-1 up in a trice, even before Dong Keun could get his bearings.

The Indian extended his advantage to 13-1 before the Korean pulled one back with a forehand crosscourt smash against a somewhat weak midcourt clear from Praneeth. Dong Keun, finally realising that his smashes held no terrors for his opponent, tried to prolong the rallies and had limited success, as he closed the gap to 5-16. But Praneeth grabbed the next five points with some speedy, positive play, and bagged the opener for the loss of one more point.

The second stanza was a repeat of the first, as Praneeth maintained the pressure on Dong Keun to streak away to 8-1 and 9-2 leads before going into the lemon break with an 11-4 advantage. The desperate Korean tried hustling tactics with some parallel hitting, but the Gopichand Academy trainee withstood the challenge, and enlarged the lead to 15-7, before motoring smoothly to the finishing line.

It was a noteworthy victory for Praneeth against a rival who had touched a career-high BWF ranking of 16 between July and September last year, and had qualified to play in the Rio Olympics. Dong Keun had, in his earlier outings at the Singapore Badminton Association Hall, played some of the best badminton of his five-year long international career, claiming the scalps of Indonesians Sony Dwi Kuncoro and Jonatan Christie, and the No 7 seed, Ng Ka Long Angus of Hong Kong.

While Praneeth had had the ideal start against Dong Keun, his fellow-countryman Srikanth struggled in the initial reaches of his match against the diminutive Ginting, a man with an excellent backhand, and who has modelled his game on that of his compatriot and former world champion, Taufik Hidayat, with whom he has often played at the same club in Jakarta.

Adopting an all-out attacking mode, and giving Srikanth scant chance of dictating the rallies, the 20-year-old Ginting strode into an 8-3 lead, which he extended to 10-6. And there he stayed, as the bearded Indian finally settled down and hit his straps, and cranked up the aggression metre.

For the next ten points, it appeared as if there was only one player in the contest as Srikanth dribbled sharp, smashed with power and precision, and used the late flat crosscourt flick from the net to leave the Indonesian hopelessly stranded. Ginting was especially troubled by the Indian’s leaping overhead smashes, which he was able to hit both down the line and across court with virtually the same action.

Confidence oozed from Srikanth’s mien as the Indian contingent at the stadium kept up an insistent “Sri-kanth! Sri-kanth! Sri-kanth!” chant, drowning out the “In-do-ne-sia!” beat from the rival section of the capacity crowd. From 16-10, the Indian went to 18-12 before pocketing the 17-minute long opening game at 21-13.

The difference in class between the two players — Srikanth has two Superseries titles, the China Open and India Open, in his satchel, while Ginting is still without a Superseries crown – was apparent at the start of the second game, when Srikanth continued on his merry way, to a 9-1 lead. At that stage, he had won 26 of the previous 31 points, starting from a position 4-9 down in the opening game.

The Indonesian finally sprang to life after his prolonged period of bewilderment, to reduce the margin to 6-11 at the mid-game interval. As Srikanth appeared to tire, Ginting pressed home the advantage to come within striking distance at 14-16.

The somewhat desperate audience chant of “Jeetega, bhai, jeetega, Sri-kanth jeetega!”, more suited to a cricket field, seemed to stir the Indian into action again, as he stayed with the Indonesian in a grueling all-court rally, with both players sprawling on the court to retrieve the shuttle, and being up again in a flash to play the next shot. Winning that rally to get his 18th point seemed to settle Srikanth’s nerves, and he experienced no further trouble in closing out the match.

Comprehensive win for Carolina Marin

There was scant drama in the women’s singles semi-finals, in which reigning world, Olympic and European champion Carolina Marin of Spain shrugged off some relatively indifferent recent form to underline her status as the best female singles player on the world circuit over the past three years. Marin, seeded No 4, was simply unstoppable as she (verbal) volleyed and thundered to a comprehensive 21-9, 21-12 over Korea’s No 2 seed, Sung Ji Hyun in a mere 33 minutes.

Marin will, for the second time in eight days, clash for the title with top-seeded Taiwanese Tai Tzu Ying, to whom she had narrowly lost in the final of the Malaysia Open Super Series Premier, one Sunday ago. Tai was on court for three minutes less time than the Spaniard, and was only stretched in the opening game before eliminating China’s unseeded Zhang Beiwen at 21-19, 21-15.

The one other noteworthy result on the penultimate day of the $350,000 Super Series competition was the semi-final defeat of the crack Indonesian doubles twosome of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, who suffered their first reverse after three consecutive title triumphs.

Looking exhausted for the most part, after being crowned at the All England, India Open and Malaysia Open in the course of the last five weeks, Gideon and Sukamuljo could not sustain their 21-11 blitzkrieg in the opening game against the right-left Danish combination of Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen, and were eclipsed in the next two games at 11-21, 14-21.

The defeat of the Indonesians, who have been in such supreme form since the beginning of March, underlined the culpability of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) over scheduling so many tournaments, one behind the other, and giving the players virtually no chance of recovering from their exertions on the court or from minor niggles which swiftly turn into major injuries.

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Updated Date: Apr 16, 2017 10:27:47 IST

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