It was very nearly a first-round exit for ace Indian shuttler Pusarla Venkata Sindhu in successive international tournaments.
Knocked out in her opening outing of the Malaysia Open Super Series Premier by China’s teenage sensation Chen Yufei, the lanky fifth seed was dragged over the full distance by Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara in her lung-opener of the Singapore Open Badminton Championships before she could squeeze out a narrow 10-21, 21-15, 22-20 victory in two minutes over the hour mark.
Rituparna Das, the only other Indian in the women’s singles main draw, following the late withdrawal of Saina Nehwal, troubled Chinese Taipei’s Hsu Ya Ching in the first game before fading to an 18-21, 13-21 defeat. The former national junior champion has a rich repertoire of strokes and the potential to trouble the best, but needs to improve her fitness and speed of foot, to become a threat at international level.
Two other Indian singles players, the unseeded Kidambi Srikanth and B Sai Praneeth made it through the opening round in contrasting fashion. Srikanth, showing signs of returning to form after a lengthy sojourn on the sidelines due to a foot injury, had no trouble in eliminating qualifier Kenta Nishimoto of Japan at 21-12, 21-11, but Praneeth had to struggle for an hour and four minutes before he could subdue Denmark’s Emil Holst by a 17-21, 21-7, 21-19 scoreline.
Srikanth is strongly favoured to reach at least the quarter-final, for he next plays Indonesia’s 21-year-old Ihsan Maulana Mustofa, who stands at No 37 in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, even as Praneeth takes on China’s 24-year-old Qiao Bin, whom Ajay Jayaram had comprehensively decimated in the second round of the Malaysia Open.
There was precious little luck for young Sameer Verma, the 2016 Indian national champion, who stretched Hong Kong’s Hu Yun over the extra points in both games, but failed to convert a total of four game-point opportunities, while going down 26-28, 21-23, in two minutes under the hour mark.
Sameer’s elder brother Saurabh, who had beaten his sibling in the 2017 National final, found Indonesia’s hard-hitting Anthony Sinisuka Ginting far too hot to handle, and went down without a whimper at 15-21, 14-21. There is no doubting Saurabh’s potential, but he requires a lot more of international exposure before he can be considered a threat to the big guns in the men’s singles firmament.
Ajay Jayaram, who had set the Malaysia Open on fire by administering the knock-out punch to giant Dane Viktor Axelsen, found the going hard against the super-fit No 5 seed from China, Shi Yuqi, who had been runner-up in the recent All England Super Series final after eliminating compatriot, six times former champion Lin Dan, in the penultimate round.
The 21-year-old Yuqi, who has recently barged into the top 10 in the BWF rankings, was content to stay with the Indian in the opening game, but was aggressive and masterful in the second stanza while quelling Jayaram’s challenge at 21-16, 21-7 in two minutes over the half-hour mark.
Former Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Ashwini Ponnappa, had a profitable opening day, progressing to the second round of the women’s doubles. In the company of her new left-handed partner, N Sikki Reddy, the Bangalore-born Ashwini ousted Malaysia’s Lim Yin Loo and Yap Cheng Wen 21-19, 21-19, in a 42-minute encounter. They next run into the top-seeded Japanese pair of Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi on Thursday.
There was, however, no solace for India’s top men’s doubles pair of Manu Attri and B Sumeeth Reddy, who were literally smashed off the court in the opening game by the third-seeded Japanese pair of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda, who turned in a facile 21-8, 21-16 verdict.
Nor did the younger pairing of Shlok Ramchandran and M R Arjun bag the distinction of progressing into the second round, after being stopped in their tracks by the Malaysian combination of One Yew Sin and Teo Ee Yi at 21-17, 21-17. The youngsters went down despite having handy leads in both games.
Much was expected of the Sindhu-Okuhara encounter, which featured a tall athlete in red-hot form against a diminutive dancing dynamo who had returned to the international circuit earlier this year after sitting out several months thanks to a right shoulder rotator cuff tear, followed by surgery and lengthy rehabilitation.
Sindhu was completely outplayed and outmanoeuvred in the opening game by the pocket-sized 22-year-old Japanese, a former world junior champion who had gone through a purple patch towards the end of 2015, winning the year-ending Dubai Super Series grand finals and then the All England title in March 2016, but then fell prey to the recurrence of an old shoulder injury, first suffered in 2013.
The Indian, one year younger than her Japanese antagonist, got her act together from 6-all in the second game and streaked away to 11-6 and then 18-7, before suffering her customary end-game jitters, and allowing the steady Okuhara to creep back up to 15-20.
It was a repeat performance in the decider, as Sindhu changed ends at 11-8, and enlarged the lead to 16-9 and 18-10. With the finish line in her sights at 19-11, the 5’11 Indian, who had hit the No 2 rank on the Badminton World Federation (BWF) ladder at the end of the Indian Open, got the heebie-jeebies all over again.
Despite trailing by half-a-dozen match-points at 14-20, the pint-sized Japanese girl mounted a spirited fightback and, aided by a stream of Sindhu errors, reeled off the requisite six points without answer, to fully neutralise the lead. It needed a supreme effort of will from Sindhu to break Okuhara’s momentum and capture the two points she needed at that stage to seal her triumph.
Although such an undoubtedly classy opponent did not deserve to be pitted against the in-form Indian shuttle queen at this early stage of the tournament, it happened through the luck of the draw, and because Okuhara did not have sufficient points to merit a seeding. The Japanese girl did reveal the chinks in Sindhu’s mental armour in no uncertain manner.
The Hyderabadi has earned a pre-quarter final meeting with 18-year-old Fitriani Fitriani, whom she has never encountered before in an international tournament. She is strongly favoured to score a comfortable win over the Indonesian teenager, and move to a blockbuster quarter-final with world and Olympic champion Carolina Marin, who first has to settle the pretensions of Chinese Taipei’s Chia Hsin Lee on Thursday.
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Updated Date: Apr 13, 2017 14:04:13 IST