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Singapore Open: Sai Praneeth's resolute defence, clever use of smash won him maiden Superseries title

At the fag end of an absorbing 54-minute battle, when an off-balance Kidambi Srikanth sent his leaping overhead smash out along the sidelines, his opponent, Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth, collapsed onto his back and blinked up from misty eyes at the powerful lights in the Singapore Badminton Association hall, unable to digest the fact that he had just become India’s second Super Series male champion.

It was heart-warming to see the Singapore Open Super Series winner receive a warm embrace at the net from his rival, who incidentally happened to be the country’s first Super Series title-winner, but was also his close friend and regular sparring partner at Hyderabad’s Gopichand Academy.

 Singapore Open: Sai Praneeths resolute defence, clever use of smash won him maiden Superseries title

B Sai Praneeth won his first ever Superseries title in Singapore. AFP

“I have no words to express my feelings at this moment,” the champion said, in a courtside interview, immediately after the summit clash which he won by a 17-21, 21-17, 21-12 scoreline. “It’s the best feeling. I have been waiting for this for a long, long time. I knew I had been playing well throughout this entire tournament, and had a great chance of winning the title. I must thank the large number of Indian fans who turned up and supported me in every one of my matches.”

A few minutes later, Praneeth had wrapped himself in the Indian tricolor and clambered proudly atop the rostrum to receive from the Badminton World Federation (BWF) president, Poul- Erik Hoyer-Larsen, the silver salver and cheque for US$ 26,250 reserved for the men’s singles winner of the $350,000 tournament.

Ranked 30th on the BWF ladder, one place below Srikanth, Praneeth had won the Canada Open Grand Prix last year, and had also reached the final of the Syed Modi Grand Prix Gold tournament in Lucknow, earlier this year. The 24-year-old Andhra Pradesh native has now joined the ranks of an elite group of players who have won at least one Super Series title.

The final panned out exactly as per the expectations of those who have seen the two practise together, and who are aware that, going into this match, Praneeth had held a 4-1 advantage over his batch-mate in head-to-head career meetings. Srikanth, who plays his best when he is fresh, and is basically a front-runner, was strongly favoured to win the opening game, and was also expected to keep the rallies short.

The playing conditions were tough, with the drift across court discouraging both players from going in for too many high lifts. Srikanth took handy 11-7 and 14-10 leads, but found Praneeth forcing errors from him, and narrowing the gap to 14-15. Srikanth stepped on the gas pedal at this point, employing his patented overhead sideline smashes, to take the first game at 21-17 in 19 minutes.

The match revolved entirely around the second game, as it became increasingly clear that the less-than-fully-fit Srikanth was unlikely to last the full distance. He had a gilt-edged opportunity when he blazed his way to a 6-1 lead, and appeared in full control of the proceedings. However, Praneeth showed resolute defence, and adroitly used his own smash, which may not have been as powerful as his rival’s hit, but possessed acute angles while being directed to either flank.

From 2-7 down, Praneeth won most of the longer rallies to have his nose 11-10 ahead at the lemon break. Thereafter, not more than a point separated the two as the score inched to 16-15 in favour of Praneeth. It was here that Srikanth played his last card, attempting the one-two smash and follow-up combination, but was thwarted by Praneeth cleverly flicking the shuttle behind him, rather than blocking the smash.

With the second game won at 21-17, a score identical to the opening stanza, and taking exactly as many minutes, there seemed to be nothing separating the two. Nothing, that is, except Praneeth’s accuracy, superior staying power and brilliant control at the net, and the fact that Srikanth was forced to play with the drift in the first half of the decider.

Since he lost several initial points pushing the shuttle out at the baseline, Srikanth over-compensated by keeping his lifts short. Praneeth was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, as he dribbled sharp at the net and hit leaping deceptive angled smashes off the short clears.

Praneeth took useful 5-2 and 7-3 leads before crossing courts at 11-5. Srikanth’s jitters at the net continued after switching courts, and a determined Praneeth moved serenely to 16-8 and 18-11 before wrapping up the one-sided 16-minute long third game for the loss of just one more point.

After the all-Indian men’s singles final, the women’s singles summit clash was an Asia-Europe fight, with reigning world No.1 and top seed, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, taking on reigning world, Olympic and European champion, Carolina Marin of Spain, seeded No.4 after losing several points through being runner-up in the previous two tournaments, the India and Malaysia Opens.

On the strength of the excellent form shown by Marin in the run-up to the final, the left-handed Spaniard was strongly favoured to turn the tables on her talented, strokeful antagonist, to whom she had narrowly lost the Malaysia Open final a week earlier. Marin’s facile triumphs over two of her strongest rivals on the world circuit, PV Sindhu of India and Sung Ji Hyun of Korea, appeared to give her the edge against Tai. At least on paper.

The Taiwanese had other plans. Whereas in the Malaysia Open final, she had played long rallies with Marin, concentrating on tiring the world champion out rather than employing her own rich repertoire of strokes, she totally changed strategies on Sunday. She went for her strokes from the word “Play!”, staying confident that she could match her opponent’s speed and power, and not rely just on her superior stamina.

The result was a comprehensive 21-15, 21-15 demolition of the Spanish southpaw, in a shade over the half-hour mark. Marin had simply no answer to the brilliant all-round strokeplay of the 22 year old Taiwanese ace, who strongly underlined her pre-eminence among the women with her 25th consecutive victory, without a single defeat, since the start of the Dubai year-ending Super Series grand finals last December.

Simply put, Tai Tzu Ying is a class act. Five months without a defeat, and five Super Series titles, including two Super Series Premier crowns – the All England and Malaysia Open. It was somehow fitting that she won her fifth successive crown at the Singapore Open, a tournament in which she had made her debut in the final as a raw 15-year-old, seven years back, in 2010.

As for the paired events, the second-ranked Danish combination of Kamilla Rytter Juhl and Christinna Pedersen lowered the colours of the top-seeded Japanese pair of Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi in three tough games at 21-18, 14-21, 21-15, in a match lasting an hour and five minutes, and featuring several long, exhausting rallies.

Another Danish pair, Carsten Mogensen and Mathias Boe, seeded No.5, rose to their full stature while giving the fourth-ranked Chinese pair of Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen no chance at all with a virtuoso display of water-tight defence and astute attack, to win at 21-13, 21-14 in a mere 41 minutes. The left-handed Boe, in particular, used the fast drop liberally in preference to the full-blooded smash, to repeatedly catch their Chinese rivals napping.

Thailand’s unseeded youthful combination of Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai gave a good account of themselves while fully stretching the third-ranked Chinese pairing of Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong, before bowing out at 21-19, 16-21, 11-21 to their vastly experienced opponents. We should be hearing more of these fresh-faced Thais in the future.

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Updated Date: Apr 17, 2017 17:14:29 IST

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