Singapore Open: Razor-sharp Kidambi Srikanth and B Sai Praneeth keep India's hopes alive

Never in the history of the Superseries has there been a singles final featuring two players from India. Not even at the India Open.

That possibility, however, is one step from becoming reality as the top two male Indian exponents of the sport, Kidambi Srikanth and B Sai Praneeth, won their quarter-finals of the $350,000 Singapore Open in contrasting styles, and from opposite halves of the draw, on Friday.

File photo of PV Sindhu. AFP

File photo of PV Sindhu. AFP

Srikanth hit top gear from the bottom half of the draw, to settle the pretensions of fifth-seeded Shi Yuqi of China, by an impressive 21-14, 21-16 margin. Meanwhile, in the top half of the draw, the battling marathon man, Praneeth, staged his by-now-familiar rearguard action in his third consecutive three-game encounter, to eliminate the No 8 seed, Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk of Thailand, by a 15-21, 21-14, 21-19 scoreline in 71 pulsating minutes.

Their highly-rated compatriot, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, was not quite as fortunate, as she ceded a 6-5 career head-to-head advantage to world and Olympic champion, Carolina Marin of Spain, going down tamely in their 11th career meeting by an 11-21, 15-21 scoreline. Marin thus gained sweet revenge for her twin losses at Sindhu’s hands in their two earlier meetings at the 2016 year-ending Dubai Superseries grand finals and the final of the India Open, a fortnight back.

There was also no last-four berth available for the other quarter-final representatives from India, the mixed doubles combination of Sumeeth Reddy and Ashwini Ponnappa, as they found their third-seeded Chinese opponents, Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong, in an uncompromising mood, and bowed out after a comprehensive 11-21, 8-21 thrashing.

Incidentally, the men’s singles will witness an unseeded champion for the first time in its history. The event had been thrown wide open at the very start of the tournament by the last-minute withdrawal of the top two seeds, Jan O. Jorgensen of Denmark and Chen Long of China, and by the non-participation of the veteran marquee stars, Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia and Lin Dan of China.

There was, hence, substantial scope for the lesser lights to showcase their talent; and the path for several of them was cleared when every one of the remaining six seeds were beaten at, or before, the quarter-final stage. While No 3 seed, Viktor Axelsen, suffered a shock 21-15, 21-15 opening-round defeat to the Hong Kong bustler, Wong Wing Ki Vincent, the fourth-seeded Korean, Son Wan Ho, was shown the door by a 21-15, 21-18 scoreline by Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie.

Christie was, in turn, shocked by Korea’s unseeded Lee Dong Keun at 21-18, 21-16 in Friday’s quarter-finals, leaving the top half bereft of any fancied stars, and paving the way for a Dong Keun-Praneeth semi-final on Saturday.

From the lower half, Vincent Wong’s giant-killing run finally came to an end at the last-eight stage, when he was ousted at 21-19, 21-14 by the in-form Indonesian, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, thus setting up a Saturday semi-final between Ginting and Srikanth, both unseeded.

Srikanth’s early form in this tournament was not quite as impressive, and he struggled in the second round to oust another Indonesian, Ihsan Maulana Mustofa, having to actually save three match-points in the decider of their long-drawn struggle before coming through at 18-21, 21-19, 22-20.

That fighting triumph seemed to have cleared out the cobwebs in the Indian’s brain, and he came out razor-sharp in his quarter-final encounter against Shi Yuqi, whose biggest win to date in his short career has been against his compatriot Lin Dan in the 2017 All England semi-final. So positive and aggressive was Srikanth, from the onset of the match, that Yuqi was left scrambling and defending desperately to merely stay in the rallies.

On hindsight, one could say that it was an excellent ploy from Srikanth to put everything he had into the first two games, and not wait until a rubber set, as he had done against Mustofa, since Yuqi is one of the fittest players on the world circuit at the moment. The Indian’s best weapon, the leaping overhead smash to the rival’s forehand sideline, brought him points galore, and he was also the master at the net, such a vital spot in the singles game.

As for Praneeth, he played exactly the opposite card, blunting Tanongsak’s fierce attack with resolute defence in the second game after the left-handed Thai ran away with the opener. Tanongsak appeared well in control of the decider as he kept his nose ahead by three to four points, at 8-4, 11-8 and 16-13, all the way to the closing stages of the game.

But when it came to the crunch, Praneeth was found more than equal to the task of staying in the rally and remaining accurate. As the Thai southpaw visibly tired, Praneeth also brought a few attacking shots into play, making up leeway from a 15-17 deficit to 19-17, and bring his antagonist literally to his knees. Tanongsak did not give in easily, and fought till 19-20 before Praneeth could seal his entry into the semi-final.

Sindhu outplayed

Much had been expected of the needle clash between the fourth seeded Marin and fifth-seeded Sindhu, particularly in light of the defeats that the Spaniard had suffered at the Indian’s hands in their two most recent encounters. But it must be said that Sindhu would have got up from the wrong side of the bed on Friday, and could not match her speedy, aggressive rival in any department of the game.

Screaming after every ace, as is her wont, Marin totally dominated the exchanges from the words “Love-all; play!” Sindhu’s biggest mistake on the day was the length of her clears, which barely went past midcourt, and gave the left-handed Spaniard every opportunity of bringing her deceptive half-smash into play. When Sindhu’s error was pointed out to her by the country’s new singles coach Mulyo Handoyo, she tended to over-compensate, and pushed the shuttle out repeatedly at the opposite baseline.

Marin was also the master at the net, often turning the shuttle crosscourt in true Tai Tzu Ying fashion, to keep the Indian guessing. Sindhu was just not permitted to play the rallies on equal terms, or bring her overhead crosscourt smashes into play.

Really, there is nothing for Sindhu to take home from this defeat that could provide a learning indicator for the future – because she simply never got going. It were best she put it down to an exceptionally bad day at the office, and consigned the video recording of this match to the back of the cupboard, only to be pulled out and viewed, to bring her back to Earth, after playing a match in which she has turned the tables on the Spanish southpaw. As she definitely will, in the future.

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2017 13:26:36 IST

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