If one can name a single hero behind ninth-ranked India’s epochal 4-1 triumph over fifth-seeded Indonesia, in Tuesday’s matches of the Sudirman Cup mixed team badminton championship, it has to be 45-year-old former Malaysian national coach Tan Kim Her, who has been India’s national doubles coach for the past 17 months.
Appointed by the Badminton Association of India (BAI) in December 2015 to the task of picking up India’s doubles combinations by the collective scruff of their necks and thrusting them into the cozy club of the world’s elite twosomes, Kim Her has made considerable progress, as the results of the round-robin group matches, being played on Australia’s Gold Coast, reveal.
The Malaysian’s contribution to the court craft of half a dozen Indian doubles teams in all three departments of the paired game has firmly buttressed Pullela Gopichand’s sterling work with the country’s singles players of both sexes. While Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu are firmly ensconced amongst the world’s top 10 women, Ajay Jayaram (not trained by Gopichand), Kidambi Srikanth and B Sai Praneeth are all in or around the 11-20 ranking bracket, and capable of beating the best in the world on their day.
The progress achieved by Kim Her with the women’s doubles combination of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy has been sufficient to make Indian badminton fans sit up and rub their eyes in disbelief. Left-handed Sikki Reddy gelled brilliantly with the hard-hitting right-hander, Ashwini, to decimate the challenge of Della Destiara Haris and Rosyita Eka Putri Sari by a 21-12, 21-19 scoreline in Tuesday’s fifth and final encounter against Indonesia.
Admitted that the youthful Indonesians are not among the world’s top 10 pairs, and stretched the Indians to some extent only in the second game. But Ashwini-Sikki’s showing the previous day against the world’s second ranked combination of Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter-Juhl in the India-Denmark tie showed the extent of their mettle.
The Indians actually led match-point 21-20 in the third and deciding game against the redoubtable European champions before conceding a 21-23 verdict, in India’s 1-4 tie loss to Denmark. Last month, in the Singapore Open, they had stretched the reigning World No 1 pairing of Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi over the full distance before accepting defeat.
The recent retirement of Jwala Gutta, who was Ashwini’s partner for most of the 2008-2016 period, and when the two won the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medal, has worked to India’s benefit. Jwala had become relatively immobile of late, and was inadvertently preventing Ashwini from giving her best.
Freed of Jwala’s domineering presence on the court, Ashwini has truly flowered in partnership with the sprightly Sikki Reddy, and has realised her own full potential as a women’s doubles player. She has also garnered plenty of confidence in her newly-formed mixed doubles with the husky, talented 16-year-old Satwiksairaj Rankireddy.
Actually, if one looks back dispassionately at Monday’s India-Denmark clash in Group 1D of the Sudirman Cup — in which the Danes had taken a 3-0 lead before conceding the women’s singles match to the Indians, and then pipping the Indians in the concluding women’s doubles clash — it must be said that India had had a very real chance of slipping it across the Danes, seeded second in the tournament.
In the opening joust of the five-match tie, Satwiksairaj and Ashwini kept the crack Danish combination of Joachim Fischer-Nielsen and Christinna Pedersen on court for 70 long and agonising minutes before capitulating at 15-21, 21-16, 17-21. The hard-smashing Indians would not have been flattered if they had given India a 1-0 tie lead.
And then, when Sindhu would have been able to level the tie at 2-2 in the fourth match after the two in-between wash-outs, Ashwini-Sikki would have had a very real chance of upsetting the calculations of Pedersen and Rytter-Juhl. India could have notched an unprecedented 3-2 tie triumph over the Danes, who incidentally are the reigning Thomas Cup men’s team champions.
Still, bulldozing Indonesia by a 4-1 margin will have given the Indians a massive booster dose of confidence for the sterner battles that lie ahead. The stand-out performance in this runaway triumph came from Satwiksairaj and Ashwini, who lowered the colours of Tontowi Ahmad and Gloria Emanuelle Widjaja, a fresh combination that the Indonesians were forced to form in the absence of the injured Lilyana Natsir.
It must be remembered that the vastly experienced 30-year-old Ahmad is an Olympic and world mixed doubles champion, having bagged the gold medal with Natsir at the 2016 Rio Olympics, as well as at the 2013 World Championships. Ahmad missed Natsir’s finishing skills at the net, but was often left flummoxed by the power and angles that Satwiksairaj produced with his smashes.
The Indian squad has not disappointed in the singles event, winning three of the four singles points that were on offer in the two ties thus far. Kidambi Srikanth scored a magnificent 21-15, 21-16 victory over Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie, who was preferred to the more experienced Tommy Sugiarto. Ajay Jayaram had not appeared to try too hard the previous day, in a totally one-sided 12-21, 7-21 defeat at the hands of the gangling 6’4” Dane, Viktor Axelsen.
In the absence of Saina, Sindhu has led the Indian team with distinction by dint of personal performance. The rangy Hyderabadi 21-year-old scored a commanding straight-games victory over Dane Line Kjaersfeldt, at 21-18, 21-6, but suffered moments of anxiety after lapsing in concentration in the second stanza of her bout against Indonesia’s Fitriani Fitriani, for a 21-8, 21-19 verdict.
The only area where India failed to make much of an impression on both Monday and Tuesday was in the men’s doubles, in which the two combinations that were tried out fell in straight sets to quality opposition — by way of two of the world’s top five combinations.
Manu Attri and Sumeet B Reddy flattered to deceive against the left-right Danish combination of Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen, finishing both games lamely in a 17-21, 15-21 defeat. Satwiksairaj and Chirag Shetty were literally dazzled by the virtuosity of the World’s No 1 ranked Indonesian pairing of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo in the first game, but gave a better account of themselves in the second, to lose at 9-21, 17-21.
The Indians have a rest day on Wednesday, when Denmark take on Indonesia in the final round-robin tie in Group 1D. Should the Danes win, as is widely expected, by any margin (even a narrow 3-2 tie scoreline), they will go through to the knock-out stage in India’s company.
However, in the unlikely event of a Danish loss, the calculators will have to be produced to determine the top two teams in the pool. The Indians have reason to feel fairly comfortable, as they have a 4-4 record of matches won versus matches lost. Indonesia will have to beat Denmark by a 4-1 margin, in order to tie team scores at the top of the pool. Even a 3-2 triumph will not serve the Indonesian cause, such is their woebegone situation.
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Updated Date: May 24, 2017 09:33:06 IST