Sameer Verma’s successful defence of his Syed Modi International men’s singles title was the sole saving grace on the final day of the World Tour Super 300 badminton championships, as the other three Indian title aspirants failed to deliver the goods, producing some indifferent performances at Lucknow’s Babu Banarasi Das Stadium on Sunday.
The third-seeded Verma’s superior fitness and greater international experience came to his aid at just the right moment as he staged a sterling rearguard action to settle the pretensions of China’s No 6 seed, Lu Guangzu, with a 16-21, 21-19, 21-14 triumph in a 70-minute battle that swung this way and that in bewildering fashion. In the process, he strengthened his chances of qualifying for the season-ending World Tour finals in Guangzhou in mid-December.
However, the other Indian singles exponent in the final, who had won the tournament on three earlier occasions, and was a raging hot favourite to bag her fourth Syed Modi crown, went down tamely to a sprightly Chinese teenager who had shown her prowess by being runner-up by a narrow margin at last year’s World Junior Championships.
Saina Nehwal, who had been seeded second in the $150,000 prize money tournament, looked a pale shadow of her normal self as she surrendered to the Chinese No 4 seed, Han Yue, by a 18-21, 8-21 scoreline in a mere 34 minutes of tepid action, in what was the two players’ first-ever meeting.
The 28-year-old Indian shuttle queen appeared well in control when she led 17-12 and 18-15 in the opening stanza, but that was the limit of her resistance as she dropped six straight points to lose the first game. After a brief patch of resistance to 6-7 in the second stanza, Saina was a virtual passenger for the rest of the game as the effervescent Chinese 19-year-old danced around the court, appearing a full step faster than her jaded-looking rival.
As so often happens in international tournaments, a day of rousing, hard-fought semi-finals is often followed by a finals day of insipid fare. After the string of edge-of-the-seat thrillers witnessed on Saturday, it was hard to find a match among the five finals that rose to the heights and had the spectators howling themselves hoarse. Not even the long-drawn men’s singles final produced badminton of any real quality.
It was the misfortune of the fourth-seeded women’s doubles combination of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy to have a totally off day, as they went down at 15-21, 13-21 to the none-too-formidable Malaysians Chow Mei Kuan and Lee Meng Yean, seeded one spot above them. Like Saina, it was hard to recognise Ponnappa and Reddy as the pair that had bundled off the fifth-seeded Russians, Ekaterina Bolotova and Alina Davletova, in straight games in the semi-finals on the previous day.
Even the men’s doubles twosome of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty appeared unusually subdued against the powerful Indonesian pair of Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto. The youthful Indians went down far too quietly in the first game, before pulling up their socks and giving the second seeds a much tougher time in the second stanza, for a 11-21, 20-22 result. The match lasted just 38 minutes, and the trophy appeared destined for Indonesia even if the tussle had gone to the decider.
In the mixed doubles, which was the only one of the five events in which there was no Indian representation, the unseeded Chinese combination of Ou Xuanyi and Feng Xueying knocked out yet another seeded pair, getting the better of the No 4 seeds, Rinov Rivaldy and Pitha Haningtyas Mentari of Indonesia at 22-20, 21-10, in a drab match that set the tone for the evening.
For the Chinese winners, it was a tournament to remember and cherish, as they got past four seeded pairs in as many rounds – the second-seeded Russian duo of Evgenij Dremin and Evgenia Dimova in the second round (at 16-21, 21-17, 21-19); the seventh-ranked Thai pair of Nipitphon Phuangphuapet and Savitree Amitrapai in the quarter-finals (at 21-16, 21-12); the sixth-ranked Indian combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Ashwini Ponnappa in the semi-finals (at 21-12, 18-21, 21-19); and the Indonesian twosome in the finals.
Thus, had it not been for Sameer Verma, it would have been a day of unmitigated disaster for India. The 24-year-old Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) native had lost without a whimper to the speedy 22-year-old Guangzu in the Australian Open in May this year, going down by a shocking 14-21, 6-21 margin in their only earlier meeting.
On Sunday, Verma, currently ranked 16th in the Badminton World Federation standings, put the memory of that pounding firmly behind him; but, after a sprightly 8-4 start, allowed his antagonist to catch up at 8-all, and never again held the lead in the first game. The 36th ranked Guangzu did let Verma restore parity at 11-all, but then turned on the aggression to leave the Indian gasping in his wake.
In the seesaw second game, Guangzu again fell behind initially, and trailed 8-13 before making a supreme effort and catching up at 14-all. The lead changed hands tantalisingly on three occasions, but the Chinese player was guilty of some sloppy play at 18-all, to lose the second game at 19-21, and miss the chance of wrapping up the contest via the short route.
The Indian looked to be in considerable trouble when he frittered away a 7-3 advantage in the decider to trail 7-10, but still managed to get into the mid-game interval with a slender, single-point lead. The two opponents stuck to each other until Verma used his superior experience to draw away from 13-12 to take the decider with a degree of comfort at 21-14.
With the 7,000 points that Verma gained for his Lucknow triumph, the Indian has taken his ‘Race to Guangzhou’ tally to 66,620 points, which would put him in the seventh spot, just ten points ahead of Indonesia’s Anthony Sinisuka Ginting (66,610), who did not participate in the Syed Modi International. In the ninth position is Kenta Nishimoto, with 66,300 points, also within striking distance of the Indian.
It might have all boiled down to the last two tournaments on the 2018 circuit, the $75,000 prize money Scottish Open in Glasgow and the $250,000 Korea Masters in Kwangju. However, with the Syed Modi International having been the final tournament before the cut-off date, for qualification considerations, Verma has managed to squeeze into the top eight, and relegated Nishimoto to the status of a reserve.
Verma should apply forthwith for his Chinese visa, for he will definitely play in Guangzhou against the other best and most consistent seven male players in the world.
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Updated Date: Nov 26, 2018 11:20:48 IST