Thailand GPG 2017: B Sai Praneeth’s accuracy, fitness helped him enter semis as Saina Nehwal struggled

Indian hopes of garnering top honours at the Thailand Open Grand Prix Gold badminton championships remained strong on Friday, when third-seeded B Sai Praneeth and No 2 seed, Saina Nehwal, moved past their respective quarter-final hurdles in contrasting styles, to set up mouth-watering semi-final clashes at the business end of the $120,000 prize money tournament.

 Thailand GPG 2017: B Sai Praneeth’s accuracy, fitness helped him enter semis as Saina Nehwal struggled

File photo of Saina Nehwal. PTI

Even as Praneeth was not unduly stretched while recording a 51-minute 21-16, 21-17 victory over Thailand’s Kantaphon Wangcharoen, Saina was guilty of squandering a match-point in the second game against Japan’s Haruko Suzuki before asserting her superiority in no uncertain terms in the decider, for a 21-15, 20-22, 21-11 triumph in nine minutes over the hour, the longest encounter of the quarter-finals.

While Praneeth’s two best attributes, accuracy and fitness, kept him in the driver’s seat throughout his joust with Kantaphon (who, incidentally, had also been beaten last month by another Indian, the up-and-coming junior, Lakshya Sen), his hopes of taking on top seed and defending champion Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk of the host nation in Saturday’s semi-finals took an unexpected tumble in the late-evening action.

The left-handed Tanongsak’s fellow countryman, Pannawit Thongnuam, ended up shocking his more illustrious compatriot by a 21-17, 17-21, 21-8 margin in Thursday’s penultimate match of a more relaxed playing schedule than on the previous two days. Pannawit simply outlasted his 26-year-old senior, who has been marked down on the international circuit as a strokeful, talented player plagued by poor stamina and inability to last the distance in a lengthy encounter.

The 21-year-old Pannawit, who is ranked 71st in the world, is generally acknowledged as one of the fittest players in his country, if not amongst the most skilful. He remains one of the few players, in this era of super-specialisation, to participate in all three events open to him – singles, doubles and mixed; and this has helped him improve his lasting powers, to add to his speed on the court.

For Praneeth, who would have hoped to counter Tanongsak’s speed and aggression with length and control, and drag the Thai southpaw over the full distance when he could let his superior stamina weigh in the balance, there needs to be a swift readjustment of tactics. He cannot hope to outlast Pannawit; therefore, he must take the aggressive route against the Thai youngster, and beat him with superior strokes.

Tanongsak was one of the two top seeds in the men’s singles that failed to germinate, the other being second-seeded Marc Zwiebler. The German had been eliminated in the third round on Thursday by Malaysia’s 22 year old Joo-Ven-Soong, currently ranked 92nd on the BWF ladder.

The supremely-fit Soong, who had touched a career-high rank of 70 in early-December last year, claimed the scalp of Hong Kong’s Lee Cheuk Yiu by a 21-19, 21-11 scoreline in Friday’s quarter-final clash, to add to his equally impressive 22-20, 21-9 win over Zwiebler earlier.

For his efforts, the Kuala Lumpur native earned a semi-final meeting with the fourth-seeded Indonesian, Jonatan Christie, who settled the pretensions of the No 5 seed, Brice Leverdez of France, by a 21-15, 21-19 scoreline. Christie, who had beaten India’s Rohit Yadav in his lung-opener in the tournament, looks to be in good touch, has yet to drop a game after four outings, and is a firm favourite to reach the final.

Unlike in the men’s singles, there were hardly any surprises in the women’s event, when all the top four seeds made the semi-finals. The No 1 seed and 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon, who easily eliminated her Thailand Uber Cup teammate, Nitchaon Jindapol, at 21-13, 21-15 in the quarter-finals, will take on the China-born US player, Zhang Beiwen, for a spot in the final from the top half of the draw. Beiwen sidelined the host nation’s Pornpawee Chochuwong at 21-18, 21-18.

The lower half of the draw will see a clash between second-seeded Saina and local girl Busanan Ongbamrungphan, ranked No 4. The latter faced little opposition from compatriot Pattarasuda Chaiwan, and kept the court officials busy for a mere 38 minutes while recording a 21-16, 21-12 verdict over the girl who had ended the hopes of India’s Sai Uttejitha Rao Chukka in her previous outing.

Saina, however, had herself to blame for extending her stay on the court to 69 minutes. She bagged the opening game with a degree of comfort at 21-15, but was challenged every inch of the way in the second by the Japanese giant-killer, who had accounted for the No 8 seed, Fabienne Deprez of Germany, in her opening match.

There was never more than a point separating the two antagonists in the second stanza, until Suzuki, ranked a lowly 132nd in the world, managed a three-point burst to move from 14-15 to 17-15. Saina steadied, and neutralised the advantage, and elbowed her way to 20-19, match-point. But the experienced 27-year-old Indian could not close out the encounter. She unaccountably lost her concentration, and conceded three points in a reel, to lose the second game.

Fortunately, Saina came out all guns blazing in the decider, and took a 7-4 lead, which she maintained for an 11-8 advantage at the mid-game interval. There was no stopping the Indian thereafter; and, after she went to a 15-11 lead, she used all her rich experience to cut short the rallies. The Japanese girl simply caved in, and offered no further resistance, to lose the third game at 11-21.

Saina will not have matters all her own way in the semi-final against Busanan, ranked only two places below the Indian, at No 13. The doughty Bangkok native has troubled the best in the world with her workmanlike game that is unexceptional for style or strokeplay, but relies on keeping as many shuttles in play as possible. Unfortunately, that is just the kind of style that the Indian, at her current reduced level of physical fitness, would have maximum trouble dealing with.

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Updated Date: Jun 03, 2017 14:11:17 IST