World Badminton Championships 2017: ‘Regulars’ Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu face 'surprise' opponents in semis
Along with Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu, the other two semi-finalists are Japan’s pint-sized Nozomi Okuhara, and China’s 19-year-old reigning junior world champion, Chen Yufei.
The men's semi-finals of the 2017 World Badminotn Championships feature two of the ‘Big Three’, plus the first and three seeds. However, not a single one amongst the top three seeds made the women's semi-finals, but two ‘regular’ Indians did. The last-four stages of the two stellar events have panned out in contrasting fashion at Glasgow’s spacious Emirates Arena.
China’s two-time reigning champion Chen Long and five-time former champion Lin Dan have come through their preliminary examinations with flying colours, albeit again in contrasting style. The 28-year-old player defending his title has literally strolled through his four rounds, while the 33-year-old veteran left-hander has often been stretched to the limit, and has had to call upon all his wiles, steely temperament and obdurate will to make the medal round for the seventh time in his illustrious career.
The other two in the penultimate reckoning are the top-seeded Son Wan Ho of South Korea, hitting the semi-finals for the first time in his career, and the rangy No 3 seed from Denmark, Viktor Axelsen, world junior champion in 2010 and world championship bronze medalist in 2014. The draw pits Son against Lin in the first semi-final, while Chen takes on Axelsen in the other last-four tussle.
As for the women, the World Championship sees the entry of two Indians into the semi-finals of a World Championship singles event for the first time since the event was instituted in 1977. PV Sindhu, who had pocketed bronze at the 2013 and 2014 editions, and compatriot Saina Nehwal, who went one better in 2015, and took the silver behind Carolina Marin, made the penultimate round, while higher ranked players fell by the wayside.
Two of the top three seeds who exited the 2017 tournament at or before the quarter-final stage had stood on the rostrum of the Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) signature event, the exception being 19-year-old top-seeded Japanese, Akane Yamaguchi. Spanish No 3 seed Marin was the defending champion this time, after winning it in consecutive years in 2014 and 2015, while Korea’s second-seeded Sung Ji Hyun had captured a bronze in the 2015 edition in Jakarta.
The other two semi-finalists are Japan’s pint-sized Nozomi Okuhara, winner of the 2015 Dubai Super Series grand finals and the 2016 All England champion, and China’s 19-year-old reigning junior world champion, Chen Yufei. Okuhara sensationally accounted for defending champion Marin on Friday, while the ninth-seeded Yufei knocked out two seeded stars — top-seeded Yamaguchi and No 8 seed, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand — on her way to the semi-finals.
There is now every chance of this World Championship producing an all-Indian final. It has come to Sindhu’s lot to take on Yufei, who without doubt appears to be the future of Chinese badminton, while Saina clashes with the tiny titan Okuhara, who actually measures 5’1 (1.52 metres) in her socks.
However, make no mistake, both these opponents are infinitely dangerous, not least because they have nothing to lose. Neither Okuhara, seeded seventh at Glasgow, nor Yufei, ranked ninth, was expected to make the last four, if seedings had panned out as per expectations. Nor, for that matter, was Saina, since her recent form and performances had dropped her down to the 12th seeding.
In fact, all the pressure will be on No 4 seed, Sindhu, since she is the highest of the seeds still alive in the draw, and has already won two medals in this event earlier. The 22-year-old Hyderabadi goes into Saturday’s encounter with some trepidation, aware of the fact that she holds only a 1-1 career head-to-head record against the spiky-haired Chinese teenager.
Both their previous matches have gone the full distance, but Yufei has come from behind on both occasions, after losing the first game. Sindhu, who is the ideal front-runner, but whose closing-out skills have always been suspect, will need to be on her full mettle in the second game against Yufei, who has already been identified as one of the world’s best badminton talents for her speed, shuttle control, iron temperament and ability to outlast an opponent in a ding-dong battle.
Like Yufei, Okuhara is a super-fit dynamo of a player with almost unlimited stamina, on which she relies as heavily as on her nagging length of stroke. The ever-smiling Japanese youngster lacks smashing power and does not possess any killer strokes, save the sharp overhead crosscourt drop to a right-handed rival’s backhand net corner. Being diminutive, she is able to really bend her back to take most shots overhead, rather than with the backhand.
At her best, in the first quarter of 2016, Okuhara hit the third rung on the BWF ladder, so she is not too far behind Saina, who was World No 1 for several weeks in 2015 (in April-May and August to October). The heartening bit of information in the 27-year-old Indian’s favour is that she carries a 6-1 winning head-to-head record against the 22-year-old Japanese, her sole loss coming in the 2015 Dubai Super Series grand finals, when Okuhara was in raging hot form.
On balance, therefore, it would be safe to predict an easier outing for Saina than for Sindhu. The manner in which Saina is currently moving on the court, it is apparent that she has overcome that nagging fear at the back of the mind that she could have a problem with her troublesome right knee. Her fighting spirit was apparent in her clash with second-seeded Sung, while her fitness and foot speed were very much in evidence in her long-drawn battle on Friday with Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour.
If one takes a sharp look at the two men’s singles semi-finals, it becomes apparent that Chen has an overwhelming advantage over Axelsen, having beaten the gangling 6’4 Dane on nine of the 10 occasions that they have crossed swords in the past. Axelsen’s only triumph has been at the year-ending Dubai Super Series grand finals in 2015, but Chen has won on the two subsequent occasions they have met.
Although the Chinese reigning world champion has had a distinctly patchy 2017 by his own lofty standards, he is moving smoothly and beautifully on the court, and has been in total control of every one of his previous four matches. Axelsen would have to produce that something extra which he did in the 2014 edition of the Worlds, in his home town of Copenhagen, a performance that secured him the bronze medal.
And so, on to the most fascinating of the four singles semi-finals — five-times former world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Lin against the upstart from Korea, who is sitting atop the BWF ladder, Son. The Fujian native, already being considered in the same breath as Roger Federer as the best ever players in their respective sports, is in the eventide of what has been a phenomenal career.
Lin goes into the match, looking for his sixth world crown in what could be seven forays to the final (he was runner-up to Taufik Hidayat at Anaheim in 2005, on the only occasion that he missed the gold) carries a massive 12-2 career head-to-head lead over the 29-year-old Korean, four years his junior. It must, however, be mentioned that the two have scored wins alternately on the last four occasions they have jousted over the past two years.
The Chinese legend is essentially an aggressive player, while the Korean is heavily reliant on his defence to wear down his opponent. That one fact, assuming all other parameters to be equal, gives the old-timer a distinct edge over Son; and it will take a stout-hearted punter to bet against the veteran progressing to his almost pre-ordained spot in the final against, most likely, his fellow countryman and successor to his throne, Chen.
The soft-spoken Indian ace was not known for her aggression till five years back and it was chief national coach Pullela Gopichand, who had transformed her into an aggressive player ahead of the Rio Games.
The world number seven Indian will next play Hong Kong's world number 34 Cheung Ngan Yi in the group stage.
Firstpost.com takes a quick look at badminton star PV Sindhu's performances over the past two years, and charts her journey towards securing Olympic qualification.