Saina’s reign continues

Saina Nehwal... a remarkable feat.-PICS: RAJEEV BHATT

Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap did not let the fans down, winning the women’s and men’s singles respectively. While Saina won her fourth title, making her one of the most successful winners of the tournament since it went international in 2008, Kashyap regained the title he had lost last year. By Uthra Ganesan.

Before it started, if someone had said three of the five events at the recent Syed Modi International India Masters badminton tournament would have Indians contesting for the title, it would have been considered an achievement.

That it was actually being seen as a disappointment, despite one of the title clashes being an all-Indian affair, only highlights the kind of expectations Indian shuttlers have raised in the international arena. Despite the absence of Chinese players in the competition, there was no lack of excitement or intensity at the $1,20,000 Grand Prix Gold event in Lucknow, one of India’s only two ranking events in the sport and just one step below the top-drawer Super Series events.

And Saina Nehwal and Parupalli Kashyap did not let the fans down, winning the women’s and men’s singles respectively. While Saina won her fourth title, making her one of the most successful winners of the tournament since it went international in 2008, Kashyap regained the title he had lost last year.

The draw had some big names including the reigning world number one pair of Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen, World Champion Carolina Marin among the women and Viktor Axelsen, the Danish World Championship bronze medallist. Nevertheless, it was a largely Indian competition even though it had the big names.

The routine “I love paying here” statements kept coming from the likes of Saina and P. V. Sindhu. The quality of matches was impressive, even if the results often tended to be predictable. Most senior Indian pros, coming straight from the Malaysia Masters only a couple of days before, took time to find their rhythm.

Parupalli Kashyap (left) who defeated K. Srikanth in the men's final.-

Carolina’s 79-minute final against Saina, the longest match of the tournament, was the only tough outing for the Indian World No. 3. On the men’s side, Kashyap had an easier ride in the initial stages before running into second seed Dane Axelsen in the semi-finals. The World No. 10 was up a game and 20-all in the second before Kashyap, riding on the back of a vociferous, packed crowd of 5000, fought back to storm into the final.

He predictably started as the underdog in the title clash against China Open winner Srikanth but despite suffering an abdominal strain mid-way through the match, relied on his greater experience to regain the title he lost last year. Srikanth, on the other hand, admitted he was clueless on what was wrong. He was pushed to the decider in three matches, was match point down against Malaysia’s Tan Kian Meng in the second round and fought back from the brink more than once.

“I had wanted to start the year on a positive note and after the Hong Kong Open in November last year, I had targeted the Malaysia Masters and this tournament to win. I faltered in Malaysia but am happy I could win at least one of the tournaments. I am simply happy to play here, I feel lucky and got good support from the crowd here. The courts also suit me and allow me to rally and attack,” Kashyap said after the final.

The Gen Next

At the same time, the next generation of Indian players proved they were no pushovers. Tanvi Lad displayed the improvement in her game since moving to Pullela Gopi Chand’s academy two years back by stretching Carolina all the way to a decider. But the surprise package of the tournament was undoubtedly local boy Many Attri.

The 22-year old, partnering K. Maneesha in the mixed doubles, registered a slew of upsets before finally running out of steam in the final against the top-seeded Indonesians Riky Widianto/Puspita Richi Dili. Through the week the unseeded pair, ranked 540 in the world, walked over second seeds Danny Bawa Chrisnanta/Vanessa Neo of Singapore, beat No.7 seeds Tan Aik Quan/Lee Meng Yean of Malaysia and overcame No.3 seeds Evgenij Dremin/Evgenia Dimova of Russia (24-22 21-19) in the semi-finals, making the audience sit up and take notice of an event that hardly find mentions in the media. He also made it to the semi-finals of the men’s doubles.

Drawbacks, embarrassment

But the shortcomings were glaring. Barring the above-mentioned names, the foreign presence was second-string even though the organisers vehemently denied it. The tournament was unable to draw the best talent despite being a ranking event and coming just before the beginning of a crucial, qualifying season for the 2016 Olympics. Besides the Chinese, there was no representation from Japan either while the big names from Thailand, Malaysia and Denmark too gave the tournament a miss.

The venue for the event, the Babu Banarasi Das UP Badminton Academy, caused further embarrassment. Twice through the competition, play had to be stopped after water began seeping through the ceiling on the courts and matches were shifted to other courts. On the very first day of the main draw, one of the corner courts was damaged, the wooden flooring underneath the Hova courts coming apart even as Ajay Jayaram and Iskandar Zulkarnain Zainuddin were warming up for their second round match.

“These are minor issues and anyway, the corner court was not to be used after Day One of the main draw,” insisted a senior UPBA official. But for a competition that is nursing hopes of being upgraded to a Super Series event, once the India Open’s (Delhi) tenure gets over in 2016, such incidents do not augur well (only one city per country can host a Super Series event).