Taufik Hidayat proves his class

All those who saw Taufik Hidayat in action may not easily forget his dazzling cross-court smashes, delectable drops and magnificent backhand flicks. The precision with which the Indonesian executed them not only stunned his opponents but also the crowds.-G. KRISHNASWAMY

With his title triumph, the 29-year-old Indonesian served a reminder to all that he is still a force in the highly competitive men’s circuit. V. V. Subrahmanyam reports.

A huge roar greeted the temperamental genius Taufik Hidayat before the start of the men’s singles final. The world No. 7 from Indonesia proved his class by defeating the 10th seed and former All England champion Muhammed Hafiz Hashim 21-18, 21-19 to clinch the title in the $1,20,000 India Open Gold Grand Prix badminton championship in Hyderabad (March 24 to 29).

In the semifinals, Hidayat scored a splendid victory against compatriot Tommy Sugiarto (21-13, 21-11), bringing back memories of his vintage days when he had won the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics and the World Championships. And with his victory in the India Open, the 29-year-old showman served a reminder to all that he is still a force in the highly competitive men’s circuit.

Hidayat, who was in Hyderabad at the “request” of his sponsors, was the crowd favourite after the second round exit of India’s world No. 12 Chetan Anand in the men’s singles. With world No. 1 Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia beaten in the first round by unseeded Chen Long of China (who went on to reach the semifinal), Hidayat emerged a clear favourite. And like a true champion, this genius moved into top gear as the event progressed.

All those who saw the Indonesian in action may not easily forget his stunning cross-court smashes, delectable drops and magnificent backhand flicks. The precision with which Hidayat executed them not only stunned his opponents but also the crowd.

India’s National coach Pullela Gopi Chand, who has a 1-1 head-to-head record against Hidayat, says: “if the average fan is delighted with the Indonesian’s game today, one can well imagine his awesome class when he was much younger.”

Class is permanent and form is temporary, they say. This Hidayat proved in no uncertain terms in the title clash against Hashim. If the tall Malaysian thought he would be better off playing at the net, then Hidayat surprised him with his amazing reflexes and accuracy with the dribbles. Even on those few occasions when Hashim surged ahead, Hidayat came up with those stinging forehand smashes — which found the gaps in the corners — to win the final in 30 minutes.

After the final, Hashim asked his opponent innocently: “How did you manage to play so well despite the drift which was really a major hindrance?”

To this Hidayat replied that once he realised the ‘drift’ factor, he chose to go for the low shuttles and played to his strength. Gopi Chand calls this the “parallel game”.

“I was scared of tossing the shuttle up in these conditions. But eventually I am happy to have won my first title this year (the first after the 2008 Macau Open),” exclaimed Hidayat. He also acknowledged the crowd support and was surprised that he was so popular in India. “I will be back here for the World Championship and hope they will be there to back me,” he said.

It was a tragedy of sorts that Chen Long, the former world junior champion who shocked Lee in the first round even as the table officials were settling down, went down fighting to the experienced Hashim in the semifinal. It was a case of experience prevailing over youth as Chen’s dream run in the tournament ended in the round of four.

In the women’s section, world No. 4 and top seed Pi Hongyan served a reminder that she still has the appetite for winning titles by claiming her first major crown after the 2006 Singapore Open triumph. At 30, this French player’s attitude and fighting spirit are amazing.

True grit… At 30, France’s Pi Hongyan showed she still had the appetite for winning titles.-G. KRISHNASWAMY

In the final, fifth-seeded Julia Pei Xian Wong, who knocked out local favourite Saina Nehwal in the quarterfinals, struggled against an opponent who had the ability to tire out her adversaries. Hongyan played the waiting game to perfection, letting her 21-year-old Malaysian rival commit a number of unforced errors.

“I made too many mistakes and was literally made to run around. She was just too good in the final,” acknowledged Julia.

Later, Hongyan said that she had a problem with the shuttle and when she asked for it to be changed Julia refused. “Left with no option, I had to find a solution. So I had to have a better control of the shuttle despite the drift which was on the higher side,” she added.

As for India’s performance in the tournament, it was thoroughly disappointing. Much was expected of India’s two best players, Chetan Anand and Saina Nehwal, but they came a cropper. Chetan Anand, seeded No. 2, crashed to defeat (9-21, 24-22, 8-21) in the second round against Zhou Wenlong of China, while world No. 9 Saina Nehwal let her focus ‘drift’ against Julia Pei Xian Wong, who notched up a remarkable 12-21, 21-13, 21-18 win.

Ironically, both Chetan and Saina seemed to be unduly concerned with the ‘drift’ factor. Gopi admitted that Saina was more worried about this factor, but if only she had played her normal game, the result could have been different.

It was obvious that Saina was hasty, trying to do too many things in a hurry. She did not get her half-smashes in, even as Wong made her run around. “I made too many unforced errors. I did not match her in the decider,” Saina admitted later.

India’s National champion Arvind Bhat, seeded No. 9, failed to come to grips with Hidayat who recorded a 21-14, 21-11 win in the second round. “I just could not keep up with his game right through. His strokes were sharp and precise. He kept the shuttle very low, giving me little freedom,” said Bhat.

Anup Sridhar, seeded No. 13, made a mess of a clear winning chance against Tan Chun Sean of Malaysia at 19-18 after winning the first game 21-9. A lucky ‘net’ point and two powerful smashes by Tan saw him emerge a 9-21, 21-19, 21-18 winner.

The surprise package was the mixed doubles pair of V. Diju and Jwala Gutta who nearly made history as the first such combination from India to win the Gold Grand Prix. They lost in the final to the Indonesian combine of Limpele Flandy and Vita Marissa, who had won the World Championship bronze medal.

The Indians were vastly inferior in most aspects of the game. They were clueless in the first game and when they found their rhythm to take a 17-13 lead in the second, things went awry and the Indonesian pair came back to win the game and the match.

Jwala and Diju admitted that they became complacent after taking the lead, thinking the game would be theirs. “But we must confess, the Indonesians outplayed us with their wonderful serve and amazing play at the net,” they said.

A good news for the India Open is that, following the successful conduct of the event the Badminton World Federation has upgraded the tournament to Super Series category from 2011 onwards. And this wasn’t surprising considering the fact that the former All England champion Gopi Chand was the tournament director.

THE RESULTS Men’s singles final

Taufik Hidayat (Indonesia) bt Muhammed Hafiz Hashim (Malaysia) 21-18, 21-19.

Men’s doubles final

Choong Tan Fook & Lee Wan Wah (Malaysia) bt Hendri Kurniawan Saputra & Hendra Wijaya (Singapore) 21-9, 21-11.

Women’s singles final

Pi Hongyan (France) bt Julia Pei Xian Wong (Malaysia) 17-21, 21-15, 21-14.

Women’s Doubles

Ma Jin & Wang Xiaoli (China) bt Vita Marissa & Nadya Melati (Indonesia) 21-14, 21-13.

Mixed doubles final

Limpele Flandy & Vita Marissa (Indonesia) bt V. Diju & Jwala Gutta (India) 21-14, 21-17.

The success in mixed doubles seems to have spurred Jwala Gutta to spurn her tried and trusted women’s doubles partner, Sruthi Kurien, with whom she has won a record eight National doubles titles. Only in February, after winning their eighth National doubles title, Jwala had said that the two were keen on winning an Olympic medal!

Jwala and Sruthi have decided to part ways without actually stating the reason for doing so. “We have a very strong personal reason, which I don’t want to discuss with the media,” said Sruthi in an informal chat with Sportstar after a quiet 26th birthday. Incidentally, that was the day when Sruthi and Jwala lost the doubles semifinal at the India Open.

At logger heads... Sruthi Kurien (left) and Jwala Gutta, India’s top women’s doubles pair, have decided to part ways.-AP

Jwala asks, “What is the harm in focussing on mixed doubles?”

No doubt, it is a player’s prerogative to pick a partner. But what the badminton lovers did not want to see was Jwala and Sruthi, ranked world No. 27, not even on talking terms on the court. The two were in different corners even for the warm-up sessions. Their body language said it all: they played as if they had been forced to do so or were under pressure to play together since they had already entered the India Open. The fact that Jwala and Sruthi still made it to the semifinal was perhaps an indication of how good they can be if only they sustain that chemistry which made them so formidable on the National circuit.

It is an open secret that all has not been well between Jwala and Sruthi, both aged 26, for quite some time. The fact that even Dronacharya S. M. Arif, who is the binding force between Jwala and Sruthi and who has been training the two for the last 15 years, could not broker a truce between the players this time was a reflection of how far things have drifted.

According to Arif, he tried his best to see that they combine again. “But things have gone beyond repair. And they are not anymore young and are in a position to take independent decisions,” he said.

Arif is aware that the split could mean a huge loss to both of them, especially Sruthi as it will take time for her to gel with her new partner Aparna Balan. Jwala, on the other hand, prefers to focus on mixed doubles competition with V. Diju. Jwala and Diju won the mixed doubles title at the India Open. Earlier, they had also won the mixed doubles titles at the Bitburger Open and the Bulgarian Open.

Meanwhile, the Badminton Association of India (BAI) chief V. K. Verma said that the association has convinced Jwala and Sruthi to continue playing together at the forthcoming ABC championship and the Sudirman Cup as BAI is not keen on fielding a scratch combination for these two major events.

V. V. Subrahmanyam