Just six weeks into the New Year and Indian badminton produced plenty to talk about — both on and off the court.
The cash-rich Premier Badminton League spilled over from the previous year. Within days, Saina Nehwal made her way past P. V. Sindhu for the second successive occasion in their ‘grudge’ match, and reached the final of the Indonesia Masters. The following week, Sindhu tossed away a match-point in the final of the India Open against Beiwen Zhang of the USA and fell agonisingly short of defending the title.
Within hours of the final, the Indian contingent flew to Alor Setar, Malaysia, for the Badminton Asia Team Championship to claim a qualifying spot for the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup Finals. Saina’s decision to stay away did not go down well with the Badminton Association of India (BAI), but the governing body could do little.
On the brighter side, after all the uncertainty, India did enough to bag qualifying spots in both sections. Sindhu gave it all, won all her matches, including the one against World No. 2 Akane Yamaguchi. Though India lost in the quarterfinals to Indonesia, and could not be among the four qualifiers from the tournament, the technicalities worked in its favour.
Thomas Cup, Uber Cup spots
With India’s winning margins, in the matches leading to the last-eight stage making it a higher-ranked quarterfinalist, one of the spots came its way by default. Even in Thomas Cup, the world ranking of the Indian players (three Indians are currently among the top-17) came handy, and despite losing the quarterfinals, the team had reasons to believe it would travel to Bangkok for the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup Finals (May 20 to 27).
During the India Open in New Delhi, Saina made it clear that she would not be part of the team to Malaysia. The BAI secretary, Anup Narang, did write to the players following the late inclusion of all leading players — Sindhu, Saina, K. Srikanth, H. S. Prannoy, Ashwini Ponnappa and N. Sikki Reddy — before the January 15 deadline for the Asian qualifiers. All except Saina played, but the former World No. 1 had her reasons.
“I know people want me to play and want me to be there. But what is the point when people say, ‘Saina lost,’ and ‘Saina is out of form.’ Then, I have to face it, nobody else,” she said.
Saina, who had been talking about concentrating “only on fitness and not on tournaments,” reminded the BAI that she was not fully fit. She even pointed out, “I am not getting any younger” and “my body needs more time to recover.”
It is also pertinent to remember that players ranked in the world top-15 face a new challenge this year, following the Badminton World Federation’s directive, making it mandatory for them to play at least 12 tournaments in the revamped calendar, or face action.
Indeed, for some of the Asian countries, the year 2018 also has the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games as priority events. Therefore, not every top-ranked Indian player is keen to add another event to his or her schedule.
Saina argued she needed time to prepare for the All England Championship. On its part, the BAI requested the player to serve the interest of the country in the Asian qualifiers since it would end more than a month before the All England, scheduled from March 14.
Coming back to the India Open, the late withdrawal of World No. 1 and defending champion Viktor Axelsen left Srikanth as the favourite. However, the top-ranked Indian lost to a qualifier and for the second successive year, failed to make the quarterfinals. This was Srikanth’s first major outing of the year after being troubled by injury late last year.
Earlier, H. S. Prannoy and Ajay Jayaram exited owing to fitness issues, while B. Sai Praneeth, Sameer Verma and P. Kashyap lost listlessly in the quarterfinals.
For the record, fourth seed Shi Yuqi, the third highest ranked Chinese, won the title by overcoming Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen, seeded No. 3, in the final. This was Chen’s second successive runner-up finish in this annual event.
In the women’s section, the Indian interest was limited to Sindhu and Saina while all others exited in quick time. Saina could not build on her second-best finish in the Indonesia Masters and fell tamely to the eventual champion, Beiwen Zhang.
In fact, the 27-year-old of Chinese origin, who migrated to Singapore and then to the United States, went on to nail the sixth seed from Hong Kong, Cheung Ngan Yi — the conqueror of Olympic gold medallist Carolina Marin.
Falling at the final hurdle
Sindhu produced her best performance of the week against the former World champion, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand, in two controlled games in the semifinal. But she failed to produce the same aggression in the final.
After losing the first game owing to some very passive methods combined with some unexpected finishing strokes from Zhang, Sindhu got back with a vengeance.
Sindhu won the second game after Zhang committed a series of unforced errors in the second half. In the decider, Sindhu rallied well to reach match-point, but a feeble dribble saw the opportunity slip away.
Zhang won the next two points, unleashing a powerful cross-court return, and on match-point, Sindhu flicked away from the forecourt.
In the three doubles, only Pranav Chopra and N. Sikki Reddy impressed the home crowd on their way to grabbing an unexpected spot in the mixed doubles semifinals.
Over all, it was a disappointing performance from a vast majority of Indian players, proving that consistency is seriously an issue even with the best of home-grown champions.
Sindhu and Saina will have to be more consistent. Srikanth, who played his first event of the year after suffering an injury in November, is capable of getting his act together. H. S. Prannoy, troubled by corns on his foot, will also take time to recover ahead of the premier events. Kashyap is keen to make up for the lost time but clearly finds the going tough. Sameer Verma played well in parts but voiced his concern about getting injured while dealing with a punishing schedule.
Among the ladies, barring Sindhu and Saina, no singles player has the calibre to even cause a minor upset. No wonder then, even when India plays as part of the elite teams in the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup Finals, ladies singles and doubles will remain the areas of serious concern.
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