When you constantly live on the edge and expect good fortune to carry you past the finishing post every time, there will inevitably come a time when Dame Luck shrugs off your hand and watches remorselessly as you fall off the cliff.
Kidambi Srikanth celebrated in the worst possible fashion his elevation on Thursday to the World No 2 ranking, squandering two match points in the decider of his second round clash with China’s Huang Yuxiang to bow out of the All England Badminton Championships with a 21-11, 15-21, 22-20 defeat at the Birmingham Arena. The third-seeded Indian had been fortunate to have saved a match point the previous day and squeak past Frenchman Brice Leverdez by an identical third-game score in his opening joust in the $1 million prize money tournament.
Coincidentally enough, another Indian entry was to lose an extremely competitive, high-quality match over the extra points in the third game. Like Srikanth, the men’s doubles pairing of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty held a match point at 21-20 against the redoubtable Danish duo of Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen, only to surrender to the No 2 seeds at 21-23 in a battle royal lasting three minutes over the hour mark.
With the mixed doubles combination of Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy suffering an ignominious 6-21, 10-21 pummeling in a mere 24 minutes at the hands of the No 2 seeds from China, Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping, it was left to PV Sindhu and HS Prannoy to keep the Indian pennant flying at this 108th edition of the world’s most prestigious badminton tournament.
Prannoy, now clearly recovered from the painful corns on his foot that had ruined his World Tour preparations in the first two months of the year, was as smooth as a Rolls Royce while settling the pretensions of Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto, a bronze medalist at the 2014 World Championships in Copenhagen, by a 21-10, 21-19 scoreline in a matter of 38 minutes.
Fourth-seeded Sindhu, however, continued to live dangerously, being dragged over the full distance by Thailand’s World No 12, Nitchaon Jindapol; and having to stage a remarkable recovery from a 12-16 position in the deciding game of their 66-minute duel, to outpoint the 26-year-old Thai by a 21-13, 13-21, 21-18 verdict.
Before Sindhu crosses swords on Friday with Nozomi Okuhara, the pint-sized Japanese girl who pipped her in the final of the last World Championships in Glasgow, she would do well to reflect on the manner of her two hard-earned triumphs in this year’s All England. She struggled throughout the first two games of her lung-opener against another Thai, Pornpawee Chochuwong, before stepping on the accelerator in the decider to win at 20-22, 21-17, 21-9.
The gangling Hyderabadi, who climbed one spot this week to the World No 3 position in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, was brilliant in the opening game against the speedy Jindapol, who also rose one position to 11th on Thursday. She was fast and aggressive, using her height and reach to catch the shuttle a split-second earlier and assume control of the rally. She never let a 9-3 lead slip, powering further to 17-8, before wrapping up the game with a degree of comfort.
In the second stanza, however, she was stymied by the drift in the vast arena, and repeatedly hit the bird out at Jindapol’s baseline, to fall behind 3-12. It was too big a lead to make up; and Sindhu, worried that the shuttle would drift out at the rival baseline, compounded her own problems by trying flat clears from the net. These were well intercepted by her alert rival, who is one of the most improved players on the world circuit in the past 12 months.
Sindhu held a handy 8-4 lead in the decider, only to have the Thai produce some terrific returns of the Indian’s best smashes, a couple by diving full length on the court, and yet being up in a trice for the next shot. As Jindapol neutralised the advantage at 9-all, Sindhu’s shoulders slumped and her body language deteriorated markedly. From 9-11, the Thai bagged seven of the next eight points to take a stranglehold on the match at 16-12.
Just when it seemed all over for the No 4 seed, Sindhu discovered that a simple, straight smash to Jindapol’s backhand sideline was more effective than any intricate manoeuvring in the rallies. The Indian employed this weapon with elan, to produce a five-point reel, and get back into the thick of the action. In the end, Sindhu’s superior aggression proved just a mite too much for the Thai’s defence to handle.
The Indian will, however, have to pull up her socks in Friday’s quarter-final against world champion Okuhara, who strolled through her second round match on Thursday against Indonesia’s Fitriani Fitriani with a 21-13, 21-15 verdict in just five minutes over the half-hour mark.
The diminutive Okuhara, currently ranked sixth in the world, is speedier and fitter than Jindapol, and holds a 5-4 lead in career meetings against Sindhu, including a thumping 21-18, 21-8 triumph in their most recent encounter at the Japan Open in September last year. Admittedly, the 23-year-old Japanese ace is returning from a spell on the sidelines through injury; and so, may not be as match-fit as she would have liked to be. Sindhu needs to go all out to win this clash in straight games, for, in a match that goes the full distance, Okuhara has the edge in stamina.
Like Sindhu, Srikanth lived dangerously against his fellow 25-year-old, China’s Huang, who occupies the 42nd berth in the BWF rankings, and only just squeaked into the 32-player men’s singles draw.
The Chinese player possesses quicksilver reflexes, is quick on his feet, and took full advantage of Srikanth’s nervous start and spate of unforced errors, to lead from start to finish in the opening game, for an easy 21-11 verdict. Buoyed by the advantage of playing against the notorious drift in the second game, Srikanth returned the compliment in style, powering to a huge 14-5 lead before closing it out at 21-15.
There was nothing to choose between the two antagonists in the decider, as they stayed on each other’s heels right through the first half of the game, before Huang took a 16-13 lead. Srikanth, drawing heavily on his physical and mental reserves, struck a purple patch at this stage with a five-point reel, to move to 18-16, and then held match point at 20-18.
One can only say that the Chinese player was the hungrier of the two, as he played the final four points fearlessly to cause the biggest upset of the tournament, and progress to a quarter-final meeting with Prannoy. Had Srikanth managed to convert his 20-18 advantage into victory over a player he had beaten twice earlier without reply, he would have gone on to meet Prannoy in what would have been a repeat of the 2017 Indian National final, which the latter won.
Instead, it will be up to Prannoy to reverse the 1-2 equation he holds with Huang in head-to-head meetings. The two had met thrice during the 2016 season, and Prannoy won their middle meeting at the China Masters in April. The 25-year-old Indian was desperately unlucky to lose at 21-23 in the deciding game of a humdinger at the Indonesian Masters in September that year.
Prannoy has improved by leaps and bounds over the past one year, when he has been able to barge into the top-10, although a period on the sidelines through that foot injury has seen him drop down to the 16th spot in the rankings. The Indian will take plenty of confidence into Friday’s quarter-final, after scoring impressive victories over Chinese Taipei’s World No 8, Chou Tien Chen, and Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto in his two matches at this year’s All England.
Thursday’s match schedule kicks off at 10 am (3.30 pm IST). Star Sports 2 will telecast live coverage from 3.30 pm until the end of the day’s play.