Defending champion Sameer Verma and three-time former champion Saina Nehwal strode confidently towards the finals of the Syed Modi International World Tour Super 300 badminton championships, but will have to subdue some quality second-string Indonesian opposition in the penultimate round at the Babu Banarasi Das Stadium in Lucknow on Saturday.
Verma, seeded third this time, was the highest seed remaining in the men’s singles of the $1,50,000 prize money competition after the last-minute withdrawal of the top-seeded Kidambi Srikanth before the onset of the tournament, and the shocking eclipse of second-seeded HS Prannoy at the hands of the unheralded Chico Aura Dwi Wardoyo in the very first round.
It is the Indonesian Wardoyo, promoted from the qualifying ranks, whom Verma will have to eliminate if he is to make the summit clash for the second year in a row. While the 24-year-old Indian had his hands full in the course of the first two games against Chinese upstart Zhou Zeqi for a 21-18, 16-21, 21-11 victory on Friday, the Indonesian had a marginally easier quarter-final outing against compatriot qualifier Vicky Angga Saputra, for a 21-17, 21-19 verdict.
The 20-year-old Wardoyo, it must be remembered, is a former World Junior Championship runner-up, having been beaten by the fifth-seeded Chinese Sun Feixiang in the 2016 final in Bilbao, Spain, after sidelining the second and third seeds in the competition.
The Jayapura native, who sits on the 100th spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, has never encountered Verma before, but has scored over the Indian’s regular sparring-partner at the Pullela Gopichand Academy, B Sai Praneeth, at 13-21, 22-20,21-12 on the only occasion that they have clashed — in the 2018 Hyderabad Open.
While on the subject of Praneeth, it must be mentioned that the fourth-seeded Indian frittered away a golden opportunity of going all the way to the final from the vacant top half of the draw, when he lost Friday’s quarter-final to the sixth-seed from China, 22-year-old Lu Guangzu, at 10-21, 21-19, 14-21. It was the old familiar failing that has dogged Praneeth’s performance throughout 2018 — lack of the requisite physical fitness to play a long-drawn encounter.
Guangzu will cross swords on Saturday with Thailand’s eighth-seeded Sitthikom Thammasin, who came through a tight duel with Indian veteran Parupalli Kashyap, with a 21-16, 21-19 scoreline. Mumbai-based fans of the sport will recall that the 23-year-old Thammasin, who sits on the 46th spot in the BWF ladder, had subdued Lakshya Sen in the final of the Tata Open in December last year, though the 17-year-old Indian extracted sweet revenge at the Indonesia Masters in September this year.
Thus it was that, of the three Indians featuring at the last-eight stage of the men’s singles event, only one came through to the semi-finals — an identical happenstance in the women’s singles event, where two Indians out of three fell by the wayside.
Second-seeded Saina, who has won the Syed Modi International in 2009, 2014 and 2015, was stretched in the opening stanza by the strokeful Rituparna Das, who actually led 19-18, before the senior player cantered away to a 21-19, 21-14 triumph, and the right to meet Indonesia’s Ruselli Hartawan on the morrow. The 20-year-old from Jakarta ejected China’s fifth-seeded Zhang Yiman from the tournament on Friday with a 23-21, 11-21, 21-11 verdict.
Hartawan and Saina have never clashed before, but it appears unlikely that the 62nd ranked Indonesian will trouble the 28-year-old Indian ace, who is currently ranked ninth in the world. The Haryana-born Hyderabadi will, however, do well to remember that the Indonesian has tamed several other Indian players, including Saili Rane, Neha Pandit and Sri Krishna Priya Kudaravalli, in the recent past.
One of the second-string Indian girls who aspires to represent the country in the Uber Cup, Sai Uttejitha Rao Chukka, was seen at her best on Friday when she fully stretched China’s seventh-seeded Li Xuerui before capitulating at 9-21, 21-19, 12-21. After holding her own right through the second game, Chukka was undone in the decider by the vast experience and superior skills of the 2012 London Olympic gold medallist. From 5-4, the 27-year-old Chinese shuttler raced to 11-5 before further accelerating away to 18-9, and a comfortable triumph at the end.
Li, who returned to the circuit this season after two years in the wilderness, thanks to a dreadful knee injury she suffered at the 2016 Rio Olympics, will take on 19-year-old fellow-countrywoman Han Yue, who has fully justified her fourth seeding by strolling through three rounds without dropping a game, or even looking seriously troubled, for that matter.
It will be far from easy for the 41st ranked Li to march through for a widely expected summit clash with Saina. She will first have to subdue Han, who was runner-up by a wafer-thin margin to Indonesia’s Gregoria Mariska Tunjung at last year’s Junior World Championships in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Han had held match-point in the decider of their final before losing at 22-24.
The only advantage that Li holds over her compatriots is that she is looked up to as a legend by all the current Chinese youngsters and second-stringers; and Han is no exception. If the teenager can temporarily draw a curtain over her hero-worship of Li, she has the credentials to power through to the final.
This is one tournament where India has representation in the semi-finals of every one of the five events. Ashwini Ponnappa and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy have each barged into the last-four stage of both their doubles events, together as a mixed doubles combination, and with N Sikki Reddy and Chirag Shetty, respectively.
The pre-eminent Indian men’s doubles duo, seeded eighth in this tournament, found it far from easy to subdue China’s Ou Xuanyi and Ren Xiangyu, and were close to elimination in the second game, before coming through at 15-21, 21-19, 21-17. The Chinese youngsters had profited in their very first outing by the unfortunate retirement through injury of top-seeded Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen, with the Danes leading 6-1 in the first game.
Rankireddy and Shetty will clash in Saturday’s semi-final with the durable Danish veterans, Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen, who rose to their full stature while eliminating the redoubtable South Korean combination of Lee Yong Dae and Kim Gi Jung at 21-15, 21-19. Lee, who has returned to the circuit after retiring two years ago, has had some outstanding results with Kim, but the two failed to get going against the virtuosity of the great Danes.
Rankireddy and Ponnappa made up for the unceremonious exit of top-seeded compatriots Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Sikki Reddy in the very first round, by administering the knock-out punch to Indonesians Ronald Ronald and Annisa Saufika at 20-22, 21-17, 21-11, growing steadily stronger as the match progressed.
The sixth-seeded Indians will clash in the semi-final with China’s Ou Xuanyi and Feng Xueying, who had little trouble eliminating Thailand’s seventh-seeded Nipitphon Phuangphuapet and Savitree Amitrapai at 21-16, 21-12, on a day when the formidable Thais just did not get going.
Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy, seeded No 4, were given a major fright by Indonesians Tania Oktaviani Kusumah and Vania Arianti Sukoco, before scrambling through at 19-21, 21-8, 21-18. They will take on the fifth-seeded Russian duo of Ekaterina Bolotova and Alina Davletova, who had no difficulty in sidelining India’s Ningshi Block Hazarika and Kuhoo Garg at 21-6, 21-14.
There is thus a strong chance of Indian representation in all the five finals of the current edition of the tournament, named in the memory of one of India’s all-time great singles players. Artistic strokemaker Syed Modi won the national singles title eight times in a row from 1981 to 1988, before he was cut down in his prime by an assassin, and deprived of the chance of at least equalling, if not overtaking, the great Prakash Padukone’s record of nine national titles in a row between 1972 and 1980.