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China Open Badminton 2017 PV Sindhu aims to regain consistency HS Prannoy leads mens singles charge



India November 14(IM): It is amply clear that the physical and mental exhaustion of having played three tournaments in as many weeks—the Denmark Open Superseries Premier, the French Open Superseries in Europe, and the 82nd Senior Indian Nationals in Nagpur—has taken its toll on India’s top badminton stars, for it is a severely truncated squad that will present the country’s challenge at the China Open Superseries Premier, that begins from 14 November at Fuzhou.

A ten-member side, comprising just two singles exponents each among the men and women, two pairs in the men’s doubles, and a solitary pair each in the women’s and mixed doubles, will be seen at the tournament, in which Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal created history in 2014 by being the first set of Indians to win the two stellar singles events in the world’s most populous nation.

File photo of PV Sindhu. AP

File photo of PV Sindhu. AP

While Srikanth had announced on Friday last week that he was taking the China Open week off as a precautionary measure to rest his injured right knee, Parupalli Kashyap, who had sent in his entry for a spot in the qualifying rounds, also pulled out before the onset of the championships.

India’s hopes thus rest on the performances of the inconsistent World No 2, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, and on Nehwal and HS Prannoy, both ranked 11th in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings. Sourabh Verma, who won the Indian national title in 2011 and 2016 (the Nationals actually played in February 2017), rounds off the Indian challenge in the singles events.

Srikanth’s late withdrawal from the China Open aborted what might have been a third Srikanth-Prannoy clash in as many weeks, for the former had won their semi-final at the French Open in Paris, while the latter gained revenge in the final of the Indian Nationals in Nagpur.

In his lung-opener in Fuzhou, Prannoy faces a qualifier from either Chinese Taipei or mainland China, and then runs into either Hong Kong’s Lee Cheuk Yiu, who has been promoted from the qualifying ranks, or another qualifier. The winner of this section is scheduled to clash with second-seeded World No 3, Son Wan Ho of South Korea, provided the Korean gets past China’s Tian Houwei.

Verma meets Frenchman Brice Leverdez, against whom his head-to-head record is tied at 1-1. In their most recent meeting at the 2017 Thailand Open, it was the 31-year-old Leverdez who had his nose ahead by a 21-16, 23-25, 21-11 scoreline. The two are very evenly matched, and the man who plays better on the day will go through for a second-round meeting with Malaysia’s 35-year-old No 7 seed, Lee Chong Wei, who still holds the record for most weeks spent as the World No 1.

All these players are in third-seeded Lin Dan’s quarter of the draw, which means that, if form holds true as per the seeding, we could have the 40th edition of the long-standing Lin-Lee rivalry on Friday. 'Super' Dan leads the head-to-head battle 27-12, a tally that includes two straight-sets victories this year.

In the women’s singles, Sindhu, seeded second behind Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying, has a tricky initial round against the left-handed Japanese, Sayaka Sato. Sindhu abhors playing southpaws, and the two are locked one-all in career meetings, with the Indian winning their most recent clash by a 21-17, 14-21, 21-18 scoreline at the Australian Open in June this year.

Should Sindhu get past this initial obstacle, she has a relatively easy second round, facing the winner of a duel between a qualifier and 20-year-old Canadian, Brittney Tam, born to Chinese immigrant parents.

The Hyderabadi’s quarter-final rival is—hold your breath—No 6 seed, Nozomi Okuhara, with whom she has had three amazing long-drawn matches this year, and to whom she had lost the 2017 World Championship final at 20-22 in the deciding game. Sindhu trails the tiny Japanese world champion 4-5 in career meetings, but has won three of their last five jousts. The ace Indian shuttler would be looking to regain consistency after having missed out on three titles this season. She won the Korea Open in September but then suffered first round exit in Denmark Open Superseries Premier. A semi-final loss at the French Open followed and then she couldn't clear the final hurdle at the Nationals going down to Nehwal.

Unseeded Nehwal’s opening match is against American Zhang Beiwen, whose parents are also first-generation settlers in the US. The Indian is 2-0 ahead in their head-to-heads, but both these clashes took place way back in 2014, and ought not to be considered relevant for this analysis. Zhang has had some excellent results of late, and will not be a pushover.

Should Nehwal win, she will cross swords in the second round with the winner of the match between fifth-seeded Akane Yamaguchi of Japan and China’s Chen Xiaoxin. If the diminutive powerhouse that Yamaguchi is, comes through, Nehwal will have her hands full, for she trails the Japanese ace 1-3 in career meetings, with all three of Yamaguchi’s victories having come in the course of 2017.

India does not have any player in the qualifying rounds of either the men’s or women’s singles, but in the mixed doubles, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Ashwini Ponnappa, the recently crowned Indian national champions, will take on Lee Jhe-Huei and Wu Ti Jung of Chinese Taipei in their first qualification round. If they win, they would have to slip it across Niclas Nohr and Sara Thygesen of Denmark on Tuesday evening, in order to get into the main draw.

Should they win both their qualifying matches on Tuesday and barge into the main draw, matters get even tougher, as they would clash with another Danish pair, Mathias Christiansen and Christinna Pedersen, who narrowly missed being seeded.

In the women’s doubles, national champions Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy bump into Ha Na Baek and Chae Yoo Jung of South Korea in the main competition (there are no preliminary rounds in this event); and, if they get through this potentially tough outing, they take on the No 2 seeds from China, Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan.

The men’s doubles main draw has national champions Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy clashing in their opening outing with the top seeds, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo of Indonesia. It's a really tough opener.

As for Satwiksairaj and Chirag Shetty, who lost narrowly over the extra points in the decider to the Attri-Reddy combine after holding match-point in the recent Nationals in Nagpur, they clash with fifth seeds, Liu Cheng and Zhang Nan of the host nation.

Zhang has won both the men’s doubles and mixed doubles world championship titles in the past (and was also Olympic gold medallist in Rio 2016 with Fu Haifeng), and his recently formed combination with Liu will be watched keenly by his country’s badminton mandarins with an eye on the Thomas Cup team competition next year.

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