There was a time, less than two years ago, when the presence of a top-15 Indian shuttler in their section of the draw of a Superseries tournament would induce at least a flutter of apprehension in the stomachs of the world’s top badminton stars. No longer.
The prolonged horror patch of form that the country’s top shuttlers, virtually without exception, have gone through in the past 18 months has seen them produce results that would leave the erstwhile world-beaters shame-faced and downcast.
It has got to a point where even the 2016 Olympic silver medallist and 2017 World Championship runner-up, PV Sindhu, has reportedly declared that she is keen to leave the Pullela Gopichand Badminton Academy, since she feels she is not getting the attention and personalised coaching she deserves.
Sindhu’s biggest achievement in 2018 was the winning of the prestigious season-ending World Tour grand finals in Guangzhou in December that year, at the expense of the world’s top two ranked players, Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying and Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi, and also included the downing of the 2017 world champion, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan. However, the Hyderabadi has been a pale shadow of her dominant self in the first half of the ongoing year.
Nor is the country’s top male shuttler, Kidambi Srikanth, in the marauding form he was in during the 2017 season, when he bagged four Superseries titles (including the Indonesia Open World Tour Super 1000 competition, at which he will be presenting his credentials on Wednesday) and was runner-up in a fifth Superseries event.
The 25-year-old Guntur lad’s insipid performances in the handful of tournaments he has played in 2019 has caused his rank to drop to No 9; and he would have missed being seeded, had it not been for the absence of two higher-ranked players – Denmark’s 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen, who dropped out of the reckoning at the last moment with an ankle problem, and South Korea’s Son Wan Ho, still recovering from a horrendous knee injury.
It is thus with little fanfare that India’s elite shuttlers take to the courts of the Istora Gelora Bung Karno in Jakarta from Tuesday to vie for the top prizes in the 2019 Indonesia Open, that ranks on par with the All England Open, and offers an impressive purse of $1.25 million.
With Saina Nehwal having withdrawn at the last minute for reasons as yet unknown, and her berth in the draw having been passed on to England’s Chloe Birch, just two amongst a near full-strength Indian contingent have been seeded – Sindhu at No 5, and Srikanth at the eighth spot, in a star-studded field led by the world’s top-ranked male and female stars.
Japan’s reigning world champion, Kento Momota, and Taiwanese ace Tai both happen to be defending champions, and have been unsurprisingly given pride of place in the singles draws. China’s Shi Yuqi, who sensationally cut Momota down to size in the Thomas Cup final in May this year, gets the second seeding, as does his compatriot, Chen Yufei, among the women.
Sindhu has been placed in the bottom half of the draw, dominated by Yufei. At the quarter-final stage, the 24-year-old Indian is slated to run into her arch-rival, Okuhara, to whom she had lost the 2017 World Championship final at Glasgow, in a 110-minute encounter that is rated as one of the finest women’s singles matches of all time.
Before she crosses swords with Okuhara, Sindhu will have to subdue Japan’s Aya Ohori in her lung-opener on Wednesday. That really should present no problem, for she holds a commanding 6-0 lead over the Japanese player in career head-to-heads, with their most recent meeting at the Malaysia Open in April this year ending in a facile 22-20, 21-12 triumph.
Srikanth will also open his campaign on Wednesday with an encounter against one of the three Japanese singles Thomas Cuppers, Kenta Nishimoto. The Indian holds a 4-1 career advantage over the 24-year-old baby-faced Japanese, having beaten him by a thumping 21-14, 21-9 scoreline in the Indonesia Masters (not to be confused with the imminent Indonesia Open) in January this year.
Should he cross this hurdle, as could be widely expected, the Guntur native has a tricky second round with the winner of the first-round match between Frenchman Brice Leverdez and Hong Kong’s doughty battler, Ng Ka Long Angus. All these players are in the third quarter of the draw vacated by the No 3 seed, Axelsen, whose place has been given to another Hong Kong player, Wong Wing Ki Vincent.
It has fallen to the lot of the other Indian in the men’s singles draw, B Sai Praneeth, to take on Vincent Wong in the first round. The 26-year-old Indian, who has dropped to the 23rd spot in the BWF rankings, is locked at 2-2 in career head-to-heads with Wong, but it is to be noted that all their four clashes have taken place between 2011 and 2016. The Indian won their most recent encounter in straight games at the Macau Open in December 2016.
Should Praneeth slip it across the Hong Kong player, he will meet the winner of the opening round clash between yet another Hong Kong player, Lee Cheuk Yiu and Indonesia’s Yehezkiel Fritz Mainaky, promoted from the reserves. The winner among this group of players is on a collision course with Srikanth, who on paper has an excellent chance of winning against any one of them, and going through to the semi-finals.
The third Indian in the fray, HS Prannoy, bumps into second-seeded Shi Yuqi in his very first foray on court. Ravaged by injuries right through 2018, Prannoy, a former top-ten player, has dropped to a lowly rank of 32, and owns a losing 1-4 record against the 23-year-old Chinese star. In fact, it was at this very tournament that Shi had cut Prannoy down to size last year by a 21-17, 21-18 margin.
India’s top men’s doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty have been given a relatively easy opening outing in Jakarta on Tuesday – the likes of Malaysians Nur Izzuddin and Goh Sze Fei should be grist to the Indians’ mill. But in the very next round, they are slated to clash with the top-seeded Indonesians, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, playing in front of their adoring home crowds.
Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy, who appear to be gradually getting back to their best, take on the Taiwanese pair of Liao Min Chun and Su Ching Heng; and should progress to a second-round encounter with sixth-seeded Indonesians Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto.
The women’s doubles duo of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy has a challenging opener by way of Malaysians Vivian Hoo and Yap Cheng Wen, with the winner of this match scheduled to bump into the Korean No 6 seeds, Lee So Hee and Shin Seung Chan.
In the mixed doubles, Pranaav Jerry Chopra and Sikki Reddy take on the Dutch twosome of Robin Tabeling and Selena Piek, with their winner scheduled to clash with top seeds, Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong of China.
The other Indian combination of Rankireddy and Ponnappa has an interesting first round against Indonesia’s redoubtable former world champion, Tontowi Ahmed, playing with his new partner, Winny Octavina Kandow, following the recent retirement of the long-serving Lilyana Natsir. It presents a great chance for the Indian pair to lower the colours of the new local combination before the local pair grabs the chance to get set, as it were.