Every big badminton venue in the world deserves its snatch of the PV Sindhu-Nozomi Okuhara duel. Seven three-setters from 9 matches in a rivalry spanning 5 years, this mind-bender and bone-cruncher of a contest and this caravan of titanic tiredness, makes its 10th appearance at one of the most hallowed of shuttle’s events – the All England. Only because exhaustion has been such a massive factor of their square-offs, it’s notable that Sindhu reached the quarterfinals at Birmingham after two days of 3 sets against Pornpawee Chochuwong and on Thursday, Nitchaon Jindapol.
The 21-13, 13-21, 21-18 win against the Thai was a proper lugging of a heavy suitcase up a Birmingham staircase – only a giant yanking effort in the end pulling through the Indian. Nozomi Okuhara, returning from injury, clinched her second straight sets win. Though nothing about these two is easy to predict, except that they’ll put up a riveting show.
HS Prannoy made his maiden entry into the quarters of the All England, which he recently called his favourite tournament with a 21-10, 21-19 win over Indonesian skill master Tommy Sugiarto. After beating Chou Tien Chen, the Top Tenner made a commanding entry into the last 8 after a crucial break to recover from his injury. The 25-year-old won despite a late resurgence from Sugiarto. Leading 16-13 and marching towards the win, Tommy had upped his intensity in a 4-point rally. But Prannoy confidently finished things up to progress to the quarters where he joins Sindhu. But first, Sindhu’s gruelling entry into the quarters: Jindapol was Thailand’s big hope after Intanon Ratchanok crashed out in Round 1. She might have half of Ratchanok’s natural lyrical talent in her strokes, but the 26-year-old World No 11 can get stuck into some big games – she notably was one of only 4 players to beat World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying these last two seasons. While Sindhu showed that she eventually held enough firepower to down Jindapol, the Thai was determined to not make this easy for the Indian World No 3.
Sindhu had raced to a 21-13 start using her height and speed against the slower Jindapol. The Thai’s go-to was the smash on the body, which might have fetched her a few points at the start, but stopped yielding returns midway through the first. Sindhu in turn was using her backhand crosscourt flick to yo-yo her opponent around the parallel axis. There were no signs of what was to come in the utter lack of resistance from the Thai who dragged her feet about and whacked the air with her racquet scolding herself on the surging errors.
Jindapol would then conjure a change of scene – leading 11-3 in what would be a mid-set. The smash on the body, the deceptive drop to Sindhu’s backhand forecourt, scurrying her across for the far forehenad, a down the line smash, Jindapol had earned herself a fresh lease moving well and looking sharp. Sindhu looked particularly caught out at the net – with her dribbles going limp and clears getting intercepted at mid-court. At 4-12, the 22-year-old seemed to be going off the rails, when coach Gopichand started urging Sindhu to up the energy.
This usually means a gear up on the hand speed, though Sindhu was consistently erring with yet another lift going into the net. The Indian would up her offensive increasing the pace as the rallies got punishing. Sindhu would inch closer but at 12-17 the Thai was now animated, slashing at imagined demons in the air. Gopichand’s nudging to focus and up the ferocity couldn’t stop the Thai claiming the second 21-13.
In the decider, Sindhu came unwilling to cede the lead, going into the break at 11-10 though Jindapol had stalked her from 8-4 to almost level. Still, the Thai stayed undeterred pinning Sindhu to the back to draw scrambling, stretching errors to the front of the court. Trailing 12-16, Sindhu would manage one mini victory. There’s a net-tap that she has been aiming to score a win off at major events – World Championships and Dubai SS Finals. While she’d botched it twice previously, the shot came through on Thursday at 13-16 and she went into slaying mode. Two straight booming deep smashes rattled the Thai who was watching a vision of Sindhu unfold before her eyes where the Indian goes into bazooka pace of returns. It’s at this top gear that opponents find the Olympic and World silver medallist too hot to handle. Jindapol, predictably wilted under the onslaught as Sindhu pried the points from 18-all. A botched backhand drive sailed away giving Sindhu another quarterfinal at the All England – only her second.
Last year, Sindhu had gone down to Tai Tzu Ying in the quarters at Birmingham, with just two first round losses to show until then. Nozomi Okuhara – the grand, old nemesis stands in the way on Friday. Though the Japanese is returning from an injury-induced layoff, the two rarely ever keep it straight forward. While UK’s had its lion share of the Sindhu-Nozomi battle during the Worlds at Glasgow last August, the show moves south to Birmingham seven months later. While the last time they met was in Japan – where a tired Sindhu lost in straight sets, the duo has played three epics at Singapore, Glasgow and then in Korea in a space of three months last year. Right from 2012 when they first played, a 22-20 set score is not uncommon when the two meet. Three of their matches have found resolution in the thrilling 22-20 scoreline. While the Worlds loss was the most-watched Championship women’s final in history, the lesser known bigger stage was the Olympics where PV Sindhu had brought out the big guns to finish the match in little over 30 minutes.
The All England quarters – Okuhara has won the title three years ago – could be another chapter added to the famous rivalry. For Sindhu, no victory would be complete unless she downed the magnificent Japanese.
Srikanth, Satwik-Chirag lose
Two smacks to the gut were the narrowest of losses suffered by first the promising pair of Satwiksairaj Rakireddy and Chirag Shetty and later by India’s top men’s singles hope Kidambi Srikanth. However, while the young doubles tyros will reckon they have learnt much from the 16-21, 21-16, 21-23 loss at the hands of experienced Danish duo Mathias Boe – Carsten Mogensen, for Srikanth this will be a heartbreaking exit going down to Chinese Huang Yuxiang, ranked 42 in the world.
Huang is a former junior Asian champion from 2010, but made it count when he made it to the Chinese squad at All England. He’s no complete stranger to Srikanth either – having lost to the Indian at the Syed Modi tournament in 2016. The 6-footer however obviously came out of cold storage hitting the European swing of tournaments before landing at Birmingham. He packed off local contender Rajiv Ouseph in the opening round, and on Thursday chomped into a tentative Srikanth, who had started the day returning to World No 2 in the world.
However, a second straight first game wobble finally caught up with Srikanth.
Having lost the opener 21-11, the Indian seemed to have found his bearings in the second, but the Chinese was relentless. Serikanth did well to rally from 13-16 down but all the desperate firefighting on a second consecutive day meant he couldn’t convert two match points, and allowed Huang a 3-pointer in the end to exit All England.
Srikanth had been in trouble on the opening day too staring at a scoreline match point down, but had scrambled to a win against french Brice Leverdez. The Chinese afforded him no feet in the door through errors at the crunch, as Indian challenge was left to Prannoy who won earlier.
The spunky doubles pairing of Satwik-Chirag continued to enthral and resist hierarchy, when they fought back to level sets at 16-21, 21-16 against the World No 2. The Indians made a thriller out of the match keeping the scores neck to neck throughout the decider. They even led 14-11 before the seasoned Danes ramped it up as lead exchanged several times in the closing stages.
The young pair would stave off a match point at 20-19 and joust ahead to lead 21-20. In the end though, experience helped the Danes pull out this one 21-16, 16-21, 23-21, denying Indian men’s pairs a maiden entry into quarters of the All England.
Aya Ohori makes it 3 out of 8
The Super Series era was known to be crowded with the Chinese. The All England this year has seen the Japanese storm the quarters especially in women’s singles. Aya Ohori, one of the 4 Japanese in the world’s Top 15, who upset Korean sixth seed Sung Ji Hyun on Day 1 advanced to the quarters in the top half of the draw and is likely to play Tai Tzu.
Mia makes first big move
Mia Blichfeldt of Denmark became the first Dane since Tine Baum to make the last 8. She beat Michelle Li of Canada who had started the tournament sensationally evicting Thai Ratchanok. Mia won 21-19, 21-14 and will play Chinese clever shuttler Chen Yufei. Carolina Marin downed Japanese Saena Kawakami and has another Japanese waiting in the quarters.
Lin Dan vs Chong Wei
All England can’t get enough of the mid-30s titans, as Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei set up a quarters clash. The two have played many finals at the prestigious meet, and Friday could see another blast from the past.
Lin Dan in fact leads a stunning resurgence of the Chinese men’s singles with 4 of the 8 quarterfinalists being from the badminton superpower. Talk has been rife of China’s waning prowess, but on Friday many realised that the dominant power in shuttle couldn’t be entirely written off.
Besides Super Dan, Olympic champion Chen Long and their fresh new hope Shi Yuqi both made it to the quarters, alongside Srikanth’s conquerer Huang. While HS Prannoy takes on Huang in a surprise quarterfinal – Srikanth was expected to line up – Dan could be the next across the net for the backhand beast Prannoy. In a throwback to the last decade, Lee Chong Wei, a crowd favourite here and seen now with a thick mop of a short bouffant side partitioned hairdo, is still at it, trying to stop Dan, in 2018. Ten years since Dan won gold at Beijing Games. China as the All England has discovered, is going nowhere.