India’s Kidambi Srikanth and PV Sindhu, both seeded ninth in their respective singles events, produced commanding performances against higher ranked opponents at the Riocentro Pavilhao on Monday. Both shuttlers have advanced to the pre-quarterfinals, and kept alive the Indian challenge at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
In a hugely entertaining encounter that pitted Srikanth’s unbridled aggression against the retrieving skills of fifth-seeded Dane Jan Jorgensen, the Indian managed to just about keep his nose ahead, to notch up a straight-sets triumph at 21-19, 21-19.
The speedy Srikanth expended a lot of energy in going on an all-out attacking spree against a player known to have one of the best defences on the international badminton circuit, and kept peppering the sidelines, particularly on the forehand side, with powerful and well-directed smashes, following them up with net rushes to put away even slightly weak returns.
It was a carefully calculated strategy, but one that could have backfired if the match had gone to a decider, for the 23-year-old Indian would have found it hard to match the stamina and stonewalling tactics of the doughty Danish star.
But Srikanth managed to pull back from a 14-17 deficit in the second game, kept pace with Jorgensen until 18-all, and then unleashed a high-risk, no holds barred attack to bag the all important winning point, much to the delight of coach Pullela Gopichand. The otherwise poker-faced national coach showed rare emotion at courtside, exchanging a bear hug with his ward, his face wreathed in a huge grin of delight.
Sindhu was far more convincing against the redoubtable No 8 seed, Tai Tzu-ying of Taiwan, and notched up a facile 21-13, 21-15 triumph. The margin of victory could have been even more comprehensive had Sindhu not suffered end of match nerves, which is becoming worryingly common for the 21-year-old. At match point at 20-12, she allowed the Taiwan girl to claw back a few points.
She perfectly read Tai’s deceptive strokes, doing far better than her more illustrious compatriot Saina Nehwal, who has lost to the Taiwanese opponent on the last six occasions that the two have met. Sindhu’s ability to reach Tai’s deadly overhead crosscourt drops and counter them either with tight dribbles or late flat pushes to the forehand baseline completely threw the No 8 seed off her rhythm.
The dominating strokemaker that she is, Tai looked utterly disconcerted by the sheer number of shuttles that kept coming back over the net in unexpected spots. Sindhu often assumed total control of the rallies, making Tai do all the chasing. From the initial even jousting until 5-all, Sindhu put on a spurt that gave her a handy 11-6 lead at the break. Though Tai managed to reduce the deficit and come within striking distance at 13-15, Sindhu stepped up a gear and left her bewildered rival floundering in her wake as she streaked to the tape in the first game without dropping a further point.
The second game followed an almost identical pattern from 6-all until the midway point, when Sindhu once again was in the driver’s seat at 11-6. She increased the lead to 14-7 before showing signs of tightness and allowing Tai to reduce the margin to 10-15. Two excellent dribbles at the net took the Indian to 20-12, and she took the winning point after her customary end-of-match hiccups.
However, things get tougher for both Sindhu and Srikanth, as they face tougher opposition in the quarter-finals. Srikanth runs into third seeded Chinese star Lin Dan, five-time world champion and two-time reigning Olympic gold medalist.
Sindhu meets former world champion and second seed Wang Yihan, who at 28, is the oldest of the three Chinese professionals, but still has sufficient teeth to beat back the challenge of just about anyone. She goes into the match on Wednesday with a 4-2 head-to-head record against Sindhu.
But it has largely been a tournament along expected lines, with hardly any surprises in the men’s singles event, and most fancied players making it to the knock-out stages without facing much resistance. Barring Jorgensen, all the other fancied players have got past the round-of-16.
Top-seeded Malaysian Lee Chong Wei, for one, has been in sparkling form, and made it through Group A with minimal fuss, settling the pretensions of Singapore’s Derek Wong and Surinam’s Opti Soren.
Lee, who was given a bye into the quarter-finals, is scheduled to cross swords on Wednesday evening with Taiwanese No 6 seed Chou Tien Chen, who comfortably settled the pretensions of Hong Kong’s Hu Yun at 21-10, 21-13. One could safely bet on the muscular Malaysian, a silver medallist at the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, to reach the semi-finals again. If Lee does make it to the last four, he would meet either Srikanth or Lin Dan.
Super Dan, after a patchy lead-up to the Games, when he clearly appeared to be conserving his physical and mental energies for the big test in Rio, has also been in outstanding form, beating Vietnam’s Nguyen Tien Minh, Russia’s Vladimir Malkov and Austrian David Obernosterer with little fuss.
There is no doubt that the third-seeded Chinese ace, given a bye into the quarter-finals at the end of the preliminaries, will relish the thought of a return encounter in the last eight with Srikanth, who had beaten him in straight games in the 2014 China Open final.
However, Lin Dan is unlikely to take Srikanth as lightly as he had done on that occasion, in front of his home crowd. And that spells danger for the 23-year-old Indian.
In the lower half of the draw, second seeded Chinese reigning world champion Chen Long found it as easy as Lee and Lin Dan did, in breezing through his group clashes with Sri Lanka’s Niluka Karunaratne and Poland’s Adrian Dziolko. His quarter-final opponent will be Korea’s talented fighter and No 8 seed Son Wan Ho, who won his round-of-16 clash with Hong Kong’s Angus Ng, seeded 11th, on Monday by a 23-21, 21-17 scoreline, after saving two game points in the opening stanza.
The fourth quarter-final pits No 4 seed Viktor Axelsen of Denmark against Englishman Rajiv Ouseph. The lanky Dane came comfortably through his pre-quarterfinal against giant-killing Irishman Scott Evans, who had earlier disposed off Germany’s 12th ranked Marc Zwiebler in a tight three-game encounter.
Ouseph knocked out former bronze medallist, Indonesia’s No 7 seed Tommy Sugiarto, in the round-of-16, after scoring an impressive straight-games triumph against Japan’s Sho Sasaki.
It may be a little premature to say this, but everything points to a semi-final encounter between Chen Long and Axelsen, with the victor likely to play for the gold medal against one of those two amazing gladiators, Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan, both aged 34, the best of their generation, and who are expected to bring the curtain down on their fantastic careers at the end of these Games.