BWF China Open 2019: Early exit of defensive stonewallers underlines mounting challenge of aggressive players; reaffirms growing fitness standards

Shirish Nadkarni

Two inescapable conclusions could be drawn from the opening day's fare at the $1 million prize money China Open badminton championships in Changzhou €" that the days of super-fit, defensive stonewallers are numbered when intrinsically aggressive players hit their straps; and, somewhat antithetically, that the most marginal drop in fitness levels spells doom for even highly accomplished players.

Both the pint-sized Japanese elite women's singles exponents €" top-seeded Akane Yamaguchi and the No 4 seed, Nozomi Okuhara €" wards of Korean coach Park Joo Bong €" who have dominated international badminton in recent times with their tireless retrieving and interminable rallying tactics, bit the dust at the Olympic Sports Centre Gymnasium, with their matches coincidentally lasting 46 minutes apiece.

Yamaguchi, who had also been seeded No 1 at the Basel World Championships three weeks ago, made her exit in the opening round yet again, losing narrowly to the unheralded Russian, Evgeniya Kosetskaya (whom Indian fans of the sport had seen in action at the last Premier Badminton League) by a 22-20, 17-21, 22-24 verdict.

The 24-year-old Russian, ranked 33rd in the world, held her nerve well when the diminutive Japanese neutralised a 17-20 deficit in the decider to force deuce, and did not forsake her attacking play in favour of safety tactics. Kosetskaya, who won on her sixth match-point, was not fazed either by the narrow loss of the opening game, nor by the lengthy rallies that the Japanese ace played, as is her wont.

In the wake of her mid-season exploits that netted her the vital points which took her past the long-standing World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, the ultra-fit Yamaguchi had seemed well-nigh invincible. But in the run-up to the World Championships, she incurred a slight shoulder injury which affected her normally iron length, and caused her fitness levels to drop just a tad. It was sufficient for the Russian journeywoman to register the biggest upset of the China Open in the first round itself.

The match of the day, however, was the showcase tussle between two former women's world champions, with one of them coming back from a serious knee injury incurred against India's Saina Nehwal in the final of the Indonesia Masters, in the last week of January this year. Olympic champion Carolina Marin, who had won the world crown in 2014, 2015 and 2018, was at her attacking best against the 2017 world champion, Nozomi Okuhara, and won by a 21-16, 21-18 scoreline.

The fiercely determined Marin €" who coach Fernando Rivas feels can eventually end her career with the exalted title of the best female player of all time €" was playing only her second match after returning to the world circuit in the aftermath of knee surgery, followed by painstaking rehabilitation over the following seven months. Her victory on Tuesday lifted her career record against Okuhara to 7-6, with victories in their most recent four meetings.

It was a swift turnaround in fortunes for Marin, for she had bitten the dust in her first post-injury match last week against another southpaw, Thailand's Supanida Katethong, ranked 55th on the BWF ladder. But the Spaniard shook off the rust swiftly, and showed no sign of the right knee injury as she covered the court with great agility and aplomb, and used her variety of deceptive strokes to constantly keep Okuhara guessing. It was again a triumph of an attacking stroke-player against a stodgy stonewaller.

Still another former world champion returning from an injury break, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, stumbled at the very first hurdle, his fitness levels proving insufficient against the spry, fit Japanese, Kanta Tsuneyama. The lanky Glasgow 2017 winner was in his element in the opening stanza, but then wilted steadily in the face of some long rallies, to lose at 21-10, 14-21, 16-21.

Yet another match between two left-handers who have seven world championship titles between them ended in a no-contest, as two-time reigning world champion Kento Momota of Japan proved way too swift and accurate for the ageing five-time former world champion from China, Lin Dan. Super Dan found the weight of his 35 years too much to offset the sprightly movements of the 24-year-old Japanese, and could make only 14 points per game in a 49-minute defeat.

Dan could easily have been joined on the sidelines by the two-time (2014 and 2015) former world champion and reigning Olympic gold medalist, Chen Long of China. The local hero needed all the benedictions of his country's Gods as he struggled to slide past Malaysia's Lee Zii Jia, eventually winning their 79-minute opening-round encounter by a 21-16, 12-21, 23-21 scoreline, albeit without needing to save any match-points.

There were only two Indian pairs in action on Tuesday, with Satwiksairaj Rankireddy being the common factor, and ending victorious in both the men's and mixed doubles. While the men's doubles, with Chirag Shetty in harness, turned into a relatively easy 21-7, 21-18 win over Canadians Jason Anthony Ho-Shue and Nyl Yakura, there was much to savour about the mixed doubles triumph in partnership with Ashwini Ponnappa.

The Indians were irresistible as they lowered the colours of sixth-seeded Indonesians Praveen Jordan and Melati Daeva Oktavianti by a 22-20, 17-21, 21-17 scoreline. And, while Rankireddy and Ponnappa rightly targeted Oktavianti, especially in the crucial third game, they might not have had matters their own way if it had been Jordan's former partner, the since-retired Debby Susanto, facing them.

Still, it was a fabulous victory for the Indians, and gives them an excellent chance of progressing past the Japanese combination of Yuki Kaneko and Misaki Matsutomo, for a quarter-final confrontation with the terrifyingly consistent world champions and top seeds, Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong, darlings of the local Changzhou crowds.

All the Indian singles players in the fray open their campaign on Wednesday, with an intriguing match-up between the fifth-seeded freshly crowned world champion, PV Sindhu and the 2012 Olympic gold medalist, Li Xuerui. The Chinese ace returned to the courts last year after almost two seasons in the wilderness, following her horrifying knee injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics; but has not been her old irresistible self since.

Just that 5-10 percent drop in the footspeed has made all the difference between Xuerui's producing dazzling, aggressive, dominant strokeplay, and struggling to stay in the rally. A further instance of one of the two conclusions that could be drawn from the action on Day One of the China Open.

Also See: BWF China Open 2019: PV Sindhu will need to overcome 'subtle and not-so-subtle handicaps' to reign victorious again

BWF China Open 2019: PV Sindhu eyes World Championship redux, Indian contingent looks to turn around dismal season

BWF China Open 2019: Saina Nehwal ousted by Busanan Ongbamrungphan after straight games defeat in Round 1

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