The writing was very much on the wall on Thursday itself, when both Kidambi Srikanth and PV Sindhu had struggled to leave their impress upon the China Open, a premier World Tour Super 100 badminton tournament that they have both won in the past. On Friday, the last two Indians left standing at the quarter-final stage of the $1 million prize money competition in Changzhou were shown the exit door, albeit in contrasting fashion.
While recently crowned world champion Kento Momota of Japan was utterly ruthless while keeping Srikanth on court for two minutes under the half-hour mark, for a storming 21-9, 21-11 triumph, Chen Yufei of the host nation had to fight Sindhu all the way to the tape, while registering a seesaw 21-11, 11-21, 21-15 victory in 52 minutes.
It is maddening for the supporter of Indian badminton to follow Sindhu's career graph. Even allowing for the fact that there is phenomenally tight competition these days among the women, the Indian's totally unpredictable performances leave even her most ardent of fans with a feeling of apprehension in the pit of the stomach as they prepare to watch her next on-court foray.
Against the sprightly, talented 20-year-old Chen, Sindhu had a 5-2 winning record, with victories in three of their past four encounters. It was, therefore, hard to accept her listless, nervy display against the Chinese player, when she conceded a 5-11 lead, and simply could not reel in the slack.
The Hyderabadi barely managed to keep her nose in front at the half-way mark of the second game, but suddenly discovered her touch at 11-10 to steamroll her way to the tape, dropping just one more point along the way. The Indian had to earn most of her points through attacking play and good use of her height and reach; and Chen did not give too many negative points during this period of Sindhu's ascendancy.
Sadly, the prodigal streak returned in full force during the initial stages of the decider, and Chen pulled away from 4-all, to stay ahead by at least three points all the way to the finishing line. Added to the Chinese youngster's sense of well-being was Sindhu's dreadful body language " drooping shoulders, worried frown, increasingly leaden feet. The Indian is not really a victim of indifferent physical fitness, so it was hard for Indian badminton fans to understand the dragging of feet in the closing reaches of a match.
It was even more traumatic for them to witness the scant respect with which the 24 year old No 3 seed, Momota, treated their top player, Srikanth, who had created history by winning this prestigious competition four years ago, humbling local favourite Lin Dan in the final; and was the hottest player on the circuit in 2017.
How miserable is it for an Indian scribe to be forced to report that the only time Srikanth led in the course of the entire match was for a few seconds at 1-0 in the second game! He was thoroughly outpaced, out-thought, outmanoeuvred and outstroked by the Japanese left-hander, who led from start to finish in the opening game, and also showed a clean pair of heels to his antagonist in the second stanza.
So speedy on the court was Momota, and so compact and poised in his defence, that Srikanth's most aggressive strokes were hurled back with consummate ease, often leaving the smasher out of position for the parried or blocked return.
On occasion, Momota was confident enough to engage his rival in lengthy tossing duels at a languid pace, secure in the knowledge that the frustrated Indian could only terminate the rally by either hitting wide along the sidelines or into the net. And, like Lin Dan was prone to doing in his prime, the world champion could play a clutch of points at a blinding pace, using his overhead smash to his rival's backhand like a rapier, to tear deep holes in Srikanth's defence.
On the strength of this latest no-contest, Momota, who rose to second in the world after the latest rankings were declared on Thursday, has taken his head-to-head tally against Srikanth to 8-3 in 11 encounters, with wins in their most recent five clashes. The fact that he has an amazing 96-5 win-loss record in tournament play after his return from a year's suspension in April 2017 bears mute testimony to his total dominance on the international badminton circuit.
The Japanese southpaw will clash on the morrow with second-seeded Shi Yuqi of China, whose biggest success on the tour this year has been the capture of the All-England title. Shi was all no-nonsense business as he cut down Hong Kong's eighth-seeded Ng Ka Long Angus to size by a 21-17, 21-15 scoreline. Angus had reached the last-eight stage by defeating the likes of India's HS Prannoy and Indonesia's Asian Games gold medallist, Jonatan Christie.
The 22-year-old Chinese is likely to be yet another marquee name to be added to Momota's bulging satchel, since he has failed to beat the Japanese star in two earlier meetings this year, at the Badminton Asia Championships in April, and the BWF World Championships in Nanjing last month.
The other semi-final will pit Indonesia's speed merchant Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, against Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei, after the fast-rising Indonesian defeated third world champion in as many days. Having knocked over five-time former world champion Lin Dan in his lung-opener, Ginting aced 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, and eliminated the 2014 and 2015 world champion and Rio Olympics gold medallist, Chen Long with an impressive 18-21, 22-20, 21-16 verdict.
Chou has also had an impressive run in the past couple of months, and elbowed South Korea's No 4 seed, Son Wan Ho, out of the elite tournament with a 21-17, 21-14 triumph. The Taiwanese has a 2-3 losing record in head-to-head meetings with Ginting, with an extremely close decision going against him in the semi-finals of the individual event at the recent Asian Games in Jakarta.
Ginting, who actually held match-point in the Asiad final against compatriot Jonatan Christie, will have by now put out the bitterness he must have felt at the time. He is playing the best badminton of his young life, but it remains to be seen if he can nudge out Chou and take on the rampaging Momota in the final. Always assuming that the Japanese southpaw gives the adoring audience at the Olympic Sports Centre Xincheng Gymnasium a hard-to-swallow bitter pill on Saturday.