Denmark Open: Kidambi Srikanth faces trial by fire against Lin Dan; tough opener for PV Sindhu vs Beiwen Zhang

Shirish Nadkarni
At the Denmark Open, Kidambi Srikanth leads an elite Indian side that boasts of all its top-30 players in all five events, barring HS Prannoy, a last-minute withdrawal, and doubles specialist Chirag Shetty.

When one thinks of the Denmark Open badminton championships, two images loom in the mind of Indian badminton aficionados €" a much-loved distant memory that is more than 38 years old, and a far more recent one that is barely a year old. The figures are different, but the flag that rises ceremoniously to the near-rooftop of the stadium, to the sonorous strains of a well-loved national anthem, is the self-same Indian Tricolor.

It was in February 1980 that the legendary Prakash Padukone, with his deceptive, artistic game, launched his incredible climb to the top of the international badminton ladder by winning the first of three tournaments in Europe in successive weeks €" the Danish Open, as it was then known. He was to follow it up with a convincing triumph in the Swedish Open, and then to grab the most prestigious title of them all, the All England, then considered the unofficial championship of the world.

Then, in the final quarter of 2017, another Indian shuttler, better known for speed and power rather than finesse, caused widespread consternation by felling the Lion of Odense, the then reigning world champion Viktor Axelsen, in front of the gangling Dane's hometown crowds.

Kidambi Srikanth went on to annex the Denmark Open title €" the third of four Superseries crowns he pocketed during that momentous year €" with a storming 21-10, 21-5 result against South Korean veteran, 37-year-old Lee Hyun Il, who was palpably stiff and sore after a Homeric 92-minute semi-final triumph the previous day over compatriot and top seed, Son Wan Ho.

It is the same Srikanth, albeit substantially chastened on the back of a less-than-successful year, who will spearhead the Indian challenge at the 2018 Denmark Open that takes off in Odense on Tuesday. The 25-year-old Ravulapalem native leads an elite Indian side that boasts of all its top-30 players in all five events, barring HS Prannoy, a last-minute withdrawal, and doubles specialist Chirag Shetty, one half of the crack Shetty-Rankireddy men's doubles combination.

Srikanth, seeded seventh this time, clashes in his lung-opener in this year's $775,000 prize money World Tour Super 700 event against the redoubtable Danish battler, Hans Kristian Solberg Vittinghus. Never an easy customer to tackle, the 32-year-old Dane is a tight 2-2 in career head-to-head meetings with Srikanth; and, although it was the Indian who won on the most recent occasion, that duel took place at the Australian Open in mid-2016.

Should Srikanth eliminate Vittinghus, he could be crossing swords with the ageless Lin Dan, who has to first get past Thailand's Kantaphon Wangcharoen. It is revealing to note that Lin turned 35 on 14th October, and became technically eligible to play in the World Veterans' Championships!

It was at the November 2014 China Open that the Indian ace, then 21 years of age, had tamed the five-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist by a 21-19, 21-17 scoreline in the presence of the latter's adoring home crowds.

That occasion, incidentally, remains the only time that Srikanth has beaten Super Dan in four attempts. Their most recent clash was at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where the Chinese left-hander stormed through the opening game at 21-6, was beaten back at 11-21 in the second, but managed to hang on for a narrow 21-18 verdict in the decider. He went on to lose in the semi-final to Malaysian arch-rival, Lee Chong Wei, who is currently absent from the circuit after getting chemotherapy for nose cancer.

In the intervening two years between the Rio Olympics and now, Lin has been bowing more often than not to the ravages of Time on his body, and has been losing to players he would have beaten in his prime with one hand tied behind his back. But by the same token, Srikanth has also shown fragility on the circuit, and has nothing much to show for his efforts in 2018, apart from a team gold at the Commonwealth Games on Australia's Gold Coast.

All four players are bracketed in the same quarter of the draw as third-seeded Shi Yuqi, the reigning All England champion; and all will find it difficult to get past the speedy, rock-steady 22-year-old Chinese star, who is being looked upon as his country's main prospect for the yellow metal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The other two Indians in the men's singles draw, Sameer Verma and B Sai Praneeth, have been handed contrasting draws. No sooner does Verma €" whose age, at 23, matches his current world ranking €" descend into the playing arena of the Odense Sports Park, than he bumps into Shi Yuqi. There has been no joy for the Indian in their two previous encounters.

Praneeth, whose age of 26 years also coincidentally matches his present world ranking, clashes with another Chinese, Huang Yuxiang, whom he has beaten on both the previous occasions that the two have met. The 26-year-old Indian should progress to a second-round meeting with the winner of the duel between eighth-seeded Japanese, Kenta Nishimoto, and Denmark's strokeful Rasmus Gemke.

As for the two Indian women, whose fortunes are always eagerly followed by badminton lovers the world over, Saina Nehwal faces Hong Kong's Cheung Ngan Yi, while the third-seeded PV Sindhu locks horns with a really tricky initial opponent in American-Chinese Beiwen Zhang.

Sindhu and Beiwen have bumped into each other four times, and the scores stand deadlocked at 2-2, with all four clashes having gone the full distance. The vital statistic here is that the American of Chinese descent, who is one of the few top players to travel the world without a coach, has won their most recent two bouts, the last one being a 22-20 third-game win at the India Open in February this year.

Should Sindhu make it a 3-2 career scoreline in her own favour, she will take on the winner of the first-round match between Japan's Aya Ohori and Denmark's Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt. Beyond that, the No 5 seed and three-time world champion, Carolina Marin of Spain, awaits at the quarter-final stage.

As for the World No 11, Saina, she takes on Cheung, with whom she stands at 1-1 after two career meetings. After administering a round thrashing to the Hong Kong player at their first meeting in the 2015 World Championships, the Indian €" who went on to win the silver medal that year to Marin's gold €" was beaten by Cheung in a close three-gamer at the Hong Kong Open in November 2016.

Considering her current form and high level of physical fitness, the 28-year-old Saina ought to thrust Cheung aside, and go through for a second-round encounter with the No 2 seed from Japan, Akane Yamaguchi. And here, the waters get seriously muddied, for Saina has scored a solitary victory over the diminutive Japanese in seven meetings; and that, too, on the first occasion that they met in 2014. Thereafter, Yamaguchi has won six times on the trot, with all these clashes taking place in the space of the past two years.

Admittedly, it is a tough ask, but Saina had shown recently during her amazing joust in the Korea Open against 2017 world champion Nozomi Okuhara that she could go the distance against these indefatigable Japanese retrievers. The Indian had held four match-points in the decider against Okuhara, before conceding the final six points of the match after she made a grave tactical blunder and her petrol simply ran out.

No doubt Yamaguchi will be very much on her mettle after watching what Saina did to her fellow-countrywoman in Seoul, a fortnight ago.

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