Kidambi Srikanth and Saina Nehwal, on whom so many Indian hopes rested before the onset of the All England Badminton Championships, put in strong performances in the deciding games of their respective second-round clashes, to barge into the quarter-finals of the World Tour Super 1000 tournament at the Arena Birmingham on Thursday.
B Sai Praneeth, the third Indian left in the singles after the elimination of PV Sindhu, Sameer Verma and HS Prannoy on the opening day, succumbed in the second round to Ng Ka Long Angus of Hong Kong. The only two Indians left standing at this prestigious $1 million prize money tournament are expected to meet the respective singles top seeds, Japan's reigning world champion, Kento Momota, and Chinese Taipei's Tai Tzu Ying, on Friday
The seventh seeded Srikanth started on a brilliant note against Jonatan Christie of Indonesia, with some outstanding netplay and powerful, well-placed smashes, but suffered a massive lapse of concentration in the second game of his 58-minute long clash with the 21 year old 2018 Asian Games gold medallist.
Fortunately, he quickly put the middle-game reverse out of his mind, and came roaring back in the third stanza to post a 21-17, 11-21, 21-12 over Christie; and tie their career head-to-head record at 3-all. The 25 year old had lost their most recent two meetings before the Birmingham clash, but was able to extract revenge in no uncertain manner with a heartening display of controlled aggression and substantially improved fitness.
Srikanth earned a quarter-final meeting on Friday with Momota, who was a far more comfortable 21-19, 21-11 victor over Thailand's Kantaphon Wangcharoen, after being on court for two minutes less than the Indian had been against Christie. The Indian has a 3-10 losing record against the Japanese left-hander, and has lost to Momota on the last seven occasions that they have crossed swords in the past four years.
Saina, seeded No 8, started her second round duel against Denmark's Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt as if she intended catching the first available flight back to India; and succumbed without a whimper in the opening game. She was slow on her feet against the Dane, who sensed her best chance of winning for the first time in three meetings with the veteran Indian shuttle queen, and put everything into attack.
But Saina, soon to be 29 years of age, pulled up her socks in no uncertain fashion midway through the second game, totally dominated the decider, and eventually ran out a 8-21, 21-16, 21-13 winner in 51 minutes. Her court movements in the second half of the middle game, and in the decider, were far more sprightly than in the first, and she proved much stronger in aggression against the less experienced Kjaersfeldt, to come through with a degree of conviction.
Saina booked a last-eight meeting with the winner of the pre-quarter-final encounter between top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei and American-Chinese Zhang Beiwen. At the time of writing, the Taiwanese World No 1, winner at Birmingham for the past two years, was yet to play against Zhang, but, on the strength of her 21-12, 21-15 first-round showing against Canadian Michelle Li, was strongly favoured to progress to the last-eight stage on Friday.
Saina could well spend a sleepless night, pondering on how she is to solve the Tai conundrum, for she owns a dreadful 5-14 career record against the 25 year old Taiwanese, having lost twelve times in an unbroken reel in the six years since she won their Swiss Open clash in March 2013.
The defending champion's deception and artistry have consistently put furrows on the brows of the Indian, and she has managed to take just a solitary game off Tai in the past four years " the middle game of their bout at the Denmark Open in October 2018 at 21-13, only to find her antagonist blitz through the decider at 21-6. Less than a week later, at the French Open, Tai was to win in straight games at 22-20, 21-11.
The third Indian left in the fray at this All England after the opening skirmishes, Sai Praneeth, met his Waterloo at the hands of Hong Kong's Ng Ka Long Angus, who had shocked the Indonesian No 8 seed, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, in three entertaining games in the previous round on the opening day.
Praneeth, who had sidelined compatriot and sparring-partner at the Pullela Gopichand Academy, HS Prannoy, by a 21-19, 21-19 scoreline on Wednesday, was unable to make much of an impression against the speedy, hard-hitting Angus, and lost by a 21-12, 21-17 scoreline in five minutes over the half-hour mark.
Angus, who trailed in the initial reaches of the encounter, caught up with his Indian rival at 10-all, and was then never headed off as Praneeth proved a half-step slow on his feet, in comparison with the Hong Kong player. The latter's superiority in the second stanza was never in doubt, as he took a big lead after 3-all, and remained ahead by three to four points all the way to the tape.
As had been predicted before the onset of the competition, this year's All England has seen upsets galore, with several fancied players falling by the wayside in the opening two rounds. Among the men, the third, fourth and fifth seeds have been eliminated " Taiwan's Chou Tien Chen lost by the slimmest of margins at 22-24 in the third game against China's Huang Yuxiang, who himself was beaten in three games on Thursday by Indonesia's Tommy Sugiarto, at 22-24, 21-17, 21-16.
The No 4 seed, Chen Long of China, a two-time world champion (2014, 2015) and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, had to taste humble-pie in straight games at 16-21, 17-21 at the hands of up-and-coming Dane, Rasmus Gemke.
Fifth-seeded South Korean, Son Wan Ho, was forced to retire with a leg injury at 5-14 in the second game against Japan's Kenta Nishimoto after losing the first at 21-23; but Nishimoto did not survive long, being tamed in the second round by compatriot and fellow Thomas Cupper, Kanta Tsuneyama at 21-19, 21-13.
The women's singles witnessed the unceremonious opening-day departure of two seeds in the lower half of the draw " India's fifth-seeded PV Sindhu, at the hands of Korean Sung Ji Hyun by a 21-16, 20-22, 21-18 verdict; and Thailand's No 7 seed, Ratchanok Intanon, beaten by China's Chen Xiaoxin after holding a match-point in the second game, at 21-23, 24-22, 21-14.
The top seeds in the men's doubles, Indonesia's Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon, also bit the dust on the opening day, beaten after a wonderfully fast-paced and entertaining encounter against China's Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng, at 19-21,22-20, 17-21.
The second seeds in the women's doubles, the 2016 Olympic champions, Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo of Japan, were also shown the door in their lung-opener by Koreans Chang Ye Na and Jung Kyung Eun by a 17-21, 21-10, 19-21 scoreline. Takahashi and Matsutomo had lost a close German Open final to China's Due Yue and Li Yinhui, barely three days earlier.
Indeed, fluctuating form and lingering injuries have resulted in a drop in the performances of many of the fancied players, leaving several of the stellar results at this All England a virtual toss-up!