French Open 2018: Kidambi Srikanth faces Kento Momota test for title defence, PV Sindhu squares up against Beiwen Zhang

Shirish Nadkarni
Srikanth, Sindhu & Co have been seen to turn out almost reluctantly for India, in a manner that is directly antithetical to how tennis star Leander Paes would carry his heart on his sleeve and play his best while turning out in the country's colours.

At around this time, a year ago, Kidambi Srikanth had just won his third Superseries title of the year, and was getting set to attack a fourth. He had just bagged the Denmark Open crown, taming the lion in his own den, viz. beating the then reigning world champion Viktor Axelsen in front of Dane's own crowds in Odense, on his way to the top prize.

Today, as the Indian gets set to defend his French Open crown at the historical Stade de Coubertin (named after the man who launched the modern Olympics), he would realise that a lot has changed. Although Srikanth did touch the top rung of the Badminton World Federation ladder for an all-too-brief week in May, it was on a technicality, thanks to the postponement of a particular tournament in which Axelsen needed to defend a handful of points; and was not backed by the fistful of titles he had pocketed in 2017.

In fact, there has not been a single individual title to Srikanth's credit in 2018; just a solitary team gold medal and an individual silver at the Commonwealth Games on Australia's Gold Coast. Other vital elements have changed; Axelsen appears a pale shadow of the player he was last year. And looming over the shuttle sport is the shadow of a former junior world champion who realised his full potential by claiming the 2018 World Championship in Nanjing, earlier this year. Japan's Kento Momota.

After being banned for illegal gambling by his country's badminton association for a year in April 2016, at a time when he was already the World No 3 player, Momota accepted his punishment stoically, and returned to the circuit in April last year, with a ranking that was outside the top 250. Even though he was not allowed to play tournament badminton, he kept himself fit and practised regularly, biding his time when he could once again parade his wares on the global stage.

Making his way back by playing on the lowly Challenger circuit and accumulating the required points, the 24-year-old Momota aced the rankings table by hitting the summit on 27 September, at around the time that the draws for the French Open World Tour Super 750 championships were being made. His raw talent, passion to excel and be the best in the world were sufficient to see him make his way to the World No 1 spot far sooner than had been generally expected.

In the process, the Japanese southpaw collected an impressive 85,457 points from a mere 13 tournaments, powering ahead of second-ranked 22-year-old Chinese star Shi Yuqi (81,692 points from 16 tournaments), and relegating the 2017 world champion Axelsen (77,704 points from 12 tournaments) to the third spot.

With the points he collected from his Denmark Open win at the expense of Chinese Taipei's Chou Tien Chen (75,794 points from 20 events) on Sunday last, Momota is now comfortably ahead of the chasing pack. Indisposed Malaysian veteran Lee Chong Wei (67,973 points from 11 tournaments) is in fifth place, only marginally ahead of India's Kidambi Srikanth (67,845 points from 13 events).

It is for all the foregoing reasons that Srikanth will be defending the last of his four Superseries titles at the Stade Pierre de Coubertin in Paris from Tuesday. The 25-year-old Indian, who has been seeded fifth at the $750,000 prize money French Open, has suffered the enormous misfortune of being bracketed in the same quarter as the man whose game he has been unable to decipher €" his conqueror at the Denmark Open, Momota.

"I am very happy that I won the match, but there are many things that I need to improve in my game for the next match," was the humble assertion of Momota after he had beaten Taiwanese Chou in three tough games in Sunday's final at the Odense Sports Park.

The fact that the Japanese ace believes he can improve a lot more bodes ill for Srikanth as he opens his own campaign in Paris against the bustling Hong Kong player, Wong Wing Ki Vincent, whom he leads 6-3 in career head-to-head meetings. The statistics include three encounters this year alone, with the Indian winning at the Badminton Asia Championships in April, losing in the individual event of the Asian Games in August, and then beating Wong at the Japan Open in September.

The winner of the Srikanth-Wong tussle will be up against the winner of the opening-round match between Korean Lee Dong Keun and Thailand's Khosit Phetpradab, and it will be the man who emerges undefeated from these scraps that is slated to face off against Momota in the quarter-final.

The other Indians in the men's singles draw have even more challenging lung-openers in Paris. Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth will cross swords with the No 3 seed, Viktor Axelsen, while Sameer Verma, who fared so well in Odense last week, faces Indonesian Jonatan Christie, winner of the individual gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta. The winners of these two first-round matches bump into each other in the second round.

As for the women, World No 3 PV Sindhu has a great chance of gaining sweet revenge for her defeat at the hands of American-Chinese Beiwen Zhang in the first round of the Denmark Open last week. The two will face off against each other in Paris, and their winner has been given an equally onerous task of facing the victory of the first-round clash between Hong Kong's Cheung Ngan Yi and Japan's Sayaka Sato.

It will be recalled that Cheung had given Saina Nehwal a harrowing time in Odense, with the Indian saving two match-points while squeaking to a 24-22 win in their first-round encounter. The 28-year-old Indian faces Saena Kawakami of Japan.

Whoever goes through will run into the winner of the match between eighth-seeded Nozomi Okuhara and Spaniard Beatriz Corrales. Should Saina and Okuhara make it past their opening-round rivals, they will set up a repeat of their Denmark Open semi-final meeting which the Indian had won in a bruising three-gamer.

Three Indian men's doubles pairs have made the grade in Paris. National champions Manu Attri and Sumeeth B Reddy take on South Koreans Min Hyuk Kang and Kim Won Ho, with their winner slated to bump into the No 3 seeds, Liu Cheng and Zhang Nan of China or Danish old-timers Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen.

Chirag Shetty and Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, who had skipped the Denmark Open, have drawn the German duo of Jones Ralfy Jansen and Josche Zurwonne; and should go through for a second-round meeting with the fifth-seeded Danes, Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen.

The youthful combination of MR Arjun and Shlok Ramchandran, who had the distinction of winning the men's doubles title on Sunday at the Hellas Open in Greece, have been given a trial by fire against China's No 2 seeds, Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen. It would be the greatest win of their fledgling international careers if they were to upset the powerful Chinese pair.

With the top women's doubles combination of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy opting to give Paris a miss, it will be left to their juniors, Poorvisha S Ram and Meghana Jakkampudi, to see whether they can leave their own indelible impress on this tournament. They have been drawn in the same part of the draw as the No 4 seeds from Indonesia, Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu.

Two Indian pairs are in the fray for mixed doubles honours. Rankireddy and Ponnappa clash with the English husband-and-wife combination of Chris and Gabrielle Adcock, unseeded for the first time in living memory. An even more daunting outing awaits Rohan Kapoor and Kuhoo Garg, who have the top seeds, Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong blocking their path in the very first r

Even with this plethora of interesting matches on the menu, the Indian badminton fan will only raise two questions: Can Srikanth defend his French Open crown, with Momota in his way at the quarter-final stage? Can Sindhu reverse the trend of three narrow losses in a row against Beiwen Zhang?

Also See: Denmark Open: Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth storm into semi-finals with hard-fought victories

Denmark Open: Saina Nehwal storms into final with easy win over Gregoria Tunjung; Kidambi Srikanth suffers defeat

Denmark Open: Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth through to second round; third seed PV Sindhu ousted

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