Hong Kong Open: Kidambi Srikanth pays the price for going against grain in straight-games loss to Lee Cheuk Yiu

Harshit Rakheja

As the supple wrists at the net complemented the inch-perfect jump smashes, local favourite Lee Cheuk Yiu became yet another instalment in the expanding line of sprightly young shuttlers €" read An Se Young's win over PV Sindhu €" preying on the more seasoned veterans this year on the BWF World Tour.

The casualty this time around was the lone Indian remaining in the fray and former World No 1 Kidambi Srikanth, who was playing in his first semi-final in over eight months. Evidently, there was a reason for his loss.

None benefit from going against the grain of their being. In the past, Srikanth had shone for his unceasing aggressive play where his smashes came like pile-drivers, predictably slotted down the line and yet, unreturnable for the likes of World No 1 players Chen Long and Lee Chong Wei.

However, on Saturday, the Indian was handcuffed into playing a defensive brand of badminton while the 23-year-old Cheuk brought out his best game which was anything but conventional.

If the initial passage of play saw him race ahead to a 10-1 lead, it was largely down to the pace of play that he was dictating, aided by his speedy one-two combinations. Cheuk would smash with all his might, forcing a tame return from Srikanth, before rushing to the net and swatting the shuttle for the point.

There was a reason to think that Srikanth had slumped to the deficit for he had been caught unaware. An experienced player like him? He knew better than to go the full hog at the outset. The Indian was bound to get some points back. It was only a matter of time before his smashes came for the head of the youngster from Hong Kong who was riding on the back of rapturous support from the local crowd. Or so we thought.

File photo Kidambi Srikanth. AFP

File photo Kidambi Srikanth. AFP

Things never changed for the duration of the first game. As the rallies festered with Srikanth finding his footing somewhat, Cheuk, fearing an onslaught, flipped his own game. It showed that he wasn't a one-trick pony. There were plenty of shots in his arsenal, all working as winners when the smash wasn't there.

After a longish rally where Srikanth would trump the Hongkonger and earn the serve, the next point ended in a jiffy. Srikanth, tensed by the long exchange for the previous point, would be on his toes, expecting the high-lift from Cheuk.

However, the HongKonger would opt for the deceptive flourish. A fake turn of the arm from Cheuk and Srikanth would be moving backwards in anticipation, only to see his opponent drop the shuttle close to the net.

Srikanth, remorseful for he had fallen prey to the simplest bit of deception yet again, would steal a glance towards his coaches, the determined look in his eyes suggesting that he won't let it happen again.

But it did, plenty of times during those 42 minutes on court as Cheuk proved that his quarter-final victory over World No 5 Viktor Axelsen was no fluke. That there was some substance to the sprightliness after all, as Srikanth found out the hard way.

Evidently, Cheuk's was no wham-boom show. Once he had set a pattern for himself which Srikanth came to expect and timed his movements accordingly, the HongKonger brought in the change-ups.

The high-lift would make way for the drop. The full-blooded smash from the back would make way for Cheuk slicing his racquet at the shuttle, producing a loopy return which crossed the net by a whisker and fell to the court quickly, not leaving the Indian any chance of returning.

And hence, the first game came to a close, Cheuk romping home 21-9, Srikanth not knowing what hit him but itching to find an answer to the puzzle

It seemed he almost did, egged on by the 'India Jeetega' chants which grew in flavour as Srikanth aroused expectations of the match going to a decider, racing to a 15-9 lead in the second game post the interval.

Soon enough, the Indian brought up five match points as Cheuk hit a block of sorts in his imperious rhythm. Tiredness crept in it seemed for the HongKonger when Srikanth abstained from hitting the shuttle high but pushing it back and forth, drawing the errors from his opponent.

Tellingly though, the Indian's smashes were nowhere as killer as his opponent's and therein lay the problem. Five game points were squandered bit by bit in the most dismal fashion by Srikanth who couldn't close the rallies when the opportunity emerged.

All the while, Cheuk inched closer to drawing level. At 18-20, Srikanth played the lift but the shuttle went long. Cheuk now had a mischievous smile on his face, as if sensing the tide turning in his favour.

Post-match though, he revealed that he had known it from the first game itself. The realisation was merely kicking in again. "I was nervous going into the match, but when I saw that I was up 10-1, I realised he was even more nervous than me."

Five game points behind him and the nervousness was bound to grow for Srikanth. He spilt a couple more chances, saved a match point before making a mess of a backhand return to hand Cheuk the win 21-9, 25-23, and his first final at a major tournament.

While on paper, a semi-final run at the Hong Kong Open reads well, it's important to state that Srikanth had to play just one full match €" against fellow Indian and World No 38 Sourabh Verma €" in the second round.

Bloodier clashes were on the cards against tougher opponents but a fortuitous turn of events for Srikanth saw World No 1 Kento Momota concede their first-round clash as he pulled out of the tournament.

Later, World No 4 Chen Long retired midway during their quarter-final encounter.

Fatigue has been the talk of the week after Indian Chief National Coach Pullela Gopichand attributed the dip in performances of Indian shuttlers to the unforgiving schedule. However, that argument doesn't stand true for Kidambi Srikanth, who's had a horror run of late, managing just one quarter-final appearance in a major tournament, at the World Championships in August.

The string of early exits afforded Srikanth plenty of time to recover and go back to the drawing board, tweak his strategies for the next tournament. Just last month, Srikanth made consecutive first-round exits from the Denmark and French Open. He then pulled out of this month's Fuzhou China Open. The intermittent period of rest and recovery hasn't proved very helpful though.

By the Indian's own admission, there weren't many excuses to be made for his straight-games loss to Lee Cheuk Yiu, except maybe one. "Well, I couldn't convert a 20-16 lead, I can't complain. He started really well, and the local conditions suited him. The conditions were tricky, but this is the semi-final stage, so I can't complain."

Also See: Hong Kong Open: Local hope Lee Cheuk-yiu stuns Viktor Axelsen to set up semi-final clash against Kidambi Srikanth

Hong Kong Open: Kidambi Srikanth loses semi-final clash to Lee Cheuk Yiu in straight games as India's campaign comes to end

Hong Kong Open: Kidambi Srikanth enters semi-finals after China's Chen Long concedes QF clash due to injury

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