Sunday's women's singles final at the $350,000 Indonesia Masters badminton championships in Jakarta will be a repeat of the Malaysia Masters semi-final that took place in Kuala Lumpur eight days back.
Indian shuttle queen Saina Nehwal qualified to cross swords again with reigning world and Olympic champion Carolina Marin of Spain after the two players beat higher ranked Chinese opponents at the Istora Senayan on Saturday. Saina, seeded eighth, staged a magnificent rearguard action in narrowly outpointing He Bingjiao, seeded sixth, by a 18-21, 21-12, 21-18 scoreline, while the fifth-ranked Spaniard pipped third-seeded Chen Yufei at the tape by a 17-21, 21-11, 23-21 verdict, after the 20 year old Chinese had saved six match-points.
In what was the first-ever meeting between the two players, the Indian veteran, who will turn 29 on 17 March, gave the talented Chinese left-hander " who was champion here in 2015 when she was just 17 years old " a lesson in tactics and steely determination with a stout-hearted performance that showed just how much she wanted to excel.
The sole aberration in Saina's heart-warming display was the loss of the first game after holding a handy 16-10 lead, painstakingly built up after an initial 6-6 dead heat. For some strange reason that one still finds hard to fathom, the Hissar-born Hyderabadi lost concentration and focus so completely that she conceded 11 of the next 13 points to hand Bingjiao the opening game on a platter.
Very rarely in the course of a distinguished career, which had seen her bag her first Superseries gold medal at the Indonesia Open in 2009, has Saina suffered such a mental meltdown when she has not been either exhausted or under severe pressure. It may be cruel to point out that one has seen such lapses in concentration in PV Sindhu's performances, but almost never in Saina's displays on court.
Even husband Parupalli Kashyap, who officiated as her courtside coach, tried hard to mask his disappointment, and struggled to find words to suggest what tactics she needed to employ from that point onwards. But Kashyap need not have worried over-much; Saina turned on the heat from the onset of the second stanza, and took a sizable jump from 3-all to 11-3, to virtually ensure that a decider would be played.
"Move faster, Saina, move faster!" Kashyap could be heard advising his wife at the start of the third game; and Saina heeded his exhortation to build up useful 9-4 and 10-6 leads. At this stage, she once again went off the boil, and Bingjiao upped the pace to shoot into a 12-10 lead.
Even though both players were gasping for breath, they did not concede even an inch during the rallies, and went toe-to-toe until 16-all, at which stage Saina's greater experience tilted the scales in her favour. The Indian had also wisely chosen the side with the stadium drift for the first game, so she had the side against the drift after the change of ends in the decider. She could hit as hard as she wanted, without fear that the shuttle would sail out at the rival baseline " as Bingjiao's did at a crucial juncture.
The most canny stroke that Saina played, to winkle out a desperately needed point, was at 19-18, when she intentionally hit a crosscourt smash to Bingjiao's backhand, after having peppered the left-hander's forehand sideline with smashes right through the game. It was a shot she had saved for use in a desperate situation.
That stroke caught Bingjiao unprepared; and before the Chinese youngster could recover from the disappointment of having foozled the return of smash on the 20th point, the Indian was home and dry; and into her second successive Indonesia Masters final. Saina had lost the 2018 title to Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei.
Marin's match with Chen virtually mirrored the trend of the Saina-Bingjiao clash, played two matches earlier. The fleet-footed 25-year-old Spaniard, shrieking like a demented banshee, as is her wont, was level with the Chinese third seed at 15-all, when she suddenly hit a rough patch, much as Saina had against Bingjiao, and lost the opener at 17-21.
Marin was totally untroubled in the second game, leading by huge margins from start to finish, to force a decider, where she seemed to be winning at a canter, with a 16-7 advantage. The Spaniard, however, reckoned without Chen's sterling fighting qualities; and the Chinese youngster slowly but steadily pulled things back.
Still, at 20-15, Marin was a solitary point away from having both feet in the final. Chen made the world and Olympic champion sweat as she saved all five match-points to force deuce, and saved a sixth match-point at 20-21. When Marin finally converted, she fell on her face and burst into tears with the sheer relief of having won the 66-minute cliff-hanger.
The fast-moving Spanish southpaw will be odds-on favorite to win the title on the morrow, for she leads Saina in their career head-to-head record by a 6-5 margin, with victories in their two most recent meetings. Marin had dished out a 21-6, 21-11 pummelling to the Indian at the semi-final stage of the 2018 World Championships in Nanjing, in August 2018, and also beaten Saina by a 21-16, 21-13 scoreline at the Malaysia Masters last week.
There were no surprises in the two men's singles semi-finals, with Denmark's Anders Antonsen eliminating local hope, Jonatan Christie by a 21-18, 21-16 margin in 43 minutes in what was a battle of the unseeded 21 year olds, even as reigning world champion and top seed, Kento Momota of Japan, ran roughshod over the 2017 world champion, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, at 21-15, 21-4 in exactly half an hour.
So dominant was Momota on the day that he made the towering Axelsen look like a club-level player in the second game, using power and angle in his smashes, and following them up swiftly to the net to put away even the slightly weak return. The Japanese left-hander's netplay was simply out of this world, and he tapped several of Axelsen's dribbles to cut the rallies ruthlessly short. By the mid-way stage of the second game, when Momota had built up a 11-3 lead, the Dane had totally given up the ghost.
It would take a very brave or intensely foolhardy man to put his shirt on Antonsen in Sunday's final, well though the youthful Dane has played in this competition. On the basis of the form he showed in Saturday's penultimate round clash against Axelsen, Momota seemed to have come from another planet to enjoy a Danish breakfast on successive days!