Japan Open 2018: PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth have scores to settle from Asian Games; HS Prannoy faces a test of fire

Shirish Nadkarni
It appears evident that Srikanth requires some fresh coaching inputs, while Sindhu sorely needs the services of a sports psychologist to help her overcome her end-game blues.

World champion Kento Momota's clinical 21-9, 21-10 vivisection of the dangerous Dane, Anders Antonsen, set in motion the 2018 Japan Open badminton championships, at which virtually all the world's top players, with the notable exception of Saina Nehwal, are taking part.

If anything, Momota has gained even more speed and confidence than he displayed in Nanjing last month, when he annexed the world crown at the expense of local favourite Shi Yuqi of China by a 21-11, 21-13 scoreline that was every bit as daunting as his demolition of Antonsen in his home tournament at the Tokyo's Musashino Forest Sports Plaza on Tuesday morning.

The Japanese left-hander sent out an unequivocal message to defending champion Viktor Axelsen, the man from whom he took over the world title on 5 August this year, that the Dane, in spite of his top ranking in this year's competition, will find it a monumental task to cross the semi-final hurdle, where the two are scheduled to bump into each other.

Three-time world champion Carolina Marin of Spain, who, like Axelsen, will be defending the Japan Open title she had won last year at the expense of China's fellow southpaw, He Bingjiao, should find it a mite easier to at least make the final, for she is in the other half as the long-reigning World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei.

Badminton aficionados with long memories will recall the sequence of events at last year's Japan Open, when the 2017 world champion Nozomi Okuhara tamed India's PV Sindhu at the pre-quarter-final stage by a facile 21-18, 21-8 margin, went on to beat Chinese-American Zhang Beiwen by a much tougher 21-16, 23-21 scoreline in the quarter-finals, but then had to concede a walkover to Marin in the semi-finals as injury prevented her from taking the court in the penultimate round.

Marin, on her part, had waltzed through her earlier rounds, taking in stride Saina and local poster girl, Akane Yamaguchi, both in comfortable straight games. The Spaniard, who initially wanted to be a professional flamenco dancer, took full advantage of the additional rest day she got on the day of the semi-finals, and edged Bingjiao 23-21 in the first game of the title reckoning, before stepping on the gas pedal, and demolishing the Chinese player at 21-12 in the second game.

Marin, seeded No 6 at this year's $7,00,000 event (more than double the $3,25,000 that was on offer last year, with sponsors Yonex and Daihatsu pouring more money into the tournament), opens against Japan's Saena Kawakami, and is slated to face Thailand's fourth seeded Ratchanok Intanon in the quarter-finals.

Having recovered her awesome speed of foot, and with her recent record against Intanon being almost without blemish, the aggressive Marin should romp through to a semi-final reckoning with either second-seeded Yamaguchi or fifth-ranked Chinese, Chen Yufei, a semi-finalist against Bingjiao last year.

As for Sindhu, who is being fast recognised as one of the most formidable women on the world badminton circuit, she takes the court first against Japanese Uber Cupper Sayaka Takahashi, later in the day on Tuesday; and should progress to a second-round meeting with the talented, but inconsistent, Gao Fangjie of China, who has a lung-opener against Indian Vaishnavi Reddy Jakka, promoted from the reserve ranks.

Should the third-seeded Sindhu vault these two hurdles, as she is widely expected to do, she should have a routine outing in the quarter-finals against any one of four players who are all unseeded in a section of the draw vacated by the 2017 finalist, He Bingjiao, a last-minute withdrawal through injury. That would catapult Sindhu into a semi-final reckoning with top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying, who would need to get past local ace and No 8 seed, Nozomi Okuhara, at the quarter-final stage.

As for the men, Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei, the silver medallist to Axelsen at last year's competition, is missing from the fray, as a result of injury, giving Shi Yuqi the honour of being the second seed, placed at the bottom of the draw. Shi had accounted for India's HS Prannoy at the quarter-final stage last year by an impressive 21-15, 21-14 scoreline, but had made no impression on Lee in the semi-finals.

Prannoy's compatriot, Kidambi Srikanth, had also fallen at the last-eight stage, a 17-21, 17-21 victim to the virtuosity of Axelsen, who had come to the 2017 Japan Open brimming with confidence after his triumph at the World Championships in Glasgow. The match had been much closer than the scores suggest, for Srikanth had been in the midst of a red-hot run of form that had seen him bag four Superseries titles and a runner-up spot in a single year.

This time, Srikanth, seeded seventh, and in rather indifferent form, opens his campaign against Huang Yuxiang of China, and then faces the winner of the first-round contest between two energetic battlers, Hans Kristian Solberg Vittinghus of Denmark and Wong Wing Ki Vincent of Hong Kong.

Considering his unexpected 21-23, 19-21 reverse at the hands of the World No 28 Wong, at the recent Asian Games, Srikanth has a score to settle. Should he conquer the demons in his mind, and hit top gear against either Wong or Vittinghus, he will move through to a quarter-final duel with South Korea's No 4 seed, Son Wan Ho, who is returning to the circuit after an injury break.

There will be no free lunches for Prannoy, who did not distinguish himself at the Jakarta Asiad, after bowing out in three games at 12-21, 21-15, 15-21 to Thailand's Kantaphon Wangcharoen. The Kerala-born Pullela Gopichand Academy trainee will seek to redeem his battered reputation in a lung-opener against Asian Games gold medallist Jonatan Christie of Indonesia.

It will be no easy task, as the 21-year-old Indonesian is playing better than at any stage of his fledgling career. Even if he wins, Prannoy faces a test of fire against either the No 8 seed, Ng Ka Long Angus of Hong Kong or the bustling, diminutive Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, runner-up to Christie at Jakarta after holding match-point in the second game of their title clash. All these players are bunched in Axelsen's quarter of the draw.

The only other Indian in the men's singles is last Sunday's Hyderabad Open winner, Sameer Verma, who faces South Korean Lee Dong Keun in his opening match. Verma has then to contend with the winner of the first-round tie between another Korean, Son Wan Ho, and Japan's own Kazumasa Sakai, who had a breakout season last year by reaching his first Superseries Premier final at the Indonesia Open, where he had lost to Srikanth.

All these players will be seen in action during the evening session on Tuesday; and all will seek to clear their opening challenges in a tournament that marks the start of the crowded schedule of the second half of the newly-launched World Tour.

Also See: Asian Games 2018: I'm sure PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal will crack Tai Tzu-ying's game, says Pullela Gopichand

Asian Games 2018: PV Sindhu sets up gold-medal match with Tai Tzu Ying after beating Akane Yamaguchi in semis

Japan Open 2018: PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth to lead Indian challenge; Saina Nehwal, B Sai Praneeth pull out

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