Japan Open 2019: PV Sindhu gets golden chance to avenge loss to Akane Yamaguchi; Kidambi Srikanth faces HS Prannoy upfront

Shirish Nadkarni

There would have been the combative gleam of a true warrior in the eyes of PV Sindhu when she would examine the women's singles draw of the 2019 Japan Open badminton championships, opening from Tuesday at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza in Tokyo €" the scene of next year's Olympic Games.

Barring her path to the semi-finals, and therefore projecting a quarter-final meeting on Friday (26 July) is the Indonesia Open champion, Japan's Akane Yamaguchi, who had stunned the Indian with a totally unexpected show of sustained aggression and bodyline play in the final last Sunday.

There is no doubting that, between her own cerebral powers and those of her new coach, South Korea's Kim Ji Hyun, the 24-year-old Hyderabadi will have worked out a suitable counter to the storming tactics that Yamaguchi employed in Jakarta, by the time their projected quarter-final comes round.

Before that mouth-watering clash, however, Sindhu's will have to win her lung-opener against Han Yue, one of a rich  crop of 19 year olds that has emerged as China's answer to the retirement of the likes of Wang Yihan, Wang Shixian and Sun Yu, and the visible decline of the injury-prone Li Xuerui. Sindhu owns a 1-0 career record against the Chinese teenager, having beaten Han in straight games at the China Open in November 2017.

Should she repeat her 2017 triumph over Han, Sindhu will take on either Scotland's Kirsty Gilmour or local player Aya Ohori, whom she had edged in three games in Jakarta last week, and against whom she owns a 7-0 career head-to-head record, following her first-round triumph in Jakarta. Against Gilmour, the record is 1-1, with Sindhu winning their last clash at the 2016 Malaysia Masters, over three years ago.

A win in this second round would put Sindhu on course to plot her revenge against her Indonesia Open conqueror, Yamaguchi, against whom she leads 10-5 in career head-to-heads. It would be a fabulous opportunity to prove that her loss to Yamaguchi in Jakarta was an aberration, and that her new-found partnership with coach Kim, that delivered memorable wins over the higher-ranked Nozomi Okuhara and Chen Yufei, could take her far along the path to the world championship title at Basel.

The Indian contingent will be at near-full strength at the Japan Open, with flag-bearer Sindhu's foray being buttressed by four men's singles (Kidambi Srikanth, HS Prannoy, B Sai Praneeth and Sameer Verma) players qualifying for the main draws on the basis of their BWF ranking.

There are also two Indian pairs each in the men's and mixed doubles, and a solitary duo in the women's doubles. However, an injured Saina Nehwal has opted out of this tournament, just as she had done in Jakarta a week ago.

Even the seedings list in Tokyo is almost identical to what it had been at the Indonesia Open, with reigning world champion Kento Momota and Chinese Taipei's World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying, being given pride of place; and Srikanth and Sindhu being seeded eighth and fifth, respectively.

The almost unbelievable coincidence is that Hong Kong's 37th ranked Wong Wing Ki Vincent has once again been promoted from the ranks of the reserves into the spot vacated by the erstwhile third seed, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark for the second successive tournament.

It will be recalled that Wong made the most of his good fortune in Jakarta, and battled his way to the semi-finals, where he was laid low by the eventual runner-up, Anders Antonsen. This time, he has been clubbed with China's Huang Yu Xiang, and could bump into the winner of Indonesia's Tommy Sugiarto and Frenchman Brice Leverdez in his next outing. All these players are placed in Chinese fifth seed Chen Long's quarter of the draw.

As for Srikanth, he gets compatriot and sparring-partner, HS Prannoy, as his first-round opponent, and takes into the clash a winning 4-1 head-to-head record, including wins in the last four meetings. The winner takes on either Denmark's Rasmus Gemke or Chinese Taipei's Wang Tzu Wei in the second round, with fourth seed and Indonesia Open winner, Chou Tien Chen, lurking at the quarter-final stage.

Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth, currently occupying the 23rd berth in the BWF rankings, has drawn Japan's World no 10, Kenta Nishimoto, as his opening-round opponent on Tuesday, and takes a 1-1 career record into the match, with both matches having been played in 2017. Their winner has a second-round appointment with either Olympic champion Chen Long or the latter's opening-round antagonist, Kanta Tsuneyama of the host nation.

The fourth Indian in the fray, Sameer Verma, opens his campaign in Tokyo against Denmark's hugely talented Anders Antonsen, who fought a titanic battle in the Indonesia Open final on Sunday against Taiwanese Chou before settling for second place. Verma, ranked 12th in the world, is literally snapping at the heels of Antonsen, who occupies the 11th rung on the BWF ladder.

The two have met thrice in the course of their careers, and the super-fit Dane holds a 2-1 lead, having beaten Verma in three games when the two had last met each other €" at the Korea Open in September 2018. It is significant to note that the 22-year-old Antonsen had won at 15-21, 21-16, 21-7, totally dominating the decider against the 24-year-old Indian.

Whoever wins this joust should have a clear sail-through to at least the quarter-finals, following the expected withdrawal of their projected second-round opponent, second-seeded Shi Yuqi. The Chinese star ricked his ankle badly at the Istora Gelora Bung Karno during his clash last Thursday against Antonsen, and is out for at least a few weeks.

Shi's spot in the draw has been given to Hong Kong's Lee Cheuk Yiu, who has drawn Malaysian Lee Zii Jia as his first-round opponent. Neither of these players ought to trouble either Antonsen or Verma, after these two have settled their differences on Wednesday.

India's two men's doubles pairs have challenging first-round clashes, and good enough draws to take them deep into the tournament. Manu Attri and Sumeeth Reddy take on Malaysia's Goh Sze Fei and Nur Izzuddin, while Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty cross swords with Englishmen Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge.

If Rankireddy and Shetty were to clear this hurdle, they would have a relatively easy second round against the winners of the tie between South Koreans Soi Solgyu €" Seo Seung Jae and China's Huang Kai Xiang €" Liu Cheng, the latter promoted from the reserves after the last-minute withdrawal of the eighth seeds, Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen of Denmark.

The women's doubles will witness India's sole contenders, Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy, pitted against Koreans Kim So Yeong and Kong Hee Yong. A win in this duel will have them taking on Chinese fourth seeds, Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan, in the second round.

Sikki Reddy has, however, been given the toughest of opening rounds in the mixed doubles, as she and Pranaav Jerry Chopra bump into top seeds and World no 1, Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong, fresh from their success at the Indonesia Open. It would be like asking for the moon to expect Chopra and Reddy to conquer the all-conquering Chinese combination.

The other Indian duo of Rankireddy and Ponnappa have a far better chance against Germans Marvin Seidel and Linda Efler; and should go through for a pre-quarter-final meeting with Thailand's no 4 seeds, Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai. There is a reason to hope for exceptional performance from the Indians, for they would not have to take on the top seeds Zheng and Huang until at least the semi-finals.

It may be noted that the Japan Open is a BWF World Tour Super 750 event, carries prize money of $750,000, and is second in importance in the Asia-Pacific region only to the just-concluded Indonesia Open.

The prizes in Tokyo are reasonable, if not as hefty as they were in Jakarta. Each singles winner gets a purse of $52,500 (compared to $87,500 at the Indonesia Open) and 11,000 ranking points, which would be very useful in the race to qualification for next year's Olympiad. The runners-up take home $25,500 and 9,350 points, while the losing semi-finalists have to rest content with $10,500 and 7,700 points.

The importance of producing good performances at the Japan Open can hardly be over-emphasised as, along with the Thailand Open next week, it allows a couple of final opportunities to tune-up for the World Championships in Basel in the third week of August.

Also See: Japan Open 2019: PV Sindhu looks to bounce back quickly after deflating loss in Indonesia Open final, Saina Nehwal to return to action

Indonesia Open 2019: PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth make impressive starts to enter second round; B Sai Praneeth ousted

Indonesia Open 2019: Chance for India's out-of-form shuttlers to redeem themselves; Kidambi Srikanth favoured to reach semi-finals

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