Kuala Lumpur: Sometimes, the strangest of coincidences can lend an element of spice to the proceedings in an elite international sporting competition.
So it was that, on a day when India's iconic Saina Nehwal sailed through to the second round of the $750,000 Malaysia Open badminton championships, even as her compatriot, Sameer Verma was shown the door in his lung-opener. The fifth-seeded players in the men's and women's singles, both co-incidentally owning the surname Chen, bit the dust, albeit in contrasting fashion.
China's two-time former world champion Chen Long, who had bagged the most coveted title in the game in two successive years before the 2016 Olympics, lost his first-ever joust against talented Thai teenager, Kantaphon Wangcharoen, in shocking fashion, going down 21-23, 5-21 in a 48-minute first-round clash at the Axiata Arena in Kuala Lumpur Sports City.
While he is still relatively young, and will only celebrate his 30th birthday on 18 January next year, Chen is no longer seen as the immovable force he was when he bagged the world crown at Copenhagen in 2014, successfully defended that title at Jakarta in 2015, and went on to bag the gold medal at the Rio Olympics. A leg injury, immediately after the Olympics, took a long time to heal, and deprived him of the edge he had in foot-speed over his contemporaries.
Over the past two years, the smooth strides that covered the court so effectively, to defeat Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei in all three of those finals, have become much more hesitant, and the steep smash on both flanks is no longer as effective because Chen's movements have slowed down just that little bit, and given him less time to be on top of, or behind, the shuttle.
Indeed, while he was earlier being bracketed with compatriot Lin Dan and Malaysia's Lee as an all-time great, Chen has failed to demonstrate the same longevity as those worthies, who are fast approaching their 35th and 36th birthdays, respectively.
Of course, it is still too early to pen a requiem on his career, and he could yet return to scale the heights he did in the 2014-16 period. However, several younger players like Japan's Kento Momota, India's Kidambi Srikanth, Denmark's reigning world champion Viktor Axelsen and the new kid on the block, Wangcharoen (among others), are bound to make it much more difficult in future for Chen Long to grab the titles that matter.
It was not so much of a shock to see the Chinese star's fifth-seeded counterpart among the women, Chen Yufei, come to grief on Tuesday at the hands of reigning world champion, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan, at 21-15, 15-21, 11-21, in a battle royale that lasted eight minutes over the hour and saw the 20-year-old Chinese visibly wilting in the face of a relentless barrage of deep, accurate strokes from the indefatigable 23-year-old Japanese.
This was the third successive victory in as many career meetings for Okuhara, placed at No 8 on the BWF ladder, over the young Chinese, ranked three places above her, and considered the player at the forefront of the next generation of Chinese women shuttlers.
While the earlier wins had come in straight games, this one went the full distance, and showed that Yufei is beginning to bridge the gap on her redoubtable rival. Of course, concessions must be made for the fact that the Japanese, who won the 2017 World Championship from India's PV Sindhu in Glasgow, only returned to the international circuit in last month's Uber Cup, after spending months out of the game with a shoulder injury.
Still, it was stamina that tilted the scales in the Japanese player's favour. Not for nothing have Okuhara and her 20-year-old fellow-countrywoman, Akane Yamaguchi, occupying the second spot in BWF rankings, garnered the reputation of being two of the fittest players on the circuit.
Not only are they tireless, but they are also quick on their feet, and their strokes have unerring depth and accuracy. Under the guidance of their South Korean coach and former world doubles champion Park Joo Bong, they have learnt to wear down an opponent by keeping the rallies going, and letting their stamina weigh in the balance.
Lasting power should not have been an issue for Verma, who had beaten Sugiarto in their only previous meeting " at the Indian Open earlier this year. But the manner in which he was so totally outclassed on Tuesday by the ebullient Indonesian gave cause for concern over his physical fitness.
To lose by a 13-21, 5-21 scoreline in a matter of 32 minutes was not a feat that Verma would be proud of. Conceding a 7-16 lead in the first game was the ideal formula for inviting a quick pummelling; and, try as he might, the Indian could not emerge from his shell. After Sugiarto enlarged a 4-2 lead in the second game to 15-2, the writing was on the wall.
The redeeming factor for India, on a day when their two mixed doubles pairs were ruthlessly cut down to size, was the smooth confident manner in which Saina claimed her seventh consecutive victory over Yip Pui Yin, to take her career head-to-head tally against the Hong Kong player to 8-2. Saina took 42 minutes to put the issue beyond doubt by a 21-12, 21-16 margin.
The unseeded Indian, ranked tenth in the world, has on Wednesday a day's rest, during which to reflect on the manner in which she can reverse a lengthy losing streak against the obdurate Yamaguchi. The Japanese youngster had a harrowing time against Indonesia's Dinar Dyah Ayustine, before she could come through by a 17-21, 21-12, 21-13 scoreline in 46 minutes. But the fact remains, she did come through.
Yamaguchi had literally performed a Houdini act against Saina in the Japan-India Uber Cup clash last month, when she trailed 16-20 in the decider of their utterly absorbing contest. Somehow, the Japanese found the mental strength and gumption against one of the most implacable fighters on the women's circuit, and reeled off the final half-dozen points, to leave the Indian heartbroken and nursing her fifth consecutive loss in six meetings against the pint-sized Fukui native.
While India had contrasting results in the singles events on Tuesday, the country's two mixed-doubles combinations collectively lasted less than an hour against far higher-ranked opposition. Their abject capitulation brought the curtain down on the nation's participation in the mixed event.
Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy found the fourth-seeded Chinese pair of Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong far too good for them, and surrendered at 16-21, 12-21 in one minute over the half-hour mark. Rohan Kapoor and Kuhoo Garg were treated with scant respect by eighth-seeded He Jiting and Du Yue, and were ejected from the competition by a 21-9, 21-10 scoreline.
Wednesday will find three Indian singles players and one men's doubles pair attempting to vault their opening hurdles. Third seed PV Sindhu takes on Japanese left-hander Aya Ohori, to whom she has never lost in three earlier meetings. Kidambi Srikanth, seeded fourth, will duel with Denmark's Jan O Jorgensen, whom he has beaten on the most recent two occasions that they have clashed.
Unseeded B Sai Praneeth, who had beaten Srikanth for the Singapore Open title last year, has a tough outing against Taiwanese Wang Tzu Wei, ranked six spots above him at No 15. India's best doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who had skipped the Thomas Cup in May, return to competition with an opening outing against Japan's seventh seeded Takuto Inoue and Yuki Kaneko, and have an even chance of notching an upset win.