It was the singles stars, ably backed up by a former world champion men's doubles combination, that worked the trick for Bengaluru Raptors in their play-off semi-final of the Premier Badminton League's fourth edition (PBL-4) against Awadhe Warriors.
Kidambi Srikanth, unbeaten in six matches in the course of the league stage, and teammate and sparring partner, B Sai Praneeth, who had five victories in his half-dozen league matches, combined to bring the Raptors back into the reckoning after the Awadhe trump pairing of Mathias Christiansen and Ashwini Ponnappa had given their team a great start.
The powerful Indonesian combination of Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan then applied the finishing touches by trumping their Awadhe rivals, to secure an unbeatable 4-2 lead, with the women's singles still to play. In effect, it would probably have been a 4-3 triumph, for Awadhe's American-Chinese import, Beiwen Zhang, was likely to have been too strong for Vietnam's Vu Thi Thrang in the final clash.
The semi-final was akin to being a fresh tie, since the rivals had not bumped into each other at the league stage, which had involved six ties (not eight) for every one of the nine participant teams. There was, hence, little previous data on which to base individual match predictions, given that virtually all the doubles combinations were scratch pairings, brought together willy-nilly after the player auctions.
But Ashwini Ponnappa's much-improved netplay in recent times gave Christiansen the confidence that she would give him the kind of support that his regular mixed doubles partner Christinna Pedersen provides; and he was able to turn on the power and angles against the English pairing of Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith. It was a wisely chosen trump match by Awadhe, but proved to be a drab and disappointing encounter, as the one-sided scoreline of 15-7, 15-10 indicates.
With Awadhe taking a 2-0 lead after the first match, the pressure on Bengaluru's Praneeth must have been substantial, for he was playing the mercurial Lee Dong Keun, who has worked his way steadily up to the 27th spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings. The South Korean was sporting a mixed bag in PBL-4, with three wins and three defeats in his earlier six outings, while Praneeth had only been humbled by Mumbai Rockets' Sameer Verma in his opening match " and that, too, at 13-15 in the deciding game.
In the event, it turned out to be a no-contest, with Praneeth exhibiting excellent form and dictating the pace and trend of most of the rallies. The Indian relied on control, particularly at the net, and revealed tons of patience, refusing to give Lee the pace he relishes. Amazingly, Praneeth invariably scored in the flat-hitting duels, forcing Lee to either net the bird or miss the flight and take it on the body. The 15-9, 15-4 margin of defeat accurately showed just how superior the Bengaluru player was, on the day.
It was no different with Srikanth, who was pitted against Awadhe's icon player, Son Wan Ho, a die-hard stonewaller, who had spent several weeks in 2017 in the pre-eminent slot in the world rankings. The Indian ace was at his speedy and aggressive best, and was quick to pounce on anything even slightly short, even as Son appeared flat and lifeless, almost disinterested in the proceedings.
There was only an all-too-brief patch in the second game when the Korean sparked to life, displayed some much-needed aggression, and played three points at a blinding pace, to reduce the deficit from 6-11 to 9-11. But there, his resistance ended, as Srikanth tightened up in time, and coasted to a facile 15-7, 15-10 triumph, to bring Bengaluru back on level terms with Awadhe.
With the Lucknow side being virtually certain of bagging the women's singles, which was the fifth and final match on the schedule, the men's doubles match became a winner-take-all affair. And even the former world champion duo of Ahsan and Setiawan, who had won three of their four earlier matches in this PBL, felt the heat of being the trump for their team.
The Indonesians fumbled a handy 14-11 lead in the first game, to allow Lee Yang and Christiansen to force deuce, and play for the golden point. But that was the last anxious moment that Bengaluru faced in that crucial encounter. Once Ahsan and Setiawan had pocketed the first game, they cantered through the second, for a richly deserved 15-14, 15-9 victory, for an unbeatable 4-2 tie lead.
Bengaluru await the winners of Saturday's clash between defending champions Hyderabad Hunters and former winners Mumbai Rockets. The composition of the Mumbai squad is very similar to that of Bengaluru, for they have two excellent men's singles players in Sameer Verma and Denmark's Anders Antonsen, and a redoubtable men's doubles pairing of Koreans Lee Yong Dae and Kim Gi Jung, but a relatively weak women's singles player in Shriyanshi Pardeshi.
Verma, who surrendered his unbeaten record in this year's PBL by losing his last league match to Sai Praneeth in highly controversial circumstances (he lost a vital Hawk-eye challenge when the technology showed the shuttle landing on a most improbable spot outside the court) could have his hands full against Dutchman Mark Caljouw, who was also beaten in his final league match.
Antonsen, similarly, will have to be at his best if he is to get past the compact left-handed defence of the Korean veteran Lee Hyun Il. The Mumbai men's doubles twosome of captain Yong Dae and Gi Jung, whose PBL-4 results have been a mixed bag, will also have to strain every nerve and sinew if they are to get the better of Thai southpaw Bodin Issara and another Korean, Kim Sa Rang.
Hyderabad will have the upper hand in the women's singles, with skipper PV Sindhu likely to outpoint Pardeshi comfortably. One also sees the scales tip slightly in favour of the Hyderabad mixed doubles pairing of Issara and Korea's Eom Hye Won against Yong Dae and Indonesian Pia Bernadette Zebadiah, who have not been at their best in this tournament.
Thus, unless the two men's singles players and the men's doubles pair deliver for the Rockets, with one of these three bearing the burden of being the trump, we could well be seeing a repeat of last year's final between Hyderabad Hunters and Bengaluru Raptors (who were Bengaluru Blasters last year) on Sunday.