There seems to be something about the Singapore air that infuses courage, verve and the will to fight into the lungs of Indian shuttler Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth.
Two years ago, the Andhra native had won the first Superseries title of his career by downing his buddy and regular sparring partner, Kidambi Srikanth, for the Singapore Open crown. On Wednesday, he almost achieved the unthinkable, stretching Japanese world champion and top seed, Kento Momota, over the full distance, before capitulating at 19-21, 21-14, 22-20 in a titanic 72-minute first-round battle of the $355,000 prize money World Tour badminton championship.
Barring Praneeth, all the other top Indian singles exponents " PV Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Kidambi Srikanth and Sameer Verma, as also veteran war-horse Parupalli Kashyap, who came through the qualifying ranks " moved smoothly into the second round with comfortable victories. Only HS Prannoy had to struggle for three minutes over the hour mark before he could subdue Frenchman Brice Leverdez with a rearguard 11-21, 21-16, 21-18 triumph.
Really, Praneeth would not have been flattered if he had come through his gruelling encounter with Momota. History shows that the Pullela Gopichand Academy trainee, currently sitting on the 20th spot in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings, has beaten Momota, two years his junior, in two of their four career meetings.
However, those two victories had come as far back as 2013, when the Japanese shuttler was in his teens and nowhere near the force he became after mid-2018; and should, therefore, be considered inconsequential. On the last occasion that the two players had crossed swords, in the World Championships at Nanjing in August 2018, Momota had simply decimated the Indian, conceding only a dozen points per game.
On Wednesday, the 26-year-old Praneeth played a brilliant controlled game against the left-handed Japanese star, and used his full array of strokes to make a superb comeback from a 12-15 deficit, to annex the first game. He fell behind early in the second stanza, and wisely decided after trailing 8-16 that he would save his breath for the third game.
When the world champion took a 15-9 lead in the decider, it looked like curtains for the Indian, particularly as stamina has been his bugbear for the past couple of years. It was, therefore, heartwarming to see him fight every inch of the way to the tape, even saving two match-points at 20-18, and giving Momota a real scare.
Perhaps Praneeth's compatriot, Prannoy, can do on the morrow what the former narrowly failed to achieve. It is true that the Kerala lad trails Momota 0-4 in career meetings, but it is also relevant that the two have not bumped into each other in the three years since April 2016.
The Japanese player is suddenly looking far more vulnerable than he was when he bagged the world title in Nanjing, while Prannoy appears far more like the player he was in November 2017, when he won the Indian National championship in Nagpur, before a wrongly treated corn in his foot laid him low for several months last year.
Despite this defeat, the sizeable Indian crowd at the Singapore Indoor Stadium had much to cheer for throughout the long opening day of the competition, when the Indian armada made light work of the opposition on offer.
Sindhu, seeded fourth, was not even required to work up a sweat as she disposed of Indonesian greenhorn Lyanny Alessandra Mainaky by a 21-9, 21-7 scoreline, in three minutes shy of the half-hour mark. She will duel on Thursday with Denmark's Mia Blichfeldt, who scored an impressive 21-16, 22-20 victory over former world junior champion Gregoria Mariska Tunjung of Indonesia.
Nevertheless, dark clouds loom on the horizon for the 23-year-old Hyderabadi. She is headed for a quarter-final clash with the 2012 Olympic gold medallist, Li Xuerui of China who, as had been widely expected, cut down Japan's eighth seeded Sayaka Takahashi to size with minimum fuss, at 21-13, 21-16.
Sindhu's conqueror in the last two Indian Nationals, Saina Nehwal, was kept on court for 43 minutes before she could show another Indonesian, Yulia Yosephin Susanto the exit door, by a 21-16, 21-11 scoreline. The eighth-seeded Saina will next encounter Thailand's former world junior runner-up, Pornpawee Chochuwong, who dismissed Indian qualifier Mugdha Agrey with almost contemptuous ease, by a 21-6, 21-8 verdict.
It will be remembered that the 21-year-old Chochuwong had beaten Saina, who is older by eight years, in the recent Malaysia Open, for the first time in five meetings. Thursday will provide the ideal opportunity for Saina to prove that the Kuala Lumpur result had been an aberration in their head-to-head record.
Another Indian winner was Kidambi Srikanth, who was given a fairly rough time by Thailand's fit and speedy Sitthikom Thammasin before prevailing at 21-17, 21-18. Thammasin, it will be remembered, had won the Tata Open last year at the expense of Lakshya Sen; and gave Srikanth a decent workout, though the Indian did not, at any stage, appear in danger of losing the match.
The Indian spearhead next takes on Danish old-timer, Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus, who pipped Japan's Kanta Tsuneyama at the tape. Srikanth leads the 33-year-old Dane 3-2 in career meetings, but it must be appreciated that the Indian won easily at 21-16, 21-10 on the last occasion that the two met " at the Denmark Open in October last year.
Sameer Verma won untroubled at 21-14, 21-6 against Thai qualifier Suppanyu Avihingsanon, and will clash with China's Lu Guangzu, who eliminated Indonesia's eighth-seeded Tommy Sugiarto by a 21-17, 21-18 margin. It will be a far from an easy match for Verma, who is tied at 1-1 in head-to-heads with the 22-year-old Chinese, losing without a whimper at the Australian Open in May last year, but then turning the tables in three games at the Syed Modi International in November.
One must reserve a word of praise for 32-year-old Parupalli Kashyap, who came through two qualifying rounds to notch a notable 21-19, 21-14 first-round victory in the main tournament over Denmark's Rasmus Gemke. Kashyap has earned a second-round meeting with two-time former world champion, Chen Long, who was given a trying time in the second game by promising young Dane Anders Antonsen, before he could scamper to a 21-14, 21-18 win.
After going through all these feel-good details, it was jarring, but unfortunately essential, to hear a querulous note as a peroration.
The opening day of this Singapore Open was slated to see the exit of a former world champion, since two of them were down to meet each other in the opening round of the men's singles. What remained to be seen was whether it would be the 2017 world champion Viktor Axelsen of Denmark who would exit the tournament, or the legendary Chinese he had beaten in the final of that championship, five-time former world champion, Lin Dan.
In the event, it was the Chinese ace, fresh from his fabulous triumph at the Malaysian Open last Sunday, who chose to pack his bags and take his leave of the fans. Yes, the definitive word is "chose", since he left the Singapore Indoor Stadium well before he had completed his match against the lanky Dane " at 20-16, game-point, for Axelsen in the opening game.
One news agency termed it "a day to forget for the organisers", as the 35-year-old Chinese left-hander first had a heated exchange with a line judge who, in his opinion, had made several bad line calls. Then he proceeded to blast the organisers for scheduling what had been touted as the Match of the Day on Court 4, instead of on one of the two centre show courts.
Super Dan started the match from the point where he had left in the Malaysia Open final against Chen Long; and moved into a commanding 6-1 lead before two consecutive bad line calls changed the mood and complexion of the match. There was then a succession of poor line calls, mainly against the Chinese player, and it was a disputed call at 13-19 that finally broke the camel's back.
The two-time Olympic gold medallist raged like he had never done in his illustrious career, and mutinously played another two points before abruptly quitting when he was down 16-20. Axelsen, always one to call a spade a spade, felt that Lin's act of retiring on game-point against him was not the most sporting thing to do, whatever the provocation; and was "bad for the sport".
The jury is still out on that one¦