India's most durable and accomplished shuttler, Saina Nehwal, was in better physical shape on the courts of the Singapore Indoor Stadium than she had been at the Axiata Arena in last week's Malaysia Open badminton championships, but was still nowhere near her vaunted form.
Nevertheless, the 29-year-old Hissar-born player ended up as one of four Indian singles players to make the quarter-final grade, when she marshalled her limited resources judiciously to gain a revenge 21-16, 18-21, 21-19 victory over Thailand's former junior world champion, Pornpawee Chochuwong, to whom she had lost in Kuala Lumpur a week ago.
The monumental effort that Nehwal would have had to put in, to last the duration of the 67-minute Singapore Open second-round clash, in the wake of the severe gastric trouble she had first suffered during her All England campaign last month, would have taken a lot out of her, and possibly rendered her stiff and stale for Friday's quarter-finals against the No 2 seed, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan. The 2017 world champion played her usual attritional game to wear down Thailand's spunky Busanan Ongbamrungphan at 18-21, 21-15, 21-13 in five minutes over the hour mark.
Even as Nehwal was stretched over the rack by Chochuwong, her compatriot and No 4 seed, PV Sindhu, had matters a mite easier against Dane Mia Blichfeldt, and won by a 21-13, 21-19 scoreline in 40 minutes. The willowy 23-year=old Hyderabadi will have the first-ever meeting on Friday with Chinese teenager Cai Yanyan, who did the Indian a good turn by knocking out the dangerous Li Xuerui. The latter had taken eighth-seeded Sayaka Takahashi of Japan in her stride in the opening round.
The 19-year-old Cai, who normally plays doubles in the company of Gao Fangjie and has only recently turned to singles, upset the 28-year-old Xuerui by a 21-16, 21-18 verdict in a scrappy second-round match in which the 2012 Olympic gold medallist appeared a half-step slower on her feet than usual. The scoreline, incidentally, was a reversal of the 21-16, 21-18 result in Xuerui's favour in last week's Malaysian Open.
As in the women's singles, two Indians strode into the last-eight stage of the men's singles. Sameer Verma ran up an efficient 21-15, 21-18 victory over China's Lu Guangzu, but Kidambi Srikanth ran into a spot of bother in the second game of his 37-minute encounter with Denmark's Hans-Kristian Solberg Vittinghus, before escaping with a 21-12, 23-21 win in 37 minutes. The Indian kept his cool and revealed the extent of his vastly improved fitness while making up huge 3-12, 7-16 and 12-18 deficits in the second game before catching up with the 33-year-old Dane at 18-all, and then pinching the game over the extra points.
On Friday, Srikanth will have the unpleasant task of taking on his nemesis, world champion Kento Momota of Japan, who was simply ruthless while decimating the challenge of another Indian, HS Prannoy in a match also coincidentally lasting 37 minutes, at 21-11, 21-11.
The scores showed the extent of the ruthlessness of the Japanese left-hander, who had been all but beaten by B Sai Praneeth the previous day, and had done a Houdini act at 20-all in the decider. But Prannoy, it must be said, helped Momota's cause by conceding eight negative points in the unbroken nine-point string that the top seed reeled off from 12-11 in the second game.
Srikanth would be racking his brain to work out the strategy he needs to play against the Japanese ace in what will be their 15th career meeting. Momota leads their head-to-heads 11-3, and showed a clean pair of heels to the Indian after the two had been locked at 3-3 after their first half-dozen meetings. The last time Srikanth slipped it across Momota was at the India Open in March 2015; he has taken but a solitary game off the Japanese, and lost 16 games, in their eight meetings since then.
Sameer Verma was always in control of his second-round bout against Lu Guangzu, and notched a second successive win in three meetings with the Chinese player. The 24-year-old Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) native has a better chance on the morrow against Chinese Taipei's No 2 seed, Chou Tien Chen, who was too strong for Danish old-timer, Jan O Jorgensen, and wore down the former World No 2, for a 21-18, 21-10 verdict.
Sameer and Chou have clashed just once before, and Chou has come up trumps " in the Badminton Asia Championships, exactly a year ago. But Sameer had made the Taiwanese player sweat for his 23-21, 21-17 triumph; and today appears a far better player than he was in April 2018.
One must articulate yet another word of praise for veteran Parupalli Kashyap, who had come through two qualifying rounds to notch a notable 21-19, 21-14 first-round victory in the main tournament over Denmark's Rasmus Gemke. The 32-year-old Kashyap kept two-time former world champion, Chen Long, on court for 71 minutes on Thursday before bowing out of the competition with a 9-21, 21-15, 16-21 reverse.
In the paired events, it is worth mentioning one of the best results ever for Indian mixed doubles players. Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy showed poise and persistence while edging out the fifth seeds from Hong Kong, Tang Chun Man and Tse Ying Suet by a 21-17, 6-21, 21-19 margin. It was a 50-minute battle in which the Indians found themselves literally smashed off the court in the second game, and in need of regrouping swiftly " which they did.
In Friday's quarter-finals, the Indians will clash with the third-seeded Thailand pair of Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai, who notched a smooth 21-16, 21-14 win over China's Ou Xuanyi and Feng Xueying. Chopra and Reddy have done quite well to get this far but it would be a huge feather in their cap if they can account for the crack Thai combination. Since Reddy is not playing in the women's doubles in this tournament, she can concentrate all her energies on this one event.