Sudirman Cup 2019: China proves to be a handful for tepid Indian squad; 17-year-old An Se Young guides South Korea to victory

Shirish Nadkarni
There was no miracle forthcoming on Wednesday from a listless Indian squad that expectedly went down without a whimper by a 5-0 scoreline to hosts and second seeds China

There was no miracle forthcoming on Wednesday from a listless Indian squad that expectedly went down without a whimper by a 5-0 scoreline to hosts and second seeds China in their second and final Group 1D clash of the 2019 Sudirman Cup badminton mixed team championship in Nanning.

Needing to beat the powerful Chinese by at least a 3-2 margin if they were to make the play-off quarter-finals at the expense of a youthful Malaysian side (to whom they had sensationally lost 2-3 on Tuesday), the Indians were never in the hunt, and managed to win just a solitary game in the long-drawn men's doubles clash, while being beaten comprehensively in all the other events.

In fact, the defeat suffered by India's mixed doubles nominees, Pranaav Jerry Chopra and N Sikki Reddy, in the opening match of the tie was positively embarrassing, and showed the wide chasm between the skills and mental approach of the two teams. China's second pair of Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping, ranked No 2 in the world, were ruthless in their 21-5, 21-11 demolition of the tepid Indian challenge in two minutes under the half-hour mark.

For the second day in a row, captain Kidambi Srikanth preferred to sit it out, releasing a statement that he had incurred an injury during practice. Those in the know were skeptical of the excuse, and felt it was strictly a damage control for the ill-advised decision of fielding Sameer Verma the previous day against the Malaysians, in what turned out to be the most crucial match of that tie.

Since there was no way that Srikanth would play against the Chinese after having ruled himself unfit, and with the Indians restricted in choice to Verma, since they had failed to take a third singles player (either HS Prannoy or B Sai Praneeth) along on the trip, it was the 24-year-old Dhar (Madhya Pradesh) native who took the court against the two-time former world champion, Chen Long.

The decision on China's part, to rest their best singles player, Shi Yuqi, and field the reigning Olympic gold medallist had been widely predicted, since Srikanth, who should normally have played, had a winning record against Shi, but trailed 1-6 in career meetings with Chen. Against Verma, the lanky 30-year-old World No 5 was 1-1, with his only loss coming from a walkover he had conceded to the Indian at last year's Hong Kong Open.

In the event, Verma did not play too badly, and certainly gave a far better account of himself than he had on the previous day against Lee Zii Jia. The Indian kept Chen on court for 71 minutes before reluctantly accepting defeat, and actually troubled the Chinese ace by taking a useful 14-8 lead in the opening stanza.

But when Chen turned on the gas, Verma was found wanting, and allowed his rival to catch up at 15-all, and then make a sprint to the tape. The doughty Indian kept on Chen's heels right through the second game, and even caught up with his opponent at 19-all before losing the game over the extra points, with a 17-21, 20-22 scoreline.

China's confidence that they were never in any danger of losing the tie became apparent when they fielded their second doubles combination of Han Chengkai and Zhou Haodong in place of their World No 2 pair, Liu Yuchen and Li Junhui, while India plumped for their best combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. The Indians played their hearts out, and jousted with their rivals all the way, but could not prevent an 18-21, 21-15, 21-17 Chinese triumph.

With the tie lost 3-0, along with the evaporation of their quarter-final hopes, the Indians went through the motions in the final two dead rubbers. Saina Nehwal, who took the court in preference to PV Sindhu, did not look anything like her bristling self, as she went down tamely to Chen Yufei by a 21-12, 21-17 margin in just 33 minutes.

Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy looked just as dispirited as they went down to Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan at 21-12, 21-15, taking a minute longer for their reverse than Nehwal had against Yufei.

The host nation thus duly completed a 5-0 rout of an Indian team of whom much had been expected before the start of the competition, but who left their supporters disappointed and distraught. India had been ranked in the 5-to-8 bracket of seedings in the 12-team elite Group 1, but could not put it across against even Malaysia, seeded in the 9-12 bracket.

The dismal performance at Nanning invoked memories of last year's miserable showing in the Thomas and Uber Cup team competitions, when the country had fielded outright second-string squads and failed to make any impression on any of the rival participating nations.

Former Indian national champion and Thomas Cupper, Vimal Kumar, who is now chief badminton coach of the Padukone-Dravid Centre of Excellence in Bangalore, had written after the 2018 Thomas and Uber Cup debacle that playing for the country no longer seemed to invoke the feeling of pride that would make the chest swell with patriotic fervour; and that these mercenaries now seemed to play only for the lucre and individual glory. 

The eminently forgettable Indian performance apart, a round-up of Wednesday's proceedings in the Sudirman Cup elite Group 1 would be incomplete without mention of the fantastic come-from-behind 3-2 victory that former champions South Korea (seeded in the 5-8 bracket) notched over the higher-ranked (1-4 bracket) Chinese Taipei team, which had in its ranks the reigning World No 1 women's singles player, Tai Tzu Ying.

The kingpin of the Korean triumph was the newest sensation on the international badminton circuit, the slim, tall (5' 7") 17-year-old An Se-young, who has been going from strength to strength in recent months. The teenager stitched up the biggest victory of her fledgling career by lowering the colours of no less a shuttler than Taiwan's pride and joy, the 24-year-old Tai, by a 14-21, 21-18, 21-16 scoreline in six minutes over the hour mark.

An had given notice of her phenomenal talent in 2018, when she had become the youngest player, and indeed, the first junior high school student, in South Korea to be summoned to the national team. She had won the bronze medal at the 2018 World Junior Championships in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and had then assisted the Korean national squad in winning a bronze medal at the Uber Cup finals in Bangkok last year.

The youthful Korean gave a big indication of her phenomenal potential earlier this year by beating the redoubtable 2012 Olympic gold medallist from China, Li Xuerui, in straight games to win the New Zealand Super 300 World Tour title. Apart from quicksilver movements and reflexes and a repertoire of eyeful strokes, An revealed a steely temperament that refused to let her be second to anyone.

An's win over the long-reigning World No 1, who has spent more than 130 weeks at the pinnacle of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings was super-special, particularly after she had lost the first game after the Taiwanese ace led from start to finish. She returned the compliment in the second game, stealing the lead at the very start, and holding on to it until the very end.

But it was when she took off like a rocket from 7-6 in the decider to 18-7 that the audience felt she could produce the upset of the tournament thus far. Tai did not give in easily, and reduced the margin substantially, even from 12-20. But she had clearly left it too late, and the Korean would not be denied.

Tai Tzu Ying had announced earlier this year that she intended retiring after the Tokyo Olympics next year, at an age and time when she was still sitting at the summit of the rankings. An may have done badminton-lovers the world over a huge service by providing the feisty Taiwanese champion with just the challenge and motivation needed to prolong her stay in international badminton by a few years.

Also See: Sudirman Cup 2019: Teenage sensation An Se-Young stuns World No 1 Tai Tzu Ying in South Korea's win over Chinese Taipei

Sudirman Cup 2019: Eighth seed India to start as favourites against Lee Chong Wei-less Malaysia in opening tie

Sudirman Cup 2019: Japan present strongest challenge to China's bid for 11th title; India likely to make quarters by beating Malaysia

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