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

Shirish Nadkarni
Since beating China clearly appears beyond the capabilities of the Indians, it would be best for them to concentrate on their match against Malaysia, so that they can at least be sure of their play-off quarter-final berth

Thirty-one teams, divided into four groups on the basis of their intrinsic strength and past record, and vying amongst themselves for the symbol of international badminton mixed team supremacy. That is the format of the biennial Sudirman Cup, the 16th edition of which will be played at the Guangxi Sports Centre Gymnasium in Nanning from the morning of Sunday, 19 May.

Just three nations have won the prestigious trophy in the 30-year history of the tournament €" Indonesia in the very first year that it was held, in 1989 at Jakarta; South Korea four times, and China on as many as ten occasions. The Indonesians have been losing finalists on six occasions, the South Koreans four times, China and Denmark twice each; and Japan once.

The doughty Koreans will be the defending champions this time, following their narrow 3-2 victory over the Chinese in the 2017 edition, played on Australia's Gold Coast, where the 2018 Commonwealth Games were also held. Japan and Thailand were the two losing semi-finalists, while India holds the dubious distinction of not having made even the semi-finals in any of the fifteen previous editions

This year, too, the world's top dozen teams by rank will fight it out in the elite Group 1, which has been broken down into four pools of three teams each. Group 1A features the losing semi-finalists of the 2017 edition, Japan and Thailand, with Russia being the third side in the fray. Group 1B has Indonesia, Denmark and England; Group 1C features Chinese Taipei, South Korea and Hong Kong, while Group 1D has China, India and Malaysia.

Group 2 has eight teams, divided into two pools of four nations each; they will vie to reach the classification round for promotion to the elite group. This group features the second-stringer nations like Singapore, Germany, Netherlands and France.

Group 3 is identical in structure to Group 2; and has eight teams, including Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Sri Lanka, broken up into two pools of four each. Group 4 features three rank greenhorns in Macau, Kazakhstan and Greenland.

There can be no doubting the fact that China and Japan will be the two strongest and most well-balanced teams in the mix. The Japanese have been winning title after title in both men's and women's singles, and the women's doubles, on the World Tour this year; and are bound to mount the strongest challenge to China for the title.

Kento Momota (World No 1), Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi (World No 2 and 5 respectively), Yuki Fukushima-Sayaka Hirota and Ayaka Takahashi-Misaki Matsutomo (World Nos 1 and 2 in the women's doubles), and Takeshi Kamura-Keigo Sonoda (World No 3 in men's doubles) make up a truly formidable, almost irresistible, force.

However, the Chinese have even more strength and depth, with the world's two top mixed doubles combinations (Zheng Siwei-Huang Yaqiong and Wang Yilyu-Huang Dongping), making one of the five matches in each tie virtually secure.

In addition, the hosts have in their ranks Shi Yuqi and Chen Long (World Nos 2 and 4) in men's singles, Chen Yufei and He Bingjiao (World Nos 4 and 7) in women's singles, and Li Jinhui-Liu Yuchen (World No 2) in men's doubles. Even their top women's doubles team, Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifang, has been playing better in recent tournaments than its World No 5 ranking implies.

No other nation €" not even holders South Koreans, weakened by the absence of the injured Son Wan Ho €" can hold a candle to China and Japan. The nations that have been unfortunate to have been drawn in the same pool as these two can confidently scratch one tie off their blackboards, and concentrate on trying to win the other tie to ensure their entry into the play-off quarter-finals.

China and Malaysia will open the group's proceedings on Sunday evening. India must ensure that they win Tuesday's clash against Malaysia, since they will be up against the wall when they face hosts China on Wednesday. Against the Chinese, the Indians would be lucky to pull out one or both of the two singles, but they stand virtually no chance of winning any one of the three paired events.

Amazing as it may sound, captain Kidambi Srikanth leads the top Chinese star, Shi Yuqi, 4-1 in career head-to-heads, with three of those victories having come during the course of 2017, the Indian's best year on the circuit when he won four Superseries titles and was runner-up in a fifth. Their most recent meeting, in last year's Badminton Asia championships, ended in a three-game triumph for the Indian.

However, the 26-year-old Srikanth's record against the second-ranked Chinese player, Chen Long, is far from edifying. He trails 1-6 in career head-to-heads, with his sole victory having come in June 2017, on his way to the Australian Open crown. The chances are that the Chinese will rest Shi Yuqi in the match against India, and play Chen Long.

In the women's singles, India boasts of two players who have been silver medallists at previous World Championships, and one who has been an Olympic silver medallist. 29-year-old Saina Nehwal trails China's top singles star, Chen Yufei, 1-2 in career meetings, and has lost to the 21-year-old Chinese shuttler in straight games at the Indonesia Open in July 2018, their most recent meeting.

However, Saina beat the China second-stringer, another 21-year-old, He Bingjiao, in three tough games, when the two clashed earlier this year at the Indonesia Masters €" the only time that the two have crossed swords with each other.

Technically, however, it would be Sindhu who would spearhead India's women's singles challenge. The rangy 23-year-old Hyderabadi leads Yufei 4-3 in head-to-heads but lost to the Chinese player when the two clashed at the China Open in September last year. Sindhu's record against Bingjiao is far worse, with four straight recent losses in a 5-9 career scoreline. The Chinese left-hander had scored a straight-games triumph when the two had met at the Indian Open, two months back.

India's men's doubles hopes rest in the hands of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, who are reunited at long last after the former spent several months on the sidelines with injury. Their BWF rank of 20th compares unfavourably with the World No 2 ranking of Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen, while the Indian back-up twosome of Manu Attri and Sumeeth B Reddy languish even further down the rankings, at 26th.

The women's doubles duo of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy, ranked 25th in the world, would find it difficult to lower the colours of the two 21-year-olds, Jia Yifan and Chen Qingchen. The back-up pair, Meghana Jakkampudi and Poorvisha S Ram, occupies the 34th position in the rankings ladder and would find it even harder to make an impression on the Chinese.

As for the mixed doubles, the Indians could be forgiven for writing off this event even before it has begun. It is hard to see either Rankireddy-Ponnappa (ranked 25th) or Pranaav Jerry Chopra-Sikki Reddy (ranked 30th) slipping it across either of the illustrious duos of Zheng Siwei-Huang Yaqiong and Wang Yilyu-Huang Dongping.

Since beating China clearly appears beyond the capabilities of the Indians, it would be best for them to concentrate on their match against Malaysia so that they can at least be sure of their play-off quarter-final berth. The Malaysians have been considerably weakened by the continued absence of the cancer-stricken Lee Chong Wei, whose doctors have advised him not to return to the circuit for the moment.

None of the three men's singles players €" 21-year-old Lee Zii Jia (BWF rank 21), 22-year-old Cheam June Wei (ranked 73rd) and 24-year-old Soong Joo Veng (75th) €" would hold any terrors for either Srikanth or Verma (ranked 14th). Nor should the 19-year-old Goh Jin Wei (ranked 24th), 25-year-old Soniia Cheah (ranked 36th) and 21-year-old Lee Ying Ying (ranked no 57) be able to hold a candle to the likes of Sindhu and Saina, both ranked among the top ten in the world.

India will thus count on the two singles and any one of the three doubles, to eliminate the Malaysians and seal their entry into the quarter-finals. The task will be far from easy, for there is very little to separate the doubles combinations of both countries. The right-left combination of Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy, at 25th on the BWF ladder, are eight places behind Lee Meng Yean and Chow Mei Kuan (at the 17th spot) but yield nothing to the Malaysians in the matter of skill, power or endurance.

The Malaysian mixed doubles pairing of Goh Soon Huat and Shevon Jemie Lai sits on the 14th spot in the rankings, substantially ahead of Rankireddy-Ponnappa (25th) or Chopra-Reddy (30th). But the leading Indian pair has slipped in the rankings due to the lack of recent tournament play, thanks to the shoulder injury sustained earlier this year by the 18-year-old doubles sensation, Rankireddy.

For some inexplicable reason, Malaysia have failed to field their top men's doubles combination of Goh V Shem and Tan Wee Kiong, who are ranked among the world's top ten pairs. Their best on paper, Soh Wooi Yik and Aaron Chia, at 18 on the BWF rankings, are only marginally ahead of the 20th ranked Rankireddy and Shetty. India will thus have every chance of wrapping up this particular match; and, with it, the overall tie.

Also See: Sudirman Cup 2019: Inconsistent form of ace shuttlers PV Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth gives India cause for concern

Sudirman Cup 2019: Everything you need to know about BWF's Mixed Team event as hosts China eye 11th title

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