Saturday, the day of the semi-finals of the Syed Modi International World Tour Super 300 badminton championships, turned out to be a memorable one for hosts India, when four of their five representatives vaulted their respective penultimate hurdles, to make the title round.
Defending champion Sameer Verma struck ominous form at just the right moment to leave the defence of unseeded Indonesian Chico Aura Dwi Wardoyo in tatters, and stride into the final of the $150,000 prize money event in Lucknow, with an entertaining 21-13, 17-21, 21-8 triumph.
The third-seeded Verma appeared in command throughout the 57-minute long tussle against Wardoyo, who had been promoted from the qualifying ranks, and had caused a major stir by notching a smashing 21-14, 21-7 win over the No 2 seed, H S Prannoy, in the very first round.
However, after making up leeway in the second game to neutralise the Indonesian's slight 16-14 advantage at 17-all, the Indian committed a string of errors and netted a couple of smash returns to unexpectedly drop the game. The 24 year old Verma was, however, in full cry in the decider against Wardoyo, two years his junior; and led from start to finish, to seal his berth in the final.
In Sunday's final, the 24 year old title holder will run into China's sixth-ranked Lu Guangzu, who showed remarkable staying powers in the course of a grim battle against Thailand's Sitthikom Thammasin, that lasted for a minute over the hour mark, before he could run out a 10-21, 21-16, 21-17 winner. The speedy Thai had outlasted India's Sai Praneeth in a long-drawn quarter-final the previous day, but ran out of steam in the closing stages of the penultimate round clash against Lu.
The only other Indian to feature in the singles semi-final line-up, three-time former winner and No 2 seed, Saina Nehwal, took over 20 minutes to warm up to her task of getting through to the gold medal round; and gave the heavily partisan crowd at the Babu Banarasi Das Stadium several anxious moments before she managed to get into her stride.
Saina, ranked ninth on the Badminton World Federation standings, lost the opening game tamely to the unseeded, 62nd ranked Indonesian Ruselli Hartawan, before storming back with a determined assault on the 20 year old Jakarta native's defence, and take the next two games, for a 12-21, 21-7, 21-6 victory. Once Saina's legs began moving freely on the court, the hapless
Hartawan had little chance of stemming the barrage of winners coming from the Hissar-born Indian's racket.
There will not, however, be the widely expected final duel between Saina and China's Li Xuerui on the morrow. The 27 year old seventh seed, who had won the women's singles gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics, failed to stand up to the effervescence and resilience of youth, and was beaten by her compatriot Han Yue by the odd game in three, at 15-21, 21-19, 9-21.
The 19 year old Han, who had narrowly ended runner-up to Indonesian Gregoria Mariska Tunjung in the 2017 World Junior championships, almost kept clean her record of winning all her rounds in Lucknow in straight games, when she made up a 14-20 deficit in the second game against a visibly tiring Li, and reached the brink of restoring parity, before the older woman was lucky enough to bag the game. But that sapped her reserves to such an extent that she was a passenger in the decider.
On this showing, it looks likely that Li will never again break into the top ten BWF rankings. She has been an outstanding player, but that horrific knee injury, sustained at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has taken a heavy toll of her court movements, and her reflexes are not as sharp as before. With age not on her side, she lacks that keen edge of physical fitness, and will stand little chance against the new crop of Chinese youngsters, or the fast, fit players from Japan.
Also in the light of the above conclusions, one must really appreciate Saina's feat of returning to the top ten after suffering an injury that was almost as bad as Li's was. Nehwal, who has been mainly instrumental in powering the resurgence of Indian badminton in the course of the past decade, has worked really hard at her fitness, and has shown concrete results by beating everyone in the world, barring the tricky Taiwanese, Tai Tzu Ying.
Along with Sameer Verma and Saina Nehwal, the fourth-seeded women's doubles combination of Ashwini Ponnappa and N Sikki Reddy ensured that there would be Indian representation in a third event in this competition. The two did just enough to settle the pretensions of the No 5 seeds, Ekaterina Bolotova and Alina Davletova of Russia by a 21-18, 21-16 scoreline.
Ponnappa and Reddy, who have re-discovered the edge of their game after a couple of disastrous outings on the world Tour earlier this month, will bump into the third-seeded Malaysian duo of Chow Mei Kuan and Lee Meng Yean, who won their semi-final bout when the No 2 seeded Indonesians, Della Destiara Haris and Rizki Amelia Pradipta, retired injured when down 9-16 in the third game.
It did appear that the Indonesians' indisposition was genuine, compared to the alleged injuries unveiled by several players (especially in the doubles events), who came to Lucknow only to collect the circuit points for first-round losers, with a view to strengthening their qualification to the year-ending, cash-rich World Tour finals in Guangzhou in mid-December.
In the last semi-final of the day, the pre-eminent Indian men's doubles duo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, seeded eighth in this tournament, played a calculated aggressive game to eliminate the durable veterans from Denmark, Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen, at 22-20, 25-23 in a 48-minute edge-of-the-seat thriller. Boe and Mogensen saved two match-points before bowing to the inevitable, in the face of a determined assault from the youthful Indians.
In Sunday's gold medal clash, Rankireddy and Shetty will take on second-seeded Fajar Alfian and Mohammad Rian Ardianto, who knocked out the giant Russian Vladimir Ivanov and his long-time partner, Ivan Sozonov, by a narrow 21-14, 27-25 verdict. It was anyone game in the second stanza, but the Indonesians just managed to keep their noses in front at the tape.
The only Indians to miss making the finals was the sixth-seeded mixed doubles pair of Rankireddy and Ponnappa, who lost a heart-stopping 56-minute contest to China's unranked Ou Xuanyi and Feng Xueying by a 12-21, 21-18, 19-21 scoreline. The Indians kept nipping at the heels of the Chinese duo throughout the decider, and made up a 17-19 deficit to catch up at 19-all, but were unlucky to lose the cliff-hanger.
With four representatives in the finals, Indian shuttlers are finally set to grab the lion's share of the spoils in a World Tour tournament.