Thailand Open: Lack of physical fitness apparent in India's performance in first tournament back

Shirish Nadkarni
·8-min read

One common thread ran through like a reprehensible cancerous growth in the Indian singles performance at the Thailand Open Super 1000, the first BWF World Tour badminton tournament of 2021 €" lack of adequate physical fitness.

Every one of the eight singles exponents €" six in the men's category, and two among the women, comprising the cream of Indian badminton €" were sidelined before the completion of the second round matches, with most of them getting the breath knocked out of them in the course of their encounters, and a couple retiring due to injuries incurred while stretching to keep the shuttle in play.

Most of the Indian contingent, including the Tokyo Olympics bound B Sai Praneeth and P V Sindhu, were knocked out in the first round itself by lower ranked opponents. If a couple of them made the second round, it was only because Saina Nehwal was fortunate to draw an easy first-round opponent after the late withdrawal of the 2017 world champion, Nozomi Okuhara of Japan, while the men's singles opening round pitted two Indians €" Kidambi Srikkanth and Sourabh Verma €" against each other, and one of them had perforce to advance!

It was left to the sprightly men's doubles combo of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, and the mixed doubles tandem of Rankireddy and Ashwini Ponnappa, to provide the twin rays of comfort to Indian badminton lovers, eager to watch the showing of their idols after nearly ten months of inactivity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of these duos had one notable first-round victory before meeting their Waterloo in the next round, to herald the end of the Indian challenge in Bangkok.

Thanks to the steep drop in their rankings owing to indifferent performances in the latter half of 2019 and the first ten weeks of 2020 before the international circuit had to be shut down, none of the Indian players, bar reigning world champion Sindhu, were seeded. The lanky 25-year-old Sindhu appears to have bulked up substantially during the two months that she has spent training in London, but the muscles have clearly been gained at the expense of agility, footspeed and lasting power.

Pitted against Denmark's Mia Blichfeldt, who sits in the 19th spot in the Race to Tokyo, the sixth-seeded Hyderabad appeared to be coasting to a relatively facile win when her concentration slipped during the extended part of the second game, and she could not convert two match-points. It was agonising to watch Sindhu in the decider as Blichfeldt played like a woman possessed, and her rival could not keep up with the pace of the rallies. Clearly, a sea-change in training strategy is indicated if Sindhu is to make a credible bid in Tokyo to improve on her silver-winning performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

As for Saina, who will celebrate her 31st birthday in March, the opening round against Malaysia's Kisona Selvaduray (promoted from the reserves) was fairly routine, but the second outing against a higher ranked Busanan Ongbamrungphan was a different kettle of fish. The stocky 24-year-old Thai has steadily worked her way up to 12th in the BWF rankings, eight places ahead of Saina, and has confirmed her spot in the Tokyo Olympics draw as the second women's singles player from her country, behind the 2013 world champion Ratchanok Intanon.

The seven-year age difference showed as the match wore on. Saina, who had demonstrated her trademark fighting qualities to make up 12-15 and 18-20 deficits to grab the first game over the extra points, was barely present in the rest of the match, and was beaten 23-21, 14-21, 16-21. Her staying powers seemed adversely affected by the bout of COVID-19 she had suffered last November, and by the farce of the Covid tests she had to undergo in Bangkok, when she was pulled out of the competition a minute before her first-round match, and subsequently reinstated when she was said to have tested "false-positive".

The Indian men were a downright disaster, to say the least. B Sai Praneeth, whose 13th rank in the BWF charts has sealed his spot in the Tokyo draw, was simply not in the match against Thailand's Kantaphon Wangcharoen, ranked two places below him. Praneeth needs to dominate the rallies with his strokeplay and court positioning, but he was not given the ghost of a chance by the speedy local lad, and given a right, royal 21-16, 21-10 drubbing. The scores tell their own sorry tale.

Much was expected of Kidambi Srikanth, who dominated the 2017 season with four Super Series titles and one runner-up finish, and actually climbed to the World No.1 spot for a week from 12 April, 2018. He dealt efficiently with his regular sparring partner, Sourabh Verma, in the opening round, but pulled out before the onset of his second-round match against eighth-seeded Malaysian Lee Zii Jia, citing a pulled calf muscle. Srikanth is hoping that the errant muscle will heal by the next tournament, the Toyota Thailand Open, comes around on 19 January.

One can speculate on the kind of chance he would have had against the speedy, aggressive Malaysian, who is being touted in his country as the next Lee Chong Wei. Zii Jia had given an impressive performance against another Indian, H S Prannoy, in his lung-opener of the tournament. All at sea against the brilliant strokeplay of Prannoy in the opening game, Lee maintained his pace and power in the second game against the visibly slowing Indian, and smashed him off the court in the decider, for a 13-21, 21-14, 21-8 win.

Again, it was a fitness issue that Prannoy faced, as did veteran Parupalli Kashyap, who had to face plenty of off-court turmoil on the COVID-19 tests issue before he could actually take court for his face-off with the Canadian Jason Anthony Ho Shue, ranked 50th on the BWF charts.

Kashyap could not adjust to the court drift in the first game, but turned it on in the second, to restore parity. He would have been expected to have the court advantage in the second half of the decider, but was forced to retire with a leg muscle injury when trailing 8-14. Just how good Ho Shue is can be gauged from the fact that he was mercilessly bludgeoned off the court at 10-21, 9-21 by the sixth-seeded Indonesian and 2018 Asian Games champion Jonatan Christie in the next round.

Former two-time national champion Sameer Verma lasted 37 minutes on court against the hard working Indonesian Shesar Hiren Rhustavito before being eliminated by 15-21, 17-21. To his credit, Sameer did appear to be the fittest of the male singles shuttlers, but did not have a killer stroke with which he could tear rents in the Indonesian's defence. To gain a decisive ascendancy in the rallies, Sameer needed to be a half-step quicker on his feet, but lacked that edge in speed.

The youthful Rankireddy was the silver lining on the gloomy horizon. In tandem with Ponnappa, he came up trumps in a 72-minute humdinger against the sixth-seeded Indonesians, Hafiz Faizal and Gloria Emmanuelle Widjaja, winning 21-16 in the decider after narrowly conceding the second game at 27-29. The Indians were surprisingly flat against the relatively unknown Hong Kong pair of Chang Tak Ching and Ng Wing Yung, and lasted less than half an hour on the court.

In the men's doubles, Rankireddy and Shetty put up an outstanding performance in their opening outing, to score their second career win over the South Korean combination of Lee Yong Dae and Kim Gi Jung, despite narrowly losing the first game. The Indians unabashedly admit that Lee and Kim are their heroes; and it was therefore doubly satisfying to score over the Korean veterans.

Rankireddy and Shetty could not, however, replicate their performance against the wily second-seeded Indonesian combination of Mohammed Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan, who are three-time world champions, their most recent win coming at the 2019 event in Basel. The Indians battled hard for 34 minutes against the Indonesian old-timers, but ended up second-best at 19-21, 17-21. There was no disgrace whatsoever in the defeat; and there is every hope that the Indian duo could end up victors, the longer their next match lasts.

Also See: Saina Nehwal and Co leave for Thailand to compete in two Super 1000 events; PV Sindhu to fly from London

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