For the second elite World Tour Super 1000 tournament in a row, Indian shuttlers produced a dismal performance, to crash out of the Toyota Thailand Open en masse by the semi-final stage, and leave the country empty-handed, just as they had done at the Yonex Thailand Open, a week earlier.
There was some poor fortune for Kidambi Srikanth, who was forced to pull out of the competition after an impressive win in his opening round, after his room-mate in Bangkok, B Sai Praneeth, tested positive for COVID-19. But there were no such mitigating circumstances for reigning world champion PV Sindhu and former World No.1, Saina Nehwal; and their tepid efforts on the courts of the Impact Arena appeared to be precursors of an indifferent season, going into the Tokyo Olympics.
The sole redeeming feature of the Indian showing was a spirited effort by Sameer Verma in the quarter-finals of the men's singles, and the entry into his maiden mixed doubles semi-final by doubles specialist Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, in tandem with Ashwini Ponnappa. The 20-year-old Andhra Pradesh native also made it to the penultimate round of the men's doubles with his regular partner, Chirag Shetty, but their performance fell considerably short of the title triumph they had notched when the competition had last been held in 2019.
It is ironic that Rankireddy's best-ever showing in an international mixed doubles event came at a time when Indian badminton circles are engaged in a hot debate on whether he should concentrate only on the men's doubles, at which he has had substantially more success, and drop out of the mixed doubles to marshal his energies wisely. It is the same kind of conundrum that the hugely talented Japanese left-hander, Yuta Watanabe, has faced " to concentrate on one of the two doubles events or risk dissipating his energies on both, and end up winning neither.
There were definite signs in the keenly fought men's doubles semi-final against Malaysia's Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik that Rankireddy had not recovered from the rigours of playing two tough quarter-finals on the previous day, particularly the mixed doubles, where he and Ponnappa had edged out fifth-seeded Malaysians Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying by a wafer-thin 18-21, 24-22, 22-20 margin. Even their men's doubles quarter-final had been close " a 21-18, 24-22 verdict against Malaysians Ong Yew Sin and Teo Ee Yi.
Although the raw power in his smashes remained undiminished, and revealed that he had recovered fully from the shoulder injury he had incurred in late-2019, Rankireddy's court movements appeared hampered on Saturday by sore muscles. He was often a tad late in clearing the shuttle beyond midcourt " which made his partner's defence look vulnerable when Shetty was targeted by Chia and Soh.
Choosing between men's and mixed doubles will have become an even tougher task for Rankireddy, considering the fact that he and the 31-year-old Ponnappa have improved immeasurably this year. Netplay has always been a difficult proposition for Ashwini, but this year, she has been unrecognisable in the front portion of the court, serving intelligently and defending with precision and variety. The power in her smash may have come down with age, but her movements on court have become even more sprightly than before, and she gives spirited support to her powerful partner.
Where the Indians had not taken even a game off the top-seeded Thai pair of Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai in four earlier meetings, they ran the local hopes ragged until 11-12 in the third and deciding game, after which they collapsed in a plethora of mistakes, no doubt due to the physical and mental fatigue experienced by Rankireddy after playing two tough matches each day.
Rankireddy should remember that the Chinese and Japanese contingents were missing in both Thailand Open tournaments; and the going in the mixed doubles will get even tougher when they return to the fray. His progress in the men's doubles in partnership with the 23-year-old Shetty has been smooth; and the two would have a very real chance of making it to the very top if the younger partner decides to sharpen his focus on this event at the expense of the other.
While Rankireddy and Shetty showed their mental strength by winning four games over the extra points in their first three rounds, Sameer Verma suffered the heartbreak of having to accept defeat after leading match-point 20-19 in the quarter-finals against the third seed and 2019 World Championship runner-up, Anders Antonsen of Denmark.
The battling Verma had saved as many as seven match-points in his opening round against eighth-seeded Lee Zii Jia of Malaysia, and ended up on the right side of a 27-25 decision in the second game, after he had lost the first. That 74-minute 18-21, 27-25, 21-19 victory showed Verma's ability to keep fighting, and maintain his composure even after seeing a 20-16 third-game lead being whittled down to 20-19.
The Indian had a brilliant 21-12, 21-9 triumph in the second round against the dangerous Dane, Rasmus Gemke, seen by many as a future world-beater. He had the chance of a lifetime against Antonsen, who has recovered recently from a bout of COVID-19, and seemed to lack the strength to go the full distance. Sameer, however, could not close out the match, though he did a massive favour to 35-year-old Danish veteran, Hans Kristian Solberg Vittinghus, who found the stiff, sore and short-of-breath Antonsen easy meat on the day of the semi-finals.
Verma's fighting performance was in stark contrast to the showing of Sindhu and Saina, both of whom submitted meekly to the same opponent, local hope Ratchanok Intanon, in the first round and quarter-final, respectively. Saina, who has recently recovered from COVID-19 in much the same manner as Antonsen, had nothing left in the tank in the second game against the fourth-seeded Thai, and succumbed at 17-21, 8-21, even as the course of the eagerly anticipated Intanon-Sindhu match followed a similar pattern (13-21, 9-21).
A far better showing had been expected of Sindhu, who had won two rounds with consummate ease, in the process knocking out the player who had accounted for Saina a week earlier in the Yonex Thailand Open " Busanan Ongbamrungphan. The sixth-seeded Sindhu beat the Thai World No. 12 at 21-17, 21-13, and then easily knocked out Malaysian Kisona Selvaduray, who had been promoted from the reserves, and whom Saina had beaten in the first round of the earlier competition.
The lack of footspeed and poor body language that the reigning world champion displayed in the quarter-final against the 2013 world champion from the host nation boded ill for her chances at the World Tour grand finals, scheduled to start at the same venue from Wednesday, 27th January. On this showing, it will need a miracle for Sindhu to win two of her three group matches, to at least make the semi-finals of the event she sensationally won in 2018.
"I think, at present, both Sindhu and Saina are way below their standards," says Vimal Kumar, chief coach of the Dravid Padukone Centre for Excellence in Bangalore. "For Saina, it will be a tough climb back, as she is not in any shape to play at this level at present. Sindhu's problem has nothing to do with training; she just needs some good off-court counseling, and I am sure she can then find her way back soon. The earliest she can devote time for it will help in getting her back to where she belongs."