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Hong Kong Open Superseries: PV Sindhu avenges French Open loss to Akane Yamaguchi; Lee Chong Wei beats Son Wan Ho

A quack soothsayer would probably have more success foretelling the future than a badminton expert asked to predict the result of Pusarla Venkata Sindhu’s next match on the world circuit.

So comprehensively had the lanky Indian been beaten by Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi at the French Open Superseries in October, with scores of 21-14, 21-9, that it would have taken someone with a large heart and vivid imagination to predict that the Paris result was to be reversed by almost as convincing a margin at the Hong Kong Superseries Championships.

In the unforgiving, dog-eat-dog world of international badminton, where points have to be earned and defended on a year-to-year, Sindhu’s loss at the China Open to 19-year-old qualifier and local shuttler Gao Fangjie had already ensured her relegation to the third spot in the listings.

The Hyderabadi’s gritty victory on Friday could be considered her way of cocking a snook at the BWF rankings.Sindhu’s brilliant 36-minute 21-12, 21-19 triumph in Friday’s quarter-finals of the $400,000 event propelled her to a 4-2 career head-to-head lead over the 20-year-old No 5 seed, who had actually leapfrogged the Indian to the World No 2 spot in the new Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings issued on Thursday. The Indian was aided in no small measure by an untidy, error-strewn performance by Yamaguchi, particularly at crucial junctures.

Sindhu opened the match on a strong note, looking sharp and staying patient in the rallies but not losing the opportunity of using her height to bring the shuttle down across court with the overhead at a steep angle. Yamaguchi was uncharacteristically erratic, repeatedly netting the bird, to concede large 1-6, 2-7 and 6-11 leads.

Unlike the last time the two met, Sindhu did not stick exclusively to the low, short serve, but lobbed the shuttle deep and high to the baseline to make her stocky rival take those vital extra steps back at the very start of the rally. This high service ploy appeared to be one of a handful of adjustments that coaches Pullela Gopichand and Mulyo Handoyo, both present at courtside at the Hong Kong Coliseum, appeared to have made to their respective wards’ game.

Another, immediately noticeable characteristic was Sindhu’s positive attitude on court and refusal to let the shoulders slump; in fact, it was the normally phlegmatic young Japanese whose body language could have been faulted. She continued to dump several drops and smashes in the net, and fell behind 11-18, before dropping the 14-minute opening game with one more point to her tally.

Yamaguchi came into her own early in the second stanza, and matched Sindhu stroke-for-stroke to stay level till 8-all. Then she sensationally broke away to 14-9 with the aid of a concerted attack on the Indian’s backhand, and stayed ahead till 17-13 and 18-16. But she continued to mishit drops and smashes into the net and out along the sidelines, as an aggressive Sindhu mounted a determined rearguard to catch up at 18-all, and win the 22-minute second game for the loss of a further point.

In Saturday’s semi-finals, Sindhu will take on sixth-seeded Thai shuttler Ratchanok Intanon, who had little trouble putting Canada’s Michelle Li in her place with a 21-14, 21-16 scoreline. Li had barged into the quarter-final at the expense of fourth-seeded, two-time former world champion and Rio Olympics gold medalist Carolina Marin, after the Spaniard had been forced to retire while trailing 8-11 in the decider.

The semi-final duel between the two 22-year-olds will test Sindhu to the limit, for the Thai girl’s style does not suit her at all, and she trails the 2013 world champion 1-4 in career meetings — though the last time they played was in the Malaysia Open in April 2016, when Intanon simply pulverised Sindhu by a 21-7, 21-8 margin.

The Bangkok native, who goes by the nickname ‘May’, employs her rich repertoire of deceptive strokes to keep toying Sindhu around like a marionette, and has better control at the net, but is a trifle inferior to the Indian in the fitness stakes. Intanon will no doubt try her best to take Sindhu down by the short route, and it will be to the Indian’s advantage to stay patient and prolong the rallies as much as she can. The longer the match lasts, the better the prospects of a Sindhu win.

The other semi-final will feature another unapologetic stroke-maker, world No 1 and top seed Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei against South Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun, the talented 26-year-old daughter of two former Korean badminton internationals, Sung Han Kook and Kim Yunja. Tai knocked out China’s Chen Yufei, conqueror of India’s Saina Nehwal, at 21-15, 23-21, while Sung beat another Chinese, He Bingjiao, at 21-15, 13-21, 21-15, in a match lasting a minute past the hour mark.

Tai and Sung share a deep-seated rivalry, having met 23 times in the past, with the Taiwanese ace leading 14-9. The significant statistic here is that they were level at 9-all, before Tai went on to win their most recent five encounters in a row, starting with the year-ending Superseries grand finals in Dubai in December last year. Three of these five matches have gone the full distance, so Tai’s victories have never been easy.

 As for the men’s singles, the much-anticipated battle between youth and experience ended with China’s 21-year-old No 6 seed, Shi Yuqi, edging out the legendary Lin Dan, seeded No 3, at 13-21, 21-17, 21-15 in a 62-minute humdinger of a match. Shi will clash in Saturday’s semi-final with Malaysia’s resurgent Lee Chong Wei, who hit peak form after a recent spate of poor results, to bludgeon second-seeded South Korean, Son Wan Ho, into submission by a 21-11, 21-12 scoreline.

The other semi-final will have the youthful Dane, Anders Antonsen, taking on China’s fifth-seeded Chen Long, who has become the new favourite for the title. Chen subdued qualifier Lee Dong Keun at 21-16, 21-13 without much fuss, while Antonsen shot down the high-flying Kazumasa Sakai by an almost identical margin, at 21-15, 21-13. Sakai, it will be recalled, had scored his third successive career triumph, without reply, over India’s HS Prannoy in the second round on Thursday.

Saturday’s semi-final line-up is as follows (prefix denotes seeding):

Men’s singles:

Anders Antonsen (Denmark) vs 5-Chen Long (China),

6-Shi Yuqi (China) vs 8-Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia).

Women’s singles:

1-Tai Tzu Ying (Chinese Taipei) vs 3-Sung Ji Hyun (South Korea),

6-Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand) vs 2-Pusarla V Sindhu (India).

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