When India decided to shore up their second doubles pair, it was Saina Nehwal who put her hand up and agreed to partner PV Sindhu. The combination first appeared on the team sheet of the Uber Cup in the group match against Thailand.
Against the Thais, Saina and Sindhu had won the first two singles and the doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa took the doubles. As all five ties are played in the group stages, even when a team has taken an insurmountable lead, the newly-formed combination was tried out in what was to be their first competitive doubles match.
Saina and Sindhu went down in two games but since India had already advanced to the quarterfinals, only positives were drawn from the loss in the second doubles.
The decision to tag team India’s best two singles players was taken to add to the muscle of the squad if and when a five-match tie is played out in its entirety. The hosts banked on winning the first three ties because the first two singles and the first doubles pair were their strongest suit.
Unfortunately, Japan, India’s opponents in the semifinals on Friday, possessed stronger all-round strength than what India had faced in the tournament so far.
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Japan have three singles players in the top-20 while the doubles pairs of Misaki Matsutomo and Sayaka Takahashi are ranked No.4 and Miyuki Maeda and Reika Kakiiwa are just a place below their compatriots.
Once again India won the first two singles. Saina beat Minatsu Mitani in straight games and Sindhu, for the second day in a row, dug deep to pull off a 19-21, 21-18, 26-24 win against Takahashi. Sindhu’s seventy-two minute battle on court shifted the momentum in favour of the hosts. It was now up to India’s best ranked doubles combination to finish off the tie and not leave it to PC Thulasi, whose big match temperament had a question mark against it, or to the scratch pair of Saina-Sindhu.
After losing the first game against Matsutomo and Takahashi, Jwala and Ashwini took the second game and were leading 8-4 in the third. It was a lead that would have put even the hardy Japanese, who thrive on their well-rounded defensive game, under pressure.
But the Japanese rallied to win five consecutive points and the Indians could perhaps instantly feel the tide turning. From 9-all, the Japanese never fell behind and took the third game to get a foothold back in the match.
When on song, like they were during the group games against Canada, Hong Kong and Thailand (and in the quarterfinals versus Indonesia for that matter), the Indian pair are a formidable force. However, if one of them has an off day, the aggressive combination can be countered. On Friday, while Ashwini played well from the back of the court, it was Jwala who was scratchy at the net.
“I should have played more positive. They were under pressure but we allowed them the chances. I was at the wrong end both strategically and tactically. I was thinking too much and I shouldn’t have done that. Ashwini was in great form and she played really well. I should have given her more openings, something I usually do. But today I didn’t play well,” Jwala said at the end of the game.
The Japanese never gave an inch after winning the first doubles. Eriko Hirose, the World No.19, outclassed Thulasi and this reversal left the hosts with the hope that Saina and Sindhu could pull off an upset in the decisive rubber and enter the final.
But India’s last roll of the dice wasn’t enough because against a professional and well-oiled Japanese pair, even the individual brilliance of Saina and Sindhu was not sufficient. Often both the Indians failed to cover the net and were caught off position. Both Sindhu and Saina threatened with their smash but Maeda and Kakiiwa were quick to return and finished off the point when the first possible opening was there for the taking. Invariably, both Saina and Sindhu gave the Japanese acres of space to go for the kill.
As the second game of the fifth and final tie meandered into an inevitable victory for the Japanese, the Indian team stationed on the sidelines of Court No.1 resigned to their fate that they were second-best against a team that had greater depth.
Thomas Cup (semi-final results):
Malaysia 3, Indonesia 0: Chong Wei Feng (Mas) beat Dionysius Hayom Rumbaka (INA) 21-10, 21-17; Tan Boon Heong-Hoon Tien How (MAS) beat Mohammad Ahsan-Hendra Setiawan (INA) 21-19, 8-21, 23-21; Lee Chong Wei (MAS) beat Tommy Sugiarto 21-19, 21-13 (INA);
Japan 3, China 0: Kenichi Tago (JPN) beat Chen Long (CHN) 21-13, 21-11; Kenichi Hayakawa and Hiroyuki Endo (JPN) beat Biao Chai and Wei Hong (CHN) 22-20, 21-19; Kento Momota (JPN) beat Pengyu Du 23-25, 21-18, 21-14
Uber Cup (Semi-final) results:
Japan 3-India 2: Saina Nehwal (IND) beat Minatsu Mitani (JPN) 21-12, 21-13; PV Sindhu (IND) beat Sayaka Takahashi (JPN) 19-21, 21-18, 26-24; Misak/Ayaka (JPN) beat Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponappa (IND) 21-12, 20-22, 21-16; Eriko Hirose (JPN) beat PC Thulasi (IND) 21-14, 21-15; Miyuki Maeda and Reika Kakiiwa beat Saina/Sindhu 21-14, 21-11.