What a difference the change in the calendar makes. Last year, Kidambi Srikanth seemed an unstoppable force on badminton courts over three continents. But the year 2018 has started on an inauspicious note, with the Guntur lad being unceremoniously bundled out of the India Open in the second round by a qualifier.
Iskandar Zulkarnain had lost to Srikanth on two previous occasions when they had faced off on Indian soil (Syed Modi International 2015 and 2016). The Malaysian had come up trumps on home soil two years ago. All omens pointed to an Indian victory, but the World No.3 was caught by surprise by his dogged opponent.
The 26-year-old Malaysian is making a comeback after a slipped disc in the back, but one wouldn’t have known by watching his agility on the court against the highest-ranked shuttler in the tournament. Time and again, Srikanth got into dominant positions in rallies, but Zulkarnain seemed everywhere on the court to get the shots back, frustrating the Indian into going for the lines.
Srikanth himself is coming off an abdominal muscle strain suffered in the final few weeks of the year in which he won four Super Series titles. After the 21-19, 21-17 defeat, the Indian star felt lack of match practice could have contributed to the upset.
“It came down to a few crucial points, when he played better. This is my first tournament of the year, and I don’t think I was as match-sharp and confident as I would have liked,” the 24-year-old said.
Srikanth admitted that he was taken somewhat aback by the Malaysian’s dogged defence. “We played after a long time. He is a tricky opponent and got back a lot of shuttles, some from unimaginable positions. Overall, I can’t be too disappointed with my performance. The important thing for me is I’m back playing.”
Srikanth seemed destined to take the match into a decider when he led 16-14, but Zulkarnain showed admirable resolve. He had contemplated walking away from the game, but decided to give it another shot in 2018.
“In Malaysia, there is a lot of pressure on badminton players as the fans are very demanding. I returned to the circuit in September last year after a six-month layoff. Srikanth is a tough player with great attacking skills and net play. I focused on my defence and it worked,” the 85-ranked player said after the victory.
Sindhu on a roll
Confidence is a fickle beast, but PV Sindhu seems to be riding it at the moment. Losing some nail-biting finals in recent times does not seem to have dented her belief, quite the opposite. Being defending champion at her national open brings its own pressures, but the 22-year-old has taken it in her stride as a positive.
A 21-10, 21-14 win over World No. 40 Linda Zetchiri of Bulgaria did not stretch the top seed, who used the match to prepare for tougher challenges ahead. The Indian star capitalised on her opponent’s loose serve to take early control in rallies, and had an easy outing. “I used the match to practise some different strokes. I was under no pressure. I just focused on playing aggressively and not take the pressure of the home crowd. In fact, I take it as a positive that so many people are supporting me.”
Saina Nehwal also made quick work of her second-round match, defeating Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt 21-12, 21-11 in 21 minutes.
No.2 seed Carolina Marin survived a scare against China’s Gao Fangjie 13-21, 21-15, 21-11 in an hour and 19 minutes. Gao had got the better of the Olympic champion at the China Open last year. Thai star Ratchanok Intanon made short work of Indian Aakarshi Kashyap 21-11, 21-12. There was some cheer for the Indians in men’s singles with eighth seed B. Sai Praneeth entering the quarterfinals after a 21-10, 21-15 win over Hu Yun of Hong Kong.
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