Kidambi Srikanth flattered to deceive against Danish world champion Viktor Axelsen on Friday. Playing controlled badminton, and often catching the gangling Dane flat-footed with some wristy jabs from the net, the eighth-seeded Indian built up a 16-13 lead in the opening game of his Japan Open Superseries men’s singles quarter-final, and appeared to be in control of their fifth career encounter.
From that point, sadly, matters went downhill at an alarming rate; and the No 3 seed grabbed eight of the next nine points, to knock the stuffing out of Srikanth’s challenge. The 6 ft 4 inch tall Axelsen once again made up an early 6-9 deficit, to catch up at 10-all, and was thereafter never headed off.
The Dane controlled the net and the forecourt brilliantly as he cantered to a 21-17, 21-17 win in 40 minutes to seal his semi-final spot against top-seeded Son Wan Ho of South Korea.
It proved to be a memorable day for the Korean World No 1, as he avenged his semi-final defeat at the hands of five-time former world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist Lin Dan at the recent Glasgow World Championships, and notched only his third victory in 16 meetings with the Chinese legend.
Making optimal use of the slow conditions at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, that suited his essentially defensive game to a ‘T’, Son almost contemptuously dismissed Super Dan’s challenge by a 21-15, 21-15 verdict, taking only a minute longer than Axelsen had consumed against Srikanth.
The aging Chinese superstar, who will be 34 next month, failed to stand up to the barrage of deep tosses and consistent returns of smashes from the stocky 29-year-old Korean, who pulled away from 13-all in the first game, and never relinquished the lead from the start of the second.
Much was expected of the other Indian in the quarter-finals, HS Prannoy, who had to pit his wits and wiles against the No 2 seed Shi Yuqi from China. However, the 25-year-old Kerala-born Gopichand Academy trainee failed to match the speed and aggression of his opponent and plummeted to his third defeat in four meetings, with a 15-21, 14-21 scoreline in three-quarters of an hour.
In Saturday’s semi-finals, Shi will clash with fifth-seeded Malaysian and former World No 1 Lee Chong Wei, who still holds the world record for most weeks at the top of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings.
Lee, who is exactly a year older than Lin Dan, and will celebrate his 35th birthday in October, was stretched to the limit before he could tame the 27-year-old No 4 seed from Chinese Taipei, Chou Tien Chen 21-11, 15-21, 21-19 in three minutes over the hour mark.
The slow shuttles and eight-year age difference between the two players almost proved to be Lee’s undoing; and he actually looked to be on the way out when he trailed 15-10 in the decider, and was dragging his feet around the court.
However, the Malaysian summoned all the rich experience of nearly two decades in the international arena, and also capitalised on the Taiwanese player’s natural anxiety at seeing the victory post well within sight, to catch up at 15-all. Lee then zoomed to 20-16, before staggering across the finishing line as Chou put up late, stiff resistance.
It was Lee’s seventh victory over Chou in as many career meetings; and the Malaysian will also be buoyed by the fact that he has never lost to his semi-final rival, Shi Yuqi, in three previous encounters. All three clashes have been won by the short route, the most recent being the final of the 2017 All England Superseries Premier, when Lee conceded just 12 and 10 points to the Chinese youngster in two games.
Although the Indian challenge in the women’s singles had been quelled in the second round itself, it was interesting to observe that there were no real surprises in the four quarter-final clashes.
Two-time former world champion and reigning Olympic champion Carolina Marin, may have been seeded fifth, but she was in no way intimidated by the No 2 seeding of Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi, with whom she was locked 4-4 in eight earlier meetings.
The Spaniard treated Yamaguchi with regal disdain, besting the 20-year-old Fukui native in her own lair by a 21-18, 21-15 margin. The fact that the match occupied 54 minutes, and was replete with lengthy, energy-sapping rallies that failed to drain the Spanish southpaw, showed that Marin will be ready for the unnerving experience of being put through the wringer by her semi-final opponent and the player who took over her world crown, Nozomi Okuhara.
The 22-year-old Japanese star was put on her mettle by the eighth-seeded American of Chinese origin, Beiwen Zhang, while notching a 21-16, 23-21 triumph in a 52-minute seesaw battle. Okuhara was at nowhere near her best, as she possibly suffered from an emotional backlash after thrashing her arch-rival from India, PV Sindhu, the previous day.,/p>
The other semi-final will pit Chinese left-hander He Bingjiao, seeded sixth, against Chinese player, Chen Yufei. While the latter had her hands full while quelling the challenge of local girl, Aya Ohori, at 21-13, 10-21, 21-19, He (pronounced ‘Hay’) was in all sorts of trouble against unseeded Japanese, Sayaka Takahashi, and actually had to save a match-point in the second stanza before squeaking through at 14-21, 22-20, 21-16.
The silver lining for India, on what was a rough day for the singles exponents, was the maiden entry into a Superseries semi-final of a mixed doubles combination playing under the tricolor. Never before has an Indian mixed doubles duo ventured this far in an elite international tournament.