The Covid ravaged India open will mostly be remembered for the scintillating and comprehensive display in men’s singles by 20-year-old Lakshya Sen, who won the title on debut and created history defeating the world champion Loh Kean Yew in straight games. Lakshya earned INR 21 lakh for his troubles. And it was a red-letter day for Indian sports, since, not to be left behind were our men’s doubles pair of Satwiksai Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty. The number 10 ranked pair took the fight to legendry Indonesian pair of Mohd Ahsan and Hendry Setiawan, the number two seeds here, and came out smiling, winning in straight games 21-16, 26-24, thus creating history as they became the first Indian pair to win the title.
But it will also be remembered for withdrawals of top players right up to the semifinals due to Covid, and this indeed was a pity for the 400,000-dollar tournament, the first one in the 2022 BWF world tour, played at the historic IG stadium in Delhi, which has seen some memorable badminton battles in the past.
But as far as badminton followers in the country are concerned, this is also the tournament where gen-next had asserted themselves to make a name by either defeating a legend like Saina Nehwal or troubling former world champion PV Sindhu to no end. Both Nehwal and Sindhu have ruled the roost for more than a decade in Indian badminton.
In the near future, however, it will be names like Malvika Bansod, Akurshi Kashyap, Tasneem Mir and Ashmita Chaliha who will hit the headlines, rather than the two legends mentioned above. And, yes, 20-year-old Lakshya Sen, who tamed veteran HS Prannoy in the quarterfinals, has now become the top honcho as far men singles is concerned.
The future looks bright in the double circuit as well for India as Rankireddy- Shetty duo created history in men’s doubles when they fought hard to capture the title defeating the legends of the game – Ahsan-Setiawan 21-16, 26-24 – after saving five game points in the second game. This is the first time an Indian pair has won the India open, but more on them later.
Let us first see the performance of Lakshya in the finals of the India open against world champion from Singapore Loh Kean Yew. The two gladiators had a 2-2 head-to-head. Last they clashed in the finals of the Dutch open last year, where the Singapore champion prevailed. But India Open out and out belonged to the Almora-based Indian shuttler.
It was the new Lakshya we saw here. He was relaxed, patient and very controlled in his attack. He played to a plan playing at a slow pace as a faster game would have allowed Loh to bring in his unplayable speed, which Lakshya clearly did not want.
“I wanted to ensure that he did not get into the attack at all. I varied my half, and full smashes to keep him guessing where I would hit. And luckily my net strokes were coming well, and I was getting mid court returns.” said the champion after the title win. He did lose focus in the first game when at 19-15, allowing Loh to win 5 points in a row to actually lead game point 20-19. But some deft cross-court half smashes followed by an immediate foray to the net got him openings to finish off the rally. He won 24-22. But in the second, he was always in the lead. Cleverly playing body line drives and angled half smashes combination which had the world champion guessing which direction the shuttle will take. At mid-break, he was 11-8 up and did not look back. It was a vice-like grip over the proceedings now, which Lakshya never let go. He cantered home 21-16 to seal the fate of the world champion.
Let us now talk about 20-year-old Southpaw Bansod from Nagpur. Ranked 111 in the world, she demolished the former world number one, 31-year-old Nehwal, in just 34 minutes. Nehwal did not have enough juice in her legs to challenge the fast-moving Bansod. “Saina is my idol. I grew up seeing her matches, and I was thrilled to play her in this tournament,” Bansod said after beating Nehwal 21-17, 21-9 in a one-sided match.
One feels sorry for Nehwal, who had been a great fighter on the court and a top ten world-ranked player for an astonishing 11 years. Very consistent and a true champion. At Delhi, she was struggling all the time as Bhansod outran, outmanoeuvred and out smashed her revered opponent.” The tactics were simply to play fast and engage her in long rallies. It paid off well.” analysed the Nagpur player. She had given a good account of herself in Uber Cup last year in the absence of Nehwal and Sindhu. She is most likely to come in as a regular member of the Indian squad.
So will Akurshi Kashyap, who almost pulled of a fantastic win against 12th ranked Busanan Ongbamrungphan of Thailand – the eventual winner of the Singles title. Kashyap ranked 76 in the world, held five game points against Busanan in the first game, but could not convert and lost a heartbreaking 24-26, 9-21. Kashyap gave enough glimpses of what an exciting shuttler she should become in the next year or so. In her quarterfinals, she outplayed the giant killer Bansod 21-13, 21-15
Another player who caught the eye was Ashmita Chaliha of Assam, who lost to Sindhu, but really troubled the 7th ranked shuttler in the world. Losing the first game easily at 9, she came into her own and kept Sindhu under a lot of pressure by her jumping smashes and her fast played drops. Sindhu does not like playing against left-handers, and this was evident. She tried to catch Chaliha on deep backhand but ended up playing midcourt which the youngster gleefully accepted and said thanks by hitting some great smashes. Clearly a star for the future. So is Tasneem Mir, who is now ranked 1 in the world junior ranks. She is the first Indian to achieve this status.
Sindhu, of course, did her reputation no good as she was shown the exit by left-handed Thai player Supanide Katethong ranked world 33, in three games. The Thai putting it across in 59 minutes 21-14, 13-21, 21-10. Time and again, Sindhu was wrong-footed by the southpaw and looked troubled. “I made mistakes by trying to hit on lines and corners, but the shuttle went out. I could not control. I also gave her chances to attack from mid court. She has good deception, and my tosses and clears also went out. I have to work on my mistakes. It was not my day,” admitted the former World champion.
Sindhu also failed to read the infamous drift in the stadium and found it difficult to control when the drift was from her side. She is expected to take care of such things with her experience. But she seems to be going more and more adrift. If Sindhu has to dominate the circuit as she did in 2019-2020, she better pulls up her socks and introspects what is going wrong with her game and how to rectify it. This self-analysis has to come from her only.
Rankireddy and Chirag combined very well in their match. Chirag especially was like dynamite on the net, leaping all over, intercepting the bird with lightning speed, as if catching a bird in the air. He had fantastic anticipation, creating genuine openings for his partner, who was ready to unleash brilliant smashes all over the court. They won the first 21-16 and saved four game points in the second, playing with utmost concentration. Chirag was absolutely brilliant in defence.
So, all in all, a good tournament for the Indian contingent. There were a lot of takeaways for coaches to work on. After Saina/Sindhu, Who? Is a question that has been troubling our think tank. They may well be at ease soon as there is new generation of young upcoming players getting ready to step into the big shoes of the legends. That indeed is good news for the sport in India.