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India Open 2018: High on confidence, Saina Nehwal sets sights on the title

FEATURED COLUMNIST
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791   //    30 Jan 2018, 20:46 IST

Daihatsu Indonesia Masters 2018
Saina Nehwal will be the cynosure of all eyes at the India Open

Saina Nehwal might like to downplay her chances of winning the India Open title for the third time in her career, but the 27-year-old indeed looks as one of the biggest contenders ahead of the $350, 000 tournament, the main draw of which gets under way at the Siri Fort Sports Complex in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Her run to the final at last week’s Indonesia Masters brought back the feisty fighter of yore, who had gone missing for quite some time. Since the knee surgery that she underwent after the Rio Olympics, Saina’s movement had been a tad slow, which was responsible for her inconsistency for the past one year.

The former World No. 1 failed to reach even a final since claiming the Malaysia Masters in January last year.

But playing at the Premier Badminton League (PBL) after recovering from an ankle inflammation and then following it up with 5-6 rigorous training sessions seem to have thoroughly spruced up her game. A fit-again Saina looks ready to pounce, can retrieve low shots at the net in a flash and can swiftly move to her backhand side, showing tremendous improvement in areas where she lagged behind last year.

The speed has also enabled her to think calmly under pressure and play without any trepidation.

Saina’s last match at the Indonesia Masters might not have gone her way as she went down to the World No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying, but the ones before that -- where she beat three top-10 players -- certainly validated the fact that she has a lot of conviction in her abilities at the moment, besides an unquenchable thirst for more success.

And that is why she will be the cynosure of all eyes at India’s only BWF World Tour Super 500 event this week.

Being placed in the bottom half of the draw, the fourth seeded Saina does not meet the top seeded PV Sindhu before the final. Fifth seeded Beiwen Zhang, who gave a tough fight to Saina at the PBL, could be her quarter-final opponent.

Nehwal’s big challenge will be in the semi-finals. She was blown away by the Olympic champion Carolina Marin in the PBL, but here she comes with a lot of self-belief while the second seeded Spaniard has been playing on the BWF World Tour for the past two weeks and could be weary.

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If that happens, Nehwal will be a heavy favourite for the title as she is likely to face either PV Sindhu or the third seeded Ratchanok Intanon in the summit clash. The London Olympic bronze medallist beat both of them on her way to the Indonesia Masters final last week.

As for Sindhu, she would be doubly eager to erase the straight-games loss she suffered at the hands of Nehwal and start this week on a positive note. Eighth seeded Beatriz Corrales is her potential last-eight opponent, but the semi-finals will present a stern test as the Malaysia Masters champion Intanon will be waiting.

Also read: Indonesia Masters 2018: Saina Nehwal creates new record after reaching final in Jakarta

Srikanth and Prannoy start their season

Australia Badminton Open
Kidambi Srikanth returns to action

In the men’s singles section, India will see a full-strength squad for the first time this season. Former champion Kidambi Srikanth gets his season under way at this tournament and it will be interesting to see if he can replicate last year’s monumental efforts.

Srikanth looked pretty lacklustre during the PBL and the fighting spirit was nowhere to be seen. A break after that must have done him a world of good and he should be raring to go.

The World No. 3 is the second seed for whom seventh seed Anders Antonsen could pose some threat in the quarter-finals, although the young Dane has never beaten him. Sixth seeded Wang Tzu Wei, who has a 0-2 record against Srikanth, should lock horns with the 2015 champion in the next round.

After the withdrawal of the top seeded Viktor Axelsen, the path to the final looks clearer for the fifth seeded HS Prannoy, should he prevail over the third seeded Chou Tien Chen in the semi-finals. Chen meets eighth seeded B Sai Praneeth before that in the quarter-finals.

All eyes on Rankireddy and Shetty in doubles

In doubles, expectations have risen from the India No. 1 pair of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty after their fabulous show at the Indonesia Masters, where they beat two top-10 pairs to reach the semi-finals.

They were halted by the World No. 1 pair of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo. There could be a repeat of that meeting in the same round if the young Indian pair can overcome the fifth seeds Mathias Christiansen-David Dauguard in the pre-quarters and third seeds Lu Ching Yao-Yang Po Han in the last-eight clash.

The India No. 1 women’s doubles pair of Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy are the sixth seeds and start their campaign against Indian qualifiers. In mixed doubles, Reddy and Pranaav Jerry Chopra are the eighth seeds and meet Indonesians Hafiz Faizal and Gloria Emanuelle Widjaja in the opener.

National mixed doubles champions Rankireddy and Ponnappa take on Indian qualifiers in their first round match.

Also read: India Open 2018: Aakarshi Kashyap and Riya Mukherjee upset top two seeds in qualifying

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FEATURED COLUMNIST
A freelance journalist based in Kolkata who is a diehard Rafael Nadal fan. She is also extremely passionate about India’s progress in sports and hopes to throw light on India’s unsung sports heroes through her articles. When not screaming her lungs out in support of her favourite sports stars, she can be seen reading, watching movies or immersed in planning her next travel destination!
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