PV Sindhu vs Nozomi Okuhara is the new rivalry in town. The Korea Open champion and the defending World Champion, who are now locked at 4-4 in their head-to-head record, have met twice in less than a month and each time, they have orchestrated a classic.
If at the World Championships in Glasgow, they displayed their sheer tenacity in a 73-shot rally, at the Korea Open in Seoul they backed it up with an enthralling 56-shot rally just three weeks later.
For the third tournament in a row, the two have a grand opportunity of meeting and presenting badminton aficionados with yet another epic. The only difference is that while their last couple of showdowns happened in a final, this time they are slated for a clash way earlier.
At the $325,000 Daihatsu Yonex Japan Open Superseries this week, the draw has pitted them for a second-round clash. If the fourth-seeded Sindhu successfully negotiates the 19th ranked Minatsu Mitani in the first round and the unseeded Okuhara beats the World No. 15 Cheung Ngan Yi in her opener, then the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium will be a witness to the fireworks that the Indian and the Japanese can produce.
It needs to be pointed out that Okuhara will have home advantage this time with the entire crowd rooting for her. Besides, she will be hungry for revenge and will look to not repeat the mistakes she made in Seoul.
Does Sindhu have it in her to bring forth the sterling quality of play for two weeks in a row? It remains to be seen. For sure, this will be a big test for the Indian’s fitness, on successfully passing of which, she is likely to face the eighth-seeded Beiwen Zhang in the quarter-finals.
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Sindhu vs Saina possible semi-final
Her road does not get any easier as one player from the trio of the second-seeded Akane Yamaguchi, fifth-seeded Carolina Marin and the unseeded Saina Nehwal can be her semi-final opponent.
In the final, the top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying presents the biggest challenge for anyone, although it needs to be underlined that the Chinese Taipei ace has surprisingly not managed to win her last three BWF Superseries tournaments. And that should give an inkling of hope to the rest of the field.
The third-seeded Sung Ji Hyun, the sixth-seeded He Bingjiao and the seventh-seeded Ratchanok Intanon are the other big names in the top half of the draw.
Carolina Marin looms large for Saina Nehwal
For Saina Nehwal, who will be resuming competitive play following the World Championships, the draw has some early hazards as well. The Glasgow bronze medallist starts off her campaign against the 25th ranked Pornpawee Chochuwong, a young player she has beaten twice this year.
It gets uphill from thereon as the Olympic champion Carolina Marin is looming large in the second round. The two former World No. 1s have not crossed swords in more than a year but three of their last four meetings have finished in favour of the Spanish southpaw.
Even though the currently inconsistent Marin herself does not have the same self-assurance anymore, she is a danger nonetheless, for the two-time world champion definitely possesses the talent and the skills needed to lift her game against a very familiar opponent.
If Saina does indeed cross this hurdle, the second-seeded Yamaguchi and the home support for the Japanese will be yet another onerous task for the 27-year-old in the next round before she can hope to meet Sindhu in a potential all-Indian semi-final.
Srikanth has an uphill task
In men’s singles, the attention will be on the India No. 1 Srikanth Kidambi, who too is making a return to the circuit after the World Championships where he made it to the quarter-finals. Seeded eight, he begins his quest against the 10th seeded Tian Houwei.
The Indonesia Open and Australian Open champion would definitely not have liked to face the Chinese Taipei shuttler in the first round. Houwei has always been one player Srikanth has faced trouble playing against which is evidenced by the fact that Houwei leads their head-to-head record 6-1.
That said, Srikanth has come a long way since the last time they met 18 months ago at the India Open Superseries in 2016. The Guntur-born Pullela Gopichand protégé exudes a lot more conviction in his performances nowadays and it will be interesting to see how he responds this time.
Srikanth has another old rival if he succeeds in surmounting the Houwei barrier. Newly crowned world champion Viktor Axelsen, seeded third here, is his likely quarter-final opponent.
Suffice to say that the 24-year-old needs to be at his flawless best and cannot afford any lapse if he has his eyes set upon the Japan Open title.
Tough draw for the rest
For the rest of the contingent in the men’s singles section too, there is no easy path. Sourabh Verma will be up against the seventh seed Lin Dan, who finished as the World Championships silver medallist in August. Sai Praneeth has qualifier Lee Dong Keun first up, on beating whom he has the legendary Lin Dan lurking in the second round.
Sameer Verma, who reached the Korea Open quarter-finals last week, meets a qualifier in the opener but will have a difficult second round against the second seed Shi Yuqi.
US Open winner HS Prannoy faces the rising talent Anders Antonsen in the first round. If he can overcome the Danish obstacle, he is set to meet the very same player who ousted him at the Korea Open last week - the sixth-seeded NG Ka Long Angus.
If Prannoy hopes to exact revenge for his crushing Seoul defeat, he has to replicate the form that took him to the Indonesia Open Superseries Premier semi-finals, apart from the US Open title.