BWF World Championships: Intriguing first-ever all-Indian semi-final

The chair umpire for Saturday’s semi-final between Lakshya Sen and Kidambi Srikanth should carry a fire extinguisher and climb into his seat. On Saturday fires will be lit, flames crackling in the net as two of India’s shuttle pyrotechnicians soar around the net to defeat one another in a historic men’s World Championships singles showdown.

India secured a place in the final of the World Cup when Srikanth defeated Mark Caljouw’s ambition 21-8, 21-7 in 26 minutes. Lakshya Sen later spent 67 minutes building China’s Zhao Jun Peng’s hopes, only to have him attack at net while making saves and making good match points, in between sending back an outrageously unbalanced down-the-line backhand winner for three package highlights points his debut worlds. He won 21-15, 15-21, 22-20.

On Saturday these similarly gifted attacking players will go head-to-head, and given their momentum and inexhaustible hunger to push further forward, you’ll have to blink and mentally resolve to predict a winner. Srikanth tends to be dubious and up-and-down against other Indians, while Lakshya faces off against an opponent aware of his irritation at being forced to take the shuttle out of the corners of the court four or five times in a row.

Expect a breaking point, after which the non-blinker runs away with the match. But until then, it promises to be riveting badminton.

Lakshya’s emergence

It is fortunate for India that on the day PV Sindhu suffered her first major event medal loss, the two men – Lakshya and Srikanth – were raring to go to keep India’s jamboree going. India has not returned from the World Championships without a medal since 2011.

But more than Srikanth, it’s Lakshya, a 22-year-old from Almora who grew up to be a champion at Padukone Academy and brought security to Indian badminton. The medal proves that with enough perseverance, injection of funds and expertise, and a long rope, a World Cup stage performance can be squeezed out and then unleashed for years to come.

The field may have been exhausted, but the breakout player showed enough maturity to traverse a deciding set that kept the Chinese in suspense like a catapult from which Zhao’s mistakes were relieved. His commitment to staying in a rally for those extra shots before finding an opportunity to kill would separate him from the 25-year-old Chinese. Too fuzzy to nail Lakshya in the corners, Zhao relied on pace rather than teasing the Indian around with placements.

Lakshya’s rise has given Indian badminton a new lease of life alongside Satwik Sairaj Rankireddy-Chirag Shetty after their worst men’s singles results in the past two seasons. Someone who gets the baton when it’s passed.

Srikanth’s flickering increased

Srikanth has spent the last few seasons being brutally written off. With little to show, the scathing assessments weren’t entirely wrong, but a medal like this can revitalize his career. He has worked hard and quietly, respecting his craft and not taking any chances, despite being a compulsive Muller at heart.

It might have taken a step back down the second tier of rivals to say goodbye to the non-top-five and the confirmation of a World Championship medal to reignite a roving career. As such, he has been in touch throughout 2021, not winning any titles but looking happy with his performance. Against the raw, uncut, work-in-progress Chinese on two consecutive days, he freed his arms, uncorked the trademarks and rampaged against Caljouw. Sometimes it takes six long years to reach the medal rounds of the World Championships, and sometimes 26 minutes of a hop-skip semi-final like against Caljouw.

India’s men’s singles has never been short of strokes and skill, handpicked – like Lakshya in Bangalore – to succeed in Hyderabad, her raw talent has led to success all along. But Srikanth, HS Prannoy and Sai Praneeth were in danger of disappearing as India switched to scouting among the juniors. With Srikanth’s medal, the whole pack is reinvigorated to launch another attack on the big stage.

Srikanth vs Lakshya

The big stage saw Srikanth play in all its glory. It’s best summed up in the three-step plan of action: dribble, smash, and tap the net. Srikanth is so adept at it and his acceleration on the follower tap so quick that the Chinese would always fight the variations and sheer boldness of the net charge.

Enter Lakshya and the net game goes up a notch. Seriously blessed with a one-hop step, a world-class explosive smack at the net that puts him in position to kill at net in a microsecond, the youngster has upped the crescendo decibel at net.

He’ll be seriously cramped if someone cuts out his prancing leaps around the court, causing him to struggle and slide into the corners. But at the moment he can keep up with Srikanth at the net. Similar attacking play means it will be high-tension badminton with no idea whose nerves may be on the verge. With both in their first rounds of medals, the motivation is high. But it will be in the mind – and not in relative ability – that this fight will be won.

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