Asian Mixed Team Championships: Progress in doubles a silver lining as India exit after semifinal loss to China

The real test for Team India is the Sudirman Cup in May. But the takeaway from a first-ever bronze medal finish at the Badminton Asian Mixed Team Championships is just how dependable India’s young doubles pairings have gotten against any top team in the world. Chirag Shetty and Dhruv Kapila in men’s doubles and Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand Pullela in women’s doubles pulled off stunningly defiant wins against shuttle superpower China, who were given a fright as India narrowly lost 3-2 at Dubai in semis on Saturday.

Of special significance was the women’s doubles win, with Treesa and Gayatri taking the battle of teenagers 21-18, 13-21, 21-19. China have come to Dubai with a young team. But the Indians – equally young – put in their third straight day of upsetting higher-rated opponents on the sheer strength of their composure. Treesa attacked relentlessly but also accurately, and Gayatri was more than handy at the net with her own positional offence.

However, it was temperament at the clutch that stood out for the Indians against the Chinese, who led for the greater part of the decider and especially going into the home stretch. While Treesa-Gayatri also secured a Top 5 win on Thursday, this was the higher pressure pump with having to keep India in contention from the brink.

While India couldn’t tug the mixed doubles their way, Tanisha-Ishaan also displayed promise of forming into a fighting pair in the coming months.

Earlier, India got their first point of the semifinal as once again Chirag Shetty and Dhruv Kapila pulled one back against He-Zhou emerging 21-19, 21-19 winners. China led 2-1 at that juncture. It was Shetty’s cool bearing on the court once again, though Dhruv too neatly fit into the Satwiksairaj Rankireddy’s notch, and was far from being a weak link even if they were pairing up only for the first time. Fanning the backcourt, Dhruv matched Chirag on the winners and showed no nerves against the inexperienced but competent Young Chinese pair.

China is a different beast in team events, even when they field two singles players outside of the Top 100 who go scalping Indian Top Tenners. So even with HS Prannoy playing World No 121 Lei Lan Xi, it was guaranteed that the quality of the player would be good enough. The left-handed shuttler packed quite a punch with his variety in strokes played at a pace a notch higher than to Prannoy’s comfort.

Lan Xi moved quick and had the world No. 9 Prannoy in trouble with drop shots, as well as the piercing arrow straight smash. Not many can claim to hit Prannoy on the body attack since his defense tends to be dependable owing to his side stance. But Lan Xi, who has only played on a bunch of International series, was relentless in the 21-13, 21-15 win as India went 0-1 down.

Women’s singles turned trickier, though Gao Fang Jie held a 2-0 mental advantage over PV Sindhu coming into the tie and left it with a 3-0 head-to-head. The tall Chinese – much in the Li Xuerui mould of a rangy game – started with a blitz taking the opener 21-9. But Sindhu was up for the task and brought in her big game to level the sets.

A trademark of Sindhu’s badminton has always been the superior quality of stroke play she is capable of even as a match wears down, and that was in evidence again. She got Gao with her drops, but more with clears to the baseline, with the Chinese World No 101’s misjudgment aiding her. However, Gao had her hooks and drops too at the clutch as she came back from a three-point deficit to race to the finish, amping her pace. India were 0-2 down as Gao beat PV Sindhu 21-9, 16-21, 21-18.

The subsequent doubles wins meant either of the singles wins would have helped India make the historic finals. But just a few months before Sudirman Cup, India will only count its positives in the wins over Malaysia and Hong Kong, and the solid fightback in every match against China, who along with Korea are team event powerhouses.

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