Treesa Jolly didn’t stop attacking, and then Gayatri Gopichand Pullela joined in the party, with a zing added to her smash on the day. Both had served well, defended seamlessly and displayed tactical clarity to go with a cool temperament. It helped the young Indian pairing score their first win against Malaysian World No.5 Thinaah Muralitharan and Pearly Tan and gave India a 3-2 Group topping tie win in the Badminton Asia Mixed Team championships at Dubai. The 23-21, 21-15 win booked a quarterfinal berth for the Indian team.
HS Prannoy had earlier set the tone, taking down World No. 4 Lee Zii Jia, 18-21, 21-13, 25-23 to put India 1-0 ahead. Then PV Sindhu scythed past Wong Ling Ching, 21-13, 21-17 to make it 2-0. Yet, one of the three doubles was always going to determine which way this tie went, and it was Treesa – Gayatri who stood up to be counted on the day.
The scratch pairing of Chirag Shetty-Dhruv Kapila couldn’t really break through and had lost 21-16, 21-10 to world champions Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik, as Malaysia closed in 2-1 through men’s doubles. India’s women’s doubles-the youngest of the squad would secure the decisive point unexpectedly-or maybe not, beating a pairing they have lost to four straight times till now.
Prannoy has the game to bring down any player in the world, but his finishing kick in latter parts of individual tournaments can sometimes prove to be his undoing. Not in a team event though. With Leander Paes-esque intensity, India’s top-ranked shuttler on a sustained consistent run, he ensured the team would put itself in contention by ensuring the opening point.
He trailed for large part of the first set before coming back at 17-17. There was a backhand push from the forecourt, and a conscious effort to test Lee Zii Jia’s backhand, given his proclivity to go around the head.
Going for the lines would lead to a bunch of errors but the plan was working more than less. At 18-19, Prannoy had the Malaysian on the floor scrambling to return but smashed into the net, losing the first 21-18. Then the fight-back took off.
Using in-point acceleration often, Prannoy surprised Lee, and levelled the sets, dragging the match into the decider. It was a battle of nerves in the third, and Prannoy continued to play with the pace variations, and employ his big power smash whenever needed to win 18-21, 21-13, 25-23.
Sindhu had the opening set pocketed quickly, but Wong built herself a decent lead in the second threatening to push a decider. But Sindhu stemmed the flow of points soon enough, using well-placed drops with some sublime overhead deception, to quickly take control of the match.
Treesa – Gayatri relentless
The young Indian duo ranked 19, and freshly into the Top 20, have never really been nervous about the big stage. But on Thursday, Treesa and Gayatri played like they belonged in the Top 10 – their attack finally flowering into an alchemy of power and placement.
The Indians used variations in their service at crucial points, but it was more the attack that really stood out with Treesa Jolly on a smashing spree, bisecting the Malaysians. She remained relentless, mixing the drops with smashes from the back, but more crucially playing at a faster clip, in terms of the pace of the rallies rattling Thinaah and Pearly a tad. Gayatri was not to be left behind, and was creative in her set ups, but also packed power into her kills when rotating to the backcourt.
It was the end of the first set where the match was sealed, as the Indians kept up the pressure and snatched the narrow margin 23-21. It was the first one they had nicked off the Malaysians who knew the tide had turned.
The Malaysian pairing have come up against the Indians four times, always in high pressure matches – Commonwealth Games and World Championships. Their experience has prevailed all those previous times, but today it was the exuberance and doggedness of the Indians that was unputdownable in the end.
Ishaan Bhatnagar-Tanisha Crasto would put up a fighting game, but went down to Chen-Toh 19-21, 21-19, 16-21 in the mixed doubles.
India could well have ended second in the group picking their usual singles wins, but Treesa-Gayatri opened a new door for the team which can now rely on a second doubles to stay in contention.