Kidambi Srikanth leads India to Asian Games badminton final with thrilling victory

Kidambi Srikanth rallied his way to a thrilling win in a tense decider as India stood one step away from winning their first-ever gold medal at the Asian Games, reaching the men’s team championships final with a 3-2 win over South Korea here on Saturday.

This is India’s maiden entry into the final of the team event at the continental showpiece.

World No. 7 HS Prannoy showed nerves of steel to bounce back from an opening game reversal to outwit Jeon Hyeok Jin 18-21 21-16 21-19 and put India 1-0 ahead but Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty lost the first doubles 13-21 24-26 to world champions Seo Seung-Jae and Kang Min-hyuk as Korea made it 1-1.

Lakshya Sen then put up a dominating show to bring India back in business with a clinical 21-7 21-9 win over Lee Yungyu but MR Arjun and Dhruv Kapila lost 16-21 11-21 to Kim Wonho and NA Sungseung in the second doubles tie as the two teams found themselves on level terms once again.

Srikanth, a 2021 World Championships silver medallist, then fought his way under pressure to get past world no. 163 Cho Geonyeop 12-21 21-16 21-14 and seal India’s place in the summit clash.

India will look to live up to their Thomas Cup champions tag when they face multiple-time gold medallist China in the final on Sunday.

Saturday’s win assured India of at least a silver medal in badminton at the continental championships with two-time Olympic medallist PV Sindhu winning the first in women’s singles in the 2018 edition.

The last time the Indian men won a badminton medal in team championships was at the 1986 edition at Seoul where Sen’s mentors Prakash Padukone and Vimal Kumar played a crucial role.

India had come into the event, having won 10 badminton medals, including three individual singles medals, three men’s team bronze, two women’s team bronze and one medal each in men’s doubles and mixed doubles.

Following India’s epic Thomas Cup win last year, expectations will be high but it is going to be an uphill task to go past China in the final.

The defending champions have the likes of World No. 6 Shi Yuqi, world no. 8 Li Shi Feng and world no. 20 Weng Hong Yang in singles and world no. 2 Liang Wei Keng and Wang Chang and world no. 8 Liu Yu Chen and Ou Xuan Yi in their ranks and India will need to punch above their weight.

Things started on a tense note for India after Prannoy lost the first game in the opening match of the tie.

However, Prannoy engaged Jeon in a close battle in the second game, moving neck-and-neck from 3-3 to 9-9 before the Indian took two points advantage at interval.

A drop shot helped Prannoy make it 12-9 as he slowly started dominating the proceedings. Back-to-back crispy cross court smashes took him to 15-11 and he soon grabbed five game points and sealed it with a smash to make a roaring return.

The Korean again led 11-8 in the decider and maintained it till 16-13. However, Prannoy got his acts together in time, producing a smash on his rival’s backhand and then charged to the net to draw parity at 16-16.

Prannoy gained three match points with a beautiful backhand block and though he squandered two of them, he converted the next when the Korean went long.

In the second singles, Sen blew away Lee, who had created a flutter after stunning 2018 Asian Games gold medallist Jonatan Christie on Friday.

From 0-3, Sen was soon up 8-3. The Indian’s ability to inject pace in the rallies and also produce the winners at will saw him quickly move to 17-7. He sealed the opening game with a smash.

The second game was no different as Sen lead 9-4 and held a massive 11-4 lead. The winners kept coming thick and fast as Sen was up 17-5 in a jiffy. After a couple of good rallies, he sealed it with two straight smashes.

However, the tie boiled down to the third singles and things looked grim after Srikanth fell 1-8 behind and lost the opening game.

But Srikanth produced a gritty show to quickly grab a 12-4 lead but Cho reduced the margin to 16-19. To his credit, the Indian kept his cool to take the match to the decider.

It turned out to be a physical battle as the two moved to 4-4 and then to 12-12 in the third game but Srikanth won three straight points to extend his lead to 18-13 and sealed it comfortably in the end with the Korean going long.

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