India were assured of at least two medals in the men’s singles competition of the ongoing BWF World Badminton Championships after the seasoned Srikanth Kidambi and young Lakshya Sen entered their first semifinals of the marquee event in Huelva on Friday.

Even though there was disappointment for defending champion PV Sindhu, who lost to familiar foe Tai Tzu Ying in the women’s singles quarterfinals and returned without a medal from the event for only the second time in her career, there was joy on the men’s singles side.

For the first time in Indian badminton history, there will be a men’s singles finalist at the World Championships and India are assured of at least a silver as Srikanth and Sen will face each other in the semifinals on Saturday. The match is scheduled to be the third one of the second session on semifinals day that starts at 8.30pm IST (expected start time post 9.30 pm).

It would have been a massive achievement for Indian badminton had HS Prannoy won his quarterfinal duel against Loh Kean Yew of Singapore, but he went down fighting 14-21 12-21 in 43 minutes. Loh will face third seed Anders Antonsen of Denmark in the other men’s singles semifinal.

Srikanth, seeded 12th in the showpiece tournament, outplayed Mark Caljouw of the Netherlands with a 21-8 21-7 win in a match that lasted just 26 minutes.

And then the unseeded Sen fought his heart out to get the better of China’s Zhao Jun Peng 21-15 15-21 22-20 in an enthralling three-game encounter lasting one hour and seven minutes, saving match point in the process.

Srikanth Kidambi and Lakshya Sen’s path to SF

Courtesy: Tournament Software
Courtesy: Tournament Software

The two will join the legendary Prakash Padukone (bronze in 1983) and the most recent B Sai Praneeth (bronze in 2019) as the Indian medal winners at the showpiece.

PV Sindhu, who lost her quarterfinal match against Tai Tzu Ying, has won five medals in the showpiece while Saina Nehwal has two medals to her name. The women’s doubles pair of Jwala Gutta and Ashwini Ponnappa had also won a bronze in 2011.

The world number 14 Srikanth was ahead 11-5 at the first game’s change of ends and from 14-8, he took seven straight points to pocket it in a jiffy. The second game was no different as Srikanth completely outplayed his opponent. From 4-3, it was Srikanth all the way as he zoomed to another seven straight points. From 17-7, Sriknath pocketed another four points on the trot to win the match.

Sen’s match was a rollercoaster and it saw him start well and take the opening game. Zhao, who was on court just over 12 hours after a marathon round-of-16 match, showed no physical fatigue and kept fighting hard but from 13-13, the Indian zoomed ahead.

The second game was a different story as Sen made errors in the second half and the scoreline (21-15) was reversed. The decider was a keen battle with both shuttlers jostling for control. Sen reverted to his attacking game, using drives more often. And from 19-20 down, facing a match point, produced three moments of magic to assure himself a medal on debut.

For the first time in Indian badminton history, there will be a men’s singles finalist at the World Championships.

On Saturday, the Indian shuttlers will face each other for the first time in the international circuit. Srikanth will have the edge physically, given the time he spent on court for the quarterfinals was minimal. Both players have fantastic attacking weapons, so Lakshya will be hoping his better defensive skills might prove to be the difference.

Either way, India will have a finalist at the badminton World Championships for the fifth straight edition.

Srikanth Kidambi

On how he’s feeling: I’m just very happy to be in the semifinals of a World Championships. Just... very happy. 

On what worked today: Going into the match, I told myself that I have to be in the match throughout. I just didn’t want to give him easy points or a big lead and make easy mistakes. So I just wanted to be in the match and stay focussed throughout. I think that really helped.

Lot of players are physically burnt-out. How are you feeling? (Smiles). I am also very tired physically. I mean this is like my ninth or tenth tournament. Yeah, but it is the World Championships, can’t really miss out on such events… so yeah…

What does it mean to find his form: Well, I am just very happy to be able to reach this stage of the Worlds. Coming into the tournament, I was only thinking about the first round match because Pablo [Abian] is someone who definitely tough and it is his home country too. So even now, I am only thinking about the next match.

Lakshya Sen or Zhao... what do you think: Personally, I want Lakshya to be there. But let’s see. [Lakshya is there now, of course!)

Any extra motivation closer to the final: I have the same level of motivation from the first round. You have to be 100% to win matches. I will try and give my best in the next match too. 

Lakshya Sen

Emotions right now: I’m happy, feel really good. it was a pressure match. Credit to him as well, he was playing at a good pace, even though he’d played long match yesterday. It was a tough and close match, so it feels good. 

Take us through the match: Very confident in the first game, was rallying it out. Comfortable. I was on the faster side after the first game, had a little bit difficulty in controlling shuttles from the net. I went into the drive game and it didn’t work me. Third game again I was ready to rally again. In the beginning he was leading by a few points but still I was confident that if I rally it out, I can make up a lot of points. I was better prepared for playing the drive game, pushing it hard on to the body.

Mentality during the third game: I was confident in my rally game. Both of us made some mistakes. He was also playing at a fast pace, he was forcing me to make errors. Moment I controlled that, I was winning points, and felt confident. At 20-all, I slipped but I still managed to pull off a winner... so yeah, a bit of luck. (smiles)

On playing Srikanth: Looking forward. I haven’t played Srikanth in three years I think... last was 2018 [no meetings on tour yet], it’s been a while, so it will be a good match. He’s playing really well, he’s beaten opponents in single digits this week. Playing at a good pace and court suits him. I’m also playing well, and we both play an attacking style. Let’s see who makes the final.

(With PTI and BWF inputs)