The 2022 edition of the All England Open Badminton Championships played a significant role in the careers of Lakshya Sen and the women’s pairing of Treesa Jolly and P Gayatri Gopichand.
While Lakshya became a household name in the country by becoming only the fifth Indian to reach the finals of the world’s oldest badminton tournament, the unassuming combination of Treesa and Gayatri created ripples by being promoted from the reserve list, upsetting seeded pairs to reach the semi-finals.
Also Read | Subdued Sindhu makes first round exit at All England championships
A year later at Arena Birmingham, while Gayatri and Treesa continued their love affair with the celebrated $1.25 million event by reaching the quarter-finals, Lakshya’s outing at the Super 1000 tournament ended in the Round of 16 following a straight games loss to Anders Antonsen.
The reigning Commonwealth Games champion went down 13-21, 15-21 in 52 minutes to the Dane. Coincidentally, the two met in the same tournament at the same stage last year – their only meeting previously – with Lakshya prevailing in straight games then.
Despite losing the first game, Lakshya fought back to lead 11-5 at the break during the second game but Antonsen, a two-time World Championship medallist, found spring in his step to bounce back and race away to a relatively facile win.
Men’s doubles sixth seeds Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty were also unfortunate as they were defeated by Chinese world No 10 Liang Wei Keng and Wang Chang 21-10, 17-21, 19-21 in 58 minutes in the last 16.
But Gayatri and Treesa had other plans. Last year the two were out shopping knowing they had not made the cut for the main draw of 32 pairs only to get a phone call to know that that five pairs had pulled out which promoted them from the reserve list. With nothing to lose they beat Thai sisters and 2022 India Open champions Nuntakarn and Benyapa Aimsaard in the opener before stunning reigning Olympic champions Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu to enter the quarter-finals. They then shocked Korean second seeds Shin Seung-chan and Lee So-hee before losing in the semis.
This year too has turned out to be quite remarkable for the world No 17 pair who have improved by leaps and bounds in the last 12 months. Having never beaten Thai seventh seeds Jongkolphan Kititharakul/Rawinda Prajongjai in their previous four meetings, Gayatri and Treesa shocked the Thai seventh seeds in the opening round on Wednesday.
On Thursday, they went a step further by stunning former world No 1, ex-All England champions and three-time World Championship silver medallists Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota of Japan 21-14, 24-22 in 50 minutes in what was the first meeting between the two pairs.
Though the Japanese pair hasn’t been at their best ever since Hirota’s ACL surgery in 2021, to beat a seasoned pair – also their second successive victory against a top 10 pair – who have reached three finals at the All England Open in the past augurs well for Treesa and Gayatri, who at 19 and 20 have a long career ahead of them.
Despite the defensive solidity of the world No 9 pairing, the Indians took an attacking approach from the start, pushing the Japanese on the backfoot. Gayatri and Treesa kept the rallies short to not allow Yuki and Sayaka to settle in. Some brilliant smashes and good drops from Treesa were backed by the excellent placement and peripheral vision of Gayatri. Before long the Indian pairing had clinched the first game in 21 minutes.
Playing with grit and pace, using deft touches and nudges at the net, the Indian pair took the initiative, were much more aggressive, stayed alert to race away to a 15-6 lead in the second game.
But somehow Sayaka and Yuki found their legs to fight back into the contest. Some complacency and eagerness to finish the match quickly from the world No 17 pairing did not help as the Japanese drew the second game closer to 19-17. Treesa’s drop gave the Indians three match points. The Japanese staged an incredible fight back to save all three.
India’s doubles coaches Mathias Boe and Arun Vishnu were also feeling the nerves as they could feel the match slipping away. “Patience rakh. Aaram se,” shouted Arun from the corner.
Gayatri and Treesa earned themselves two more match points – the fifth match point being an incredible 61-shot rally — with the Japanese saving them as well for an edge-of-the-seat finish.
Somehow, Treesa and Gayatri managed to convert their sixth match point and the latter let out a loud shriek of relief after a delightful drop helped them win a superb contest as they are making it a habit to regularly punch above their weight.
“It was a rollercoaster. We are extremely happy with our performance today, and we’re looking forward to our match tomorrow. We’ve been improving. There’s a lot more to work on but I like to progress,” Gayatri said after the match.