India's Sankar Muthusamy won silver at the BWF Junior World Championships after losing 14-21, 20-22 to Chinese Taipei's Kuo Kuan Lin in Sunday's final.
Sankar is the fourth Indian to win a silver medal at the Junior World Championships after Aparna Popat (1996), Saina Nehwal (2006), and Siril Verma (2015).
Kuo started in typically aggressive fashion and raced to a 9-4 lead with a string of ferocious smashes. Sankar was attempting to stay in points by elongating the rallies but his opponent proved too strong for him to handle in the early exchanges. Sankar staged a mini comeback as errors started to come off Kuo's racket, but the Indian trailed 8-11 at the mid-game interval.
Kuo took the first two points after the interval, but Sankar won the next five points to level the game. But the Indian was unable to capitalise on the momentum swing as he gave away the next six points in succession. That proved to be a gap too far for Sankar to bridge, as Kuo snapped up the opening game 21-14.
Sankar struggled to handle Kuo's power as the latter raced to a 4-0 lead. But true to how he has played throughout the tournament, Sankar ensured he stayed in points and forced errors from Kuo to claw back to 5-5. However, much like the first game, Sankar followed a string of points with a string of errors to concede the momentum to his opponent.
A fabulous cross-court drop brought Sankar back to 7-9, but Kuo did enough to head into the mid-game interval with a two-point advantage. Kuo extended his lead and soon had six championship points, but Sankar saved all of them with superb defensive play and crafty shots at the net. However, Kuo had the last laugh as he nailed two smashes to be crowned the junior world champion.
Who is Sankar Muthusamy?
The 19-year-old from Chennai is a former junior world no.1 and is currently ranked fourth in the world. Sankar has been a national champion at U13, U15, U17 and U19 levels. He is currently funded by the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS).
He was aiming to become only the second Indian after Saina Nehwal and the first Indian male to win a junior World Championship, but Kuo's power-packed game proved to be a lethal weapon against the Indian.
However, his progress to the final, despite not being from a traditionally strong badminton centre, is an encouraging sign for the sport in India. Sankar has taken pride in his defensive game, and while acknowledging his strengths, the need for the youngster to have more attacking shots in his arsenal was laid bare in the final.
Nearly missed the World Championships
The youngster almost didn't make it to Spain for the championships. According to reports, he left the national camp in Hyderabad to participate in a tournament in Bengaluru.
The Badminton Association of India had removed Sankar from the squad for the Mixed Team event, where India didn't make the knockout stages. However, he was allowed to enter the Men's Singles event, where he made himself known.
Sankar's run to the final
After comfortable victories over Singaporean Remus Ng, Spaniard Basilio Porto and Thailand's Nachakorn Pusri in the first three rounds, Sankar's quarterfinal against China's Hu Zhe An was a brutal, hard-fought affair.
Sankar took the first game 21-18, but the Chinese came roaring back and forced a decider by taking the second game 21-16. Sankar stayed in the rallies and took advantage of his opponent's weariness in the third game as he won 21-16.
"I'm used to training for such long matches as I'm a defensive player, but I've also been trying to attack more," the Indian told BWF after the quarterfinal.
After that marathon 91-minute match, Sankar had to come back the next day to face Thailand's Panitchaphon Teeraratsakul. Fatigue was not a concern for the Indian, who revelled in his defensive game. "I expected him to attack, and I managed to defend and keep the rally going," Sankar said after the match. "I was prepared for his tricky shots. I had to play defence at a good pace."