Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand reached their second straight semi-final at the All England Open Championship, with a win vastly different, and more significant, than their breakthrough run last year.
The last Indians left standing at badminton's oldest tournament, the youngsters beat the Chinese pair of Li Wen Mei and Liu Xuan Xuan 21-14 18-21 21-12 on Friday.
In 2022, the two teenagers were rookies who weren't even initially in the main draw before being promoted from the reserves. They got a walkover when Olympic champions Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu withdrew mid-match and then stunned second seeds Lee Sohee and Shin Seungchan to reach the final four. It was a surprise run.
In 2023, they are currently world No 17 and have beaten two pairs ranked in the Top 10 to reiterate that they belong at this level.
No sophomore slump for these two, their run in Birmingham this year has been built on the back of their improved physical and mental game. Their movement is better, their shots more versatile and their confidence, that had carried them last year, has only gotten stronger.
"Last time the excitement was so high. We hadn't even qualified, we were in the reserves list... But this time we knew we'd get an entry for this tournament, and we'd prepared well. Last year we just couldn't sleep as we were so excited. But this time feels normal," Treesa said after the win.
Normal, she says. But this run, when no other Indian even made it to the quarters, is special.
In the first round of All England, they knocked out seventh seeds Jongkolphan Kitiiharakul and Rawinda Prajongai. In the second, they got past former world No 1 and All England champions Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota. Both in straight sets.
The manner of their win in the second round was proof of their mental strength, after they came back from blowing a 9-point lead to win it 24-22. This composure was evident in the quarterfinal as well, where they were pushed to a decider after having the chance to close it out in two.
The quarterfinal was defined by quick, attacking points which worked to their advantage as Treesa's powerful shots from the backcourt and Gayatri's touch at the net killed points effectively, without engaging in long rallies. The two have played with each other long enough for their balance of styles to be fluid and earn another vital win.
How the quarterfinal played out
It was the first meeting between the two and for once in this competition, the Indians could be considered the more experienced pair as the Chinese duo had come together just this year.
The Indians got the early lead before their opponents caught up at 6-6 but they took an 11-8 lead at the interval, which they maintained throughout. They kept the momentum on their racquet, easily switching between the front and the back court. Their quick interplay didn't let the opponents build any sort of rhythm and kept inducing errors.
Quarterfinals underway as Jolly/Pullela ���� take on Li/Liu ����.#BWFWorldTour #AllEngland2023 pic.twitter.com/vxAeANNq3M
- BWF (@bwfmedia) March 17, 2023
The second was a much closer game from the start as the Chinese pair kept clawing back and from 10-6, they built a string of points to take a slender lead into the interval after a trick serve that the Indians couldn't return.
The Indians made a greater number of unforced errors and despite being neck-and-neck for most of the second half, it was Li-Liu that secured game points with a couple of winners. The Indians saved two but couldn't avoid the decider.
Treesa and Gayatri came out all guns blazing in the decider, racing away to an 8-1 lead with the aggression and command reminiscent of the first set. Their opponents fought back and forced errors, but it was the Indians who had a healthy 11-4 lead at the halfway mark.
The game got a little close after the change of ends again, but this time Gayatri's soft hands at the net proved handy. The lead stretched to 17-9 at one point and while there were still errors creeping in from this side - a lovely moment when Gayatri patted Treesa's shoulder after an overhit - they had enough control to turn it back.
Soon enough, they had eight match points and they converted the first - with a return of serve from Li-Liu going long.
Their first decider of the week, and they dominated it in the end.
Up next are the Koreans, Ha Na Baek and So Hee Lee, who knocked out eighth seeds Apriyani Rahayu and Siti Fadia Silva Ramadhanti in a marathon battle. They are an in-form pair themselves, having won the German Open last week. But Treesa and Gayatri are on an unbeaten run themselves, having won all their matches at the Badminton Asia Mixed Team Championship (including a first against nemeses Pearly Tan-Thinaah Muralitharan) and then winning the National Championship. A quick turnaround after a not-so-pleasant January.
If they keep up their aggression and swift play, they have a good chance of going one step further this year. As Gayatri said after the win, "We're confident that we're as good as any of the top pairs... We're going for the title."