Past record, recent form and current ranking would suggest PV Sindhu and Viktor Axelsen are the favourites to win the women's and men's singles titles at the India Open. Sindhu won the title in 2017, the same year as Axelsen did. Sindhu's playing only her third tournament this year following her win at the season-ending World Tour Finals last year. Axelsen, who reached the All England final earlier this month, has been in red-hot form as well. Both players were seeded second at the India Open, but effectively top, following the pull-outs of Chen Yufei and Shi Yuqi.
They have done their part to live up to that billing, coasting into the tournament weekend. Sindhu let her opponent Mia Blichfeldt get closer than she should have but was never in any real trouble in a 21-18, 22-20 win inside 44 minutes, while Axelsen thrashed HS Prannoy 21-10, 21-16.
In the semi-finals though, the two find themselves in a rather unexpected situation. At least on paper, both Sindhu and Axelsen have negative records against the players standing between them and the final. Sindhu is up against the No. 3 seed and World No.7 He Bingjiao, who holds an 8-5 win-loss record against her. More importantly, Bingjiao won the last three matches against Sindhu, all of which were played last year.
But while Bingjiao's record against the two-time World silver medallist is flattering, it isn't all that surprising. She's a strong player in her own right, with a bronze medal at the World Championships last year and two Superseries titles of her own. Axelsen's 0-2 record against Parupalli Kashyap, though, bears little relevance to the current state of the two players.
Kashyap's first win over Axelsen came in 2011 when the latter was just 17 years old while the second came in 2015, when the Indian was ranked in the top 10, and injuries hadn't yet crippled his career. The Indian is the clear underdog in Saturday's contest but he still has a few cards to play with.
The 32-year-old Kashyap's run to the semifinals, nearly four years since he last reached this stage at a World Tour 500/Superseries event, has shown there's plenty of ability to match his endless desire to compete at the international level. His comprehensive 21-16, 21-11 win over a higher-ranked Wang Tzu Wei in the quarterfinals at the KD Jadhav Stadium was built upon his ability to negate an opponent's attack with some high-quality defence, while also managing to take advantage of any openings thrown his way.
Axelsen, though, is another level of challenge and Kashyap will have to be at the top of his game to be able to pull off an upset. The Danish World Champion from 2017 too seemed to think that was the case. He wasn't aware at first that it was the Indian who held the statistical edge against him but then smiled as he spoke of his plan to make that record a bit more favourable to himself. "Oh, I didn't know that (the 0-2 record). I guess I will have to take revenge this time around," he says.
The gap in current ability between Sindhu and Binjiao, on the other hand, is far closer. There's plenty of respect between the two with the 22-year-old Chinese admitting she was up against a stern test. "It's really very exciting to play against someone like Sindhu. She's a very strong player. I know that she is a very big player and the crowd will be cheering for her," Bingjiao said after her win against defending champion Beiwen Zhang in the quarterfinals.
Sindhu too knows she can't afford to take things easy against the Chinese player. In her match against Blichfeldt, she gave away more than a few points owing to her eagerness to finish off the game and while the Danish World No. 18 wasn't quite able to capitalise, the same won't be the case for Bingjiao. "She's quite a tricky player," Sindhu said of her opponent. "I think I'll have to play a lot more patiently against her. I'll have to wait and pick the right time to attack," she said.
While the record stands in her favour, Bingjiao wouldn't go as far as to say she would be the favourite to stay in the competition come Sunday. "I'm both very excited to play against her and also very nervous playing against her," she said candidly.