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Japan is the new China in badminton, and Indian shuttlers will need to realign themselves to this new reality. Starting Sunday, when Kidambi Srikanth meets Kenta Nishimoto in the finals of the French Super Series. For the second straight week, Srikanth is meeting a hugely unfancied opponent in the finals.
It’s been a stupendous year of Super Series performances for Srikanth – he’s made it to half the finals (5 out of 10), and has already won 3 of the 4. In his next challenge – the World No 40 who started this week as a qualifier – Srikanth would do well to not take the Japanese lightly. It’s not just the numbers that are encouraging for the Japanese – in both men’s and women’s singles – it’s also the level of play. Japan got their first women’s World Champion in over 40 years when Nozomi Okuhara beat Sindhu at Glasgow. And in her first face-off with Akane Yamaguchi in 2017, Sindhu went down 21-14, 21-9 to the 20-year-old pocket dynamo, outplayed by speed and the sheer whirring of Yamaguchi’s shoulders that unleashed smashes that completely quelled the taller Indian (Sindhu is 5’11”, Yamaguchi is 5’2”).
The high-ranked Yamaguchi – who once skipped a World Championship owing to school commitments not too many seasons ago – had also accounted for Saina Nehwal twice in two weeks now. And she is operating – like the rest of the Japanese contenders – at a different level than most other women’s singles shuttlers considering her endless reserves of energy – some enviable endurance. Sindhu conceded 11 straight points starting from the first set to almost quarter-way of the second in what was complete domination starting at 14-all. Yamaguchi’s drops are lethal, but what really pinned Sindhu into haplessness was the Japanese girl’s aggression. Normally that is Sindhu’s preserve, but Yamaguchi (unlike Okuhara) has a strong straight smash that is whipped at a greater pace than what’s expected.
“My strokes were going out and she could finish shuttle. The second game also I gave her a huge lead and by time I was covering, she was 10-12 points ahead. Too many unforced errors… I couldn’t play my game. Akane’s defence is good, she picked all my smashes,” Sindhu told BWF. She tends to time her jumps well, and has the fluidity of movements and balance that most Japanese ae exuding these days. They tended to be tireless runners in the decade gone by, but the new crop has canny games to match. They make their strength of outlasting opponents count with their well-summoned strokes. Yamaguchi, seeded 5, has a jack-in-the-box quality to her follow-up strokes, she can swiftly move front and back and defend safely with confident striding and stretches. But more than anything she tested The Indian 2nd seed’s fitness – and induced errors from the sheer speed of the rallies. For a second time this year, a Japanese player had taken out Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu in the same week. And it was someone other than Nozomi.
Which puts the focus on Kenta Nishimoto, who is not even Japan’s biggest trump card – that is Kento Momota, who’s easing his way back into international badminton and will truly explode on the world only next season. Srikanth was a set down to compatriot HS Prannoy, but returned to win 14-21, 21-19, 21-18. Twice, Prannoy struggled to close out the match, as Srikanth stepped it up in the decisive end points to get himself into yet another SS final. “I don’t think I played bad but he took chances at the end. I need to be little more consistent,” Prannoy said. This was Prannoy’s second semifinal loss, and though he dived valiantly and sent some unreturnable smashes, he would’ve learnt that he’ll need to raise his game if he wants to earn a chance at playing the final. Srikanth was always the man in form, but Prannoy will rue not making the first set lead count, and allowing the top ranked Indian – playing his 9th match in two weeks and going for his second back-to-back title, a chance to breeze through those crucial end-game rallies. Nishimoto might not have great results to boast of, but the Japanese was in good nick against Danish Anto Anderson, and plays the same brand of effective running game that the Japanese play (with minimal errors) with some deception on his backhand. “It’s the mindset these days,” Srikanth told BWF talking of coach Mulyo Handoyo. “We’re not scared of playing longer matches… earlier (we used to dread) few Chinese when we needed to be ready to play long. Now, Indians are physically much stronger than most,” he said. The Japanese with head coach Park Ji Boong have a few tricks up their sleeves.