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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Tokyo 2020: At home, but not the favourite

PV Sindhu’s women's singles quarter-final opponent Akane Yamaguchi has a battle on her hands without any discernible advantage.

Written by Shivani Naik |
July 30, 2021 7:08:46 am
Japan's Akane Yamaguchi in action against South Korea's Kim Gaeun at the Tokyo Olympics. (AP)

Imagine the pressure of deafening silence at your home Games. That aural gap filled with rushing voices of nervousness and doubt in your head. Imagine the underwhelming atmosphere and the hanging sword of cancellation as your country grapples with the prospect of hosting 10,000 visitors. Imagine being in the quarterfinals of the Olympics – the stage you lost at, last Games. Or just ask Akane Yamaguchi.

Then there is PV Sindhu, aggressive and a foot taller, who’s thinking of gold – euphemistically talking of “changing the colour of the medal.”

All her life, Yamaguchi has been primed for this one tournament. There was a national debate on whether she should give her senior secondary examinations, or be playing at a big event. She wrote her exams finally – Japan has done all the right things here. There was no added home advantage extended to the home team, who moved into the Games Village on July 18 like everyone else.

No acclimatisation leeway, neither some arena conditions tweaked to suit their own. And half their contenders packed off before the quarters. Yamaguchi knows it’s her against the towering Indian in rampaging form. The head-to-head favours Sindhu, their last meeting went the Indian’s way. No minor stumbles even in the three matches Sindhu has won – clinical, in straight games. Plus the talk of her brimming with new strokes. Yamaguchi will know who’s the favourite here.

Face tells the story

A World junior champ in 2013 and 2014, the World No. 5 Japanese, with a solitary Worlds bronze in 2018 (Sindhu has 1 gold, 2 silver, 2 bronze), is not exactly known to put a lid on pressure situations. Her Bambi wide eyes betray every flux that plays out in her mind, and she’s never bothered to pull on the mask of inscrutability.

There’s just the three matches of this week – starting with a 23-minute outing in the pool game, and downing of Scottish Kirsty Gilmour and Korean Kim Ga-eun, where her opponents found Yamaguchi stingy with errors and unbreachable in defence.

But Sindhu knows all that. Also that the standard Japanese instructions against her – there’s the 2017, ’19 Worlds finals – are to lure Sindhu forward on the forehand net and then send slices peppering the Indian’s deep backhand.

Likewise, Sindhu relies on floating those long, looping shots into the court’s horizon and making Yamaguchi jump all over. Post her knee problems in 2019 when she had Sindhu’s number, Yamaguchi’s retrieving though solid, isn’t quite the same. Sindhu is far more polished at the net, and will bank on her confidence in those eyeball confrontations.

The Sindhu backhand has also mutated into a fierce weapon – and she’s versatile on everything from her serve to parrying crosses to the almost straight down-the-liners. The trademark Yamaguchi lunge will be summoned – whether in distress or to dazzle remains to be seen.

Battle of the Korean coaches

Park Joo-bong is in his fourth Olympics as head coach of Japan, though the first few days have thrown up shockers for his lead cast – Momota and the men’s doubles team. quoted him earlier this year as saying, “The Olympics have been postponed for a year and the BWF calendar has changed many times. Therefore, preparation for (the Olympics) has become very difficult. During this corona, the national team has had a training camp every month to improve the performance,” he said. The camp was scattered across private clubs and the National Centre.

Yamaguchi herself had kept expectations in check. “The Olympics are only days away. I want to be in good physical condition and prepare for the match well. I can’t say I’m not worried. However, I’m really looking forward to (the Olympics). Because this is an opportunity to fight against international players after a long time. I will enjoy the tournament as much as possible,” she had said.

While Yamaguchi can do spectacular things on court in defence, it is her attack and Sindhu’s that will decide the outcome. The 156 cm dynamo can drag the Indian into high energy brawls of manic retrievals. But she will need to gain ascendancy at the net with her lunging flicks to end rallies. Any lift to the backcourt will be a cue for Sindhu to attack.

Sindhu’s coach Park Tae Sang has made her a more accomplished player, and intervened at just the right time to calm her nerves on defence against Mia Blichfeldt on Thursday. He’s also kept her focused on the next point, even if the gold is the ultimate destination.

But the coach-ward combination will need to be wary of that spot on her left – dipping and racing away from her backhand, which the Japanese will target. After 16 matches, there’s no secrets on what weaknesses to exploit. As for the raucous cheers, the two women will need to drum up their own atmosphere.

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