There is a picture frame from the 2018 World Championships with PV Sindhu, Carolina Marin, He Bingjiao and Akane Yamaguchi on the podium. It has Marin biting into her third World Championship gold medal exaggeratedly while turning towards Yamaguchi. The 21-year-old Japanese has wide-eyed shock on her equally pronounced face — as if watching that act of champions — biting into the medallion — for the first time.
Earlier this summer, Yamaguchi’s usually goofy visage saw tears streaming down her cheeks, again for the first time, after Japan lost the Sudirman Cup final to China, and copping a thunderous yelling (again, a first perhaps) from coach Park Joo Bong.
Yamaguchi reappeared on the circuit after that tearful loss for the first time in Indonesia, and had added an extra gear to her game. The raging fury of her strokes – sharpened after that Sudirman setback where her game had excerpts of listlessness making her coach livid – was unleashed on Sindhu, who didn’t know what hit her midway through the 21-15, 21-16 loss.
Yamaguchi, often a yo-yo-ing crazy ball, has outrageous overhead strokes and the Japanese capacity to keep retrieving till the sun rises. But on Sunday in the Indonesia Open final, on her biggest pay-day, she wasn’t just bouncing on the court and diving about. She charged the net like a raging bull.
Sindhu, who had made short work of Nozomi Okuhara in the quarters, was prepared for long rallies. She wasn’t prepared for fast-paced exchanges at the searing speed that Yamaguchi had gained since the Sudirman tearing up.
“Sindhu is a player who is taller than me. She also has a fast smash, so I have to increase speed to be able to return her attack and get points,” Yamaguchi later told website badzine. “I’m very happy with this victory. This is the first time I’ve won in Indonesia and also at a Super 1000 tournament. I enjoyed playing here in Jakarta because my name is called very enthusiastically. While in my own country, it’s not like that,” she added.
Japan has a rich tradition in women’s doubles, is cautiously excited about Kento Momota in men’s singles and loves Okuhara, the world champion of 2017. Yamaguchi, younger at 22, is however a prodigy who first played for Japan at 14, but missed a Worlds despite her rankings, to appear in a school exam back then.
She’s won a clutch of titles, but is yet to make the ultimate mark and the Sudirman heartbreak didn’t help.
A rally at 15-11 in the second game saw the commentators analyse threadbare how Yamaguchi invited the wrath of her coach. It went on for 51 shots, but ended in a familiar sight of the Japanese, a whole 23 cms shorter than Sindhu, rampaging on a kill shot.
Her strategy involved clears that pinned Sindhu back, putting the tailwind on sharp hard-hit strokes from one side and total domination at the net. Sindhu was virtually left with the only option of prolonging a rally, but that’s never worked with the Japanese.
Even when Sindhu picked a few body attacks and got in a few cross-court smashes and drops, she struggled to build herself a frenzy, while Yamaguchi was in avenging mode.
She’d graze her knee in between, give the linesperson a withering look after an incorrect call, but never relent on her pace that helped her take eight straight points to race to the first game from 12-14 down. Sindhu’s errors bunched up in that passage of play, and Yamaguchi gave her not a single opening in the second to grab the lead, as if making up for the 10 times she’s lost to the Indian, and of course that Sudirman Cup heartbreak.
Yamaguchi has now won both the finals these two players have contested, though Sindhu leads 10-5 in career exchanges. Yamaguchi had beaten World No. 1 Tai Tzu-Ying in the semis, but had said she wasn’t too chuffed given Tai Tzu was unwell. A fully-fit, towering Sindhu was a godsend for the Japanese in a mood to shred and cut down to size anyone that stood in her way. She sounded ominous ahead of Tokyo.
Sindhu believes she had it all figured – “her day”, “if I had the first game”, “few mistakes”, “good experience, good tournament”, “everybody at same level; that day who plays well”. But the operative part was Yamaguchi’s “long, but fast rallies.”
Defeat has added a new kick to the Japanese champion’s fame. She’ll hope it fires her all the way till the home Games. Sindhu will hope this was the defeat that kicks up her own drive and motivation. Yamaguchi’s racking up some serious firsts; she was ousted in the quarters at Rio; but her finals temperament is gaining some sort of wondrous fame.
Onto the Japan Open next week, where Sindhu and Yamaguchi might meet in the quarters again.
India in Asian junior quarters
PTI adds: India set up a quarter-final clash with Indonesia despite losing their last group match to Korea at the Badminton Asia Junior Championships 2019 (Mixed Team Event) in Suzhou, China on Sunday.
Maisnam Meiraba’s effort was the silver lining of the day for the Indian contingent in their 1-4 loss but by finishing second to Korea in Group C, they made it to the last-eight. On the first day of the continental event, India blanked both Mongolia and Macau China 5-0.
Manipur’s Meiraba had been in sterling form of late and he even won his first international tournament at the White Night Russian Junior International earlier this month. Meiraba refused to give up and fought for 1 hour 32 minutes to subdue Korea’s Hyeon Seung Park.
While that was the solitary win of the day for Team India, there were encouraging performances from others. The doubles teams, especially, stood out for their gutsy displays in a losing cause. The mixed doubles pair of Dingku Singh Konthoujam and Ritika Thaker fought for 56 minutes before going down 21-19, 12-21, 12-21 to Dong Ju Ki and Eun Ji Lee. Goa’s Tanisha Crasto and Kerala’s Treesa Jolly lost 16-21, 21-16, 12-21 in girls’ doubles.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Out of Syllabus’
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