What do you say about a girl who just doesn’t give up; who goes on running even when her lungs appear to be on the point of bursting; who doesn’t recognise the word ‘defeat’, even when it is staring her in the face? Should even the most die-hard supporter of Indian badminton concede that the diminutive dynamo from Japan richly deserved to win a bitterly contested women’s singles semi-final at the All England Championships, still considered the ‘blue riband’ of the sport?
On more than one occasion in the course of her Homeric hour-and-twenty minute long battle-royal with India’s gangling, 5’ 11 PV Sindhu, Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi, who is 5’ 1, trailed by a huge margin in an unforgiving scoring system that makes it really difficult to make up leeway. The most glaring example of such a tough situation was when the 20-year-old Fukui native was behind 7-13 in the decider, with the Indian pushing hard for the finishing post.
Nary an expression of worry or self-doubt crossed that inscrutable visage as Yamaguchi simply upped the pace and cut out the unforced errors that had caused her to trail by such a huge margin. And when the dust finally settled on the green Hova court of the Birmingham Arena, the Japanese No 2 seed boasted a winning scoreline of 19-21, 21-19, 21-18 against her name.
It had been clear before the match that Sindhu needed to win her first All England semi-final in straight games, since a three-game encounter would tilt the scales heavily in the fitter Yamaguchi’s favour. It was also clear that the Japanese player would employ the same tactics as had her compatriot, reigning world champion Nozomi Okuhara, the previous day – extending the rallies, and letting her superior stamina weigh in the balance.
When the coaches on both sides – Pullela Gopichand for Sindhu, and Korea’s legendary Park Joo Bong, who has been coaching the Japanese teams for several years – look back on this encounter, they would both agree that Yamaguchi’s superior fitness and footspeed, as also her unwavering determination to win, were key factors in her ability to recover from vastly inferior positions in the course of the first and third games.
They would also reach unanimity on the fact that it was Yamaguchi who controlled the net better, was proactive, and dictated the pace and trend of the rallies, all through the 80-minute duel; and that Sindhu was forced all the time to work out a counter to whatever her opponent threw at her. Only on a few rare occasions did the Indian give full vent to her explosive power, and forced her unwilling legs to follow up to the net behind the smash, for the put-away.
Despite these factors, if the No 4 seed was able to sit on potentially game-winning leads in two of the three games – 6-0 and 17-10 in the first, and 7-3 and 13-7 in the third – it was more a result of unforced errors from Yamaguchi, who was constantly eager to ratchet up the pace, even when it was apparent that the Indian was struggling to keep up with the constant stream of deep tosses and back-breaking drops that the Japanese produced.
Sindhu could hardly have had a more propitious start to the duel. She was up by half-a-dozen points without reply in a trice, as Yamaguchi struggled to adjust to the task of playing with the diabolical drift in the hall. The Indian held on to the six-point advantage to go into the break at 11-5, and then increased her advantage to 16-8, despite having to work really hard in the interminable rallies in which her rival engaged her.
Even as Danish badminton great and former All England champion Morten Frost, doing commentary duties, remarked that it would be sensible for Yamaguchi to try and get back into the match by scraping a few points from a game that seemed already lost, Yamaguchi launched a terrific fightback that had her winning nine of the next ten points, and totally wiping out the deficit.
A couple of unforced errors at 17-all – Frost pointed out that Yamaguchi was making amazing returns off difficult shots, and then missing palpably easy ones – that finally put paid to the Japanese player’s charge, and secured the opening stanza for Sindhu.
The reverse only spurred Yamaguchi to up the ante, and put Sindhu further under the cosh by launching progressively longer rallies. Yet, the two antagonists stayed within a couple of points of each other, mainly thanks to the Japanese player’s errors. After one particular 33-stroke rally at 14-13, Sindhu literally gave up the point as her wobbly legs refused to carry her to the deep forehand corner where her rival had pushed the shuttle. A sustained thrust carried Yamaguchi to 18-14.
Yet, the Indian refused to throw in the towel, stayed patient in the longer rallies and drew heavily on her physical reserves to continue snapping at Yamaguchi’s heels. Inexorably, she drew to within a point of her opponent at 18-19. At 19-20, Sindhu could have been forgiven for thinking that God was Japanese on the day, as a half-smash from that country’s representative hit the net and trickled over, giving the Indian no chance of retrieving it.
Had Sindhu drawn level at 20-all, there is no gainsaying what would have happened, for the Indian had the mental strength to go for the kill and put everything she had into the next two points. Sadly, that rogue netcord deprived her of that opportunity.
Sindhu, despite her heavy legs, stayed in the gruelling, punishing rallies in the decider, and took a handy 7-3 lead, going into the break with an 11-7 advantage, and extending it after the interval to 13-7. And then, it all unravelled. Yamaguchi won seven of the next eight points to wipe out the deficit, at 17-all. Sindhu tried a surprise weapon, putting everything into a smash-and-follow-up gambit, to lead again at 18-17.
It was here that the collective tiredness of having played three-setters on all the three previous days, as also the exhaustion of the long-drawn duel against Yamaguchi, finally caught up with Sindhu, and the Japanese ace fired up a four-point reel to pip her rival at the tape, and qualify for the summit clash against top-seeded Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei.
Tai, who has spent 68 weeks as the top-ranked player on the Badminton World Federation computer, was guilty of taking things a bit too easy against China’s eighth-seeded Chen Yufei in the second game. Once the Taiwanese was pipped at 22-20 in the second game, she wiped the smirk off her face and stepped up a gear to leave her Chinese antagonist panting in her wake, for a 21-15, 20-22, 21-13 triumph.
A similar scenario unfolded in the men’s singles penultimate round clash between the old and the new in Chinese badminton – the five-time world and two-time Olympic champion, Lin Dan, and the new kid on the block, Huang Yuxiang, who had defeated the top two Indian players, Kidambi Srikanth and HS Prannoy, in successive rounds, leading up to the semi-finals. A relaxed ‘Super’ Dan played possum for the greater part of the second game, but stepped on the gas pedal in the decider, to settle the pretensions of the upstart by a 21-14, 13-21, 21-11 verdict.
Considering the manner in which he has played four rounds in this year’s competition, it will take his fellow-countryman, Shi Yuqi, something special to stem Lin’s advance to his seventh All England crown. The latter, though, played an outstanding match against South Korea’s returning machine, Son Wan Ho, to record a facile 21-17, 21-14 win; and will entertain pleasurable thoughts of repeating his 2017 All England semi-final win over his legendary, much-decorated compatriot.
All finals will start at 12 noon, U.K. time (5:30 pm, IST); and will be telecast live on Star Sports.
Updated Date: Mar 18, 2018 15:32 PM