There will be straight face-offs in the stellar singles finals of the Badminton Asia Championships between the two nations that have been to the forefront of the game in the past couple of years — China, who have been dominating the shuttle sport since being welcomed back into the folds of the International Badminton Federation (now the Badminton World Federation) in 1981, and Japan, who have seen a massive resurgence under the watchful eyes of South Korean coach, Park Joo Bong.
Reigning world champion Kento Momota had the easiest of the four semi-final outings at the Wuhan Sports Centre on Saturday. Secure in the knowledge that he would not be required to face the injured two-time former world champion Chen Long of China, the Japanese top seed did not exert himself too much in the first game against Vietnam’s shock semi-finalist, Nguyen Tien Minh, but turned on the throttle in the second game to coast to a 21-18, 21-8 victory in three-quarters of an hour.
The 24-year-old southpaw will expectedly cross swords in the final with the man who has been charged by his country with taking over the mantle of world-beater from the likes of multiple-times world champions Lin Dan and Chen Long. Shi Yuqi, one year Momota’s junior, justified his second seeding by easing past the third seed, Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei, by a 22-20, 21-18 scoreline, taking barely a minute longer than his rival in tomorrow’s final.
The summit clash between the world’s top two ranked players will have the Japanese left-hander as a strong favourite to win the gold, for he leads the head-to-head record against Shi 3-1. The sole fly in the ointment for Momota is the fact that his only loss to the 23-year-old Chinese was during their most recent meeting — in the year-ending BWF World Tour Finals in Guangzhou in December last year; and that, by a massively one-sided 12-21, 11-21 scoreline.
Those with long memories will recall that Momota was not at his best in that particular competition; and had complained of back trouble, that adversely affected his performances in the earlier part of the ongoing season, and even included a loss to his compatriot, Kenta Nishimoto. But over the past month, he has looked much more like the player who comprehensively dominated the first three quarters of the 2018 season. Momota has lost only one final this year, and bagged three titles from participation in a mere five tournaments.
There was a shock result in the women’s singles, with the indefatigable third seed, Akane Yamaguchi, wearing down the top seed and local favourite, Chen Yufei, by a 15-21, 21-16, 21-17 verdict in exactly an hour’s battle, dominated by the attritional tactics of the diminutive Japanese. In what was the 14th meeting between the two 21-year-olds, the Japanese dynamo took her record to 9-5, gaining sweet revenge for the back-to-back losses she had suffered at Yufei’s hands in the Japan and China Opens in September last year.
In Sunday’s final, the indomitable Yamaguchi will run into the No 5 seed from China, He Bingjiao, who managed to weather a storming start by her teenaged compatriot, Cai Yanyan, while notching an 8-21, 21-12, 21-17 triumph in 49 minutes.
The left-handed Bingjiao, a vastly improved player from what she was last year, was still stretched to the very limit by the two-time world junior champion, who had beaten India’s PV Sindhu on the previous day. When the 19-year-old Yanyan crept up to 17-18 in the decider, it seemed to be anyone’s match, but the greater experience of the 22-year-old Bingjiao helped her to wrest the final three points and ensure her passage to the final.
The Chinese southpaw will have her hands equally full while trying to counter the rallying tactics of Yamaguchi on the morrow. The two have met on ten earlier occasions, and the head-to-head record reads 8-2 in the Japanese girl’s favour, with wins on six of the last seven occasions that they have clashed, all in the space of the last two years.
Yamaguchi won their most recent duel, at the All England Championships in March this year, by a 21-16, 19-21, 21-12 margin; and will have no room in her mind for the solitary defeat (at 21-18, 21-18) that she suffered at Bingjiao’s hands at the Malaysia Open in June last year. The never-say-die Japanese ace is brimming with confidence after some outstanding results in the past few tournaments, and appears odds-on favourite to bag the Badminton Asia crown.
After witnessing the galaxy of talent at Wuhan during the course of this $400,000 prize money tournament, it is becoming increasingly clear to the supporter of Indian badminton that the country’s top shuttlers at the moment are distinctly floundering, and will find it really tough to remain competitive on each day of a five-day World Tour competition.
The likes of Kidambi Srikanth, Sameer Verma, Sindhu and Saina Nehwal, who were all blown away at, or before, the quarter-final stage, are going to need fresh inputs in their training and coaching, as also a better mindset, if they are to replicate the great results of a year like 2017 was.
The sad part of the equation is that India’s bench strength appears negligible. Beyond Lakshya Sen, one does not see any fresh teenaged or early-20s talent emerging — as it is, in the form of a veritable flood, in the badminton powerhouses of China, Japan and Indonesia.
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Updated Date: Apr 27, 2019 22:44:47 IST