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Badminton Asia Championships 2019: Kento Momota, Akane Yamaguchi make it a Japanese singles clean sweep

It has often been said that winning the world badminton championship is easier than bagging the Asian title – for the simple reason that the bulk of the world's shuttling talent comes from the Asian continent.

For reigning world champion, Kento Momota, it made a scant difference which of the two championship titles he was vying for – so long as he was parading his wares at one of his favourite venues in China.

 Badminton Asia Championships 2019: Kento Momota, Akane Yamaguchi make it a Japanese singles clean sweep

Kento Momota and Akane Yamaguchi clinched the men's and women's singles crowns to make it a Japanese clean sweep. AFP

Having won the Badminton Asia men's singles title in Wuhan last year, beating two-time former world champion Chen Long in the final and then pocketing the world title in Nanjing at the expense of another Chinese, Shi Yuqi, the 24 year old Japanese left-hander successfully defended his Asian crown, by putting his bunny, Shi Yuqi, to the sword by a 12-21, 21-18, 21-8 scoreline.

That was one of three titles that Japanese shuttlers won in the lion's own den and included the two stellar singles crowns, while hosts China had to rest content with gold medals in two paired events.

Momota's compatriot and current World No 4, Akane Yamaguchi, seeded third, made history by becoming the first Japanese woman to bag the Badminton Asia singles crown, with a convincing 21-19, 21-9 triumph in 42 minutes over the fifth seed from China, He Bingjiao.

Before Yamaguchi, only Kaori Mori had made the Asian finals in 2005 and 2006 but had lost to Hong Kong's Wang Chen on both occasions. The other all-time greats from Japan, including three-time All England champion Hiroe Yuki, Noriko Nakayama, Etsuko Takenaka, Yoshiko Yonekura and Nozomi Okuhara, could never make an impression at the Asian Badminton Championships.

The men's doubles combination of Hiroyuki Endo and Yuta Watanabe made it a red-letter day in Japan's badminton history when they bagged a third title for their country. The rock-solid Endo and the effervescent 'jumping jack' Watanabe made light of their lowly fifth seeding to topple the top-seeded World No 1 pair from Indonesia, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, by an almost ludicrous scoreline of 21-18, 21-3. The match lasted a mere 35 minutes, with the second game being wrapped up in just eight minutes.

The Japanese could have taken home a fourth title, but the reigning world champions and No 3 seeds, Wakana Nagahara and Mayu Matsumoto, squandered a 19-18 lead in the decider of their 69-minute long women's doubles final against the fourth-seeded Chinese twosome of Jia Yifan and Chen Qingchen and lost at 19-21, 21-14, 21-19. The top two Japanese combinations, Yuki Fukushima-Sayaka Hirota and Ayaka Takahashi-Misaki Matsutomo, had been beaten earlier in the tournament.

The only event in which Japan failed to have representation in the final was the mixed doubles, in which two Chinese pairs fought tooth and nail for the title and the World No 2 combination of Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping prevailed over He Jiting and Du Yue by a 21-11, 13-21, 23-21 verdict in an exciting, topsy-turvy, hour-long encounter. The winners wasted five match-points at 20-16 and 21-20, before squeaking home on the sixth against their compatriots.

However, the best badminton of Sunday's finals came from the men's singles summit clash, which was contested by the world's top two ranked players, who had also vied for the 2018 world championship crown. While the 70-minute final produced high-voltage badminton and a speedy, aggressive performance from Shi, including a supreme effort in the second game, there was rarely any doubt that Momota would eventually take the crown.

The heady cocktail, made up of the top seed's cool and unflappable temperament, supreme fitness, terrific control at the net with several lightning taps, accurate deep clears along both flanks, tight and reliable defence, and patience in waiting for just the right moment in the rally to strike, proved too much for the local hope to handle, as he went down for the fourth time in five career meetings, all occurring in the past twelve months, starting with last year's Badminton Asia final.

It has been said that the major difference between Momota and the all-time great Lin Dan, a four-time former winner of the Badminton Asia title, is that the latter, when at his best, would mercilessly decimate his opponents, while Momota tantalisingly gives his rivals hope that they can win their match against him in straight games. One commentator remarked that the Japanese southpaw does just enough to win the match and goes all-out only in the third game when his engine is in top gear.

So it was on Sunday, when Shi started in storming fashion, moving on the court like greased lightning and using the leap to either hit a full-blooded smash down the sideline or a sliced crosscourt drop with an almost indistinguishable action. He also dominated the net, normally Momota's pet precinct, in the opening game and came down mercilessly on the returns if they were even marginally short.

These tactics unsettled Momota in the initial reaches of the match and made him so uncomfortable that he was totally outpaced in the first game where his Chinese antagonist led from start to finish, except when he was pulled back to 9-all. Obviously, this huge expenditure of energy told on Shi's movements and power in the second stanza and Momota prolonged the rallies to knock the breath out of his opponent's lungs.

After a tight, even battle in the first half of this game, Momota raised his level to move to 17-13 and, although Shi, with the crowd's vociferous support, came close at 16-17, the Japanese ace had the game under control to close it out at 21-18. Needless to say, the decider was strictly one-way traffic with Momota opening out to a 6-0 lead and never being headed off by his tired and breathless rival.

The tremendous fitness levels that almost all the Japanese players have achieved could be seen in the earlier match when Yamaguchi squeezed the life and vitality out of Bingjiao in the first game. In fact, the diminutive 21-year-old should have won even the first game at a canter, for she held a massive 12-2 lead and appeared to be coasting to an easy win.

Unaccountably, Yamaguchi began to make the silliest of mistakes, that allowed Bingjiao to steadily slash the deficit until she stood at 19-20, on the verge of restoring parity. The Japanese, however, held on grimly and pocketed the first game.

The effort that the left-handed Chinese put in the first game sapped her to such an extent that she had nothing to offer in the second. Leads of 5-0 and 11-1 for Yamaguchi proclaimed that the rest of the match would witness one-way traffic. The closest that Bingjiao came was 7-12, but Yamaguchi ensured that the gap only widened further from that point onwards, as she crossed the finish line at a canter.

The performance of the entire squad from the Land of the Rising Sun at this $400,000 prize money tournament has provided fair warning that Japan will be the team to watch at the forthcoming Sudirman Cup mixed team championship.

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Updated Date: Apr 28, 2019 20:39:53 IST