China Open Superseries Premier: Chen Long rediscovers his mojo; Akane Yamaguchi is the one to watch out for
Even though there was a high level of skill involved, the rallies in men's final tended to get repetitive. Among women, Yamaguchi impressed with her speed, defence, physical fitness and accuracy, making her a strong candidate for the world no 1 position in the near future.
The shock 9-21, 10-21 defeat that Chen Long suffered at the hands of Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen in the semi-final of the World Badminton Championships in August 2017 still rankles China’s Rio Olympic' gold-medallist. It had prevented the 28-year-old Beijing native from completing a hat-trick of world titles, after a triumphant run in 2014 and 2015 (The World Championships are not held in an Olympic year).
Though battling a persistent wrist injury for the better part of the year, Chen had been slavering at the jaws for a chance to avenge that Glasgow loss, and it finally arrived on Sunday in the final of the US$700,000 China Open Superseries Premier championships, where he pitted his lowly sixth seeding against the towering 6’ 4” Dane’s pre-eminent rank.
Chen Long did not disappoint his adoring fans, vociferously chanting his name at Fuzhou’s Haixia Olympic Sports Centre. A sellout crowd had the immense satisfaction of watching the two-time former world champion put the current holder of the world title firmly in his place with a convincing 21-16, 14-21, 21-13 triumph in 72 minutes of action that somehow failed to scale the heights, despite the length of the battle.
The Chinese ace carried an overwhelming 9-2 record of superiority against Axelsen into the final, having won three of the last four matches the two had played since August 2016. The sole aberration was that all-important 2017 World Championship final, when Chen had been totally off-colour at a time when the Dane, five years his junior, had been playing some of the best badminton of his career.
With both men showing a healthy respect for each other’s firepower against the midcourt clear, they dueled repeatedly for control of the net, only clearing the shuttle when there was simply no chance of executing a counter-dribble. Both tried coming into the net behind the smash to kill even a slightly high return.
Therefore, even though there was a high level of skill involved, the rallies tended to be repetitive in nature, and were short of eye-filling or deceptive strokes. If at all there was a spectacular stroke, it was Axelsen’s occasional attempt at a whiplash backhand smash, a stroke that most Danes are fond of hitting, but which is almost completely avoided by Asians.
Often, it was the diabolical drift in the stadium that dictated which player had better control of a rally. Chen served first in the opening game from the side where he had to hit against the drift, and therefore had the better chance of keeping his toss clears in play. Not surprisingly, he led from start to finish, and was able to pocket the game with a degree of comfort.
It was Axelsen’s turn in the second game to play against the drift; and it was the same story as the opener, only in reverse. The Chinese star had difficulty controlling the flick clears, many of which sailed out at the opposite baseline.
Chen took the precaution of playing with great care in the first half of the decider, in an effort to run up a big lead before lemon-time. He went up 6-2 and 10-4, and though Axelsen reduced the advantage to 8-11 at the change of ends, the Chinese player played the net better in the second half of the decider to win his first Superseries title in 25 months.
Yamaguchi stakes claim for top spot
Earlier, in the opening match of the day’s programme, Japan’s 20-year-old fifth seed, Akane Yamaguchi, finally put an end to the giant-killing run of the willowy Chinese qualifier, Gao Fangjie, with a 41-minute 21-13, 21-15 victory that appeared facile on paper, but contained far tighter action than the wide chasm between the two rivals’ scores indicated.
The 19-year-old local upstart showed few traces of jangling nerves, and played with all the poise she had displayed in the previous two rounds when scalping India’s second-seeded PV Sindhu and Spain’s Olympic gold medallist and two-time former world champion, Carolina Marin.
Gao also used her wide range of delectable strokes, including the deceptive overhead drop just as many times as she had employed the shot against her two more illustrious opponents in the earlier rounds, but ended up reaping fewer rewards.
The problem was that far too many shuttles kept coming back from the other side of the net, forcing Gao to take more risks, and end up making more errors in the process. The Japanese world no 5 reached just about everything, except perhaps the odd overhead drop and the occasional sideline smash, hit with a lot of deception and minimal wind-up. Such clean winners from Gao’s racket were few and far between.
Yamaguchi would launch the rally by standing in the ‘T’, almost touching the short service line, and propel the high, deep service to the opposite baseline. A couple of swift steps back to the court’s centre left her in the perfect position to either rush to the net for the drop or move back to retrieve the clear. She produced few positive strokes of her own, but then, she hardly made any mistakes.
Nothing disturbed the phlegmatic Japanese player’s equanimity; not even when she tripped while back-pedalling to take a deep overhead and ended up on her rear with her legs in the air. That fall, with Gao serving at 11-15 in the second game, followed shortly thereafter by a successful challenge by the Chinese girl for a toss that was initially called out at Yamaguchi’s baseline, allowed the local favourite to reduce the deficit to 13-15, and come within striking distance of her antagonist.
Alas, another lengthy rally, in which Yamaguchi lunged repeatedly to the net and retrieved a string of tight dribbles, induced the inevitable error, and took the Japanese ace further ahead. And when she eventually closed out the contest after forcing yet another net error from Gao, she came quietly to the net and went through the mass hand-shaking routine without any trace of fist-pumping or other histrionics. It was as if she had never even remotely considered the possibility of losing this summit clash.
The tremendous self-confidence with which the diminutive Japanese dynamo is currently playing, combined with her foot speed, strong defence, outstanding physical fitness and accuracy of stroke, makes her a strong candidate for the world no 1 position in the foreseeable future — provided, of course, she can unravel the puzzle that is compatriot Nozomi Okuhara, against whom she trails 4-9 in 13 career meetings, including losses in their two most recent clashes.
Otherwise, Yamaguchi is fairly well placed against almost all the other major contenders for the numero uno position – trailing 4-5 against Spain’s Carolina Marin, tied 5-5 against Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying, trailing 2-3 against India’s P V Sindhu, leading 4-1 against another Indian, Saina Nehwal (with four wins in a row, after an initial loss), and trailing 4-5 against Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun (but with wins in three of their most recent four meetings).
The world number seven Indian will next play Hong Kong's world number 34 Cheung Ngan Yi in the group stage.
The soft-spoken Indian ace was not known for her aggression till five years back and it was chief national coach Pullela Gopichand, who had transformed her into an aggressive player ahead of the Rio Games.
Firstpost.com takes a quick look at badminton star PV Sindhu's performances over the past two years, and charts her journey towards securing Olympic qualification.