A mature and highly cerebral Akane Yamaguchi played a brilliant tactical game on Sunday to finally halt the all-conquering march of India’s PV Sindhu, and dealt the Indian a humbling 21-15, 21-16 defeat in the women’s singles final of the Indonesia Open badminton championships.
A noisy, sell-out crowd at the Istora Gelora Bung Karno saw a new side to the speedy Japanese pocket dynamo, as she played an unusually aggressive brand of badminton and left her opponent shell-shocked in the course of a 51-minute hatchet job that earned her a cheque of $87,500 in the $1.25 million prize money World Tour Super 1000 competition.
While Sindhu's fans have every right to be extremely unhappy after the shuttler's failure to rise to the occasion, credit should also be given to the fourth-seeded Yamaguchi. She came into the match with a well thought out gameplan, which she proceeded to execute with great elan.
Realising that her regular tactics of playing lengthy attritional rallies with Sindhu had left her on the wrong end of a 4-10 career head-to-head record, and clutching defeats in their most recent four encounters, the native of Fukui province played far more attacking badminton than usual, and – perverse though it may sound – used her lack of height to best advantage.
Since, at her 5’ 1” level, the hard-driven shuttle came to the 22 year old Yamaguchi virtually at eye level, and on to her racket, she was able to play a vast number of parallel shots from just above shoulder level, and straight into the shoulders and midriff of her opponent.
The consistent bodyline attack, which Saina Nehwal has used regularly and with great success in the past against Sindhu, made the 24 year old Hyderabadi extremely uncomfortable; she just did not have the manoeuvrability to move out of the way and return the shuttle in a manner that would help her get on top of the rally.
Ergo, the No 5 seed was repeatedly forced into a defensive position and her much-vaunted attack was totally bottled up. Try as she might, she could not get into the correct position to execute her powerful smashes. If she employed the smash from the baseline against the lofted serve, her antagonist was able to parry it easily, and get into a good position to dictate the future course of the rally.
Occasionally, an outstanding player is rendered defenceless by a player with an inferior record who comes up with an unexpected out-of-the-box ploy. And so it was with Sindhu, who was simply not allowed to play the game she would have wanted to, the game that had propelled her past the likes of formidable, accomplished shuttlers like Nozomi Okuhara and Chen Yufei in her earlier encounters in the tournament.
If at all Sindhu looked in control during the course of the final, it was when she took a 12-8 lead in the first game, after the initial skirmishes had been more or less even. It was at this point that she ceded control, never to regain it. Yamaguchi clawed her way back to 14-all, and then showed a clean pair of heels to her opponent, grabbing seven of the next eight points. In fact, the Japanese girl’s closing gallop in the first game secured her 13 of the final 16 points.
As the Indian’s shoulders slumped, her body language deteriorated and the familiar worry lines furrowed her brow, Yamaguchi grabbed full control of the match. The Japanese was never behind at any stage of the second game after a 4-1 opening burst; and, though Sindhu fought all the way to the tape, she always remained at least a couple of points in the dock, and there was never any real conviction in her mien to show that she could alter the course of the match.
Sindhu will need to recalibrate her strategy for future meetings with the wily Japanese, for whom the Indonesia Open crown was the third of the year, to add to the German Open and Asian Championships she had bagged earlier. The poker-faced 22-year-old with the strongest legs on the circuit will be a major contender for the World Championships title at Basel next month.
Yamaguchi’s pedigree is apparent from the fact that she had briefly attained the position of World No 1 in the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings in April last year, and has spent over a hundred weeks over the past three years in the No 2 slot, behind Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying.
While the much-awaited women’s singles final turned out to be a damp squib, the men’s singles summit clash hit the heights to such an extent that it deserved to be rated one of the finest finals in the 38-year history of the Indonesia Open.
Unseeded Dane, Anders Antonsen, who had made optimal use of a stroke of luck in the quarter-final, when China’s No 2 seed, Shi Yuqi, had to retire with a sprained ankle at 7-6 in their opening game, made Chou Tien Chen of Chinese Taipei stretch all his limits for a monumental 91 minutes before the No 4 seed could scamper to a 21-18, 24-26, 21-15 victory.
It was Chou’s first Super 1000 crown, and his first title of 2019, though he had an excellent 2018 season, winning three World Tour titles and being runner-up in another three competitions. The Taiwanese had been silver medallist behind Indonesia’s Jonatan Christie at last year’s Asian Games, held at the very stadium where he climbed the pinnacle at this year’s Indonesia Open, and bagged the winner’s cheque of $87,500.
In a tournament that had witnessed the exit of six of the eight men’s singles seeds before the quarter-final stage, and which had found three unseeded players barging into the semi-finals, the 29 year old Chou barely managed to stretch his unbeaten head-to-head record against the 22 year old Danish player to 5-0, with four of those matches having gone the full distance.
There was so little to separate the two men in speed, strokeplay, temperament, lasting power (though the younger man appeared to be a wee bit fresher at the end) and hunger to win that, after the final point was played, they ended up stretched out on the court next to each other, even before they could get up and clasp hands to celebrate the end of the Homeric contest.
In a heart-warming gesture that had the capacity crowd in utter delirium, the two men sportingly hugged and exchanged T-shirts, with Chou having to subsequently wear a teammate’s T-shirt for the medals ceremony because he lacked a spare one in his kitbag.
There was, however, little to enthuse about in the three doubles matches, all of which featured teams from the same country, and in all of which the favourites duly triumphed.
Second seeded Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota of Japan set the ball rolling for the afternoon’s entertainment by downing their former World no 1 compatriots, Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo by a 21-16, 21-18 scoreline. The mixed doubles crown went to the Chinese World no 1 and top-seeded duo of Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong, who conquered Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping at 21-13, 21-18.
And, in a fitting peroration to the tournament, the Indonesian spectators got to see their own highly-adored men’s doubles pairs who deserve to be rated as the top two combinations in the world today, even though a Chinese pair technically occupies the No 2 slot in the BWF rankings.
It hardly mattered that the current World no 1 duo of Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo had a clear edge in speed and power against the two-time former world champions, Mohammed Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan, and notched a swift 21-19, 21-16 verdict in two minutes under the half-hour mark. Both the Daddies and the Minions, as they are referred to in their country, were lustily cheered on to, and off, the court.
Updated Date: Jul 21, 2019 21:53:21 IST