Japan Open 2019: Akane Yamaguchi's resolute defence keeps ill-at-ease PV Sindhu at bay; artful B Sai Praneeth lone Indian in fray
Galling as it is to admit it, Sindhu was outplayed by a smarter antagonist who had added several strings to her bow, compared to the Indian’s essentially one-dimensional play.
David triumphed yet again over Goliath. Tiny titan Akane Yamaguchi, all of 5’1, delighted her adoring home fans at Tokyo’s Musashino Forest Sport Plaza by repeating her Indonesia Open victory over India’s gangling 5’10 P V Sindhu by a 21-18, 21-16 scoreline in the $750,000 prize money Japan Open World Tour 750 badminton quarter-final on Friday.
Yamaguchi’s convincing win, allied to the shock 15-21, 21-15, 20-22 loss sustained by Chinese Taipei’s long-standing World No 1 and top seed, Tai Tzu Ying, at the hands of Canada’s Michelle Li, catapulted the No 4 seed to the pinnacle of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings for the second time in her career, no matter what the result of Saturday’s semi-finals. The 22-year-old Japanese had first attained the top ranking on 19th April 2018, becoming the first woman from her country to gain that distinction.
In the penultimate round on the morrow, Yamaguchi will clash with Chinese second seed, Chen Yufei, who made the last four grade at the expense of Thailand’s Busanan Ongbamrungphan by a 21-18, 15-21, 21-12 scoreline.
The other semi-final will be contested between Canadian giant-killer Li and the host nation’s No 3 seed, Nozomi Okuhara, who was stretched all the way by another Thai, Nitchaon Jindapol before she could scramble to an 81-minute 16-21, 21-16, 21-19 victory.
Sindhu’s defeat at the fourth-seeded Yamaguchi’s hands did not, however, prevent India from having some representation in Saturday’s semi-finals. Unseeded Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth, ranked 23rd on the BWF ladder, upset the calculations of Indonesian Tommy Sugiarto, ranked five spots above him, by a facile 21-12, 21-15 margin, to earn a semi-final meeting with top-seeded Kento Momota of Japan.
Momota had to struggle for one minute short of the hour-and-a-half mark before putting it across one of three Indonesians in the quarter-finals, the speedy seventh-seeded Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, prevailing at 21-13, 20-22, 21-15. The reigning world champion and the top seed has not looked in top fettle over the past two weeks, but still had sufficient steam left in the kettle to smother Ginting’s challenge.
The other men’s singles semi-final will feature 31-year-old comeback man Jan O Jorgensen from Denmark against Indonesia’s 2018 Asian Games gold medallist, Jonatan Christie, who is fully a decade his junior.
Jorgensen, returning to the circuit after a couple of years in the wilderness due to injury, subdued his compatriot, Rasmus Gemke 11-21, 21-14, 21-13 in two minutes shy of the hour mark, while Christie proved too fast and aggressive for the third Dane in the quarter-finals, Anders Antonsen, winning comfortably at 21-12, 21-14 in 47 minutes. In their most recent encounter, the Indonesian beat Jorgensen in straight games at the Malaysia Masters in January this year.
India’s sole surviving hopes in the men’s doubles, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, played an outstanding match against the second-seeded Japanese, Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda, but faltered in the final moments of both games before going under at 19-21, 18-21 in a 42-minute battle royal packed with rallies played at a blinding pace.
The Indians will bitterly rue the fact that they failed to capitalise on a handy 13-7 lead in the first game, when the combination of Rankireddy’s power-packed smashes and Shetty’s lightning-fast interceptions at the net had the fancied Japanese duo on the back foot. Once they allowed the Japanese to neutralise the lead at 16-all, they were always going to struggle. In the second game, too, the Indians could not hang on to a slim 11-10 advantage at lemon-time and conceded the initiative to the home pair by erring during the fast-paced rallies.
Much had been expected of Sindhu, who had been widely expected to work out with her Korean coach Kim Ji Hyun a viable counter to Yamaguchi’s storming bodyline tactics, employed during the latter’s 21-15, 21-16 triumph in the Indonesian Open final last Sunday. And, to give the 24-year-old Indian credit, she did seem to have found an answer to the Japanese player’s parallel hitting and aiming for the midriff.
But Yamaguchi, in addition to her unflappable temperament and boundless stamina, has improved her speed on the court to such an extent that she was rarely found out of position while reacting to any stroke that Sindhu directed at her body or away from her. Whereas the leggy Indian covered the court with a couple of steps, the diminutive Japanese scurried around, employing double the number of steps, but putting up the kind of resolute defence that got her out of tight corners time and time again.
The strategy, modified from last week in Jakarta, simply seemed to be to make Sindhu play that extra shuttle. Yamaguchi traded several lengthy rallies with the Indian, as she has done in the past, even though she trailed 5-10 in the head-to-head record. However, she punctuated these rallies with short bouts of aggressive play.
On Friday, the pocket dynamo would, out of the blue, unleash a sideline smash that would catch the Indian flat-footed. One lost count of the number of points the Japanese wrested with this surprise tactic. Sindhu, on the other hand, could make no impression on her rival with her powerful smashes, virtually all of which got returned with so much control that the net-rushing Indian could not capitalise on weak returns.
Galling as it is to admit it, Sindhu was outplayed by a smarter antagonist who had added several strings to her bow, compared to the Indian’s essentially one-dimensional play. The tiny Japanese was also judicious in her use of the dribble or toss clear from the net, while Sindhu failed to gain control of the rally with the kind of netplay that would have forced her opponent to lift the shuttle to the midcourt.
Frustrating as it was for the Indian fan to watch Sindhu flounder against Yamaguchi, it had been sheer delight, earlier in the day, to see the ease with which the artful Sai Praneeth tackled the somewhat straightforward play of Sugiarto, whose claim to fame is a World Championship bronze medal at Copenhagen in 2014.
Although he lacks the smashing power of a Kidambi Srikanth, Praneeth is able to maintain an iron length and produces angles on his smashes that are difficult for an opponent to tackle. Sugiarto was all at sea as he tried desperately to induce midcourt lifts which he could kill; hitting from the baseline could not garner him a point against the comfortable defence of the Indian.
And so it was that Praneeth managed to tie his head-to-head record with Sugiarto at 2-2, with his two victories coming in their two most recent clashes – at the Australian Open in June 2017, and at the 2019 Japan Open. Of the four matches that the two have played, this was the only one that ended in straight games; the other three had gone the full distance.
Praneeth’s career record against the reigning world champion Momota, whom he meets in Saturday’s semi-finals, is also, coincidentally, 2-2. But the order of victories has been completely reversed, in that the Indian beat the Japanese left-hander in their first two encounters, both in 2013, but has lost to him in the most recent ones – at the Nanjing World Championships in August 2018 (by a one-sided 12-21, 12-21 verdict) and at the Singapore Open in April this year (at 21-19, 14-21, 20-22).
The scoreline at the Singapore Open, at which Praneeth was the champion in 2017, was heart-rendingly close, and revealed that the Indian is able to last the distance in a lengthy encounter. Stamina has always been Praneeth’s bugbear; and it would be ideal for him to go all out for a straight-games win on the morrow, for his chances will diminish in direct proportion to the length of their semi-final duel. Momota is not playing as well as he was in the second half of last year, but his fitness is indisputable.
Saturday’s semi-finals will start at 10 am Japan time (06:30 am IST). Praneeth is scheduled to play the third match of the morning, behind an all-Japanese women’s doubles and the women’s singles between Canada’s Michelle and Japan’s 2017 world champion Okuhara.
Japan has seen the number of infections decline following a record spike last month, which prompted the government to expand and extended virus restrictions, despite the national vaccination programme ramping up.
The current state of emergency, which was to end on Sunday, was issued first in Okinawa in May and gradually expanded.
If chosen, the minister in-charge of vaccinations in the country will have to deal with the alarmingly high number of COVID-19 cases and the slow rollout owing to shortages and hesitancy