Japan Open 2019: Defending champion Kento Momota brushes aside Jonatan Christie; Akane Yamaguchi eases past Nozomi Okuhara

It was Japan’s day in the sun on Sunday, as shuttlers from the Land of the Rising Sun annexed with consummate ease both the stellar singles titles at the 38th edition of the $750,000 prize money Japan Open badminton championships, underlining the fact that the hosts will be the nation to beat at next year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

 Japan Open 2019: Defending champion Kento Momota brushes aside Jonatan Christie; Akane Yamaguchi eases past Nozomi Okuhara

File image of Akane Yamaguchi. Reuters

Top seed, defending champion and reigning world champion Kento Momota simply brushed aside the challenge of Indonesia’s 2018 Asian Games gold medallist, Jonatan Christie, by a 21-16, 21-13 scoreline in a mere 44 minutes, and raised his arms in triumph, squeezing his eyes tightly shut to capture the winning moment within himself, and allowing the undiluted joy he felt, to light up his face.

Fourth-seeded Akane Yamaguchi, however, was her usual phlegmatic self, not allowing even a flicker of satisfaction to touch her poker-faced visage after completing a 21-13, 21-15 hatchet job on her compatriot Nozomi Okuhara, the woman who had won the 2017 World Championship gold medal at Glasgow, and had been seeded one spot higher in the draw.

It was only during the post-match courtside interview that the 22-year-old Yamaguchi finally cracked an almost reluctant, shy smile, acknowledging the fact that her back-to-back title-winning exploits at the Indonesia Open Super 1000 and Japan Open Super 750 tournaments had propelled her to the pinnacle of the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings at the expense of Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying.

As had been predicted, Yamaguchi’s current form had made her the raging hot favourite for the crown, despite the fact that she trailed 7-11 in the career head-to-head stakes against Okuhara; and she did not disappoint. A single sentence is sufficient to give an idea of the extent of her dominance – she simply outpaced her compatriot, retaining control of more than two-thirds of the rallies during the 46-minute encounter.

Okuhara tried everything she knew, including playing the interminable toss-drop rallies and occasionally throwing in bouts of attacking play. Nothing fazed her antagonist, at 22, two years Okuhara’s junior. After making up a small initial deficit, and neutralising at 9-all, she simply ran away with the opening game with some speedy positive play to which the former world champion had no answer.

Okuhara had slightly the better of the exchanges in the first half of the second stanza, but Yamaguchi remained unperturbed, and slowly chipped away at the lead until she herself managed a small 16-15 advantage.

As the match built up to a crescendo, a glaring error from Estonian chair umpire Iris Metspalu nipped Okuhara’s resistance in the bud. She was faulted for having touched the net with her racket when actually, it had been the shuttle that had clipped the net. A visibly upset Okuhara failed to get another point in the rest of the match, but there can be no two opinions that she had been outmanoeuvred and outsmarted by her Uber Cup team-mate.

It is amazing to think that this was not the first time Yamaguchi was winning her country’s title. Six years ago, as a precocious 16-year-old, she had stood on the topmost rung of the victory rostrum, heralding the arrival of a phenomenal talent on the world scene.

From that point, however, Yamaguchi laboured in the shadow of her fellow-countrywoman, Okuhara; the Taiwanese queen of deception, Tai; the left-handed Spaniard, Carolina Marin, who won the world title thrice and the 2016 Olympic gold; and India’s P V Sindhu, who has won an Olympic silver, and a silver and two bronze medals at three World Championships. Thailand’s 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon, was also present in the mix.

But on the evidence of the last fortnight, it can be said without fear of contradiction that Yamaguchi is the most improved player of the ongoing year. With three titles already in her pocket (the same number as China’s Chen Yufei), the diminutive Japanese will be odds-on favourite to bag the World Championship title at Basel next month, particularly in the light of Tai Tzu Ying’s declining performance graph.

Sunday was a day of somewhat disappointing fare at the Japan Open, with none of the five finals really rising to any heights. The all-Indonesian men’s doubles clash did provide some chills and thrills, but it ended with the same result as in the Indonesia Open last Sunday, with the World no 1 pair of ‘Minions’ Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo administering a narrow 21-18, 23-21 defeat to ‘Daddies’ and former world champions, Mohammed Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan.

The mixed doubles had seen a huge upset earlier in the tournament when the Chinese World no 1 pair and top seeds, Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong, were knocked out of the tournament by Indonesian sixth seeds, Hafiz Faizal and Gloria Emanuelle Widjaja, in the quarter-finals. But the latter could not stand up to their own compatriots, Praveen Jordan and Melati Daeva Octavianti, in the penultimate reckoning.

That cleared the way for the “perennial bridesmaids”, Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping of China, to improve upon their runners-up position at Jakarta last week, and lift the Japan Open title with a 21-17, 21-16 triumph over Jordan and Octavianti. This win could give the Chinese duo a big shot in the arm for the sterner battles that lie ahead in Basel in the third week of August.

The two singles home triumphs apart, the talking point for the capacity Japanese crowd at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza was the comprehensive eclipse of their reigning women’s doubles world champions. Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara went down to the unseeded new South Korean combination of Kim So Yeong and Kong Hee Yong by an almost ludicrously one-sided scoreline of 21-12, 21-12 in a span of 43 minutes.

For a women’s doubles match, where the two sets of rivals are supposed to be evenly matched, to last under three-quarters of an hour is almost unheard of in an era where the average rally lasts 25-30 strokes, as the players switch effortlessly between furious attack and obdurate defence. And what was even harder for the hosts to digest was the fact that the Japanese were beaten despite having three pairs in the top five in the world, and five in the top ten rankings, in this particular event.

The aptly named Kim-Kong duo boasts powerful shoulders and muscle power akin to the phonetically similar sounding legendary gorilla, and has one of the most sustained and relentless attacks in the women’s game. Matsutomo and Nagahara looked shell-shocked as they were unable to cope with the ceaseless barrage of power-packed smashes and delicate drops coming from the other side of the court.

From an unseeded spot in the draw, the Koreans barreled past pair after fancied pair, including the Indian twosome of Ashwini Ponnappa and Sikki Reddy in their very first match (at 21-16, 21-14), the redoubtable fourth-seeded Chinese pair of Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan (at 21-19, 19-21, 21-16) and China’s Li Wen Mei and Zheng Yu, who had conquered the second-seeded Japanese combination of Sayaka Hirota and Yuki Fukushima. The Chinese were laid low by a 21-16, 21-11 scoreline.

One final thought before the $350,000 prize money Thailand Open kicks off in Bangkok from Tuesday. In the same manner as the rise of Yamaguchi and the decline of Tai Tzu Ying among the women in 2019, one is compelled to record the resurrection of world champion Kento Momota after a patchy start to this year, and the steady fading of India’s Kidambi Srikanth, player of the year in 2017.

The Japan Open was Momota’s fifth title of the year, and put him firmly at the forefront of contenders for the world crown in Basel. At the other end were Srikanth’s losses at increasingly early stages of tournaments – he went out in the second round in Jakarta in straight games to Hong Kong’s Ng Ka Long Angus, and lost narrowly to compatriot HS Prannoy in his very first outing in Tokyo.

India’s best male player over the past four years is in deep strife at the moment, and needs to do something drastic to revive his flagging career.

Updated Date: Jul 28, 2019 21:10:15 IST