Last year, in the first round of the Singapore Open badminton championships, when Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth took the court as defending champion, the Indian did everything except slip it across Japan’s Kento Momota, who won their cliff-hanger at 22-20 in the decider, to level their career head-to-head scores at 2-all.
On Saturday, when the two clashed again in the semi-finals of the Japan Open World Tour Super 750 tournament, the chasm that had opened up between the two players in the course of the past one year became very apparent, as the top-seed and defending champion annihilated the tousle-headed Indian by a 21-18, 21-12 margin, to barge yet again into the final of his home event.
The 24-year-old Momota, who has already won four titles in 2019, proved too strong and agile for his unseeded 26-year-old opponent, and ticked quite a few boxes in his preparations for defending in Basel next month the world crown he had won last year in Nanjing.
The Japanese left-hander played well within himself in the opening game against the 26-year-old Indian, concentrating merely on doing just enough to stay ahead on the scoreboard. The normally steady Praneeth did not do his own cause any good by making some wild shots into the tramlines, though it must be said that Momota’s outstanding court coverage and ironclad defence forced his rival to go in for just that little bit extra along the lines, and err in the process.
The only time that Praneeth was in the match was when he made up a 6-11 deficit in the opening game to neutralise the lead at 11-all. Unperturbed, the reigning world champion again opened up a four-point gap, which he rode comfortably on, all the way to the tape.
Similarly, Momota bided his time until his opponent edged up to 12-14 in the second stanza; and only then stepped up a gear to leave the Indian gasping in his wake. Suffice it to say that, at no stage of the 45-minute encounter did it look as if the local hero would even be stretched to a decider, let alone be in danger of losing the match.
In the final on Sunday, Momota will take on the 21-year-old Asian Games gold medallist, Jonatan Christie, who was equally impressive while winning the “Jan versus Jon” battle by a facile 21-14, 21-14 scoreline over Denmark’s 31-year-old Jan O Jorgensen. The Dane, in his earlier rounds, had lowered the colours of five-time former world champion and two-time Olympic gold medallist, Lin Dan of China, and Taiwan’s Chou Tien Chen, winner of the Indonesia Open last Sunday.
The sixth-seeded Indonesian took exactly three-quarters of an hour to put an end to the veteran Dane’s giant-killing run – coincidentally the same amount of time that Momota had earlier taken to show Praneeth the exit door of the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza, venue of the badminton event at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
In Sunday's battle for the gold medal and cheque of $52,500 in this $750,000 prize money competition, Christie can take heart from the fact that, although he trails Momota 1-2 in career head-to-heads, he won their most recent duel at the Malaysia Open in April this year by a 22-20, 21-15 scoreline. Their earlier two clashes, in 2016 and 2018, had both gone the full distance, so the Indonesian would seem to have the measure of his redoubtable rival.
Meanwhile, host nation Japan geared up for the big show by bagging both the final slots in the women’s singles, in addition to a berth in the men’s singles final. Japan’s Korean coach Park Joo Bong’s cup of joy was full to the brim when both his pre-eminent female players progressed to the summit clash without much ado.
Third-seeded Nozomi Okuhara, winner of the World Championship title at Glasgow in 2017, had little trouble in subduing unseeded Michelle Li, employing her trademark attritional tactics to wear down the Canadian of Chinese origin with a 21-12, 21-18 verdict in 48 minutes. Li had earlier caused the biggest upset of the tournament by edging out top seed and erstwhile World no 1, Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, at 22-20 in the deciding game of their quarter-final.
Okuhara’s compatriot, Akane Yamaguchi, continued her red-hot streak of form by eliminating China’s second-seeded Chen Yufei by a 21-15, 21-15 scoreline in 42 minutes. The pint-sized Japanese fourth seed, conqueror of India’s Pusarla V Sindhu in her earlier outing, provided further evidence of just how much she has improved, by hardly putting a foot wrong against her higher-ranked antagonist.
Yamaguchi judiciously blended defence with aggression, and was swift enough on her feet to reach all corners of the court and still have plenty of time to play her next stroke. The 22-year-old Fukui native kept Yufei constantly guessing as to the placement and trajectory of her next shot, and even played some delectable crosscourt flicks at the net.
It did not help the Chinese shuttler's cause that she had to seek medical attention for a strained shoulder muscle, midway through the second game. The application of the “magic spray” possibly did the trick, and did not appear to adversely affect Yufei’s game thereafter. But Yamaguchi, who will take over the world no 1 position when the Badminton World Federation (BWF) rankings are announced next Thursday, was far too strong and focused to be diverted from her objective.
On this showing, it would occasion a fair amount of surprise if Yamaguchi were to be upstaged on Sunday by her fellow-countrywoman, two years her senior. Even though Okuhara leads their career record 11-7, it was the younger woman who won their most recent clash in straight games, at the Malaysia Open three months back. It is on the cards that this result will be repeated in Tokyo.
Sunday’s finals start at 11.30 am Japan time (08.00 IST), with the women’s singles. The much-awaited men’s singles clash will be third on the programme.
Updated Date: Jul 27, 2019 22:20:56 IST