This is the first time in seven matches this year that an Indian has managed to get the better of Japanese Akane Yamaguchi. When PV Sindhu finally downed her 21-12, 21-19 in 36 minutes in the quarterfinal of the Hong Kong Open, she stemmed the bouncy Japanese’ stomping run highlighted by four defeats over Saina Nehwal in 2017. There was also a double-header at the French Open when the diminutive 20-year-old beat both Saina and Sindhu within three days.
Besides being the World No. 2 and an athlete whose game belies her frame, she is also a ready reckoner to test the Indian girls’ state of fitness, always at hand and bobbing in the main draws at Super Series. Badminton is a game of fitness, and as a corollary it is a game of comparative tiredness. After a couple of title runs, it was Yamaguchi’s turn to parry shots with depleted power and disoriented precision. But Sindhu was there to pounce on the chance not allowing Yamaguchi’s resistance to flower into a full-fledged return into the match.
The Indian World No. 3 started at a blistering pace and was a set up soon enough. But it was in the second that Sindhu asserted her grit. The two were level at 8-8 but before things got even at 18-all again, there was a flutter of a comeback from Yamaguchi. She would work up a 5-point lead, which Sindhu needed to seriously chip away at. The 22-year-old Indian would grit out the long rallies, read through the bit-deception of the drops that fell to her backhand forecourt and then use her height to outlive the battle of tosses against the 5’1”.
Yamaguchi is a runner, one of the finest Japan boasts of currently. So playing her is a simple mirror to checking your own fitness. Anyone prepared to run, rally, retrieve and do it longer than Yamaguchi can fancy their chance against the Japanese.
At their fittest, she might not pose an insurmountable challenge to either Saina or Sindhu. But at the fag end of the season, she’s chomped into their chances of advancing further in recent tournaments, especially since both Indians seemed to have peaked at the World Championships in August vis-à-vis fitness. It helped though that Hong Kong had faster courts, where Sindhu could hit through and her smash winners got cracking typically a bane of the runners. “Yamaguchi plays the rally and lifts every shuttle. Sindhu was patient today and the faster courts gave her the opening,” said academy coach Siyadatullah.
Typically, rally players need to be beaten at their style served a dose of their own medicine and Sindhu’s relatively better fitness meant Yamaguchi was bound to be on the backfoot. A frontal raging smash at 2-0 that zipped through in the second set was the shot of the match, even as Sindhu’s perseverance in beating back after conceding a lead helped her enter the semis.
A finalist at Hong Kong last year, she will be keen to go the distance though the bar gets higher. Former international Arvind Bhat who was in the coach’s chair in Europe recalls another trick that worked when she led 11-9 in Paris. “Unlike Okuhara, Yamaguchi can get intimidated. A bit of aggression from Sindhu and the Japanese can get unnerved,” he says of mentally psyching the Japanese.
As such, she’s short on booming weapons though she makes up for the height with her tremendous running game that has kept her Top 3 for long now.
She can wear them down day after day and draw out errors. Not the trickiest though Bhat reckons her strokes from the back, slow drops and angles defy every strokes armoury list of shorter players Yamaguchi got the best of the attacking game funnelled at her quick tosses to the back and charges to the net.
On the day though, Sindhu stuck to a strategy and muscled past her opponent. She also had adequate energy to not let Yamaguchi pull the match into the decider. Given her body language everytime she was stumped by some of Sindhu’s signature kills though, Sindhu might have cornered even a third.