Sunday, May 26, 2019
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
China are once again champions of the World Mixed Team Championships. The TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2019 title – their 11th from their 13th straight final – came with a 3-0 decimation of Japan that defied all pre-tournament expectations for the sheer authority with which they took down the top seeds.
And when it was all over, Japan were left to ponder how they had come up so woefully short despite having a team ripe with talent and experience. Their ‘final frontier’ – they have won all major titles except this – remained unconquered.
It was the day of China’s young heroes, who stepped up against difficult odds and passed the test with flying colours.
Heading into the final, Japan had the edge in the head-to-head record in the first three matchups, and China in the remaining two.
Japan had their opportunities, but couldn’t capitalise. Hiroyuki Endo and Yuta Watanabe, up against the blistering pace and attack of Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen in the men’s doubles, produced a masterclass in the opening essay, with high-quality clears to the deep, soft touch denying pace, patience in the rallies, and dominance of the serve-return exchanges.
Liu Yuchen, smashing relentlessly from the back, appeared to flag from the effort, and the Japanese looked well-placed at 18-all. The momentum shifted at that point, with Endo and Watanabe perhaps erring in trying to force the pace and playing into the hands of their opponents. The game was taken in a flash, and then it all went China’s way. Watanabe and Endo’s early discipline was shaken, and China struck the psychological first blow: 21-18 21-10.
Stubborn Chen Yufei
Akane Yamaguchi recovered from a scratchy start to take the opening game against Chen Yufei, settling down to her scampering style and throwing everything back, her defence and energetic retrievals wearing down the younger challenger.
But Chen wasn’t done. With silken footwork and uncanny anticipation of Yamaguchi’s shots, she was always in place, winning the first shot at the net, crafting all the angles with shots fierce and subtle. Yamaguchi was left reacting to her opponent’s shot-making, and she was only barely hanging on.
Chen slightly wilted early in the third, giving Yamaguchi a handy lead at 11-6. Untypical of someone with her experience and ability, the Japanese let the advantage slip, and Chen regained momentum.
Despite Yamaguchi having drawn level at 15 in the third, it was Chen who was holding the reins of each rally – her shots more adventurous, more proactive and more testing.
Yamaguchi’s preference of a safe approach had backfired, and Chen Yufei had indeed outlasted the retrieving machine in the marathon 81-minute contest: 17-21 21-16 21-17.
The Killer Punch
Kento Momota had the record in his favour over Shi Yuqi (4-1) in the men’s singles, and he pegged back his opponent in the opening game, looking well in his comfort zone and untroubled by whatever his opponent had to offer.
But the match turned on its head with Shi turning on the pace – fierce smashes from the deep homing in on the lines, alert interceptions at the net denying Momota any openings. It was a blizzard that blew away the Japanese, very much in the same fashion as the BWF HSBC World Tour Finals in December. Shi’s pace and attack left Momota trailing in the dust, and it was all over very quickly – 15-21 21-5 21-11.
Japan head coach Park Joo Bong pinned the loss down to Yamaguchi’s inability to convert her lead in the third, and Momota’s exhaustion from previous matches.
“Yamaguchi was leading 11-6 but couldn’t continue from there. It was a big mistake. Kento played well in the first but slowed down in the second. He played every match except the first and he didn’t recover after yesterday’s late match. He tried to speed up but he couldn’t.”
Victorious Chinese coach Xia Xuanze said the team had learned a lot from their previous final defeat to Korea, and had prepared accordingly. “We had prepared for every scenario. It was out of our expectations that we would win 3-0. After the last Sudirman Cup final, we studied our weaknesses and strengths. We gained a lot of experience and that led to today’s success.”