Playing in front of a packed Istora Senayan TAI Tzu Ying won her third Indonesia Open with a display that underlined her sheer class. Using exquisite net play, incredible drops, and outrageous angles this was a performance that highlighted her outstanding talent. Again, she had to come from behind and again her intense sporting instincts pushed her to victory.
WANG Zhiyi started the first set very strongly. Her sharp smashes from the rear combined with great court coverage were intimidating and effective. She has built a reputation as a giant killer over the past couple of months and it was clear that she had TTY in her sights. As TAI’s creative genius started tipping towards errors WZY was solid and closed out the first set 23-21.
Then TTY entered a different dimension. Suddenly, like a true champion she found another level in the second game. In an astonishing passage of play she annihilated WZY to go to the mid set interval 11-0. She was simply unplayable; her net shots were divine but more importantly she was making fewer errors and had activated a deep desire to win. Uncharacteristic shouts and occasionally a clenched fist betrayed her emotional response to the challenge. WZY was outclassed and although she fought back bravely the second set was wrapped up 21-6.
Set 3 belonged to the Queen. She controlled the game even though the score was close up to 13-13. Her momentum was irresistible towards the end and she wrapped up the match 21-15 with yet another brilliant net shot.
Triple champions are rare: this third Indonesia Open win can be added to her three All England titles. This was an awesome campaign; she is truly one of the greatest, most remarkable players of all time.
Akane has always been a formidable player with plenty of successes along the way but suddenly her achievements have become supercharged and she is unstoppable. Women’s Singles is an incredibly competitive discipline at the moment so what is it that is giving her the edge over her rivals?
Bizarrely I think it was failure that has spurred her on. Looking back to the Sudirman Cup, the crucial tie in the final was the Women’s Singles: Akane Yamaguchi against Chen YuFei. It was a three game battle with neither player consistently dominant. The Chinese crowd was very noisy; it was an intense and passionate atmosphere with huge emotional pressure exerted on both athletes. It’s been noted that at one point in the game Morten Frost described Akane’s play as erratic. That’s quite a brutal assessment, but the point is that in the end she lost.
We all know it’s a team competition but losing that three game match was pivotal to Japan’s eventual loss in the final. The Japanese team oozed togetherness and exuberance as they supported each other through the tournament so it must have been utterly devastating for them all not to get gold.
Up until recently Akane has always been known as a retriever, which often means that she is a defender. This is a very simplistic reduction of an elite athletes game; it’s quite a reactive style but she is great at covering the court and very quick to regain her base position.
However, things have changed since the Sudirman Cup…everyone had some time off before they got back to training. Time to recover physically and mentally but also an opportunity to take stock. Then came July and one of the principal events in the badminton calendar: The Indonesian Open.
It was a fresh Akane with an evolved style. Suddenly she was applying her explosive power to a more attacking game and the final against P V Sindhu showcased how effective this new aggression was.
Sindhu found her game being squeezed. Yamaguchi, above all, was being ferocious in her follow-ups. There were some ruthless flat drives, and midcourt smashes. There was more pressure applied in rallies. She began each game like a tornado and barely relaxed her focus. No longer content to react, Akane was taking the game and demanding to win.
It was a great victory. Sindhu played well but just couldn’t equal Akane’s fierceness; without warning Yamaguchi had stepped up her game.
So we come to the Japanese Open – her home tournament. Her progression to the final took in triumphs against Sindhu and Chen Yufei to set up a meeting with her compatriot Nozomi Okuhara. The scoreline of 21-13, 21-15 lets you know it was an emphatic victory. Again, this was the evolved style. Yamaguchi went toe-to-toe with Okuhara and it was her intensity allied to some awesome accuracy that meant she was able to withstand Okuhara’s propensity for lengthy rallies.
“I was worried I wouldn’t be able to win the long rallies, but I was patient, and whenever there was a chance to make a decisive shot, I was able to make the sharp shots,” said Yamaguchi.
I think it’s a good measure of Akane as a woman and an elite player that she took the worst kind of defeat and used it as fuel for progress:
“I wish I could’ve played this well in the Sudirman Cup final. The loss in the final made me learn and helped me improve.”
The road to Tokyo 2020 has a lot of twists and turns yet but momentum and big match experience counts for a lot. I want to end this piece by urging you to watch the film clip below – the happiness on Akane’s face is so infectious it is an utter joy to see.