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Akane Yamaguchi

“I’m just going to purely enjoy badminton”

Akane in a recent article by Dev Sukumar. Courtesy BWF

Watching a revitalized Akane win back-to-back tournaments in Denmark and France has been one of the highlights of the last few weeks.

Akane on the podium at the French Open. Screengrab courtesy BWF

She has been the standout player on the circuit recently. Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of multiple competitions since Tokyo 2020, she has flourished.

Sudirman & Uber Cup

Akane was at the heart of Japan’s success in the team competitions in Vantaa and Aarhus. Two silver medals do not do justice to her immense contribution. Both times Japan lost in the final to China, but both times she chalked up victories against CHEN Yu Fei in straight sets. There was an all-consuming intensity to these games. She seldom made mistakes and as she upped the tempo of the match CYF struggled to find scoring opportunities because her rival’s court coverage was formidable. Contrast this to their previous meeting in the same competition (Sudirman Cup 2019) and her improvement is clear. The next time these two face each other over a net is going to be awesome.

Victor Denmark Open: October 2021

In the Uber Cup AN Se Young was the only player to unpick Akane’s defence (in two sets) and so this final was an opportunity to see what effect the loss had had upon her Japanese foe. The first set was controlled by ASY; despite a heavily strapped thigh her movement was fluid and dominant. The second set began in much the same way with Yamaguchi struggling to summon up the energy to put any fizz on the shuttle; she was making mistakes too and there seemed to be an inevitability to the Korean’s advance to the top of the podium. By 16-16 Akane was fighting desperately to stay in the match: diving, scrambling, scrapping and just giving everything to stay in contention. 18-18. 19-19. A match point to ASY came and went amidst exhausting rallies. The score reached 23-23 before Akane was able to get the points needed to close it out 25-23. Ominously, in the interval, ASY ripped off her strapping and called for the doctor for the second time.

The third set was a story of triumph and tragedy. As it began, it was obvious that the Korean was less smooth in her movements. With the score against her at 3-7 she was red carded for ‘delay’ but effectively she was trying to work out whether she could continue and at 16-5 down she admitted defeat.

No-one ever wants to win a title in these circumstances, but Akane’s triumph was based on perseverance and her emphatic refusal to concede the game in the second set. AN Se Young missed her opportunity to win when she failed to convert her match point. Akane was very courageous in Set 2 since she committed everything to those long rallies; her grit paid off as ASY wilted under the grueling examination of her stamina. This was a fascinating duel.

Yonex French Open 2021

Yamaguchi’s European success continued with her title win against compatriot Sayaka Takahashi in Paris. A straight sets victory, this was a little more straightforward but there are no easy games at this level. Akane’s top-quality defence and stamina effectively neutralized her opponent’s threat; Takahashi stayed with the momentum at first, but she was forced to cut her margins and go for the line so, as she tired, mistakes crept into her game. The final score was 21-18, 21-12.

Conclusions

Back in July 2019 Akane Yamaguchi was world #1 – albeit briefly – but later suffered training disruption and some shock defeats owing to niggly injuries. In common with many in the Japanese team there were substantial expectations on her shoulders when the Olympics began but she was unable to make a significant impact. Now I think she has revisited her motivation to compete and it has given her a fresh outlook. Her epic battle with AN Se Young for the Denmark title showcased her unending resilience and phenomenal court coverage; I hope we get the chance to see plenty more clashes between these two. As one of the most lovable athletes on the tour plenty of fans will be cheering her on to more podium finishes. The Bali bubble beckons and she can travel to Indonesia with plenty of confidence that she will be making a big impression.


You may like to read Dev Sukumar’s BWF article https://bwfworldtour.bwfbadminton.com/news/?pyear=2021&pmonth=10 or take a look at my earlier piece about her https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/09/japans-akane-yamaguchi-hotter-than-july/


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Badminton World Championships Basel 2019: WS Preview

The Badminton World Championships start on August 19th so I’m taking a look at some of the main contenders for Women’s Singles gold.

This discipline is full of talent – and unlike the men’s singles it’s not dominated by one person – so it will be an intriguing contest right from the beginning. All tournaments offer a rising intensity as players progress through the rounds: physical endurance can be sapped as well as the emotional drain of competition. The parity of ability amongst the top seeds means that being able to deal with tournament pressure will have a huge part to play. Who will relish the fight?

“…every player has a chance of being crowned champion.” Ratchanok

Nozomi Okuhara: Contender

Nozomi’s been in the waiting room this year – she hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success as Akane and yet she is a fabulous player. Her tactics often mean she gets stuck in a war of attrition so I’d like to see a bit less patience and more drive to finish off a rally. I think her edge is blunted by predictability so it would be great to see her surprise her opponent (& us!) a bit more often. Prediction: Final.

Tai Tzu Ying: The Queen

Shutterstock

Tai Tzu Ying has never won the World Championships and goes into this competition as #2 seed. Because of her hints about retirement and her lack of big tournament form recently, fans have focused on this title with the sense that time is running out. I cannot pretend to be neutral about Tai Tzu Ying – the way she plays is brilliant and gives me so much pleasure – so I wish I felt more confident about this tournament. Her possible path to the final is tough and includes Sindhu who would relish a big battle. Prediction Semi Final.

Akane: World #1

Akane’s triumph at the Indonesian Open quickly followed by success in the Japan Open – her home tournament – means that she enters the World Championships as #1. Since disappointment in the Sudirman Cup her game has become more aggressive with a willingness to push her rivals around. She can’t just win everything from now on though, can she? Prediction Semi Final.

Chen Yufei

Feifei is a very clever player with the might of the Chinese coaches behind her. I think she is good at rebalancing her game to beat whoever she faces. Often she traps ‘flair’ players into thinking they will conquer her by playing their natural game. She waits it out and then finishes them off; her natural strength means she can get through three draining games. It’s been said that her weakness is her inability to cope with her nerves but this seems to be eratic. Prediction: Final

P V Sindhu: fighter

(Xinhua/Zheng Huansong)

Sindhu is renowned as a big match player and this skill is a huge advantage in the top tournaments. By her own standards 2019 has been quite quiet but July saw her spring into life. It was great to see a refreshed player getting her game back. I love her style when she unleashes her inner badminton beast and dominates the court with her aggressive smashes and drives. I think that’s going to be the secret of success for her; when she’s confident and plays like that she can become unstoppable. She is seeded 5 and her path to success looks very tough: Zhang Beiwen in R16 and possibly TTY in the quarters. Prediction: QF owing to hard draw.

Saina Nehwal

2019 has seen Saina endure various injuries and this has obviously disrupted her training programme. Her half of the draw is no picnic & includes players like Chen Yufei and P V Sindhu. She always has the desire to win and heaps of experience but realistically I can’t see her progressing beyond QF. That’s not necessarily a bad performance in the context of her year so far. I see this competition as her opportunity to continue to work on her match fitness and focus on her aim to get to Tokyo 2020. Prediction QF

Ratchanok Intanon

“… women’s singles is so competitive that on any given day whoever can control herself and play her style of game will be the champion.” Ratchanok

May lost out in the Thailand Open Final to Chen Yufei but she played very well in that match. CYF won because she played with patience and endurance – often in rallies she was content to simply keep sending the shuttle back. Towards the end May did slightly alter her approach but by that point it was too late. It’s been noticeable that since then she has been posting plenty of evidence on IG of her hard work in the gym so perhaps this means she’s preparing her body for longer games with less reliance upon a dazzling winner and more focus on turning the screw. Prediction Semi Final

Any Surprises?

Funny things can happen in knock-out tournaments; sometimes athletes really fly through their games and suddenly find themselves in a quarter final. The Indonesian players -Fitriani & Tunjung – are both talented but frustratingly inconsistent. Their homeland can have high hopes of medals from others but it would be a welcome shock if honours came from WS.

Michelle Li from Canada can push anyone on her day and often gets good results but realistically I don’t think she would trouble Chen Yufei (assuming she gets past Saina).

Chochuwong had a great run in the Thailand Open but again her draw is tricky. Lastly He Be Jiao is seeded 6 so has to be taken seriously as a possible semi-finalist.

So, in conclusion…

That gold medal, that title, the culmination of years of work, is realistically within the reach of about eight of the players. It’s going to take an immense effort – physically and emotionally – to clinch the prize. I also think it requires someone to play with inspiration and joy; there is more to winning this than mere sweat and toil.

© 2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi: Hotter Than July

Wow! Akane – what a July!

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?

Pic from Hafiz Johari/Shutterstock.com

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.

Both players finished flat out on the floor but CHEN Yufei was the victor.
Video courtesy BWF

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.

Akane wins the Indonesia Open – Video by kind permission BWF

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.

https://twitter.com/AYamaguchiFans/status/1155455793610629121

If you enjoyed this follow the link to my piece about Nozomi Okuhara https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ and also this one about Tai Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved