Akane Yamaguchi has a slightly unsettling relationship with discomfort – much to her opponents’ dismay, it’s unsettling for the opponents. The Japanese is comfortable with irritants. Tall rivals, fast rivals, clever rivals, Japanese rivals, calm rivals, tempestuous rivals and rivals going by the name Carolina Marin: Yamaguchi can counter all manners of games and conditions, with an expressive shaking of her floppy hair.
The biggest mistake an opponent can make before putting a lid on her busy-bee prancing game, is to think that Yamaguchi can be cornered. PV Sindhu, chasing her first All England crown, runs into this yo-yo ball, who has played just one international match in 2021 – the opener at Birmingham.
🗣 “I have to be prepared for everything and anything.”
— 🏆 Yonex All England Badminton Championships 🏆 (@YonexAllEngland) March 18, 2021
Her second-round opponent from Turkey was withdrawn following a Covid trace and test scare. Admittedly, Yamaguchi runs into Sindhu on the back of a long layoff dating back to last All England.
The one exception to be seriously considered though, is Japan’s National championship, where she lost 22-20 in the third to Nozomi Okuhara. The senior Japanese has spent most of 2020 training in lockdown at Olympics’ Ground Zero improving her footwork to deal with Yamaguchi’s tricky returns.
So Sindhu might want to remember that opponents from powerhouses like Japan, have no dearth of competitive domestic sparring. So Yamaguchi’s relative rustiness might not be the comfort to lean on.
Sindhu leads Yamaguchi 10-7. She’s become a World Champion since that particular statistic froze. But the tricky returns that Okuhara is fixated on, are bubbling like always in Yamaguchi’s repertoire.
Sindhu’s reach can torment Yamaguchi. Her aggression, not as much as it works against the relatively shorter players like Okuhara, Chen Yufei and Tai Tzu Ying. For Yamaguchi brings her own attack into the mix. She has a respectable smash kill and a defense that may leak points initially when Sindhu powers her cross-court deep smashes along the lines. But Yamaguchi likes her back and forths: a string of deflated errors is not exactly what she concedes. There will be resistance even if Sindhu takes off in one of her rampaging starts.
Playing her first match, Yamaguchi had frowned about the air-conditioning and drift irritating her, till the end of the match she won 14, 17. No audience means the winds blow “here and there” like Sindhu herself pointed out.
It will be an exciting pitting of wits between the two women, who’ve never won All England, and are being guided by Korean coaches. Both are fresh relatively, not really stretched in their outings the last two days. Both believe in sweetly conveying that there will be no quarter given.
Big Mark Caljouw stands in Sen’s way to semis
A hulking Dutchman Mark Caljouw stands in the way of Lakshya Sen making the All England semis in only his second outing at Birmingham.
“He should mentally be prepared for a long match.The Dutch guy is big and has a good defense. Lakshya should not get desperate and should attack at the right time,” Sen’s coach Vimal Kumar said.
Sen’s last match at 2020’s All England was against Viktor Axelsen, who posed a similar problem to the Indian. “He has a good defense and has been playing well. He got the better of Prannoy in the Swiss Open last week,” he added.
Lakshya tends to get a bit frustrated against retrievers. “He is very tall and has a good hit as well. He has beaten Lakshya in one of the PBL games,” the coach added.
It’s been a torrid 6 months for Lakshya, starting with Germany where his father would test positive, and Lakshya wasbarred from playing. “Lakshya has nothing to lose and a win can give him a lot of confidence considering the misery he went through last 6 months. Back injury, COVID,” Vimal said.
But at Birmingham, he’s looked in good touch. “He has no issues last 3 weeks and when he played in the Swiss he just did not have the confidence. Hope a few wins and more matches can help him play at a similar level like early last year,” the coach said.
Sen ought to start as favourite against World No 36 Caljouw, four years his senior. Ranked at No 28, Sen will back himself to make the semis, given the confident manner in which he has strided forward against Kantaphon Wangcharoen and Thomas Rouxel on two consecutive days.
Historically prone to fading off as the match progressed, Sen has shown massive improvements in grabbing the initiative and finishing the job with his mix of aggression and a solid end-game.
What he will need to guard against when taking on the Dutch shuttler, is the relative ease with which Caljouw can tackle Indian players.
He is on 8-3 wins against Indians in the last four years, and tends to play a disarming, harmless game, chipping away before shifting gears to bring in the bulk.
Sen, who’s looked solid, minus any hiccups, will relish the opportunity to make his maiden semis and is capable of playing the composed game. And break the chain of Indians who seem to end up on the losing side against Caljouw.