Those who watched Akane Yamaguchi’s performance in the women’s singles final of the recent BWF World Tour event, the Japan Open, were witness to something special. The diminutive world champion was at the peak of her powers during the first game and the first half of the second.
Her play was so immaculate and precise that it’s hard to think of any other player in the badminton world today, man or woman, playing with such brilliance. Though she did lose her golden touch a little bit towards the end of the two-game match, she did enough to secure the title.
The victory on home soil came just a week after she became the world champion for the second year in a row. She is undoubtedly the best player in women’s singles badminton currently. This is a wonderful success story that needs to be explored and discussed at length.
Standing just 5’1” tall, Yamaguchi may look like someone who would struggle to even compete against a good player. Her height is equal to that of the net at its ends and just one inch more in the middle. So, how does she manage to not just compete, but reach the dizzying heights of success she has?
Akane Yamaguchi’s incredible tenacity
Akane Yamaguchi isn’t the only short-statured top Japanese player in the women’s singles division. Nozomi Okuhara has also achieved considerable success in the last few years. In fact, she was world champion in 2017, after a titanic final match against PV Sindhu at the World Championships.
What makes both these Japanese players so successful, despite being vertically-challenged, is their sheer perseverance and tenacity. They continue retrieving the shuttle to the point where their opponents are driven mad by the failure to finish the rally.
It was this quality that was on show in the 2017 World Championships final between Okuhara and Sindhu. The Japanese shuttler kept frustrating Sindhu’s attempts to clinch the rallies by getting the shuttle back. It was an epic contest that lasted 1 hour and 50 minutes, and witnessed many unusually long rallies, the longest consisting of 73 shots.
A few months later, at the final of the BWF Super Series Finals event, a very similar contest was witnessed. It too involved Sindhu but, this time, she was up against Yamaguchi.
Once again, the indomitable resilience of the Japanese player won the day. Despite the massive height difference, with Sindhu towering over her opponent at 5’10”, Yamaguchi took the title.
In this match too, the most dazzling aspect was how Yamaguchi, like her compatriot a few months ago, never gave up and kept getting the shuttle back, taking the Indian player to the brink of exhaustion numerous times.
The sight of the diminutive player getting the shuttle back from near-impossible situations was almost inspirational. Even the most ardent Indian fan would have become an admirer by the end of the game.
At that stage of her career, the two-time world champion’s biggest asset was her tireless retrieving quality. It marked her out as among the very best players in the world. However, she still had some way to go to be the best.
Akane Yamaguchi’s rise to the top
Since then, Akane Yamaguchi didn’t remain content with being just a retriever. She improved her skill-set, too. This gradual improvement in her play is now at full bloom. She is no longer just a relentless pursuer of the shuttle, but a well-rounded player with great skills and some power also.
Still, one of the, if not the, most impressive aspects of her play is her footwork, which is the basis of her amazing retrieving game. As one watches her move around the court, the 25-year-old seems to almost float on the surface. It’s this nimble footwork that allows her to get to the shuttle from the most difficult positions.
This constant retrieval doesn’t just prevent points from being scored by her opponents. It pressurizes them to aim for the lines, thereby increasing the number of errors.
Now, Akane Yamaguchi has combined her indefatigable spirit with some classy tricks. She uses the drop shot very effectively, almost as well as most skillful player on the circuit – Tai Tzu Ying. Like Tai, she has become adept at deception also, leading opponents into the wrong direction before pushing the shuttle in a completely different one.
Her netplay isn’t bad either, and forces her opponents to take risks at the net in the same way they have to with the lines.
Then, there are the smashes, both crosscourt and down the line, that she delivers from the forehand corner. Despite her size, they have a sting to them and they usually prove too good for most players.
All these qualities have meant that Yamaguchi now stands atop the women’s singles division. Winning back-to-back World Championships has already earned her a place in a very elite club. It remains to be seen whether she can continue being the best player in the world in the coming months.
It would be interesting to see how she performs against PV Sindhu now. The India shuttler may pose the biggest challenge in terms of strategy to the Japanese star, due to the height difference. However, the kind of form that the world champion has shown recently suggests that she could find a way to get the better of her.
Still, it would be an interesting contest to witness because of the change of tactics that Yamaguchi would need to bring to her game.
Yet, all things considered, Akane Yamaguchi is numero uno in the world of badminton now. Her success is a great advert for the game. It shows that this sport allows players of all shapes and sizes to succeed.
The way Akane Yamaguchi has earned her place at the top is testament to her fortitude, her brilliance, and her constant search for improvement. She is deserving of every accolade coming her way.