Saturday, May 26, 2018
TEXT BY GAYLE ALLEYNE | BADMINTONPHOTO
Proving they were not just the best team by seeding but also by performance, Japan’s women this afternoon convincingly delivered the country’s first Uber Cup title in 37 years.
Despite the deafening din of support for Thailand – the first-time finalists on home soil – the top seeds closed the curtains on the Women’s World Team Championship in emphatic fashion, with three straight-games victories by some of their biggest stars.
The penultimate day of the TOTAL BWF Thomas & Uber Cup Finals 2018 was always weighted in Japan’s favour and Park Joo Bong’s line-up did not falter, with Akane Yamaguchi immediately denting the hosts’ aspirations for an upset. The world No.2 stifled Ratchanok Intanon into submission, mixing decisive attacks with rock-solid defence that left the usually-creative Thai star rattled while Yamaguchi buckled down to the task at hand, en route to carving out a 21-15 21-19 victory. The pocket powerhouse raised her level from 14-14 in the first game and, showcasing a take-no-prisoners style, rushed to game point with an unplayable body shot. The opening honours went to Japan moments later; Intanon misjudging the flight of a deep shot which nestled on the sideline.
The second game held much the same pattern – an early cat-and-mouse duel before Yamaguchi propelled into a 16-13 lead. However, Intanon reeled her rival back in urgently at 16-16 and they were again deadlocked at 19-19, with screaming Thai fans willing their player to force a decider – but it wasn’t to be. Yamaguchi manoeuvred the shuttle around to earn an easy net kill before finishing with a classy flourish as she outfoxed an on-rushing Intanon at net, lofting a backhand over her opponent’s head. Intanon dived desperately but ultimately in vain as the winning shuttle fell to the floor.
First point to Japan – Yamaguchi smiling shyly towards her ecstatic team-mates!
“Thailand beat China yesterday, so I expected a hard challenge,” said Yamaguchi.
“I was a little nervous. Ratchanok is strong from the back of the court, so I tried to keep her off-balance by varying my shots. I am happy to win this match.”
Enjoying an embarrassment of riches in doubles, Japan chose to go with the red-hot pair of the moment – Yuki Fukushima/Sayaka Hirota – and, despite the surprise scratch partnership of Jongkolphan Kititharakul/Puttita Supajirakul, the world No.2 duo came through 21-18 21-12 in 46 minutes, barely ruffled by the opposition.
At 2-0 to Japan, it was left to Women’s Singles World champion, Nozomi Okuhara, to administer the last rites to Thailand’s challenge and she wasted no time hammering the nails in the hosts’ coffin. Across the net, Thailand’s inspirational captain Nitchaon Jindapol, who had contributed valiantly to her country and team’s cause in the preceding days, was a step and a shot short for much of the match as Okuhara dictated its pace and tone.
Evidently, this was going to be done quickly and it was – 21-12 21-9 as a weak Jindapol backhand ended in the net. Basking in the glory of Thailand’s silver-medal result, she would later reveal that fatigue thwarted her efforts after a hard semi-final, but she graciously took nothing away from Japan.
Clutching the gleaming trophy for the first time since 1981, the Japanese savoured their podium presentation, smiling and laughing as they were the centre of attention.
“This victory is different from the World Championships. There was a lot of trust in my team-mates. I just focused on what I had to do. After Akane won the first match, all of us had a good feeling,” said Okuhara, adding that their coach had cautioned them not to be concerned about the stadium atmosphere.
“I’m happy to have made history again as there were a lot of strong teams in this competition.”
Meanwhile, coach Park said the women’s success would motivate their male peers who face China tomorrow for the Men’s World Team title – the famed Thomas Cup.
Thailand coach, Rexy Mainaky, congratulated Japan on an outstanding tournament. As for the future, he said his players would be working on improving their stamina and physical fitness so they could challenge the likes of China and Japan more consistently.