Sunday, May 27, 2018
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
China are Thomas Cup champions once again!
Title No.10 was won after a pitched Men’s Doubles battle that swung late in China’s favour, giving them a 3-1 win over Japan in the title clash of the TOTAL BWF Thomas & Uber Cup Finals 2018 today in Bangkok.
Having arrived at the event with a glittering cast of World and Olympic champions, China recaptured the Cup that they’d last held aloft in 2012.
And yet, while the Chinese team boasted of many a big name, it was the young pair of Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen that saw them through after the most riveting of all the Men’s Doubles matches in the competition – a contest that was so nearly Japan’s.
If Keigo Sonoda and Yuta Watanabe had taken one of two match points in the gripping fourth match against Li and Liu, they would’ve forced the fifth between Kanta Tsuneyama and China’s Lin Dan. As it were, Japan were left to muse on the ‘what-ifs’ of the two unconverted match points.
It was Li and Liu’s turn, then, to emerge heroes.
Japan couldn’t have asked for a better start. Kento Momota has ridden a magic spell of form since his comeback last year, and against Olympic champion Chen Long, the spell continued to hold.
The left-hander dished out an exhibition of soft touch, getting the shuttle to gently die over the tape, even as Chen lurked menacingly in front. With unhurried elegance and deft strokes Momota spun a web in which Chen got tangled, the Chinese managing just nine points in the opener.
The complexion changed in the second. Chen had stepped up, patrolled the net better, and started getting more purchase on his smashes. He was forcing Momota to work harder for his points – but the Japanese was not fazed and was willing to slug it out in the long drawn-out rallies. Nothing showed their tenacity more than a 61-shot rally that unfolded with Momota holding four match points. Momota converted on his third opportunity, gifting Japan their first point at 21-9 21-18.
Japan split their first-choice doubles of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda – head coach Park Joo Bong revealed later that the pair had struggled throughout the tournament – so Takuto Inoue and Yuki Kaneko took on World champions Liu Cheng and Zhang Nan.
The Japanese were all at sea, finding no answers to the steep smashes and unceasing attack of the Chinese; they fared somewhat better late in the match but they’d left the fightback too late (21-10 21-18), and China were level 1-1.
Kenta Nishimoto had sizzled with pace and power in his semi-final against Denmark’s Hans-Kristian Vittinghus, but against Shi Yuqi today Nishimoto was far more subdued. The All England champion was in his element, his smashes from the deep found no answers, and Nishimoto found himself bound by the terms that Shi had set. The Chinese was never out of his comfort zone as he wrapped up victory at 21-12 21-17.
“I think he made a lot of mistakes today,” said Shi Yuqi. “I was able to score many points with my crosscourt smashes – I just went by instinct, I hadn’t planned that in particular. I was able to counter him because my preparation was good and I kind of knew what to expect.”
Young guns Li and Liu strode into battle against the scratch pair of Watanabe and Sonoda. If they entertained hopes for a quick victory, those hopes would’ve evaporated after the first few exchanges, for Sonoda and Watanabe were on fire. The Chinese were hustled out of the first game as the Japanese, crackling with energy and making lightning-quick interceptions, threatened to ensure a quick close to the fourth match.
Yet, to Li and Liu’s credit, they hung on in the face of the prodigious talent of Watanabe, who seemed to outdo himself with every rally. The Chinese stayed patient and forced the decider. Both pairs were going toe-to-toe till the endgame, but China blinked and Japan was all over them, holding two match points at 20-18.
It was here that Li and Liu stood firm, preventing the fall of the fort. With an other-worldly calmness, the two tightened their game, not giving the one opening that the prowling Watanabe and Sonoda sought. Sonoda, desperate for the winning shot, was too hasty and suddenly the tide had swung the other way. Three winners for China, and in a flash the army of yellow poured into the arena. Japan’s ship had stalled just before making land.
“Our target before the tournament was the semi-finals,” said Japanese head coach Park Joo Bong. “So right now I’m happy because we beat Denmark and we fought well against China. The performance of our doubles wasn’t very good in the group matches and we had to split our top pair. We’re doing well overall because the motivation in our team is very high. Everybody wants to win. Our players have had good results in international tournaments and our training programme is quite hard; that explains why we’ve been doing well.”
China’s singles coach Xia Xuanze could barely conceal his emotions at China regaining the trophy: “I’m very excited to win this after six years. This means a lot to us. I was part of the team in the 2004 Thomas Cup-winning squad, and now I’m a coach – it’s quite significant. I was supposed to play the third singles in that tie, but I wasn’t required to go on court. This is a big moment for China and we’re very proud that we beat other good teams to win the title.”