French Open 2018: Chen Long, Akane Yamaguchi upset fancied stars; young Chinese upstarts win men's doubles crown with elan

Shirish Nadkarni
Chen Long looked much more like the all-conquering player of old, while the doughty, grimly determined Akane Yamaguchi outlasted the artistic but wayward defending champion Tai Tzu Ying.

It was a day when seeds failed to sprout and hot favourites bit the dust. The rot at Sunday's French Open World Tour Super 750 badminton championship finals began with the second match of the day, the men's doubles; and extended all the way to the two stellar singles events, leaving China's mixed doubles specialists, Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong, the only top seeds to win a title at the $775,000 prize money event.

The world's most feared men's doubles combination of Indonesians Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo, who have held on to their World No 1 ranking for most of the year, came to grief at the hands of a fresh-faced Chinese duo of 20-year-olds, Han Chengkai and Zhou Haodong. The two young upstarts, born one month apart in 1998, held off a determined second-game thrust from the Indonesian top seeds, and won at 23-21, 8-21, 21-17 in a bitter 52-minute battle.

The women's doubles, however, went the way of the more fancied pair, with the reigning world champion pair of Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara, seeded fifth at this French Open, outpointing the Bulgarian sisters, Gabriela and Stefani Stoeva, by a 21-14, 21-19 margin in 43 minutes of absorbing action. The Stoeva siblings had shown Indian badminton-lovers their potential during the Premier Badminton League (PBL) in January this year, and have been improving with each tournament in the course of this year.

Then, in the biggest shock of the day, the world's long-reigning top-ranked woman, 24-year-old Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei, tasted defeat at the hands of the No 2 seed, Akane Yamaguchi of Japan in the day's longest match, lasting 67 minutes. The doughty, grimly determined Japanese outlasted the artistic but wayward defending champion by a 22-20, 17-21, 21-13 scoreline, to cap a brilliant return to title-winning ways after a temporary hiatus.

And to round off the carnage of the fancied stars, in the final denouement, the 29-year-old Olympic gold medallist, Chen Long, seeded sixth, slipped it across his much younger compatriot, Shi Yuqi, by a 21-17, 21-19 verdict, to gain sweet revenge for two successive losses to the 22-year-old, earlier this year.

The latter had won against Chen in straight games at both the All England Championships in March and the BWF World Championships in Nanjing, but had to play second fiddle to his taller fellow-countryman throughout the 47-minute summit clash. Chen moved on the green mat with the felicity and alacrity of old, and used his height and reach to remain on the offensive throughout the match. He ended up taking the tally of his head-to-head meetings with Shi to 5-2.

So does one conclude that Chen Long, who had won the World Championships in 2014 and 2015 before capturing the gold medal in Rio, is back to his best after nearly two years in the relative doldrums?

After pocketing as many as seven Superseries titles in 2015, the best year of his career, his solitary harvest from the 2016 season was the Olympic gold medal. He wore down the legendary Lin Dan to bag the Asian title in 2017, and followed it up by winning the China Open for the fourth time in his career, at the expense of Denmark's Viktor Axelsen, the man who had wrested the world title from his grasp in Glasgow.

The year 2018 has been barren for Chen, as far as World Tour titles are concerned. Even during the Thomas Cup finals, he surrendered at 9-21, 18-21 to Kento Momota in the opening singles, though China went on to win the next three matches to bag the coveted trophy for the first time since 2012. Niggling injuries have been the Chinese star's bugbear, as also a lack of staying power.

At the French Open, though, he has looked much more like the all-conquering player of old, notching convincing victories over Frenchman Brice Leverdez, Denmark's Jan O Jorgensen, Indonesia's Asian Games gold medallist Jonatan Christie and the top-seeded Momota, before taming Shi Yuqi in the final. Only against Christie was he forced into a decider, dropping the middle game before flooring the gas pedal in the decider.

Even as Chen Long looked increasingly stronger as the tournament wore on, the top-ranked Tai Tzu Ying appeared at the top of her game in her first three outings against Line Hojmark Kjaersfeldt of Denmark, Gao Fangjie of China and Saina Nehwal of India. Against the Indian veteran, she made up huge deficits of 6-11, 9-16 and 16-20 in the first game to win it over the extra points, and was then irresistible in the second stanza.

The first sign that Tai could be vulnerable appeared during her semi-final against

China's Chen Yufei, to whom she conceded the first game narrowly. The Taiwanese ace, however, roared back strongly in the next two games to win the penultimate round clash at 18-21, 21-12, 21-14, making sure that Chen got a scant chance of upstaging her in the decider.

In the final, however, she came up against a tireless stonewaller who thought nothing of being jerked around like a puppet on a string, but recovered to keep the rallies going, and Tai away from the net, where the Taipei player is so strong. Yamaguchi is not affected by Tai's deception as comprehensively as are many of the other players on the international circuit, and only trailed the World No 1 5-7 in career meetings, going into the match.

The Japanese World No 3 did try to win the match in two straight games, but fell marginally short when Tai put in a supreme effort towards the end of the second game. The top seed showed her mettle after 12-all, to restore parity in the matter of games won; but Yamaguchi drew away after 7-all in the decider, engaging her rival in some interminable, punishing rallies aimed at knocking the breath out of the Kaohsiung native.

This win for the Japanese player came after three consecutive defeats, and has succeeded in dispelling the aura of invincibility in which Tai had begun to cloak herself, after being the first player from her country to win the Denmark Open, a week earlier. In this, Yamaguchi would have done a signal service to all the other girls who have been trying their level best to unravel the Tai Tzu Ying conundrum.

Also See: French Open 2018: Satwiksairaj Rankireddy, Chirag Shetty give World No 1 pair a harrowing time; Chen Long subdues Kento Momota

Highlights, French Open 2018 results: India's Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty ousted in semi-finals

Saina Nehwal vs Tai Tzu Ying, Denmark Open highlights and results: Indian shuttler goes down fighting; Kento Momota wins title

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