China and Japan stamped their indelible impress on the Sudirman Cup mixed team championships as the two most balanced all-round badminton nations in the world, when they eliminated Thailand and Indonesia, respectively, in the semi-finals at the Guangxi Sports Centre Gymnasium in Nanning on Saturday.
While the Chinese brushed aside the Thais by a 3-0 margin without losing a single game in the three matches played, the Japanese were put on their mettle by a battling Indonesia, who actually took the lead in the tie by bagging the men's doubles, before surrendering the next three points for a 1-3 defeat.
Egged on by a vociferous and understandably partisan home crowd, the Chinese made a storming start to the semi-final tie by barreling through the mixed doubles by a 21-18, 21-7 scoreline in just 39 minutes. The world's top pair of Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong were tested to some extent in the opening game by Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai, but then stepped on the gas pedal to leave the Thai pair swamped in their wake.
That brought the world's second-best male player, aged 22, on the court against a 20 year ranked 12th in the world. Kantaphon Wangcharoen made light of the ten-rung difference in rankings between him and world championship runner-up, Shi Yuqi, to give the Chinese star the jitters in the second game.
The young Thai could not, however, capitalise on the three game-points he held in the very even second stanza, and bowed out at 15-21, 24-26 to an extremely relieved Shi, in five minutes shy of the hour mark. It was the Chinese player's second successive triumph over Wangcharoen in two career encounters.
World champions Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen gave Tinn Isriyanet and Kittinupong Kedren few opportunities to allow Thailand back into the semi-final. Their 21-14, 21-17 triumph sealed the tie for the Chinese, and deprived the spectators of the opportunity of seeing what might have been an entertaining clash between Chen Yufei of the host nation and the 2013 world champion, Ratchanok Intanon.
If the top-seeded Chinese team was right on top of its game in the morning, the second-seeded Japanese were given a jolt at the very start of their tie against Indonesia, when the world's top men's doubles combination of Marcus Gideon Fernaldi and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo proved a mite too good for Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda. The effervescent Indonesians won at 21-14, 21-18 in 42 minutes of high-voltage action, punctuated by numerous spills and thrills.
Akane Yamaguchi, however, brought Japan back on level terms with a workmanlike 21-13, 21-13 victory in a mere 33 minutes over the 19 year old former world junior champion, Gregoria Mariska Tunjung, who had won the junior crown at Yogyakarta in her home country in 2017. Tunjung could not take advantage of the clumps of negative points that Yamaguchi gave in both games before steadying herself.
Some exciting badminton was witnessed in the men's singles, in which the two quickest men on the planet faced each other in a battle to give their team the lead. World champion Kento Momota, however, possessed just the right combination of unflappable temperament and iron defence to blunt the raw speed of the 21 year old World No 7, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, at 21-17, 21-19 in the day's longest match, lasting 66 minutes.
With a 2-1 lead in the bag, there was no way that the Japanese were going to miss barging through the door leading to the final. Their world champion combination of Wakana Nagahara and Mayu Matsumoto had the full measure of Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu, and took 51 minutes to seal a 21-15, 21-17 victory.
That sealed Japan's maiden entry into the final of the 15th edition of the Sudirman Cup, that had been instituted in 1989 in honour of Indonesian badminton international and association president, Dick Sudirman, and which is played in alternate years.
The 14 earlier editions have seen China winning the coveted trophy ten times, with South Korea bagging it thrice and Indonesia once, in the inaugural edition of the competition on their home turf in Jakarta. The Koreans were defending champions, having won it in 2017; but were eliminated by Thailand at the quarter-final stage this time.
The odds are slightly higher on China winning their 11th title, for they have a really powerful all-round side that includes the World no 1 and 2 mixed doubles combinations (Zheng Siwei-Huang Yaqiong and Wang Yilyu-Huang Dongping), and the reigning world champions (Liu Yuchen and Li Junhui) in the men's doubles. The host nation expects to start the final with these two points virtually in the kitty.
The Chinese also have the World No 2 men's singles player (Shi Yuqi) and the No 3 ranked women's singles exponent (Chen Yufei) in their ranks. Their women's doubles combination of Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifang is only ranked No 5 in the world, but is good enough to take on the best that the Japanese can serve up. In addition, the Chinese will have strong crowd support.
Japan are better served in the singles department, with current world and All-England champion Kento Momota, and the World No 2 and 5 (Akane Yamaguchi and Nozomi Okuhara), both one rung ahead of their best Chinese rivals.
Momota and Yamaguchi are favoured to garner the two singles points for their team, although both matches promise to be very close, with very little separating the players on either side of the net in skills and temperament.
Should they win the two singles, the Japanese will need one additional point from the remaining three matches; and one feels it is the World No 1 women's doubles pair of Wakana Nagahara and Mayu Matsumoto that has the best chance of delivering the point that could give the Japanese their first Sudirman Cup.
Sunday's final will begin at 1 pm local time (10:30 am IST); and has the potential to go the full distance, depending on the way the draw pans out.