Thomas & Uber Cup Badminton: Complacent India sent packing from competition after women's team loses to Japan

Shirish Nadkarni
Every team seeded in the top eight among both men and women duly made it to the quarter-finals – barring India. The over-confident Indians, fielded second-string squads, generously allowed the French men and Canadian women to make the quantum leap into elite company.

Japan's top-seeded female shuttlers achieved the same result against India in their final Group A Uber Cup league encounter on Wednesday that China had notched the previous day in the Thomas Cup.

A comprehensive 5-0 rout of Saina Nehwal's greenhorns by the trained-to-the-minute girls from the Land of the Rising Sun effectively shut the door on India's further participation in the elite badminton team championship in Bangkok. With the round-robin pool stage coming to an end, the competition goes into the business end, with the playoff quarter-finals for both genders.

The Japanese women ended top of Group A with a clean 3-0 tie record, and were joined in the quarter-finals by the Michelle Li led Canadians, who finished with a 2-1 record, their sole loss coming against Japan. India were third with a 1-2 win-loss record, while minnows Australia were expectedly left nursing the wooden spoon.

Although the final result of the India-Japan tie was a foregone conclusion even before the players entered the courts at the Impact Arena, the ignominy of a 5-0 whitewash could have been averted had Saina managed to convert even one of the four match-points she had in the deciding game of her tie opener against Akane Yamaguchi, in which the Japan player squeaked home at 21-19, 9-21, 22-20.

The 28-year-old Indian captain stood on the threshold of victory, at 20-16 in the third game of her engrossing 54-minute battle with Japan's best player, who sits at the No 2 spot in the Badminton World Federation's (BWF) rankings. She had matched Yamaguchi in every department of the game, even staying with the Japanese in the long-drawn bouts of tossing that were aimed at wearing her out.

But it has to be said that Yamaguchi simply does not know when to throw in the towel, and will fight tooth-and-nail for every point until the referee announces the result at the end of the match. She capitalised on Saina's uncharacteristic nerves, and reeled off six points in an unbroken reel, to end up breaking Indian hearts.

The supremely fit 20-year-old with "legs like tree trunks" (a description bestowed on her by a fellow-journalist, a couple of years ago) is not bothered by the length of the rallies or the power of her antagonist's strokes. She is swift on her feet, and has a compact defence that is capable of getting back the fiercest of smashes. The only weapon that she has few answers to is deception, of the kind purveyed by Chinese Taipei's World No 1, Tai Tzu Ying.

Saina richly deserved to win, for she was in control for the greater part of the 54-minute duel, and actually won eight more points than did her rival €" 60 points to Yamaguchi's 52. Sadly, badminton is not played that way, and the stocky Japanese dynamo won all the points that mattered, notably the 21st point in the first game after the Indian had clawed her way back from 10-18 and 16-20, to 19-20; and, of course, the final half-dozen points of the encounter.

There remaining four matches of the tie struggled to be a good contest. The Japanese were as far ahead of the Indians, as the Indians had been of the Australians. So much of a mismatch was the duel, that commentator Gillian Clark was stirred enough to wonder aloud why India had sent second-string sides to the world's most prestigious badminton team tournament.

There was some semblance of a fight by India in the initial stages of the first doubles. Sanyogita Ghorpade and Prajakta Sawant were pitted against Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo, the world's No 4 ranked pair that had spent the 19-month period between March 2016 and October 2017 being ranked at the pinnacle of the BWF charts.

It was not so much a one-sided affair initially, as had been widely expected, but that is possibly because the Japanese duo did not go all out and opted for a relaxed game, content to play lengthy rallies and wait until their rivals made a mistake. It was almost like a practice session under the indulgent eyes of the normally stern taskmaster coach, Park Joo Bong, the South Korean former doubles world champion, who has been mentoring the Japanese players for the past seven years.

Once the first game had been pocketed, Takahashi and Matsutomo eschewed the frippery, and got down to business. The rest of the match went by in a blur, producing a 21-15, 21-6 result, putting Japan 2-0 up, and clearing the decks for reigning world champion, Nozomi Okuhara, to take the court against Vaishnavi Reddy Jakka.

Urged on by a sizable and vociferous Japanese contingent in the crowd, Okuhara started cautiously, adopting a similar playing pattern to that of Takahashi and Matsutomo, gauging out her rival at a languid pace, and getting used to the diabolical cross-drift in the hall that had bothered virtually all the players on the first four days of the ongoing competition.

At 12-10, the Japanese ace, who barely clears the height of the net, decided she had had enough practice, and gently floored the accelerator. Jakka failed to get a further point in that game, and fared little better in the second game, to concede the match to Okuhara by a 21-10, 21-13 scoreline.

Meghana Jakkampudi, whose combination with Poorvisha S Ram was broken to allow Nagpur's Vaishnavi Bhale to make her Uber Cup debut, played a few pleasing shots against Shiho Tanaka and Koharu Yonemoto, but found that a few swallows do not a summer make. The Japanese pair relaxed sufficiently in the second game to give the Indians faint hopes of dragging the match to a decider, but then shut the door on their rivals, for a 21-8, 21-17 triumph.

For Sayaka Takahashi, playing the third singles in preference to her namesake left-hander, Sayaka Sato, there was scant challenge from a heavily over-matched Anura Prabhudesai. The Japanese southpaw cut her opponent's on-court agony short with a clinical 21-12, 21-7 victory, to complete the 5-0 decimation.

From the spectator point of view, the India-Japan Uber Cup tie was the least interesting on a day that showcased a number of keen encounters. Germany hounded Hong Kong all the way to the finish line in the Thomas Cup, with their two doubles combinations scoring impressive wins over the Hong Kong duos. However, the latter team won all three singles, with Lee Cheuk Yiu holding on grimly for a 21-13, 15-21, 21-15 fifth-match win over Marc Zwiebler.

Both squads, however, qualified for the play-off quarter-finals, as did the Chinese women, with an unexpectedly difficult 3-2 win over Indonesia. Gregoria Mariska Tunjung sensationally eclipsed Gao Fangjie in straight games in the second singles, but the Chinese made the tie safe at 3-1 with wins in Chen Yufei's opening singles and the two doubles.

In the final, inconsequential, match, Ruselli Hartawan showed that former world champion Li Xuerui, returning to top-flight competition after nearly two years in the wilderness due to knee reconstruction, was far from fully match-fit. Hartawan shrugged off the loss of the first game, to win the match at 15-21, 21-19, 21-18; and leave China with a conundrum for the quarter-final €" whether to risk Li further, or go back to He Bingjiao, who was dropped from the line-up against Indonesia.

A depressing footnote to the conclusion of the group stage of the 2018 Thomas and Uber Cup finals: Every team seeded in the top eight among both men and women duly made it to the quarter-finals €" barring India. The over-confident Indians, fielded second-string squads, generously allowed the French men and Canadian women to make the quantum leap into elite company.

Also See: Thomas and Uber Cup: Indian teams get past Australia with ease, but qualification chances appear dim

Thomas and Uber Cup: Good day for India as men's and women's team thrash Australia on Day 2

Thomas and Uber Cup: Saina Nehwal-led Indian women's team pick up dominating win over Australia

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