Akane Yamaguchi's coach raised both his hands above his head when she walked up to him after winning the Denmark Open final last year. It was her first Superseries Premier title and he was tutoring her on how to celebrate. The 20-year-old, now world No. 4, isn't great with celebrations even today. After her second round match at the China Open on Thursday, there was little compulsion to either. The win came against an opponent she'd already beaten three times -- at the French Open, Denmark Open and Malaysia Open -- in seven months this year: Saina Nehwal. It was unsurprising, almost like the writing on the wall had met its fulfillment.
The problem, as Saina's former coach Vimal Kumar sees it, is one of tactics: of the Indian not being able to vary or temper hers to trouble Yamaguchi in any major way. "Maybe she's playing the wrong game in trying to attack too much," he says. "With someone like Yamaguchi, you have to be patient -- Yamaguchi retrieves well and then counterattacks -- which Saina hasn't been able to do. The sudden change and variation in pace that she brings is also something Saina should be ready for."
The only occasion Saina overpowered the Japanese player was at the China Open final three years ago. Yamaguchi was 17 then. Picking up the racket when she was no more than three years old, Yamaguchi was quite the child prodigy tipped for bigger things. She raised hopes by becoming the first from her country to win the women's singles title at the 2013 Japan Open. At 16 years and three months she was also the youngest-ever to do so.
Her name drawn from the crimson hue of the setting sun (akane-iro), the stocky Yamaguchi developed her deceptively quick style from having sparred with male players right from middle school and as a way of neutralizing a height disadvantage, standing as she does at a little over five feet. On Thursday, she raced away to a five-point lead midway through the second game and Saina never found her way back. It was her second win over Saina in 20 days. "Yamaguchi retrieves and suddenly goes on the offence, and that's catching Saina off guard," says Vimal. "She must go with a specific plan and try something different now. If Saina believes in a game plan she tries, otherwise she can be slightly rigid."
Currently placed at the 11th spot in the race to the Dubai year-ender, over 5,000 ranking points separate Saina from the player at the eighth position -- only top eight-ranked players based on Superseries results qualify -- and sneaking into the tournament this year pretty much borders on the improbable.
Deception, according to former world No. 10 Chetan Anand, is what's troubling the Indian most. "When we used to play together and whenever someone had a good deceptive shot, Saina was always under pressure," he says. "Also when you lose to the same opponent many times in a row, this feeling of indecisiveness lodges itself at the back of your mind. You're always in two minds whether to go for a shot or just wait patiently and even if you have a lot of plans you often lack the confidence to go for them."
Hailing from the tiny mountainous city of Katsuyama on the coast of the Sea of Japan where junior badminton clubs and snowy winters make the indoor racket sport a popular choice, Yamaguchi was picked to join the junior national team when she was just a third grader. "Yamaguchi is one of the best women's singles players there is right now and she's a runner," says coach Arvind Bhat. "Japanese players are always runners. That's her weapon and that's exactly what Saina is missing. She's clearly unfit and I'm sure she knows that too. In fact I was surprised that despite not reaching full fitness she beat Sindhu at the nationals last week. The logic is pretty simple. Even Sindhu too is unfit."
The antidote, Arvind suggests, is a break from tournaments for six whole weeks and complete, undivided focus on strength training. "What Saina needs to do now is just put her head down and train," he says. "No tournaments, no inaugurations. You have to give that time to your body. The calendar doesn't chalk out an off-season but you have to allow yourself one. Ideally she shouldn't have played in China at all. Srikanth, if you look at it, was given the correct advice and he took it. But someone like Saina who's seen a lot of success can often be tempted to think she can fight her body and pull it off. It's defeats like these that will only prove to her that she should get back to training."