Thursday at the SKYCITY New Zealand Open was a hard day for Oceania Badminton with all but one pair falling as each field was narrowed from 16 to 4, while Japan raised the sun over the land of sheep.
By Kira Rin, Badzine Correspondent live in Auckland. Photos: Jiacen and Jiajing Lu (live)
Thursday marked a hard day for host country New Zealand, as each and every one of their remaining players was outplayed by an international player present. First on the chopping board was Joe Wu, who was systematically outplayed by Mohd Arif Abdul Latif (pictured), who pressured Wu into committing mistakes at the net.
“I am happy that I won because it was the first time I played Joe Wu but I was confident playing him,” Arif commented afterward. “Later tonight may be more difficult if Sourabh Varma gets through.”
Perhaps luckily for Arif, this wasn’t the case, as 14th seed Shih Kuei Chun upset Sourabh, but then was put in his place by Arif, who yet displayed another brilliant display of badminton, displaying tight control of his net shots. With the high lifts created by the net shots, Arif could take his time to aim his jump smashes at the lines, forcing Shih to stretch his defense.
This left only Australia’s women’s doubles pair of Tang He Tian and Renuga Veeran to uphold the Oceania flag in the semi-finals, where they will face Japanese pair Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota.
Tan the comeback kid… almost
Tan Chun Seang began the day facing the greatest hurdle of playing a fellow lefty and former world no. 1 Lee Hyun Il. However, Tan was quick to notice a few things wrong with the great pro today.
“Lee Hyun Il is a famous player, so I just had to try my best,” said Tan. “I didn’t feel like I could win, but noticed that Lee Hyun Il was making a lot of mistakes, so I felt confident I could win.”
His suspicions were proved true when just a couple of points into the second game, Lee announced his retirement due to his thigh muscles cramping.
However, he was not so lucky in his second match, against Arvind Bhat (pictured above). Patiently defending against Arvind’s attacks and using some of Lee Hyun Il’s cross flick shots did net him points and helped bring him his first game point. However, Arvind kept the offense to take the next 4 points and snatch away the first game right from Tan’s jaws.
Realizing he was one step away from losing, Tan stepped up his game, gradually switching from defensive style to an offensive style to catch Arvind off guard. A seasoned pro, however, is not easily taken off guard, and Bhat recovered enough to push more attacks in the third game, going on to push the score to 20-13. In a remarkable feat of mental strength, Tan kept his cool to constantly rallying, carefully placing his shots and anticipating Arvind’s attacks. It would have almost been a repeat of Lee Chong Wei’s remarkable comeback in 2006 Malaysia Open finals, if it hadn’t been for a very unlucky net shot that ended Tan’s tense 5-point streak.
Raise the red sun
Japan proved to be responsible for most of the upsets in the tournament, especially in the women’s category. 5th-seeded pair Koo Kien Keat (pictured above) and Pakkawat Vilailak were Japan’s first upsets. With former world no. 1 Koo having the bigger bag of tricks, the onus fell upon the Japanese pair of Yuya Komatsuzaki and Hiroki Takeuchi to target Pakkwat, arguably the weaker link in the pair. Despite Koo’s best assurances and coverage, the skill difference meant that Pakkawat eventually cracked under pressure, committing errors at the points that counted.
Nozomi Okuhara (pictured) provided the biggest upset of the day, taking out top seed Pai Hsiao Ma. In their previous 2 meetings, Nozomi has always been the unseeded dark horse while Pai always had a seed rank, however, the dark has reigned supreme both times. Today was no exception, with Nozomi recording her best score yet against Pai.
The diminutive Nozomi used her speed to extend her reach, enabling her to keep her defensive edge and reach shots early to play tight net shots. Under pressure from Nozomi’s speed, Pai found herself losing concentration, misjudging shots landing on her court and sending shuttles long.
Nozomi drew on her experience with Pai in their last 2 encounters to exploit weaknesses, forcing Pai to hit long lifts that went outwards. In the event of short lifts Pai used in an effort to keep the shuttle within the court, Nozomi punished such shots with a deep smash.
Another top seed pair fell to the Japanese faction, as 2012 World Junior Championship runners-up Takuto Inoue (pictured) and Yuki Kaneko as they leapt around the court to maintain the best angle of attack against Liang Jui Wei and Liao Kuan Hao.
Japan came very close to having an almost perfect day of upsets, if it wasn’t for the efforts of mixed pair Alfian Eko Prasetya and Annisa Saufika who themselves upset 7th seeds Takuto Inoue and Yuki Fukushima, and also the bespectacled Chen Hung Ling, who proved his world rank of 30 with his partner Lu Chia Pin against Yuya Komatsuzaki and Hiroki Takeuchi.