THOMAS CUP Final – Li/Liu put China back on top

Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen held on to win a thrilling second doubles to secure China its first Thomas Cup in 6 years. By Don Hearn.  Photos: Badmintonphoto (live from […]

Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen held on to win a thrilling second doubles to secure China its first Thomas Cup in 6 years.

By Don Hearn.  Photos: Badmintonphoto (live from Bangkok)

Back in 2004, when China took both the for the first time since 1990, it really looked as if that would be the new normal.  For years to come, China was filling the top 5 of both men’s and women’s singles tables and by 2008, they had executed another string of 3 tandem Thomas and Uber Cup titles, along with a similar accomplishment in the Asian Games, which also allowed their men’s and women’s teams to strut their amazing stuff.

Not only did China keep winning, but in this period, they routinely racked up shutout victories against their runner-up opponents.  Of course, there was the shock defeat at the 2010 Uber Cup but with 3-0 wins in both the Thomas and Uber Cup finals in 2012, as well as in the next two Sudirman finals, it looked like it was back to business as usual.

Then Japan happened.  After enjoying 5 straight Thomas Cup victories, China would fail to reach the final at both the 2014 and 2016 editions, allowing first-time winners to join the honours list after the Cup had belonged to just 3 teams for over 60 years.

With one of the heroes of the 2014 victory, Kento Momota (pictured above), back to the team after missing out on the 2016 edition, Japan was back and raring to go for the 2018 final.  Momota was not only undefeated this week in Bangkok, but just a few weeks ago, he had scored his first ever victory over Chen Long to win the Asian Championship title.

On Sunday, Momota proved himself worthy of this distinguished mantle.  In Japan’s last trip to the final, in 2014, the then 19-year-old had played 2nd singles.  Just before this event, he had just moved high enough on the world rankings to rate as Japan’s first singles player, which meant it was he who would take on the likes of Chen Long.  The 23-year-old did not disappoint and sure enough, he chalked up his second win over Chen in under a month to put Japan up 1-0.

The next match seemed to reflect a gamble on Japan’s part.  Against world #3 Liu Cheng and Zhang Nan (pictured left), they chose to pit German Open champions Takuto Inoue and Yuki Kaneko, who had beaten the World Champions in their only previous encounter, at last autumn’s .  This was the reverse of the first singles match, as Liu and Zhang led almost from start to finish and gave no quarter to the improving, but less experienced Japanese pair.

At second singles, Japan looked to Kenta Nishimoto.  Although practically a veteran himself, Nishimoto only broke into the world’s top 30 late last year.  However, he has also been in two finals and has shown he could rise to the occasion, making him a dangerous opponent even for the reigning All England Champion.

Shi Yuqi (pictured right) romped through the first game but in the second, Nishimoto kept producing some incredible rallies to reel in the young Chinese star in the last stages.  After allowing the underdog to tie it at 17-all, however, Shi Yuqi took back control and ran out the last 4 points to put China in the lead.

The other part of Japan’s doubles strategy was field a 2nd doubles pair with two in-form talents.  Yuta Watanabe was not only the newly crowned All England mixed doubles champion, but he also was unbeaten in Bangkok with veteran Hiroyuki Endo.

Keigo Sonoda, half of the current world #6 pair, has had as much success as any on the Japanese team against the formidable Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen (pictured top).  He and Watanabe played amazing defense under impossible pressure from the two Chinese giants and took the first game.  The second game went to China as they kept the attack and put the two Japanese players under even more pressure.

The decider saw Watanabe producing some spectacular deceptive plays while Liu Yuchen repeatedly sent the shuttle well long of the back line after the end change.  After trailing for the entire game, Keigo Sonoda and Yuta Watanabe (pictured) finally inched ahead at 17-16 and soon found themselves with two match points.

Then it was all nerves as Sonoda mis-hit a loose shuttle at the net and the Japanese were unable to get back in control.  Li and Liu took the last four points in succession to clinch the Thomas Cup for China and spirit Lin Dan from warm-up straight to celebration.

Thomas Cup final result: China 3, Japan 1
MS1:  Chen Long (CHN) lost to Kento Momota (JPN)  9-21 18-21
MD1:  Liu Cheng / Zhang Nan (CHN) beat Takuto Inoue / Yuki Kaneko (JPN)  21-10 21-18
MS2:  Shi Yuqi (CHN) beat Kenta Nishimoto (JPN)  21-12 21-17
MD2:  Li Junhui / Liu Yuchen (CHN) beat Keigo Sonoda / Yuta Watanabe (JPN)  17-21 21-19 22-20
MS3:  Lin Dan (CHN) vs. Kanta Tsuneyama (JPN)  [not played]

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Don Hearn

About Don Hearn

Don Hearn is an Editor and Correspondent who hails from a badminton-loving town in rural Canada. He joined the Badzine team in 2006 to provide coverage of the Korean badminton scene and is committed to helping Badzine to promote badminton to the place it deserves as a global sport. Contact him at: don @ badzine.net