UBER CUP SF – Thais delight home crowd by reaching first final!

Thailand’s women’s badminton team made history today, beating China 3-2 to reach the Uber Cup final for the first time in the event’s 61-year history. By Don Hearn.  Photos: Badmintonphoto […]

Thailand’s women’s badminton team made history today, beating China 3-2 to reach the Uber Cup final for the first time in the event’s 61-year history.

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

It’s not as if we didn’t see it coming.  The writing was on the wall and it was in Thai abugida.  Like many other nations, Thailand had sporadic impressive individual badminton performances but things got real in 2009 when they had their first and second World Junior Champions.  Within a year, Ratchanok Intanon had another World Junior title and both golds at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games – for which Intanon was too young to compete – went to Thailand.  More relevant to today’s events was the fact that Thailand won silver in the women’s team event at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games.

Two years later, Thailand was in its first Uber Cup semi-final and milestone after milestone followed.  Now, Thailand is one of the most formidable teams, with the addition of doubles pairs who are becoming almost as feared on the world tour as their singles team-mates.  Couple that with the support of a home crowd, with Thailand hosting the Uber Cup for the first time ever, and the stage was set for a miracle run.

Thailand’s chance came today as they faced 14-time champions China in the semi-final round of the 2018 Uber Cup Finals.  In the past 22 years, only once had China been denied a women’s team world title and never since they first competed back in 1984, had the mighty Chinese been denied a spot in the final.

First up was Ratchanok Intanon versus Chen Yufei.  The fact that both are former World Junior Champions may seem less than relevant but Intanon made a large contribution to China’s 8-year title drought in the girls’ singles discipline of that event, it was Chen who ended the wait for China, and this is rather indicative of how the generation has changed in women’s badminton.

Of course, Ratchanok is the former World Champion and former world #1 and has the highest presently but Chen was not exactly daunted.  The 20-year-old Chinese shuttler came fast out of the blocks and left Intanon to come from behind, which she did, taking the second and third games handily and putting her team up 1-0.

Next up, China’s world #1 women’s doubles pair had their hands full with Jongkolphan Kititharakul / Rawinda Prajongjai.  The Thai pair, who won a title the last time they performed in Bangkok, had sizeable leads early in both games but soon succombed to Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan in two.

For second singles, China had elected not to go with multiple winner He Bingjiao, who has not been on court since losing to Goh Jin Wei on Tuesday.  Instead, Korea Masters champion Gao Fangjie got the nod and the 19-year-old withstood a late rally by Thai veteran Nitchaon Jindapol to take the first game 21-19.

Jindapol just came alive in the second game, however.  With the perfect blend of power, precision, and persistence, she executed a 5-point run late in the second to force the decider and then she just dominated as she romped to a 21-12 rout.

Sapsiree Taerattanachai is only now getting back to the form that saw her and Puttita Supajirakul reach the top ten last year.  The reunited duo had won all their matches so far this week but they could only take a one-game lead after saving 6 match points by Huang Yaqiong and Tang Jinhua.  The Thais led at the intervals in the second and third games and looked set to run away with the third, in particular but while some thrilling rallies got the crowd roaring in support, the Thais just couldn’t get the shuttle to the floor when they needed to and the Chinese slowly worked their way back into the lead and evened the tie at two matches apiece.

The final match, between 22-year-old Busanan Ongbamrungphan and former Olympic gold medallist Li Xuerui, looked like an anti-climax on paper.  The scores were certainly one-sided but what happened on court featured as much brilliance from Busanan as it did unforced errors from the former world #1 from China.  Busanan caught Li flat-footed on so many occasions and jump-smashed her way to other points when she got attacking opportunities.

As the last rally ended in her favour, she faced the onslaught from her entire team spilling into the court to maul her in exhilaration as they celebrated their first ever appearance in an Uber Cup final.

Top seeds still in the hunt

Japan is still the favourite to win the title.  While the Thais are jubilant over finally making it to the final, the Japanese have their hearts set on a first title since 1981.  They won the Uber Cup for the fifth time that year, when China was yet to enter the fray and Korea had yet to come in force.

It was Korea that the Japanese faced in the semis this year and Akane Yamaguchi began proceedings with an easy win over Sung Ji Hyun.  Sung, the only member of Korea’s 2010 Uber Cup-winning squad to appear at this year’s edition, has struggled of late.  She hasn’t won a title since late 2016 and she lost her match in the quarter-final tie to Michell Li of Canada.

Surprisingly, the Koreans were right back in it after their scratch pairing of Kim So Yeong and Shin Seung Chan dispatched world #2 and newly crowned Asian Champions Yuki Fukushima / Sayaka Hirota.  Kim So Yeong, in particular, was on fire, hammering down smashes from the backcourt and confidently snatching interceptions at the front.

Next up, Nozomi Okuhara scored her first ever victory over Korea’s Lee Jang Mi.  Lee was the heavy underdog in that match if you go by ranking but not only is she on record as having defeated Okuhara last year, but she also prevailed over the World Champion when the two shuttlers met a couple of weeks ago at a bi-nation friendly in Japan.  Okuhara was having none of that today, however, and she cruised to a straight-game victory, never letting Lee into the match.

This once again left Korea to depend on their teen trio if the wanted to take the tie.  But Lee Yu Rim and Baek Ha Na looked far more nervous than they had when they faced the Olympic gold medallists at home last autumn.  This time, they looked completely outclassed as they dropped the first game 11-21.

The World Junior Champions just came alive late in the second game, though, putting together a 9-point run as their defense became flawless, their attacks became much harder to predict and return, and as the Japanese veterans lost their composure and began to make mistakes.  The decider was again one-sided but the Korean youngsters kept the scoreline more respectable and Lee Yu Rim just took control of her side of the court, trying to relieve the pressure on a visibly exhausted Baek Ha Na.

In the end, 16-year-old An Se Young was denied the chance to produced some late heroics as Japan sealed the deal 3-1 and celebrated as they waited for the outcome of the other semi-final.

Click here for complete semi-final results

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