BUKIT JALIL: Akane Yamaguchi is only 16, but she is already being hailed as the next big star of women’s badminton.
She rose to prominence last year by becoming the youngest-ever Super Series winner when she triumphed in the Japan Open, before turning on the style to bag the world junior title.
And on Wednesday, the teenager showed exactly why she’s worth the hype with an incredible performance to stun reigning world champion Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand in the first round of the Maybank Malaysian Open.
Yamaguchi showed maturity beyond her tender years and excellent court coverage to rack up a 21-18, 23-25, 21-16 win in 63 minutes at the Putra Stadium in Bukit Jalil.
“I’m really just glad to have won. I wasn’t thinking about going for an upset before the match,” said Yamaguchi with a big grin.
“I’m not very good with my offensive game, so my main focus was on my defence ... and I think I did that well.
“In the first game, I had a good win and that gave me the confidence but Ratchanok caught up in the second game and somehow I gave up there.
“Still, I’m glad I managed to pull through for the win.”
But Yamaguchi, who only turns 17 in June and is still studying in high school, believes that one win over a world champion doesn’t mean she is ready to step up just yet.
Rather, the Fukui native prefers to take it slowly and bide her time before thinking about the future.
“I’m definitely not ready to be a world champion yet ... even though I have just beaten one,” said Yamaguchi.
“There’s still a long way for me to go and I have to take it one game at time. I want to compete in more Super Series tournaments and consistently take on the higher-ranked and stronger players.
“For me, there is no immediate target yet ... I just need to keep on improving and to try my best. My next tournament is a national high school competition!”
The future certainly looks bright for Japan, especially with the target being the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
With Yamaguchi and 17-year-old Asian junior champion Aya Ohori in their ranks, the Japanese women are set to rock the world.
For now, Yamaguchi will have to focus on the Malaysian Open where she will meet compatriot Minatsu Mitani in the second round.
Meanwhile, tournament favourites Li Xuerui and Wang Yihan of China cruised into the second round.
Second seed Wang Shixian, however, nearly suffered an early exit before rallying to beat Japan’s Sayaka Takahashi 21-15, 16-21, 22-20.