Katsuyama, Fukui — Rising badminton star Akane Yamaguchi’s name was taken from the color of the sunset (akane-iro, a shade of red) because her parents believe a crimson-tinted sky signals clear weather is in the forecast for the next day.
Indeed, the forecast for Yamaguchi seems to be calling for rosy success now after the Badminton World Federation chose the 17-year-old from a remote city in Fukui Prefecture as the Most Promising Player of the Year, to cap the young talent’s remarkable advancement this year.
Yamaguchi was recently in Dubai to take part at the BWF World Superseries Finals, a tournament for the top eight individuals and pairs in the Superseries.
She lost in Saturday’s semifinal, but the teenager showed unlimited potential by sweeping three group-stage matches, beating top players such as Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon — the 2013 world champion — and China’s Wang Yihan, silver medalist at the 2012 London Olympics.
This season was Yamaguchi’s first full run in the Superseries, a number of elite international tournaments. Competition against the world’s top players there made Yamaguchi realize one thing: “I discovered that even top players feel pressure in a challenging match,” she said.
When she lost in the quarterfinals of the French Open in October, Yamaguchi sent a text message to Harutoshi Kobayashi, her coach at Katsuyama High School. The message read: “I feel this loss is different from the losses I have suffered before [because I learned so much]. I want to show that going forward.”
So it was no surprise Yamaguchi kept her nerve throughout the tournament at the All-Japan championships in early December. In fact, spectators witnessed Yamaguchi smiling when matches reached crucial moments. The cool-minded Yamaguchi won all five matches in the tournament in straight sets, becoming the Japan champion for the first time.
“I was able to play with composure even when the opponent had the lead, or I played in a tough match,” she said.
There’s no place like home
Yamaguchi was born in Katsuyama, a small city with a population of about 25,000. Badminton is a popular sport in the city, and Yamaguchi first grabbed a racket at 3.
When she was a middle school student, she received interest from high schools that have elite badminton clubs, but she chose to enter Katsuyama High School in her home town.
“I wanted to play with the people who I knew well from childhood,” she said.
With deft racket maneuvers and good touch, Yamaguchi won back-to-back titles this season at the World Junior Championships and at the National High School Games.
Her style of play impressed London Games champion Li Xuerui, the Chinese player who narrowly beat Yamaguchi 2-1 at the Yonex Open Japan in June.
“She kept on returning the shuttle, which is a tradition of Japanese players,” Li said. “However, in addition to that, she occasionally launched well-timed attacks,” the Olympic champion explained, as the reasons for struggling to beat Yamaguchi.
Yamaguchi said her style of play isn’t a conscious development.
“I’ve been practicing with male coaches since I was a middle school student. I’m not tall, so I needed to make unpredictable shots to score points,” the 1.56-meter Yamaguchi said.
It has been difficult for her to enjoy the full fruits of high school life because she travels worldwide to take part in international competitions. Her high school teammates help her catch up on her studies, taking photos of their notes and sending the images to Yamaguchi’s mobile phone. When she returns from road trips, Yamaguchi enjoys chatting about the trips with her teammates.
Katsuyama is an important place for Yamaguchi because back home she can get over the fatigue built up from playing in competitions. But the days she can spend time in her hometown are numbered as she enters her final year of high school in the spring.
“I have to accept the fact that I will leave my city someday,” Yamaguchi said.
Yamaguchi said she still can’t fathom playing in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, even though her world ranking has risen from 88th to 17th in a year.
“My desire to win has grown stronger,” she said.
Whatever choice she makes, her prospects for the new year seem to be as clear as the sky in Katsuyama.
The Japan News