Two of the nimblest-footed shuttlers in the game met in early afternoon just as a different sport saw athletes bashing lumps out of each other in a dead rubber at Murrayfield. Two games which could not be much more the antithesis of each other.
Ratchanok Intanon all in blue attempting to defeat Nozomi Okuhara all in white. Although the same two colours of tops as Italy and Scotland respectively, this is where the parallel Six Nations match comparisons end.
Intanon was the more attacking of the two, well quite simply she had to be with Okuhara chasing every shuttle and seemingly getting every shot back. Okuhara’s phenomenal, whipped forehand from ludicrously low positions giving a really satisfying and poignant crack around the empty Birmingham Arena.
Both used the drop-clear incredibly affectively, but also both knowing each other’s games so well meant that even the best, should-be winners were coming back from the other side of the net.
At 12-7 to Nozomi Okuhara in the second set, one of the rallies of the match came to being. Intanon twisting and turning from back to front of the court whilst Okuhara dominated. Intanon’s backhand cross-court drop shot, a picture that should be painted and put on display in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in Chamberlain Square, scarcely half a mile from the Arena.
Intanon won this point and this seemed to trigger a mini resurgence, including a successfully overturned challenge which took her to 13-17 in the second.
Though this revival was not followed through as shortly thereafter Okuhara brought up her first chance to take the second set.
One game point was saved, but of course this match was to go into a decider, as Intanon’s change-up short serve did not pay dividends; Okuhara gaining dominance in the rally to eventually take the second set 21-16.
The early stages of the third set made it feel like Intanton always had the game in her control. As if she allowed Okuhara her push back in the second, just to claw her in, then knock her out with real class in the third.
To encapsulate this, Intanton had her Japanese opponent just a few degrees away from doing the splits at 13-8 in the third, the Thai shuttler really exerting her dominance now.
The topsy-turvy, rollercoaster ride of this match continued though as it started to unravel for Intanon soon after. She missed a simple backhand smash followed by another net shot in successive points. Despite still being behind, Okuhara handed a psychological boost as they stopped for a drink at 12-15.
From here on Intanon just seemed to make mistake after mistake to eventually draw the third set level at 18-18. The game now being frequently stopped for sweat-mopping, showing how hard both were working into the second hour of this match.
Intanon’s coach having to be warned in every mid-set or whole set break to leave the arena on time perhaps showed how much help he felt his athlete needed to challenge the Japanese second seed. (Or if not that then simply a language barrier issue between Brummy Umpire and Thai coach!)
At 20-18 to Okuhara, the first match point was saved by Intanon but a wayward forehand drive from Intanon gave Okuhara the match 16-21 21-16 21-19.
But her latter stages lapses were ultimately costly for Intanon. Nozomi Okuhara gliding into tomorrow where she will play Pornpawee Chochuwong of Thailand in the All England final.
A great battle that really deserved a few thousand fans enjoying the spectacle live in Birmingham.