Vinesh Phogat loses battle but stays in fight for Tokyo ticket

Vinesh Phogat had no illusions about the enormity of the challenge that stared her in the face when she stepped on to the mat for the 53kg contest.

Since the 2016 World Championships, Mayu Mukaida has lost just twice in United World Wrestling competitions. Both times, in the final – first at the 2017 World Championship, and then at the Asian Championship this year.

En route to winning her second Worlds gold last year, in the non-Olympic 55kg class, the wrestler with a unique mix of leg attacks scored a total of 44 points against her five opponents; and conceded just seven.

Mukaida has been a cadet world champion twice, a junior world champion, a Youth Olympic champion, two senior World Championship golds, and half a dozen other titles. And she’s only 22.

Vinesh Phogat had no illusions about the enormity of the challenge that stared her in the face when she stepped on to the mat for the 53kg contest. India’s number 1 wrestler had been preparing for the seemingly unbeatable Japanese the whole year. So much so that her personal coach, Woller Akos, tried to completely change the way she moved on the mat – her trademark forward-and-backward movement traded for a more circular motion to avoid being caught stationary.

The circular motion, Akos said, was crucial to not give Mukaida an opportunity to attack. And that was, in fact, the gameplan as she stepped on the mat to face Mukaida, less than an hour after breezing past Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sofia Mattsson 13-0 in the opening round of the World Championships. “Our strategy was to keep the score close in the first period and ensure that the motion was to go left and circle her,” Akos told The Indian Express from Nur Sultan.

For the first minute-and-a-half, Vinesh did just that – moving in circles, although from right to left until Akos prompted her from the corner to go anti-clockwise. The plan, though, was working – the constant movement did not give Mukaida a clear chance to grab Phogat’s legs and if there’s one thing that is typical of the Japanese wrestler, it is that if she gets to the opponent’s legs, she scores quickly.

However, Phogat looked so preoccupied in getting her movement right that after a minute and 35 seconds, she was warned for passivity, or not attacking enough. The passivity call – and the consequent point conceded – seemed to throw her off for a bit.

Actually, just three seconds. For those three seconds, Phogat remained still – crouched and arms interlocked with Mukaida. And after waiting patiently, three seconds was all Mukaida needed. In a flash, she caught hold of Phogat’s left ankle; the Indian tried desperately to release herself from her opponent’s grip. But such was the speed and strength of Mukaida’s 20-second blitz that before Phogat could even realise what had hit her, she had conceded six points.

Mukaida held on to her seven-point advantage in the second period to beat Phogat for the second time this year.

‘Did not follow strategy’

Akos was honest in his assessment. “The first bout was perfect tactically and technically. In the second, Vinesh did not follow the strategy with the left stance motion and that was enough for the Japanese to launch a leg attack. Only one mistake was enough for Mukaida,” he rued.

Phogat’s quest for a World Championship gold may have ended but she remains in contention to win an Olympic quota.

Mukaida went on to thrash world number 1 Sarah Ann Hildebrandt 12-1 and then defeated Greece’s Maria Prevolaraki 4-0 to reach the final. That means Phogat will have a shot at a bronze medal, and a place at the Tokyo Olympics, via repechage. Mukaida and her opponent in the final, North Korea’s Pak Yong Mi, seem to be operating on another level compared to the rest in this category and barring a major upset, the World Championship gold medal match could well be a preview to the Olympic final.

For Phogat, the three repechage bouts should give her a fair idea of where she stands vis-a-vis the rest in her weight class. The onesided win over Mattsson would be reassuring. On Wednesday, she will need to win three bouts — first against Yuliia Khavaldzhy Blahinya of Ukraine, then Hildebrandt and finally Prevolaraki — to win a bronze. She will have to win the first two to assure herself of an Olympic berth.

But Akos isn’t getting ahead of himself. “We first need to win the first bout. Against Yuliia, she will need clear actions and clear attacks because the opponent is very good on counterattacks,” he said. “Once we beat her, we will focus on the bout that can get us the Olympic quota.”

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