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Nozomi Okuhara: Racket Ready For Tokyo Glory?

“…everyone loves badminton…”

Who is this extraordinary woman who bows respectfully as she enters and leaves the court and who tweets humbly after a game that next time she will “try harder”?

Okuhara from above by Shutterstock.com

Nozomi Okuhara is part of an exceptional generation of Japanese shuttlers who have been challenging the Chinese domination of the game. She is one of the best Women’s Singles players in the world and a genuine hope for a medal at the Olympics in Tokyo 2020.

The badminton competition at the Tokyo Olympics is already being hotly anticipated all over Asia. Japan’s problem – or strength – is that they just have so many remarkable women players. Okuhara is part of an ambitious national team; there are lots of tournaments between now and the Olympic finals but the big prize, without doubt, will be the gold medal.

She is a defensive player known for her speed, agility and endurance, so this means her games are characterised by long rallies. Her rival in the semi-final at the 2019 Malaysian Open – Tai Tzu Ying – said of her

“Okuhara is a good opponent, she’s very durable”

She loves to draw her opponents into these extended exchanges and ironically, although she is tough enough to see them through to the end I think that against top opponents it can often be a weakness. During the semi-final against Tai Tzu Ying she was unsettled by TTY’s spontaneity. At times Tai just refused to get into the groove of a long probing rally – she just finished the point off and moved on – eventually winning the game. Paradoxically this cautious approach is very dangerous; if her accuracy ever fails she hands over control to her adversary. There are times when it’s frustrating to watch because with the opposition court at her mercy she often eschews a swift kill and opts to send back another clear.

Is she waiting for the perfect chance to punish her opponent? Morten Frost said of her that ” she needs to find ways to score points”. To her credit I believe that she has started taking courageous steps to add some brutality to her game. She has recently left her team – Nihon Unisys – and is now working with a personal coach, Shoji Sato. She has realised that her vision of being on that Tokyo podium needs a new approach if it’s going to come to pass. She has commented before that she needs to stay fit to succeed so this has to mean she will dismantle part of her game. Her defensive style must be harsh on her injury prone knees.

There are so many other outstanding women’s singles players who want that medal, any of the people in the top 10 could grab gold. Tai Tzu Ying must be favourite but what about Carolina Marin? Could she engineer a sensational comeback from injury to defend her Rio 2016 title? Well, it’s all speculation at this point. In interviews Okuhara inevitably talks of the joy and happiness that badminton brings her. She was Japan’s first women’s singles world champion but she recently said:

“The Olympic Games remains the most important target for me, especially as it will be held in Japan this time. It will be difficult but I want to win gold medal for the fans.”

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A Thriving Partnership: Indonesia’s Polii and Rayahu.

A great player splits with her partner through injury and a young ‘nobody’ is suddenly propelled into the spotlight:

Video courtesy BWF

It takes guts to enter into a new doubles partnership. It means starting from fresh at the bottom of the rankings and learning a new person’s strengths. Polii was the senior player matched to the young raw Rahayu; it was a new dawn for her and a golden opportunity for her new partner.

When the Indonesian team was restructured at the end of 2016 new combinations of players were tried out in the women’s doubles camp. It was a shake up for both of them. Inevitably at the start there were failures as they put in the hard yards. All the training and planning that goes into elite sport is well-known but there’s no substitute for playing in match conditions under pressure. As they competed, they clicked and success came surprisingly quickly.

From Greysia Polii’s Instagram

Polii is the one who is tournament hardened; she brings a vast experience to any game. She’s been to the Olympics and played in all the high-profile competitions but Rahayu has drive and fearlessness. She is a great partner to have; she works hard and pushes the game aggressively. I love the way she opens up and goes for her shots. She relishes winning and wins well.

Video courtesy of BWF

Long rallies are a feature of women’s doubles these days; patience is needed as well as guile to penetrate well organised defences. These two are very fit and have the endurance to outlast their opponents. 50 & 60 shot rallies are no problem. With their strength and speed, they can turn the screw on their opponents really effectively. They won the 2019 India Open in two games but the last one went to 25-23. It shows a willingness to commit to victory, rather than let the match drift to an unnecessary third game.

There’s more to them than just stubborn stamina though. They’ve got great accuracy – especially Polii – and they are adept at changing direction in rallies to place the shuttle after working the opening. Greysia is the boss but there is great chemistry between them – take a look at the video at the top of this piece.

So what does the future hold? Greysia Polii is quoted as saying

“…we still have a lot of work on ahead of the Olympics…”.

Its been wonderful to watch them develop as a unit over the past couple of years, they just get better and better, however can they challenge the Japanese for the title at their home Olympics?

Another Sensational Player From China: CHEN Yu Fei

Women’s singles in badminton is crammed with talent, we watch a game blessed with a golden generation of athletes from around the world. But there is one player recently who is always catching the eye and I think she may be on the brink of dominating the game for a while to come: Chen Yu Fei.

Photo credit: Hafiz Johari/Shutterstock.com

Since her success at the 2018 Fuzhou Chinese Open, Chen has been on an upward trajectory. I watched her play in the final at the All England Open this year and went to the game fully expecting Tai Tzu Ying to play at her imperious best and be crowned queen of the court. Things turned out a lot differently to that…

Shivani Naik from the Indian Express says that Chen neutralised Tai in that match and I think that analysis is spot on. We all watch Tai and expect her to conquer opponents through a mix of fabulous deception and Zen-like calm. Chen refused to stand admiringly on the other side of the net and rejected the opportunity to be beaten. Tai was made to run around and there were too many times when she was scrambling for the shuttle. She just could not dominate in her usual way.

Video courtesy of Badminton England


Chen looks very fit – she is simultaneously springy and unyielding – and there is a grit to her make up. She is obstinate, she hustles, she doesn’t give up, she declines defeat. Every shot her opponent tries is retrieved. Not just that, she defends relentlessly and then switches to attack, pushing back on her rival. She doesn’t make many mistakes, and although it sounds obvious, it is a huge advantage in any match. This must be exhausting to play against.

I think she is great at the net. Although not the tallest at 171cm she has a great reach and lunges well to get to the shuttle. Unlike P V Sindhu she doesn’t have particularly steep smashes in her armour, nor does she have a long-legged stride to cover the court. What she does have is fast reactions and confidence in her ability so she often seems to bulldoze to victory.

So, what does the future hold for the kid who took up badminton because she was naughty? Well, Chen has a formidable team behind her and arguably the best coaching resources in the world are in China; after she won at the All England this year she was quick to acknowledge the people whose know-how helped her. She has mentioned before that her ambition is to “see the Chinese flag rising” so I’m certain that she is eyeing Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 as well as the top titles on the BWF tour. There’s lots of competition in the women’s game these days so it won’t be easy but who is going to beat her?