Exhilaration and terror in a 50/50 churning mix were the main emotions as we waited for the finalists in the Men’s Doubles competition to step onto the court. The prospect of the world #1s Gideon and Sukumuljo taking on Endo and Watanabe was just mouth-watering. Would Kevin and Marcus secure their third title to cement their place on the All England honour board of great Men’s Doubles pairs? Or could Hiroyuki Endo upgrade his three previous silver medals to a Gold? Throughout 2019 the Japanese pair were the only players to consistently beat the Minions so the fans knew the stage was set for an epic.
The Minions won the toss and decided to serve first; Kevin took the shuttle with an air of intense focus – what followed was 21 minutes of insanely exciting badminton. The Japanese duo’s strategy was defend, defend, defend. Marcus and Kevin were given the opportunity to smash and they took it; Endo and Watanabe were subject to a brutal bombardment but they held firm. The tempo was staggering, the shuttle fizzed around and both team’s reflexes were exceptional. As the Indonesians tried to force the pace the Japanese remained patient and won the set 21-18.
SET 2 – THE FIGHTBACK
It was crucial that Kevin & Marcus seized the initiative back and right from the start their aggression and energy gave them a foundation to work from. They stormed into a 7-2 lead then went into the mid-game interval four points ahead. Watanabe in particular was still trying to dominate, using his shots to try and neutralise the threat of Sukamuljo at the net. However, this set was sealed by the Indonesians 21-12 We were to be treated to a third.
SET 3 – TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Endo and Watanabe went early and went hard; racing into a 6-0 lead until the guts and defiance of Marcus Gideon halted their progress. It was a stunning start for the Japanese men and their intent sent a shudder through the Minion’s fans. It was plain that they intended to get a lead, seek to burn off their rivals and try and stay in front to 21. The fight-back from the Indonesians centred around marginalising Watanabe – he was the dangerman. The trouble was that he maintained his level. At 8-7 there was a rally that encapsulated everything wonderful about his play: his athleticism, imagination, and anticipation all led to this moment. He took the score to 9-7 by reaching an unreachable shuttle and taking responsibility to grasp the point.
Still the Minions fought. At the interval they had clawed their way back into contention with the deficit only 2 points. Watanabe was toe-to-toe with Sukamuljo and was proving to be a nuisance. 16-16 and Endo faulted. How many finals had he contested only to get a silver medal? 18-18 and the atmosphere in the arena was beyond tense. Whose nerve was going to hold? 19-18 to Indonesia…19-19… but suddenly the Japanese summoned up their last reserves of strength and desire to push home to win 21-19.
Watanabe and Endo with Gideon and Sukamuljo created one of the best Men’s Doubles finals ever seen at the All England. The match was magnificent and, on the day the best pair won, although Kevin and Marcus did not deserve to lose. In retrospect, perhaps if the Minions had varied their attack more, they could have won their third title, but that analysis ignores the fact that the Japanese were able to impose their tactics on the encounter – not consistently but enough to count. Watanabe’s play was sensational, and his performance was the deciding factor between two exceptional men’s pairs. The game was a privilege to watch and it will be part of All England legend. I cannot wait for the rematch!
A version of this piece first appeared on the Yonex All England website here https://www.allenglandbadminton.com/news/in-depth-the-greatest-match-in-all-england-history/ if you enjoyed it then read my article about the Minions https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/
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