Four women, one Gold medal and a pair who were the home favourites. The Musashino Forest Sportsplaza was packed with Japanese fans who dared to dream of double Olympic success. I also saw a Korean contingent all sitting together. So many flags, so much noise, so much hope.
The last day of the badminton tournament and the air was popping with tension. The 2016 Rio Olympic Champions – Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo – announced that this would be their last game together at a press conference. The 13 year bond ended here “together until the very end”. The Korean challengers KIM So Yeong and KIM Hee Yong were not the expected opponents but they are a very dangerous pair.
Both teams had tough runs to the final: long strenuous clashes against difficult rivals. The effect that these draining encounters had on energy levels and niggling injuries was clear. One would have to have a heart of stone not to feel compassion for FukuHiro when they fell to their compatriots after 135minutes of attritional play in the semi final. Polii and Rahayu gave KIM/KONG a similarly arduous game in their semi. The capricious conditions in the arena don’t favour one pair over the other but as we shall see, the players who held their nerve and seized the moment gained the edge and went home with Gold.
The battle for Gold started ferociously. Both pairs were intent on getting an advantage, and both battered each other’s rock-solid defence. The lead veered back and forth. No-one was in control, it was as if the four athletes had stepped onto a roller coaster until the score reached 16-16. Set one was defined by the next rally conisting 67 mesmerizing shots. Suddenly TakaMatsu snapped out of power mode. An unspoken understanding between them led to a switch of emphasis. They just kept the shuttle in play, used some fast flat exchanges and turned KIM/KONG’s power against them. Lightening fast direction changes kept screwing down the pressure; her determination to return every shot left Ayaka sprawled on the florr, but she got up and kept fighting. Suddenly a weak return and Takahashi smashed the shuttle down the Korean’s backhand trams. It came back but she had followed up and caressed it gently over the net. 17-16. The next 4 points went to the Japanese pair and they wrapped up the set 21-16.
Set 2: Nothing Worth Winning Is Easy
Throughout the break the camera focuses on the Korean coaches. BWF’s 2019 Most Improved Players know that Gold is slipping away but they also know that they have beaten the Olympic champions before.
Takahashi serves – terrible – too high. KIM smacked back a venomous reply just hitting her racket shoulder. She raised a hand in apology as Misaki checked her partner was ok. Serve changed sides and the advantage started to swing. With KIM at the net and KONG behind, the attack is ruthless. They take it in turns to pepper Matsutomo and she struggles to respond effectively. Takahashi has to do something to protect her partner and eventually at 8-4 she challenges a line call and Hawkeye steps in to break the momentum of the Korean assault. The Japanese pair towel down as they await the verdict. Misaki looks concerned but Ayaka gives a big sister smile and just blows on her racket fingers. The call was good. Back to court and the tussles around the net between Takahashi and KIM are dazzling. Both are struggling for control of the match but the Korean’s have the edge. TakaMatsu’s game has gone flat. Into the break 11-9.
It’s become a strategic log jam as both sides try and unlock the game but there’s no doubt that the Japanese pair are wilting under pressure. The second half of the set is full of disjointed passages of play as TakaMatsu try and disrupt the Koreans rhythm without really gaining anything much themselves. KK don’t seem able to burn off the Japanese but they look so tired they must just be running on muscle memory. The crowd is trying to lift their favourites but the set is gone 21-14.
Set 3: Right Here, Right Now
These are the moments when legends are written. The spotlight is trained on the show court and the world watches. Ayaka smiles at her partner; she knows that this is it now, her last time with Misaki.
KONG’s muscular hitting linked with KIM’s net skills has been the key to success so far; both have deep reserves of stamina and can resist attacks with aplomb. The pair look composed as they prepare to serve: opening point goes to them and the next and the next and suddenly the Koreans have opened up a 5 point lead. Takamatsu crumbles in front of us; was this one tournament too many for old bones? And then, an intriguing passage of play.
KONG serves and Matsumoto engages ultra defensive mode. A flat fast clear to the rear of the backhand court. KIM is pushed right back and struggles to retrieve the shuttle but manages a loose straight drop. It gets sent right back a second time, this time the response is a xc drop. Takahashi and Matsutomo stand side by side – rock solid – backwards and forwards the shuttle flies, no-one is trying to vary the pace. 40 shots, 50, 60, 70, 80 this could go on all day but suddenly KONG tries to escape the spider’s web. She loses patience, smashes and it just brushes the outside of the line. Gill and Morten cry ‘in’ and it’s 6-0. No! Takahashi raises her hand, challenge. Matsutomo says something to her partner as they hydrate and wait; both smile. Challenge successful.
Now suddenly something is happening. They have summoned up some last reserves of strength. Perhaps the long rally actually gave them a bit of breathing space. Matsumoto is starting to force the pace. In a last deperate effort they are gambling that the Koreans are going to run out of gas before they do.. There is a Marinesque bustle to the Japanese players. Matsumoto’s agility and technical skill is beginning to turn the tide in their favour as she hunts points, Takahashi varies the pace of her shots as she works to support her partner. They put together a 8 point run before a clash of rackets hands the advantage to their rivals and they eventually go into the interval ahead 11-10.
Into the Red Zone.Time slows. One last effort. The match has distilled down to the inner game now. Focus, self confidence and resilience to get to the top of the podium. The intensity of the Japanese attitude is driving the contest forward. It’s a ‘death or glory’ approach and it’s hard for the Korean pair to get any sort of foothold on the scoreboard. Takahashi is covering every bit of the court; like all great players she’s found another gear. Her aggression is giving Matsutomo confidence to attack. KIM & KONG try everything but they are noticeably drained – the demands of a punishing week have finally hit their legs. They keep nibbling away but they can’t build any meaningful sequences of attack. TakaMatsu are dominating the exchanges and suddenly they have 3 match points, Takahasi to serve
“Win or lose, together to the end”
If you enjoyed this then follow the link to my factual article about FukuHiro https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/
This never happened, it’s just for fun. Feel free to write your own so your favourites win.
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