Mix & Match: Japan

Thanks be to Yonex who have created a series of tournaments under their ‘Legends’ banner.

A team game with different rules.  A new “flight” system which allows a team of six to switch players on and off court between points.  So, to Japan first and of course hard-core fans are desperate for a glimpse of the two team captains.  The players emerge to blasts of dry ice and swirling spotlights; Momoto looks stern then his game face cracks and he waves to the camera.  The teams were announced in advance but it is still a shock to see four 15year old players – Nakagawa, Hashimura, Noguchi and Kohara preparing to play.

Kento Momota is the leader of Team Kansha whilst Akane Yamaguchi is boss of team Sixth Sense.  So, a tournament where success is based around effective tactics but not traditional badminton game plans:  no athlete holds enough flights to remain on court and win a game single handed.  It’s up to the captains to decide when to change people about over a total of five matches, 3 doubles and two singles. Potentially the best strategist should win. 

A quick photocall, warm up and then to the games.  No one can stop smiling.  Win a point – celebrate, lose a point – smile.  The happiness is irresistible.  As the cameras pan round the delight that the athletes feel while playing is clear.  It’s been mentioned before that in team tournaments the members of BirdJapan always turn up to support each other and this is another manifestation of that attitude.

THE GAMES

Sixth Sense raced into a 2-0 lead.  Akane was relishing her court time and playing some great net drops but in game three the Kansha team halted her players momentum.  Game 4 was singles and the highlight was the Momoto versus Kamura flat drive rally.  Kamura, the doubles specialist coming out on top but the tide had turned and that one was chalked up to Kansha too.  Game 5 was the decider.  Sixth Sense were being reeled in.  The classic pattern that we see in Momota’s matches was enacted here too; Kansha won after being behind.

TOP TAKEAWAYS

So, it was badminton…but not as we know it!  Who cares?  It was a chance to see some great players and some up-and-coming ones too

Akane showed some delicate touches, Momota played sportingly and didn’t just try to muscle his way to victory, and Higashino was on good form. Most of all I watched Kamura exude joy on the court and around his teammates. 

It wasn’t really possible to gain any insight about the recovery of the World #1 or how game fit these players are.  However, in what was essentially a fun exhibition match everyone acquitted themselves well.  It’s hard to say where this fits into the training programme but the nature of the games was very stop-start, so potentially making the players cope in a context where they have lost their rhythm is a worthwhile exercise but that probably wasn’t the point. It fills a gap until the tour reactivates in Thailand in January and it was entertaining from the moment the players appeared on screen.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my article about Kento Momota that originally appeared on the Yonex All England website https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/27/kento-momota/ or this one about the Japanese team and the Olympics https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/11/01/japans-olympic-hopes/


©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Japan’s TakaMatsu: Ayaka Takahashi & Misaki Matsutomo

The quest for badminton glory has come to an end for one of the greatest Japanese WD pairs ever.  When Ayaka Takahashi announced her retirement earlier this year she ended a partnership of 13 years.  The glittering bond between her and Misaki Matsutomo has been forged during a wonderful journey to the pinnacles of sporting success.

The Golden pair of Japanese badminton are loved by millions of fans worldwide.  Their story begins before the London Olympics.  They played together in High School; but as far as 2012 was concerned whilst their compatriots prepared for those Games they continued with their routine.  After 2012 they started moving up the rankings but as players, they were incomplete and still learning their trade. After a sequence of defeats, it was suggested that they could not withstand pressure but Matsutomo later reflected that it was the experience of losing that made her the competitor she turned into.

One of the characteristics I admire is their ability to evolve over the years: it is at the core of their success.  In this article I’ve tried to illustrate this whilst celebrating some of the highlights of their glorious career.

Uber Cup Final 2014

This was the beginning of the TakaMatsu legend.  It was obvious that they had made significant alterations to their patterns of play. The underpinning of any WD pair is reliable defence – naturally this was still in place – but they had transformed themselves into shuttle-hunters and their rivals could not equal their aggression and determination.  With Takahashi patrolling behind her partner, Matsutomo was released to create chances from the net that they both snapped up eagerly.  Incredibly, after winning the first 21-18 the Japanese pair were towelling down in the interval of the second 11-1 up.  Even as they dominated the second half the commentary team started to speculate whether a Chinese comeback was on the cards.  It wasn’t.  Match won 21-18, 21-9.

2016:  Annus Mirabilis

Seven titles were collected in 2016 including the Yonex All England.  It is difficult to pick just one game but the Rio Olympics was where they took their place amongst the immortals.  The final against Pedersen and Juhl was terrific: set one was scrappy but the Danes took their chances and closed it out 21-18.  In Set 2 the momentum began to shift because Takamatsu improved their attack strategy.  Matsutomo’s work at the net and mid-court was crucial: she exploited the weaknesses of the Danish left/right combination and started getting traction by executing some punchy, flat drives.  In combination with Takahashi’s hard work at the back they were able to create space in the opposition’s court where they could score points.  All square 21-9.

The start of final set gave us some long draining rallies alongside the ‘shuttlecock incident’ at 10-9.  Juhl’s frustration and annoyance at being denied a fresh shuttle boiled over when she brushed away Matsutomo’s racket.  I often wonder what went through Misaki’s mind at that point – I like to think that an imaginary switch was tipped in her brain – but on the surface she remained calm.  The points stayed balanced: 12-12, 14-14, 16-16 because neither pair could impose themselves.  Then suddenly the Danes were 19-16 up, 2 points from Gold.

In an extreme situation defiance is a better strategy than submission.  This was Matsumoto’s moment.  Born of utter confidence in her partner and her own ability she was decisive and swift.  Like all true greats she discovered another level within herself.  With brilliant vision and movement, she refused to lose; together they created five opportunities to score and she executed the chances.  GOLD.

WTF 2018 Final against LEE & SHIN

This is another milestone match.  It’s fascinating because it shows that their style is still progressing.  They have embraced the philosophy of creating attack from defence and this is what enables them to generate pressure from all over the court.

In this match Ayaka is still putting in huge amounts of physical work and it’s striking that her defensive lifts/clears are crucial but she has refined them since 2012.  Now they are mostly aimed for the corners, making space and opening the opponent’s court up so that they can implement attacking combinations.  This is synchronised with Misaki’s beautiful precise net play so they can both get chances to block and push the opponent’s shuttle back to the mid-court when they are under attack.  This resilience is hard to break.

In the second game LEE & SHIN have levelled at 20-20 and we’re starting to look at a third and deciding set.  It’s a classic Matsutomo moment.  Her resolve and focus drive the pair to resist Korean momentum, two points and job done, another title won.

TakaMatsu won Japan’s first badminton Gold at the Rio Olympics and Japanese women’s badminton has achieved staggering success in the years since.  With their endless achievements it’s impossible to do them justice in a short article.  We’ll miss them but they will not be disappearing from view. I’m excited at the idea of Matsutomo in mixed doubles and Takahashi was in the commentary box at the Danish Open…imagine Ayaka commentating on her old partner’s games next year. They have been inspirational athletes with a golden legacy.


Lots of people gave me ideas and contributed suggestions whilst I was writing this. I’d like to mention the badminton Twitter community including: Stefany Monica, Ulfa, Mongnoona2, MarieLgvl, Rakisdianrd, Kantaphon Wangcharoen, Lavern, Aakash Joshi and a big shoutout to @birdjapansuki, a great resource for anyone interested in Japanese Badminton. Sorry if I missed anyone – DM me and I’ll add you!


If you enjoyed this then take a look at this article about Japan’s Olympic hopes https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/11/01/japans-olympic-hopes/ or this one about Nozomi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/05/15/nozomi-okuhara/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Japan’s Olympic Hopes

Writing from the depths of lockdown life – where many of us find it difficult to jettison our pyjamas much before midday – it’s incongruous to imagine the elite athletes who are sticking with their pre-covid routines and dreams.  But these are the times when we truly see players mettle.  Commitment to reaching the Olympic podium won’t be switched on or off according to whim: it’s a vow made in childhood and it has to be honoured.

Who can maintain an edge?

The genius at the centre of the Japanese badminton world is coach PARK Joo Bong. As a player he described himself as ‘greedy for Gold’. His XD Gold at the Seoul Olympics – when badminton was a demonstration event – plus his MD Gold in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics confirm his place amongst the game’s greats. After retirement and some coaching roles in England, Malaysia and back home in Korea he became head coach of the Japanese team in 2004. In 2012 there was a WD silver for Japan in London then Rio 2016 saw TakaMatsu win WD Gold and Nozomi Okuhara clinch Bronze in WS. His masterplan is designed to reach a crescendo at the Tokyo Olympics.

Badminton stumbled back to life his October.  Whilst other sports have reactivated, we have been beset by delays and cancellations.  However, the Danish Open – a prestigious Super750 event – offered the chance to gauge which players had maintained their edge.  Disappointingly it suffered withdrawals, nevertheless ‘everyone’ from Japan appeared to be ready to travel.  Flights and hotels were booked but just before the start of the tournament Denmark experienced a spike in Covid cases and club owners asked their players to remain in Japan.  Although this was frustrating for fans waiting to see the re-emergence of Momota the women’s sector still sent most of the top athletes.

Women’s Doubles The final at the Denmark Open between NagaMatsu & FukuHiro – was seen by many as a possible rehearsal for the Olympic final. The starring role of deciding who may get Gold in Tokyo was taken by Yuki Fukushima.  She was a handful all through the match.  Her consistency, precision and variations were top quality and so she defused the more attack-minded rivals.  The 2020 All England champions Fukushima and Hirota are a team with plenty of experience. Their defence is rock solid and they are all-rounders with no real weakness except that sometimes they become a little predictable.  The 2018 and 2019 BWF World Champions – Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara – are a very sparky duo; happy to take chances and be creative when they are hunting points.  Matsumoto is a tall hard-hitter who is spatially aware and great at the net.   I used to think they have the best chance of Gold but after the DO I’m not sure.   It wouldn’t be a shock if the final was an all Japanese duel.

Women’s Singles – Nozomi was in dazzling form at the Denmark Open. Her victory over Carolina Marin in the final meant we didn’t have to suffer with her on the podium as she added to her silver medal collection from 2019.  Clearly she has continued to train hard and her play was at a consistently high level.  Already an Olympic medallist she has unswervingly said that her target is Gold in front of her home crowd. Akane Yamaguchi did not travel to Europe but is another who has big expectations on her shoulders.  Briefly world number 1 last year, the end of 2019 was disrupted by injuries.  It’s likely that despite the disadvantages of this hiatus in play she may benefit from the break to address those niggles.  The conditions at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza are likely to suit both players so with a good draw they will be challenging for top honours.

Men’s Doubles – in world badminton this sector produces the most insanely exciting games and two of the best pairs are from Japan.  The real speed kings reside here, with the emphasis on swift reflexes, shrewd tactics and power.   The current All England champions – Yuta Watanabe and Hiroyuki Endo – have all these characteristics along with resilience, determination and courage.  There is quite a big age gap between them (Yuta is only 22 and Hiroyuki 33) and so we would have to wonder if the partnership will continue after the Olympiad, but never mind, for now they burn bright.  Yuta’s brilliant net play balanced by Hiroyuki’s strength and power from the rear court is hard for rivals to counter. They have a remarkable record against the world Number 1s – Indonesia’s Sukamuljo & Gideon, and a final between these four exceptional athletes, a repeat of the final in Birmingham is one that would delight everyone.  The second duo from Japan consists of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda: they live the phrase ‘the fast and the furious’.  Sonoda is always bouncing on his toes, his internal dynamo just never seems to rest.  These two can dazzle with their speed and athleticism and it’s likely they will be fighting compatriots for a medal at the knockout stages in Tokyo

Men’s Singles – Momota is world number 1 and favourite for the Gold.  His net skills, anticipation and reflexes mean that his games have a quality that makes victory seem inexorable.  His psychological power over his rivals – the aura that surrounds him on court – gives him an extra weapon to use.  His mental strength and emotional self-reliance are key characteristics that will help him survive yet another delay to his date with destiny.  Who has the ability to challenge him?  The Danish Open showcased the progress of Anders Antonsen who will try to upset him.  Viktor Axelsen along with Taiwan’s CHOU Tien Chen are credible challengers too, but, all fans crave a MomoGi final in every competition, and Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting definitely has the potential to earn a medal in Tokyo. The importance of stamina and focus can’t be overstated in the context of beating Momota.  I’m confused as to who the other Japanese competitor may be.  Kenta Nishimoto made the SF in Denmark or Kanta Tsuneyama – who did not travel – could be the second player.   

Mixed Doubles – the leading Japanese pair, Yuta Watanabe & Arisa Higashino, are the All England champions of 2018 and runners up from 2019.  Arisa is renowned as an aggressive hard-hitter if she is in the rear court, so when she and Yuta find their traditional positions reversed in a match, they do not suffer too much disadvantage.  Her partner has fine technical skills and is always searching for space to score points.  They are a formidable pair but there is a risk that Yuta may be spread too thinly.

There’s no doubt that once the XXXII Olympiad starts the Japanese competitors will be challenging for a podium spot in every sector.  The standout athlete for me is Yuta Watanabe; he is an extraordinary player who competes in Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles.  The big question is whether he can win two events; can he withstand the physical and emotional strain that getting to the knockout stages in both would bring?  A home Olympic medal guarantees immortality and to wait an extra year before walking out onto the court at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza must be particularly frustrating for the Japanese team.  All of us – players and fans – are eager for the sport we love to restart properly.


If you enjoyed this take a look at BWF’s article about PARK Joo Bong here http://bwfmuseum.isida.pro/library/profiles/news-317-17/ and my review of the recent Denmark Open is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/10/19/danisa-denmark-open-review/


©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved