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Yuki and Sayaka at the Olympics

“If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”

Yuki’s LINE message to Sayaka (Trans by Sebastien @sebad110)

Is it ok to write about FukuHiro?  No Japanese Women’s Doubles medal in Tokyo would have been unimaginable six months ago but the top seeds were knocked out at the QF stage.  This does not even scratch the surface of Yuki and Sayaka’s Olympics.

Facing elimination together – screenshot from Eurosport.

The badminton world was staggered when Sayaka arrived on court and revealed a heavy knee brace on her right leg.  Despite the catastrophe that had befallen her the Gold medal favourites had decided to come and fight. 

Sooner or later, we have to accept that for all the time spent on analysis of games and players a match will always end in victory or defeat.  Nevertheless, at the Olympics the reaction of these two athletes to a serious injury subverted this into an honourable display that showed the strength of their partnership and their love of badminton played together.

The first match facing Birch/Smith was a chance to see if they could win on three and a half legs.  Unbelievably they battled through in two sets.  Fukushima carried a big burden: she ran for two whilst Hirota tried to avoid the back line.  Their tactics succeeded: 21-13 & 21-14.  There had to be a focus on keeping playing time to a minimum and the stats show that the longest rally was 54 strokes with the average length at 11.  In the next game against CHOW/LEE the Malaysians seemed prepped to exploit her restricted movement and got the first set but nerves took over and the self-confidence of the Japanese saw them win the following two sets.  This time the longest rally was 76 strokes with an average length of 13 per rally.

After the first game Hirota had described herself as at 70-80% and admitted that she had been injured during training on June 18th.  She later said:

“It’s like it became pitch-black. I thought it was impossible to go to the Olympics anymore. I felt very sorry for Fukushima-senpai”

Interview in NHK translated by Sebastien.

After an MRI scan, she was diagnosed with an ACL tear in her right knee; some news organisations also reported damage to her meniscuses and lateral collateral ligament but she has not confirmed that.  She described it as a “desperate time”. A specialist advised surgery but agreed – after two weeks rest from training – that it was feasible to wait until after the Olympic tournament.  The Donjoy-style brace she wore was designed to redeploy the way playing pressure impacted on her damaged knee.  The stress goes to the healthy parts and away from aggravating the pain.

The final group game was their first loss.  Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu had to work hard over three sets but in the end, they just could not find a way through.  This meant they had come second in Group A and would meet CHEN/JIA in a quarter final. Even if they had both been fit this tie would have been daunting. The Chinese are superb players; strong and smart so they knew they were in for a difficult day. Yuki’s LINE message to her partner that evening read

“…tomorrow regardless we win or lose, I want us to enjoy the match…Let’s overcome this together. Let’s speak together. If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”

Trans by Sebastien.

It was a brutal physical test and after three sets their goal of a home Olympics medal was gone. At the end they faced the world with tears and their arms around each other. The Chinese players’ sporting behaviour added to the emotion of the moment. Games like this can be very hard to spectate.

Sayaka has a hard six months of rehab ahead but her courageous attitude and the support of Yuki will sustain her. Fukuhiro’s Olympics was tragic and wonderful. I’m so sorry that they were not able to compete to 100% of their ability but seeing their reaction to heartbreak was inspiring. Their bravery and commitment shone through disappointment; the dream has not been lost, only delayed until Paris 2024.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my earlier article about Fukuhiro https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/

Thank you to Sebastien for letting me use their translations of interviews in Japanese and also thank you to all the Fukuhiro fans out there who shared ideas and chatted about the Olympic journey with me.


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Mix & Match: Japan

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

pic by Abdul Razak Latif/Shutterstock.com

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/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved