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Akane Yamaguchi

“I’m just going to purely enjoy badminton”

Akane in a recent article by Dev Sukumar. Courtesy BWF

Watching a revitalized Akane win back-to-back tournaments in Denmark and France has been one of the highlights of the last few weeks.

Akane on the podium at the French Open. Screengrab courtesy BWF

She has been the standout player on the circuit recently. Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of multiple competitions since Tokyo 2020, she has flourished.

Sudirman & Uber Cup

Akane was at the heart of Japan’s success in the team competitions in Vantaa and Aarhus. Two silver medals do not do justice to her immense contribution. Both times Japan lost in the final to China, but both times she chalked up victories against CHEN Yu Fei in straight sets. There was an all-consuming intensity to these games. She seldom made mistakes and as she upped the tempo of the match CYF struggled to find scoring opportunities because her rival’s court coverage was formidable. Contrast this to their previous meeting in the same competition (Sudirman Cup 2019) and her improvement is clear. The next time these two face each other over a net is going to be awesome.

Victor Denmark Open: October 2021

In the Uber Cup AN Se Young was the only player to unpick Akane’s defence (in two sets) and so this final was an opportunity to see what effect the loss had had upon her Japanese foe. The first set was controlled by ASY; despite a heavily strapped thigh her movement was fluid and dominant. The second set began in much the same way with Yamaguchi struggling to summon up the energy to put any fizz on the shuttle; she was making mistakes too and there seemed to be an inevitability to the Korean’s advance to the top of the podium. By 16-16 Akane was fighting desperately to stay in the match: diving, scrambling, scrapping and just giving everything to stay in contention. 18-18. 19-19. A match point to ASY came and went amidst exhausting rallies. The score reached 23-23 before Akane was able to get the points needed to close it out 25-23. Ominously, in the interval, ASY ripped off her strapping and called for the doctor for the second time.

The third set was a story of triumph and tragedy. As it began, it was obvious that the Korean was less smooth in her movements. With the score against her at 3-7 she was red carded for ‘delay’ but effectively she was trying to work out whether she could continue and at 16-5 down she admitted defeat.

No-one ever wants to win a title in these circumstances, but Akane’s triumph was based on perseverance and her emphatic refusal to concede the game in the second set. AN Se Young missed her opportunity to win when she failed to convert her match point. Akane was very courageous in Set 2 since she committed everything to those long rallies; her grit paid off as ASY wilted under the grueling examination of her stamina. This was a fascinating duel.

Yonex French Open 2021

Yamaguchi’s European success continued with her title win against compatriot Sayaka Takahashi in Paris. A straight sets victory, this was a little more straightforward but there are no easy games at this level. Akane’s top-quality defence and stamina effectively neutralized her opponent’s threat; Takahashi stayed with the momentum at first, but she was forced to cut her margins and go for the line so, as she tired, mistakes crept into her game. The final score was 21-18, 21-12.

Conclusions

Back in July 2019 Akane Yamaguchi was world #1 – albeit briefly – but later suffered training disruption and some shock defeats owing to niggly injuries. In common with many in the Japanese team there were substantial expectations on her shoulders when the Olympics began but she was unable to make a significant impact. Now I think she has revisited her motivation to compete and it has given her a fresh outlook. Her epic battle with AN Se Young for the Denmark title showcased her unending resilience and phenomenal court coverage; I hope we get the chance to see plenty more clashes between these two. As one of the most lovable athletes on the tour plenty of fans will be cheering her on to more podium finishes. The Bali bubble beckons and she can travel to Indonesia with plenty of confidence that she will be making a big impression.


You may like to read Dev Sukumar’s BWF article https://bwfworldtour.bwfbadminton.com/news/?pyear=2021&pmonth=10 or take a look at my earlier piece about her https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/09/japans-akane-yamaguchi-hotter-than-july/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Yonex French Open 2021 Review

Hot on the heels of Odense the action moved to Paris. It quickly became obvious that some athletes were running on empty; the challenges of a schedule that includes an Olympics, a Sudirman Cup, a Thomas, or Uber Cup and the Denmark Open over the space of 12 weeks following lockdowns, quarantines and illness was a lot to embrace, physically and mentally. Which brings me to Akane, Momota and The Unseeded.

Screengrab courtesy BWF

Akane – Winner Women’s Singles

Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of tournaments since the Tokyo Olympics, Akane has thrived. She arrived in Paris as the Denmark Open champion and continued her hot streak right through to victory in the final again. These back-to-back wins suggest she has rediscovered the form that made her world#1 back in July 2019. It was her defensive excellence, swift court coverage and faultless anticipation which neutralised Takahashi’s challenge today. Akane is the standout Women’s Singles player in the world at the moment.

The Unseeded win Men’s Singles and Doubles: Tsuneyama, and KO/SHIN

It’s always magical to watch an unseeded player battle through to a final and win. Both of the men’s titles in this tournament went to players who were expected to lose earlier on. Kanta Tsuneyama triumphed over the more experienced CHOU Tien Chen in three tough sets; his perseverance and precision shots were the foundation of success and his delight in victory was irresistible.

In Men’s Doubles KO Sung Hyun and SHIN Baek Cheol faced Gideon and Sukamuljo. The Koreans are the former world champions who have been enduring a very lean period over the past couple of years. The Minions are working their way though their own existential crisis at the moment so it was hard to know what to expect from this contest. The Korean’s victory was quite brisk, no long rallies but a relentless drive for the title that stopped the Indonesian pair from getting any sort of toehold in the match. It was a long way from a classic, but KO and SHIN deserved the win. I hope Kevin and Marcus can take some encouragement from getting to the final.

Momota

“….the body is worn out but the heart is fine so it’s OK”

Kento Momota IG story (rough translation)

Sometimes sport is more than victory. Over the past few weeks Momota has consistently refused easy options. His resilience and character has driven him on to compete. When it seems as though his body is aching for a rest he has stepped back on court to play again. As the beaten finalist in Denmark he could have – maybe should have – withdrawn from this tournament; instead his desire for badminton carried him on to the Semi-Final where he eventually had to concede the match because of injury. It’s clear that he is still getting back to his best form but every time he plays he progresses. I’m looking forward to Bali and I reckon it’s not going to be long to wait before his next title. (WTF?)

Yuta and Arisa

Yuta Watanabe continues to impress on the XD stage. I love his spatial awareness: his ability to find gaps on his opponents side of the court is second to none. His support for Arisa – on and off court – is exemplary and so this is the basis of a partnership that will keep developing and keep winning. After today’s win they can go to Bali feeling confident about their ability to be in the mix at the end of a tournament.

Conclusions

Apart from top seeds LEE/SHIN winning the WD competition, the story of this Yonex Paris Open is of athletes triumphing over low expectations, injuries and fatigue. Kanta Tsuneyama’s, road to the MS title as an unseeded player was tough but it’s always extra special to watch ‘upset’ wins like these. Sayaka Takahashi reached the WS final despite a career threatening back injury last year. Kevin and Marcus got to their first final since AE2020 and although they lost out to unseeded KO/SHIN they must find some positives in that to fuel recovery from their slump.


If you enjoyed this, take a look at my recent article about Jonatan Christie https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/10/16/thomas-cup-semi-final-mvp-jonatan-christie/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Sudirman Cup Review

This edition of the SC was lit up by the brilliance of the women players.  Their spirit and strength were at the heart of the most successful teams. 

Misaki Matsutomo

The return by Misaki to Women’s Doubles for this tournament was a bittersweet gift to her admirers. The scratch pairing with Mayu Matsumoto had a few rough edges yet it was a treat to watch.  Misaki is a genius at the net – her touch and vision are sensational – but the skill that lifts her to Goddess status is her will to win.  At critical moments she can find a new level and seize victory.  In the semi-final against Malaysia, especially in the second set, her drive and aggression were unplayable and they beat TAN/THINAAH to seal the win for Japan. I wish her all the best in her Mixed Double’s journey but I wish she was still playing WD.

Akane Yamaguchi – Most Valuable Player

At a pivotal time in the final Akane gave a stellar performance: she had the self-belief and resources to challenge the best and gave BirdJapan hope.  She is an outstanding defender; in the final there were patches against CHEN Yufei when she was under intense pressure from the Olympic Champion.  Her strategy of keeping her tempo and defending everything however hopeless meant that CYF could never really settle into the sort of rhythm that lets her win 5 or 6 points in a row.  Often functioning on instinct, she was simply brilliant and won the match in two games 21-19, 21-16.

CHEN Yufei

In the run-up to the final, CYF was always the nucleus of Chinese victory.  In the quarter-final against Denmark her match against Mia Blichfeldt was a ‘must win’ because China – already trailing – risked elimination 0-3 if she could not level before the Men’s Singles.  The tie was pulsating with the competitive advantage ebbing and flowing between the two athletes. She held her nerve under intense scrutiny and clung on in the decider to win. In the semi-final against Korea, she lost the first set to AN Seyoung but was resolute and sucked ASY into her patient, error-free style which suffocated resistance.  It was only in the final against Yamaguchi’s faster pace that she lost a match.

Pearly TAN & THINAAH Muralitheran

The young Malaysian pair have been catching my eye for the last year or so and they have really started to challenge some of the more established doubles teams.  They stood out in this competition because of their fighting spirit and unwillingness to concede defeat.  Against GreyAp in the quarter final they battled the Olympic Champions for 90 minutes and saved six match points.  There’s no doubt they are the rising stars of this sector and I can’t wait to watch them again.

Honourable Mentions Also To:

CHEN Qing Chen and JIA Yi Fan for closing out the final and refusing to be intimidated by MatsuMatsu. Gregoria for making a fight of it in Indonesia’s quarter final and ending the competition with a 100% record. Mia Blichfeldt for her epic encounter with CHEN Yufei, and Greysia Polii for ‘surviving’.

Congratulations to China for their twelfth win in the Sudirman Cup – even without some of their best-know stars they arrived as favourites. There were some nail-biting matches and Denmark came close to eliminating them but in the end they deserved their victory.


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved


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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 plus damage to her meniscuses and lateral collateral ligament.  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