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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

Featured

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

Danisa Denmark Open: Women’s Preview

Badminton is BACK!!!!!

Finally, some good news – after the obliteration of the badminton year I am so eager to see this tournament.  The week promises plenty of excitement with old favourites up against some new faces at the Danisa Denmark Open.  I especially want to see who has managed their fitness and performance levels successfully during the break so that they can seize games from ring-rusty opponents.  This could be the perfect time for some of the lesser known athletes to make an impression.

Women’s Singles

This is a very strong field and my gaze is drawn to Nozomi, Carolina and Michelle Li. One of the key features of lockdown has been loneliness. Many players seem to have been isolated from their usual support groups but these three are all familiar with a training regime that – for one reason or another – tends towards solitary. Of course, any singles player, once they are standing on court needs to be mentally self-sufficient with a tough temperament.

Michelle Li is the best Canadian in world badminton; she is a top 10 player in the world rankings and has achieved this with an obstinate focus on her goals of getting on the podium at the Olympics and driving the profile of the sport in her home country. This is a tournament where she must dominate her rivals; it seems like a wonderful opportunity to progress to a final of a S750 competition. I hope she arrives in Odense in top form ready to capitalise on the absence of others.

Carolina Marin will be ready to explode onto the court like a human hand grenade. The Olympic Champion is coming to Denmark to capture a title that has always eluded her. It’s hard for challengers to defuse her aggression. She calls up a competitive energy that rivals have to disrupt to get any sort of foothold in the match. The desire to win is her essence.

Nozomi Okuhara will arrive in Denmark with a strong possibility of winning Gold. She has had a frustrating run of silver medals over the past year, so the hiatus from covid could have been a good opportunity to reset her strategies. She is such a brilliant player with a wide range of skills to draw on in any situtation; her snappy reflexes and speed across the court mean she can absorb any pressure from a rival. The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics must have been an acutely painful experience for a player whose focus was to be the champion in front of her home crowd. I think we would all relish the chance to see Nozomi enjoy success in Odense.

The homeplayers were the Gold medalists at the European Team Championships back in February and if they are on form I think either Line Kjaersfeldt or Mia Blichfeldt could have a good run. It wouldn’t be a shock to see one of them still fighting for a medal at the weekend. Beiwen Zhang is another seed who should anticipate at least a SF spot.

Women’s Doubles

This sector is stacked with superb pairs and I am anticipating some epic battles.

No problems with social distancing at this airport! Pic borrowed from Sayaka’s Twitter feed but no photographer credited.

The top three seeds are three pairs from Japan: Fukuhiro, Matsumoto/Nagahara, and Matsuyama/Shida so the problem of friendly fire could become a live issue. The key question is who will stop the final being Japan v Japan?

Maiken Fruergaard and Sara Thygesen won a lot of friends in the course of January’s Indonesian Masters. In the end they succumbed in a blockbuster of a final to the home pair, Greyap. They sustained high levels of play and a great attitude; it was probably Greysia Polii’s depth of experience that overcame them finally because during the last few points the four players were operating on muscle memory. Therefore what can we expect of the Danes in Denmark? The bottom half of the draw looks quite tricky. It’s likely they could meet Matsumoto and Nagahara in the Quarter Final so this will be the game that defines their performance.

The Stoeva Sisters‘ threat is quite hard to quantify. For sure they have high fitness levels and can outlast their opposition but there is more to winning a badminton match than this. Long rallies are no surprise in women’s doubles but they need to bring a bit more to the party if they want to be on the podium on Sunday. They can be vulnerable to aggressive attack so I would like to see them bring more of an edge to their own strategy. A quick twitter poll that I conducted in the course of writing this preview very firmly concluded that getting to the Semi Final was the best they could achieve. Boring opponents into submission is not a risk free path to gold!

A WD final that pits Fukuhiro against Matsumoto/Nagahara could be a foretaste of the Tokyo Olympic final. If this happens then despite being seeded 1, Fukuhiro could lose. When we weigh up the styles of play then Mayu and Wakana have more aggression in their makeup but no less stamina. If it all boils down to a brawl for the last few points in a three set match they should get them.

Conclusions

Competitive life at the highest level is limited for any athlete. We have seen players and their national associations cope with this intermission in different ways. It remains to be seen whether training at home alone, frequent holidays or self-quarantine at a training centre are the best ways to approach this unwanted break. I’ve been astonished at the apparent lack of guidance available to people. Nevertheless intuitively I believe that the competitors who have continued their usual training routines with focus and dedication should reap rewards. I am concerned that an abrupt return to competition after only light training risks injury.

This is the time for players to set down a marker. It’s unfortunate that this is one tournament in isolation followed by another long wait until we go to Thailand but the athletes who have the mental strength to cope with this disruption can use Denmark as a real life measure of how effective their lockdown training has been. Any lack of success at the Open can be a catalyst for review and improvement.

What a momentous day the 13th October will be – finally badminton returns.


I’d like to dedicate this piece to the Danish badminton authorities, fans and volunteers. Since the postponement of the original Thomas & Uber Cups there have been months of uncertainty and I can only begin to imagine the hours and money that have been expended getting to this point. Thank you!


If you enjoyed this then Part 2 – my men’s preview is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/10/11/danisa-denmark-open-preview-pt2-the-men/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

2020 Imagined Olympic Finals: Men’s Doubles

There’s a saying that there are only two stories in the world. The first is about a person who goes on a journey and the second is when a stranger rides into town. Well, I’ve got the third story, it’s cool because it combines the original two plots. It’s about a duo who go on a journey, arrive in a strange town, AND WIN A GOLD MEDAL.

Super Saturday in Tokyo and the hugely anticipated Men’s Doubles final was contested by the World #1 Kevin Sukamuljo/Marcus Gideon and LIU Yuchen/LI Junhui. These pairs have met before at the Musashino Forest Sportsplaza, the dilemma for both was how to use the slow conditions to their best advantage. Throughout the tournament opinion had differed regarding tactics, and in fact no particular strategy seemed consistently successful other than perhaps the need for stamina.

Screenshot From BWF TV

Each pair had very different routes to the ultimate match. The Minions had to dive deep into their mental reserves during the SF against Endo/Watanabe. A three set thriller beset by nerves, unforced errors and inspired net play by Kevin. Watanabe was Superman but he just could not find a way past the Indonesian players; he’ll have another attempt at Gold later in XD. Although Chinese athletes have struggled to make an impression on the badminton tournament here, LI/LIU enjoyed a quite serene progress to the final. The two set SF against Rankireddy/Shetty was a clinical dissection of a duo whose time will come.

Set 1: 21-14 LI/LIU

It was a brutal first set. The Chinese duo seemed determined to play their own game; the barrage of steep smashes that rained down onto Sukamuljo and Gideon was awesome. The twin towers disasterous tactics from the 2018 Japan Open were firmly forgotten and they stayed on the attack permanently. At the interval the score was 11-8 but they pulled away and sealed the game quite emphatically.

Set 2: 19-21 Gideon & Sukamuljo Fightback

The cameras were focused on the Indonesians at the interval. Their demeanour was relaxed and calm, Gideon rolling his neck just listening to the coach. The Indonesian fans behind the back tramlines were uncharacteristically quiet, maybe not worried yet but definitely thoughtful – some of those spectators I recognised from earlier matches of the Olympic tournament and it was clear they were hardcore badminton lovers. Gill Clark and Morten started to speculate about a two set final.

Liu to serve and instantly he was put under pressure by a flat aggressive return. The rally was more than 60 shots old when Gideon executed a delicate drop that died at LI’s feet. The points rolled by, & into the interval at 10-11 the Chinese pair just with their noses in front but we all sensed that the balance of power was shifting. The second half of the second set was Kevin Sukamuljo’s stage. He seized the initiative at the net, and despite LIU’s long reach he was passed repeatedly. The Chinese men were desperately trying to vary the tempo of shots to jolt the Minions off momentum but they failed again and again. Kevin was liberated by to be King of the Forecourt by Marcus’s pugnacity and energy. The key to the swing in the balance of power was the inability of the Chinese players to score points from the long rallies; Marcus and Kevin had figured it out that if they were able to stay in their favoured positions and keep the shuttle in play then the chances would come. Its a simple strategy but exhausting. Their counter-attacking expertise with their solid defending got the Minions back in the fight – one set each.

Set 3: Gold!

LI/LIU resumed their positions on court but there was a pause while Sukamuljo fiddled with his shoelace. Years of training, planning and sweat were focused on the next twenty minutes. LIU taps his partners hand and smiles. Kevin to serve, a flick, not good enough and so it’s smashed right back at him. Typical outrageous Sukamuljo returns it with a behind the back shot that tips the net cord, and expires as LI dives forward despairingly. Lucky. Then a run of 3 more points in a row until disaster. Gideon smashes, breaks a string and cannot defend effectively enough. The momentum swings back to the Chinese and they go into the interval 11-8 ahead. Ten points from Gold.

However ten points from Gold is a lot of shots with a lot of running, jumping and stretching. The Chinese players are in constant movement but Kevin is picking up points with precision and verve. He is a man who adores the big stage and where better to showcase his sublime ability than the last moments of an Olympic final? The speed of the rallies was supersonic, the four athletes perfectly focused on the shuttle whilst the crowd screamed.

Point by point the Indonesians got in front. Their play was brave and exhilerating. Exchanges of hard flat drives keep the Chinese at a slight disadvantage. Kevin constantly taunting the twin towers with shots just slightly out of reach or just in reach but forcing a weak response for Gideon to kill. 20-19 match point.

20-19 match point. Kevin to serve, nothing is certain.


This never happened, it’s all fiction. Feel free to write your own so that your favourites win.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my piece about Kevin and Marcus https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/ or this one by Daniel DM about Chinese Men’s Doubles https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/02/chinese-mens-doubles/

I’ve written an imagined MomoGi final as well https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/08/05/2020-imagined-olympic-finals-mens-singles-momogi/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

2020 Imagined Olympic Finals: Men’s Singles – MomoGi

We know they inspire each other to brilliance: relentless attack verses unbending defence. But no-one could have predicted the twists and turns in this game, Momota’s life is a magnet for drama so this stage was set for him. Adrenaline overload as the two athletes walked out to the show court. Momota – gameface – seemingly oblivious to everything whilst Anthony, happy and smiling; chatting to the child mascot escorting him. A torrent of noise as the crowd made their support heard. The arena was dominated by Japanese supporters but there was a section full of Indonesian flags behind one end. Those fans, already emotionally exhausted by the achievements of Marcus & Kevin on Super Saturday were determined to bring the spirit of Istora to this match too.

Both of these men had a ‘perfect’ run to the final. Neither dropped a set or experienced any injury worries. In his SF against Anders Andersen, Momota was pushed hard and only won the second set after extra points: 23-21. He was determined to finish the game off and we saw unusual flashes of an impatient player at times. Anthony profited from SHI Yuqi’s obvious fatigue earlier in the tournament but in his SF against Malaysia’s LEE Zii Jia we saw a player fixed on forcing a win. LZJ could not live with his intelligent tactics in difficult playing conditions.

SET 1: 21-19 Momota

It was a fairly bloodless start to the match. Both were nervous and making unforced errors. Neither seemed able to read the drift in the Arena with Momota hitting the shuttle long at least three times. Anthony made 2 ill-judged challenges to line calls; Hawkeye was unmoved. Anthony decided he needed the court mopped but he was moving well. Momota’s usual patient, reactive style saw him win without too much effort. Plenty of analysts had predicted that the environment in the arena would suit him and in the first set at least they were proven right. All-in-all if you are going to watch the game on catch up skip the first set and jump to set 2.

SET 2: 13-21 Ginting. Fireworks.

After the damp squib of set one, set 2 had a rare incandescence. Rallies were contested at lightening pace, all sweat and reflex. Ginting had to win it to stay in the chase for the Gold. What did Coach Hendry say to him? Suddenly Anthony had dashed into a shocking 8-4 lead using beautiful precision shots building sequences to make the Japanese player scramble. Momota requested a doctor and the stadium held it’s breath. The big screen showed a close up of the King’s left foot. Only a small blister. To be honest, he should have been more careful putting his sock on, but after some freeze spray and a dressing he got up and returned to the fight. Abruptly Momota transformed himself. A long-hidden aggressive edge saw his usual game plan tilt away from persistant defence.

There was an urgency to his play that was utterly compelling. He started clawing his way back into the set and went into the interval 7-11. The foot was dressed again, but no shirt change. The 2 minute interval stretched into 2 and a half…3 minutes. Anthony was bouncing along a tramline, staying warm, ignoring the crisis. We watched as the umpire covered his microphone and said something short and sharp. Momota sprang up and took his position to receive serve; rocking forward and back full of contained energy. Anthony was pitiless. His movement was fluid and easy. Forcing Momota to move from corner to corner he dominated the rallies with vicious, irresistable attack; he was able to vary the pace, never allowing the left-hander to get a momentum going. At 13-19 Momota challenged a line call: it was a tactical challenge to allow himself time to regroup and to free up the interval for more treatment. He had obviously decided that it was better to let this set go and then have a ‘death or glory’ final game. 13-21 to Ginting.

Final Set: Blood, Sweat & Tears

Momota sat down and removed his shoe: the blood was obvious. Anxiety rippled through the Arena. Clean bandage, more freeze spray and tape. 1 minute and 50 seconds later he was back on court waiting for Ginting. No drama. Trying to make the psychological point (to who?) that he didn’t need to take the whole 2 minutes.

Immediately Momota seized the initiative with a trademark exchange at the net; the hairpin left Anthony wrong-footed. But as the points ticked by, backwards and forwards neither player could impose their game plan on the match. Momota abandoned all reliance on his ‘sit and wait’ strategy. His smash, follow up, kill routine was exhilarating but Ginting equalled him in power and desire. The fast flat exchanges across the net were shocking to watch. When Anthony could defend the initial smash he was then able to trap Momota far away from the net on the back trams. Mid-game interval 11-10 Momota.

The two players returned to the court for one last effort in this career defining match. Momota had to outlast Ginting. Anthony’s shots were sheer class, fantastic accuracy and control but it was clear that he was starting to tire. Momota had returned to his defensive approach and in the end it was his 1% of extra resilience that got him to the finishing line first: 21-18. Both players completely drained; Anthony hands on knees, looking down, Kento flat on his back on the court – no shout of victory, just exhaustion. Then they shake hands, embrace, smile. Both full of sporting concern for the other; exemplary behaviour from two exceptional players.

World Number 1 – Kento Momota – was crowned Olympic champion today in front of his home crowd after an heroic three set battle with Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting. Momota is confirmed King but that doesn’t tell you the story of a match that will become legendary.

Fans who were at the Musashino Forest Sportsplaza this evening will boast to their grandchildren ‘I was there’. It was magnificent, it was heartbreaking.


It never happened, all events are fictional. If you’d like someone else to win feel free to write your own.


If you enjoyed this take a look at my Imagined Olympics Doubles final https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/08/07/2020-imagined-olympic-finals-mens-doubles/

Featured

Ratchanok Intanon: Superstar

“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”

Ratchanok May
From Ratchanok Intanon/Banthongyord Badminton School Facebook.

Anyone who loves badminton must adore watching Ratchanok’s matches.  Her racket skills are magnificent and they have been the foundation of a fantastic career.  There are countless highlights – too many to list – but becoming World Champion in 2013 at age 18, being ranked world #1 in 2016, a bronze at the World Championships in 2019 and a consistent spot in the Top 10 confirm her status as one of the most outstanding players of her generation.

May’s movement around a court is smooth and graceful; this elegance is wonderful to watch but it is also efficient.  A core strategy of Women’s Singles is movement – the urgent pressure on a rival to cover distance and direction at pace.  As she skims over the court, she exerts time-pressure on her opponent.  The nanoseconds she gains all add up to an advantage.  She often seems able to hold a shot for a split second before she pulls the trigger; this means she lures the other player to anticipate the shuttle’s destination, often with unfortunate consequences.

My favourite element of her game is her net play.  She can go toe-to-toe with anyone and emerge victorious.  Her net spin shot is delicate, precise and it often gets her out of trouble.  A typical sequence is net spin, answered with a weak lift then a point winning smash/kill from May.  There is so much complexity and technical skill to her game.  It’s a misconception that players are born with this talent; May can execute these shots because she has practised for thousands of hours and she has the imagination and tactical ability to use them effectively.

I also regard her as a courageous player – although on occasion this is a blessing and a curse.  Her precise shots mean that she has the confidence to place the shuttle on the line.  Under pressure from an opponent who ‘just’ keeps it in play – for example a strategy used by CHEN Yufei – she can sometimes be tempted to try and cut a rally short and go for a quicker point rather than play percentages and wait for a clear opportunity to score.  Some analysts have questioned her resilience as a result of this.  

The COVID crisis has been hugely disruptive to most athletes training programmes and different nations have tried to tackle this dislocation in assorted ways.  We’ve seen home tournaments in many places including Indonesia and Taiwan, and more coach-supervised training.  The people who can exit the lockdown having added to their game, rested injury niggles and refreshed their outlook are going to enjoy a significant advantage in competitions. 

May has been very clear about her goal of winning an Olympic medal.  The road to Tokyo2020 has had more twists and turns than we could have ever predicted back in January so with that in mind what are her prospects if it goes ahead as planned next year? She has not been wasting this enforced break from tournaments.  If we look at her social media posts, they are full of gym work.  It looks like she is addressing questions about her endurance.  She is always a gritty competitor who knows how to win and so enhancing her stamina is going to be one of those incremental gains that could be significant in the heat of battle.

Testing leg strength during lockdown. Picture from Ratchanok Intanon/Banthongyord Badminton School Facebook.

Ratchanok Intanon is one of badminton’s most loved players. It’s not simply due to her attractive playing style. She works hard and takes nothing for granted; her gracious sporting attitude, bravery under pressure and obvious enjoyment of life means she is a great role model for aspiring athletes. I would simply be delighted if she was standing on the podium in Tokyo next year.


If you enjoyed this you may also like to read an earlier piece I wrote about Ratchanok https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/ or this article about another of my favourite players TAI Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/06/19/tai-tzu-ying-the-greatest/


©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

TAI Tzu Ying: The Greatest

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Sometimes a player is more than just a player because they inhabit a unique style that captures the essence of their sport. TAI Tzu Ying is one of these people. Like Serena Williams or Lionel Messi she has that star quality whenever she competes. She is a free spirit who brings a creative exhilaration to any match.

At the YAE20 Final. Screenshot from BWF TV

When the kid from Taiwan first bust onto the international scene it was her magnificent racket skills that drew fans to her. She has the gift of being able to control time – it slows and expands to contain her talent. It is still that sensational expressive style that makes people fall in love with her but over the past decade she has added extra layers to her game. Her mesmerizing skill continues to glitter however 2020 has seen her game continue to evolve.

Tournaments at the beginning of this year have shown her address the tension between artistry and scoring points. Regular analysts had identified a tendency to lose focus midway through a match often allowing a rival to regain a foothold in the set. At the core of TTY is the power to sparkle rather than to merely play but during her campaign at the All England this year we witnessed a new element in her game – the ability to wait. The vitue of patience is a sharp weapon in badminton. The beauty of this strategy is that, in the past, it has been used against her.

I think this willingness to include new facets in her play is the sign of a great player. Developing her mental stamina alongside her prodigious gym work adds extra options when she approaches a match. There was a tangible sense in Birmingham that the time for mistakes was past; errors were reduced. Of course she is still the Queen of Deception, her magical misdirection when she is in full flow is wonderful.

In 2019 TTY sent a chill through supporters hearts when she uttered the alarming word ‘retirement’. The demands of elite sport are incredibly restrictive. The physical and emotional cost of training, competing, and international travel does not leave much time for normal life. One more Olympics, one more season and then she would finish; she talked longingly of cycling holidays around Taiwan, and of perhaps opening a school. Her instagram posts often feature her hiking in the mountains or paddling a canoe; she is obviously a person who delights in the natural world around her

None of us could have foreseen the disruption to normal life this year. With the Olympics postponed the players who keep their motivation and stay in shape will gain an advantage. There is a national competition that has been organised for elite Taiwanese athletes in August to help them review progress and sharpen their focus after this gap. TAI Tzu Ying is due to play some male rivals in order to measure herself against a tough challenge: it was decided that the available women players would not push her enough. Her victory at the All England in March was a warning to her rivals and a reassurance to her fans; the dream of seeing TTY on the podium at the Olympics is still real. This feels like a date with destiny. What a time to love women’s badminton.

At the YAE20 Final. Screenshot from BWF TV.

If you enjoyed this then read my appreciation of TTY’s win at the All England this year https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/23/tai-tzu-ying-the-triple-champion/ or this one https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/16/tai-tzu-ying-the-queen/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Badminton Outliers

Sometimes players burst onto the badminton scene from nations with no obvious tradition in the sport. It’s a fascinating topic to examine, not least because it includes some of our favourites. It’s remarkable that the majority of these athletes are women who play singles. Here are people who have had to break down barriers at every point in their careers and it’s arguable that a resolute focus translates best to the singles game. The loneliness of the court, often with no support staff can be a difficult challenge. To be able to meet the challenge and succeed takes an exceptional person.

Carolina Marin. The current Olympic Champion hails from a country that has never enjoyed headline success in badminton yet she has won the World Championships 3 times and has been on the podium at just about every BWF tournament at some time in her career. Initially she loved flamenco, but after watching a friend play badminton she was hooked. The sport had such a low profile in Spain it’s said that her parents had not even heard of it when she asked for her own racket. It’s important to her story that her coach – Fernando Rivas – has also been a single-minded pioneer. He is a sports scientist who has studied badminton and conducted research in other European countries. He had been a player but not the country’s best. When he arrived at the national training centre in Spain (2005) he encountered signifiicant resistence to his new approach. The prevalent culture had been shaped by an influential coach who had left but there was a reluctance to embrace a different style. The rise of Marin could not have happened without Rivas and his development of a new way of training. Likewise Rivas needed a talent like Marin to prove that his methods worked. Clearly they do; the next step is to see if a badminton legacy is created and Spain becomes a European powerhouse of the sport.

Saina Nehwal. Today Saina is a worldwide superstar whose appeal reaches far beyond sport. It’s not true to say that badminton was unknown in India before she came along because Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand had been high profile men’s shuttlers – both winners of the All England amongst other titles. Nevertheless Saina elevated the game and contributed hugely to the normalisation of women’s participation in it in so many countries. Often in the early days, her career was characterised by the phrase ‘Saina versus China’ because the world scene was dominated by exceptional Chinese players. Her determination and stubborness got her to the point where she could compete with – and beat – the world’s best. She is an inspiration to millions of people who have taken up the sport because of her. A true trailblazer.

Michelle Li is the best Canadian to compete in World badminton. Although she was born in Hong Kong her playing career began after her family settled in Canada. She receives no financial support so has to fund her tournament participation. Despite this she is a top 15 WS, who has come back from serious knee surgery

“…I kind of do everything on my own. When I’m in Canada I don’t have any training because I don’t have anyone to train with…most of my training happens in tournaments…For sure, if I win a medal in Tokyo it will get better. Nobody in Canada expected me to do well. If I can generate better results for Canada, it will change the situation.

Michelle Li in Sportstar.

Kirsty Gilmour is Scotland’s stand-out player. Recently the Scottish women’s team qualified for the Uber Cup and will make their debut in the competition with Gilmour as a key component. Although Britain has a vibrant badminton community, athletes who make it into the world top 30 are not common and it’s a tribute to her dedication that she can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world. She set her sights on Olympic qualification and this has taken her on what can be a lonely road to get enough points. She often has to compete with no coach at her side but should qualify for Tokyo as a member of TeamGB.

It’s not true to claim that these players came out of nowhere. They are athletes who have emerged from a club environment with an extra spark that has driven them to new competitive heights. Most of them are self-funded with a tiny support network compared to Chinese or Indonesian players. There are plenty more that I could have looked at: Beiwen Zhang (USA) and Yvonne Li (Germany) are two obvious examples. They are typically women who have had to work hard and sacrifice things along the way to achieve a dream. I hope we see them all compete successfully at the Olympics and continue to inspire others to enjoy a wonderful sport.


If you enjoyed this take a look at my longer article about Saina https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/10/08/indias-saina-nehwal-trailblazer-legend/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Indonesia’s Olympic Hopes

Indonesia’s badminton achievements at the Olympics has been outstanding. Along with rivals from Korea and China their players are the aristocrats of the sport. Badminton is a recent addition to the games, it was only introduced in 1992 and since then, the nation’s athletes have won at least one Gold at every tournament bar London 2012.

Ahsan & Setiawan as All England Champions 2019. Screenshot from BWF TV.

Men’s Doubles: with three pairs in the top 10 the depth of Indonesia’s talent in this sector is extraordinary. Power, speed, net skills and resilience are all key, but the essence of a successful doubles team is balance between the two players. The magnificent World #1s Sukamuljo & Gideon have been at the top for a while. Kevin’s sublime ability paired with Marcus’s more muscular game is almost irresistable, but they are not invincible. Their millions of fans must be anticipating the olympics feeling a mixture of impatience and anxiety because if an opponent manages to disrupt their prefered formation they can be vulnerable (as we saw in the 2020 All England Final). Endo/Watanabe were able to win because their strategy stopped Kevin dominating at the front. Ahsan & Setiawan are ranked #2. Hendra Setiawan is one of the greatest MD players ever; already an Olympic Gold Medalist (2008 Beijing with Markis Kido), he has won everything and then won it it again. I get goosebumps when I think about the Daddies after watching them win on three legs to clinch the 2019 All England: they are inspirational figures who play with great heart. Commentators often point to their age – it’s not irrelevent of course but that it is a small disadvantage that is outweighed by their poise and experience. Lets not forget Alfian/Ardianto: ranked #6 but as things stand these two will miss Tokyo because of the quota. This must be heart-breaking for them but the only attitude they can take is to keep competing. They are hungry and their time will come. Prediction: I’m frightened of Endo/Watanabe but I’ll say Gold for one of these pairs.

Men’s Singles: Anthony Sinisuka Ginting is a sublime player, but he can be simultaneously exciting and infuriating. His inconsistency costs him titles. When he is at his spectacular best the speed of his reactions, his touch at the net, and his courage means that he is a genuine Gold medal prospect. I would love to see a MomoGi final; at the moment Momota has the edge in their encounters but Anthony is still a developing athlete and I’m excited to see how he’ll emerge from the current hiatus. Jonatan Christie should be getting to Tokyo ranked #7. Another fine player, if he can get through the round robin stage unscathed he could have a chance at a medal. Prediction: At least one medal…& I crave a final with Anthony v. Kento.

Women’s Doubles: Two of my favourite players – Polii & Rahayu – should go to Tokyo ranked #8. This will be Greysia Polii’s last Olympics (possibly her last major competition) and she is another inspirational athlete who has served her sport well. The women’s sector is stuffed full of brilliant double’s teams and so these two may struggle to make the podium. The key to success or failure will be how Apri is deployed. We know that they can defend all day but predictable play will not be enough. I loved the way they battled when they won at the Indonesia Masters back in January and at the time I felt that their game was evolving. Apri was much more aggressive at the front and they were able to exert prolonged pressure on their opponents. Prediction: Maybe a Bronze? I hope so.

Mixed Doubles: One of the legacies of Liliyana Natsir is the XD title from the Rio games. Can the Indonesia players defend this successfully? The Mixed tournament is quite open so although on paper the Chinese duos Zheng/Huang and Wang/Huang look to be favourites at lot will depend upon how Jordan/Oktavianti and Faizal/Widjaja progress through the early stages. This competition is all about seizing the moment and if Praveen Jordan can be at his imperious peak at the right time the Gold is possible although it’s too close to call.

Womens Singles: All fans of this sector know that it is overflowing with dazzling players so for Gregoria Mariska Tunjung to survive the cut and get into the knockout stage would be great. She is a wonderful player to watch, with impressive skill and imagination. For her to make headway at the tournament outside factors will need to be in her favour in addition to her playing to her potential. If she can build up some momentum and confidence anything can happen. Tokyo will perhaps be a stage on her journey to more success rather than a defining competition.

So what then can we expect in Tokyo? Owing to the worldwide C-19 crisis everyone has had to endure disruption to training programmes and anxiety and frustration. The athletes who will triumph at the delayed games are those who have been able to maintain focus and keep their competitive hunger without burn-out. It’s a tricky balancing act because no-one can stay at peak performance for ever. Most competitiors training regimes would have been carefully constucted to peak for July 2020; so now they need to keep the pot simmering without it boiling dry. On the other hand, a break from relentless touring and a chance to address chronic injuries could be a key factor. Those who can step back and make adjustments without losing their momentum will have a huge advantage.

As an outsider looking in I see badminton as the Olympic sport where Indonesia dominates – not simply because of talented players but the influence of Indonesian coaches can be seen all over the world in other national teams. Of course we cannot ignore China’s leading position or Japan’s current abundance of world-beaters but this is what makes the tournament in prospect so thrilling. We have had extra time to build our anticipation for this event, when we emerge from quarantine and the BWF tour resumes it will be wonderful to support our favourites back on the road towards Olympic Gold.


If you would like to read more about Greysia Polii and Apri Rahayu follow this link https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/ and my piece about Anthony Ginting is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/25/anthony-sinisuka-ginting/

If you are interested in the Minions here is an article I wrote last year https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

The Olympics & Paralympics: What Could India’s Shuttlers Achieve?

India’s badminton players have a good record at the Olympics recently but what can we hope for when the Tokyo tournament gets under way? This will be the first time that badminton appears at the Paralympics so the athletes from this sector will also be aiming for a place on the podium.

Before the postponement it’s true to say that many in the Indian Olympic team were drifting. Form has been affected by injuries and lack of focus; there’s also been disruption amongst the coaching staff with some contracts cut short. It could be that the delay to the games will benefit some players who have been struggling for form.

Saina Nehwal – London 2012 Bronze Medal: Saina’s Olympic dreams are on a knife-edge. The first hurdle for her is to qualify. She has been particularly badly affected by the confusion regarding the qualifying period. Before the C-19 crisis arose she was struggling with niggling injuries which affected her ranking place. Now she seems fitter and it’s clear that she would have been one of the athletes who made up ground at the end of the period. It’s an unfortunate sequence of events but this is a player will fierce mental strength. This break could be an opportunity for a review and analysis of training needs; if she works to a clear strategy once the tour resumes it is still possible she can be in Japan.

Pursala V Sindhu – Rio 2016 Silver Medal: Sindhu doesn’t need to worry whether or not she’ll be in Tokyo; the concern is around her form and the tactics she uses in matches. When she’s on form she is a formidable, daunting opponent but there are times when she crashes out of tournaments too early. Her best result in 2019 was the World Championship when she briskly overwhelmed Okuhara in the final. Coach Kim was at her side that day but has now left the Indian setup; Gopichand has recruited the legendary Agus Dwi Santoso to work with the elite players. With the hiatus in competition there is plenty of scope for introducing a new regime and helping the players progress towards Japan.

Lakshya Sen has been training under the guidance of the legendary Morten Frost and is starting to make an impact. Realistically these Olympics will still come around too soon on his badminton journey although it’s fair to say that many analysts and fans see him as a player with enormous potential.

Satwiksairaj Rankireddy & Chirag Shetty: Men’s Doubles is dominated by stellar Indonesian and Japanese pairs and so the task for these two – assuming they qualify – is to make sure their results in the round-robin part of the tournament are good enough so they can progress. If they can get to the knock-outs they will still have a stern task to get on the podium but given the quality of their rivals this would be a good achievement.

What About India’s Paralympic Hopes?

India has some of the best Parabadminton players in the world. The coaching setup always seems committed, well-organised and supportive of their players. I think there will be a good chance of more than one medal here, if things go well then possibly more than one Gold. It’s frustrating that some of the disciplines where the nation’s athletes excel are not included at these games, specifically Women’s Singles SL3 and Men’s Doubles SL/SU. There are also some people who will miss out, not because of lack of ability but because there is a set quota.

Pramod Bhagat – Arjuna Award Holder & World Champion: Bhagat is one of the superstars of parabadminton and should qualify as the #1 seed for SL3 Men’s Singles. Of all Indian athletes this man is the most consistent acheiver. Indian shuttlers dominate SL3. Manoj Sarkar, Umesh Vikram Kumar and Kumar Nitesh are top 10 players – as we know, it’s not possible for all of them to compete in Tokyo – nevertheless this strength in depth means that excellence is chased with focus and committment. It’s unfortunate that there is no Men’s Doubles competition, if there was then Bhagat with his partner Manoj Sarkar would stand every chance of being on the podium together.

Manasi Joshi – World Champion SL3: Like Sindhu she trains at the Gopichand Academy, also like Sindhu she won Gold in her category in Basle. It’s regrettable that unlike Sindhu she will not get the chance to compete in this category in Tokyo because it is not part of the tournament. It is a measure of her drive and personality that she has decided to try and qualify to play in the XD with Rakesh Pandey and she could compete in the WD too with Arati Patil. Parul Parmar is another SL3 athlete who is trying the doubles route to qualify.

In addition to these household names Tarun Tarun, Suhus Lalinakere Yathhiraj & Sukant Kadam in MS SL4 and Nagar Krishna in MS SH6 all have a good prospects.

Any Conclusions?

India’s badminton contingent can really turn this delay to their advantage, despite the frustrations and disruption to their training programmes, it could be that the extra time will help them. It’s still not certain what adjustments may be made to the qualifying criteria by the BWF but I think we can be sure that there will be some who will feel the unfairness of an unwieldy system. Never mind, the best thing to do is knuckle down, try and keep training, and be ready to come out fighting when the tour resumes. P V Sindhu is the most likely to get a medal; she’s a renowned ‘big tournament player’ and she should be expecting to do well. She could even upgrade her Silver from Rio.

The Parabadminton athletes have got this. They are amongst the best in the world; they can approach the Olympics with the highest hopes. None of these games are easy but they have proved over and over again that when big questions are asked, they know the answers.


If you enjoyed this take a look at my recent article about P V Sindhu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/31/pv-sindhu-golden-olympic-hopes/ or this one about Saina Nehwal https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/10/08/indias-saina-nehwal-trailblazer-legend/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved