Apriyani Rahayu propelled GreyAp into the final of the Yonex Thailand Open with a sparky display backed up by her stalwart partner Greysia Polii.
This match had all the makings of a doubles war of attrition but a complicating factor was the effect of drift in the Impact Arena and ultimately this was exploited more intelligently by the Indonesian pair. Set 1 was taken by LEE/SHIN 21-15; they started smartly and executed some brilliant net interceptions. Polii pulled back (a little) into uber defence.
The second set started better. Apri was quick and powerful: her aggression plus the slight advantage of the drift began to tell in the scoreline. The commentator Podcast Tepak Bulu likened her performance to that of Keigo Sonoda and I think that’s a very clever observation. Her energy and bravery were exceptional throughout. It was a must-win set and they nailed it 21-15. Game On!
Apri’s combatitiveness and Greysia’s composure really paid off. They went into the interval just ahead at 11-9: there had been one sequence in the early exchanges when the commentary team spotted that Polii had played 12 drops in a row, all beautifully accomplished, all diffusing the pressure that the Korean team were trying to exert. The grit and determination of the Indonesian duo broke the Korean’s resolve. The score continued to tick up in favour of GreyAp; both LEE and SHIN had shoelace fiddling episodes in an attempt to disrupt the momentum of their rivals. They tried to prolong the rallies as well but mistakes began to creep into their play.
Match point was brought up by sharp work at the net by Greysia. In an ironic twist – given Polii’s iffy serve all through the game – Apri planted a low accurate serve over the net. It was left by the Koreans but proved in by Hawkeye. Victory. Well done both, ice packs on and lots of luck for a good game in the final.
First, a confession – I didn’t watch the match today between Saina and Selvaduray Kisona. However, I want to award my ‘Player of the Day’ accolade to the Indian player because the last 24 hours must really have tested her resolve to get out on court and compete, let alone win.
The shocking news yesterday that two Indian players had tested positive for Covid made headlines worldwide. Her millions of fans were dismayed at the news that one of them was Saina and that her opponent had been awarded a walkover.
What a difference 24 hours has made. Gossip started leaking out that she had been retested and was now confirmed ‘negative’. Would she be allowed to reenter the competition? Was she OK?
She is a player who has a steely core; we’ve seen this throughout her career. Late yesterday when we got the news that she’d been reinstated it was also revealed that she had been stuck at the hospital for 10 hours. Today, in the last game of the session, having been shifted onto Ct 3 at short notice she won in two sets 21-15, 21-15.
I can’t report that her fitness is back to its best, or that niggling injuries are healed. But I’m thrilled to tell you that there can be no questions about the mental resilience and grit of this athlete. Congratulations Saina!
Honourable mentions today go to Daren LIEW who shocked Anders Antonsen by dumping him out of the tournament in two sets and Ratchanok Intanon who looked sharp and fit in her victory over YEO.
FajRi were asked some tough questions by the Thai pair Phuangphuapet & Viriyangkura this morning and were on the brink of crashing out of the competition in Round 1.
It was Alfian who clawed them out of a hole when it was starting to look like they might suffer a shock exit. Typically they are a dazzling attacking duo but the slow hall conditions blunted their pacey style and the Thais were resolute in their challenge. Ardianto had a so-so game: his range was a bit off which meant some of his shots did not land. Fajar stepped up and dragged his partner to the finish line with brilliant attacking variations and a positive attitude. At the crunch, match point down Ardianto held his nerve to execute a superb cross-court shot that set up Fajar‘s net kill. He followed this up with 3 flick serves in a row to settle the final game 22-20.
“It was a tough match because our opponents played well. We haven’t faced them before, this is a new combination. We have played Nipitphon but we’ve not played Tanupat, and he played very well today, so we took time to get used to the style”
Muhammad Rian Ardianto quote courtesy BWF Press Office
An honourable mention also goes to Dane Mia Blichfeldt who – in the shock of the day – dispatched P V Sindhu over 3 sets and also Ashwini Ponnappa whose leadership in her XD pairing with Rankireddy took the duo to a deserved victory over the sixth seeds Faizal/Widjaja.
Doubles highlights everything that’s brilliant about badminton. The tempo, teamwork and tactics all combine to create an electrifying show.
The Yonex Thailand Open will be our first opportunity to watch most of these pairs since March. The impact of local Covid protocols will have caused training disruption and periods when it was impossible for partners to practice together. Some athletes will have spent the last 10 months enriching their skills whilst others will have stagnated. Now there is a fresh start for everyone and I’m impatient to see who has used this time wisely.
We have been used to the domination of the Japanese & Chinese pairs in this discipline recently so their absence is an opportunity for the other seeds – predominantly Korean and Indonesian competitors – to make a mark. Three Korean pairs are seeded: Kim/Kong (4), Lee/Shin (3) plus Chang/Kim (6) . Kim/Kong will bring a bit more to the party in terms of aggression and imaginative badminton. I wonder if the success of the Korean competitors will be determined by the performance of Apriyani Rahayu. If she can dominate the play and build off the rock-solid foundation that Greysia Polii always provides then Greyap could get to the final. The other twosome to catch the eye are the Danes: Sara Thygesen and Maiken Fruergaard. They could go far if they clear the early rounds and get into their competitive rhythm; they were outstanding at this years Indonesia Masters.
This promises to be an exhilarating event. The #1 seeds and home favourites Puavaranukroh and Taerattanachai (that is, Bass/Popor) have a fabulous opportunity for a podium finish. Blistering speed, great technique, accuracy and aggressive style mean that they are a handful for any rival, but they are still ‘work in progress’. They were beaten in this years final of the All England over three sets by #2 seeds, Praveen Jordan and Melati DaevaOktavianti and the prospect of a return match is a tantalising thought. When Jordan is focused and fit his ferocious smashes and cunning play form the bedrock of a formidable team; Melati’s pace and anticipation make them hard to dominate. So who could get in the way of these two pairs? Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith are England’s best chance of a podium spot in the whole tournament. Ellis knows how to win tough games; his mental and physical resilience are superb and Smith is just getting better and better. They lost to PraMel in the All England semi final this year and would relish the chance of revenge.
Kevin’s positive test and subsequent quarantine at home in Indonesia was a disappointment, likewise the no-show Japanese and Chinese pairs. Nevertheless, because standards are so high in this sector it is not a catastrophe for the quality of the tournament.
The brilliance and depth of talent in Indonesian badminton means that there are still 2 seeded pairs with every chance of making the final on Saturday an all-Indonesia affair. The legendary Daddies – Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan – are superb competitors with impecable standards. Setiawan’s technical ability combined with his proactive, intelligent play means that they have the resources to claw their way to victory even when they are under the most severe pressure. Their apparently nonchalent attitude on court disguises an unshakeable winning mentality. I’m a little nervous of the Indian duo Rankireddy/Shetty who they will probably play in R2. They are young, energetic and improving all the time so this is potentially a game where the Dads need to be ready to douse any fireworks that are thrown their way. Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto who are the second Indonesian seeded pair (#5) must be eyeing the podium. The English pair Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge are unseeded but could be battling them for a place in the Semi-final.
The top half of the draw opened up with the withdrawal of the Minions. The Malaysian 8th seeds Aaron Chia and Wooi Yik Soh have emphasized in recent interviews how hard they have been training during the long lay off and that they have focused on strengthening their defensive game. This could be their chance to step up and win a major tournament. The dangermen in their way will be the Russians Ivanov/Sozonov.
After such a long break these competitions will be won by the duos with the most ambition – the trophies are there for the taking. The athletes who have been able to adapt to the covid protocols in Bangkok fast without letting it disrupt focus will enjoy a huge advantage. Thailand is the heart of badminton for January with three tournaments in a row within a safety bubble: finally, after some very hard months we can say ‘Badminton is BACK!’
In a crazy year we fans have sustained ourselves on archive footage, home tournaments and hope. We enjoyed the one-off Denmark Open in October but badminton reactivates in Thailand on the 12th January. Everything was looking peachy until the news broke on January 3rd that Momota had tested positive at the airport as he was departing for Bangkok. As a precautionary measure the whole of the Japanese team have stayed home. China had already withdrawn so the competition continues without them.
Let’s see who has kept their training discipline over this enforced break. Who has learnt new strategies and skills, overcome niggling injuries and rediscovered their hunger to win? We had a glimpse of some players at the Denmark Open and again at the SaarLorLux but Bangkok is going to offer a bigger selection of athletes and some tough competition to anyone who thinks they can mix it with the best!
Which athlete has the stamina mental and physical to advance to the red zone of a third set and ask their rival some serious questions? Anders Antonsen probably thinks he can – he gave a great performance at the DO but he couldn’t walk unaided from the court at the end. What do we read into that? Well, here is a player who will plunge beyond the RED…he’s still growing as a competitor but at the death his muscle memory saw him through to seize the Denmark Open trophy. Seeded 3, he is in the bottom half of the draw and may well meet CHOU Tien Chen on the Saturday in a repeat of the All-England semi-final.
CHOU Tien Chen is seeded 2 and competed in Denmark even though Taiwan didn’t officially send players. He is slated to meet LEE Zii Jia at the quarter final stage and this could be a very tough test. LZJ is such an exciting player to watch and he was unlucky to miss out on the final at the Yonex All England back in March. His speed and power are exhilarating for spectators and hard to contain for rivals so CTC has got to be on guard right from set one or the match will run away from him. Antonsen awaits.
Anthony Ginting – seeded 5 – is always a player who excites me. I hope that during lockdown he has had the opportunity to refresh his strategies. He has to stop thinking he can beat Momota or other top players in 2 sets. As Susie Susanti observed, he needs a plan B or C when plan A fails. If he has added more strategies to his repertoire then the sky’s the limit: it could open a new chapter in his career. In R2 he should probably meet the rising star in Thai men’s singles, Kunlavut Vitidsarn. The three times World Junior Championcould block his advance; it’s a potential banana skin that Ginting must approach intelligently in order to win without expending his energy reserves. The Danish challenge is formidable in this sector. Rasmus Gemke is one of those players who has been a bit under the radar but hard work, grit, and good tactics mean that a possible match with Ginting in the quarter finals is going to reveal how far both men have really progressed over the past nine months. Gemke was a valiant loser in the final of the Denmark Open and remember he blocked Anthony’s progress at the 2020 All England. The current All England champion – Viktor Axelsen – didn’t compete in October because he was addressing an injury niggle so it may be quite tough for him to be at full throttle straightaway. He is seeded to meet Indonesian favourite Jonatan Christie in his quarter final: a great match in prospect for neutrals but too tough to call for this preview. Christie can sometimes be infuriatingly inconsistent but this could be a fabulous opportunity for him to set up a semi-final against his compatriot Ginting. HK Vittinghus will also be part of the competition following the withdrawal of Laksyha Sen who has injured his back. Vittinghus scored some great victories in his home tournament back in October and his confidence must have been boosted by this. Sometimes I feel he overthinks, sometimes he runs out of gas but always a hard player to beat.
TAI Tzu Ying is top seed but as Women’s Singles overflows with talent – even without the Chinese and Japanese competitors – she will definitely not have a smooth ride to the final. Her recent Instagram posts seem to reveal a player with mixed feelings about travel away from Taiwan. Of course, social media is hardly the portal to authentic insight so I think we just need to wait for things to unfold in Thailand before making any judgement. I’m intrigued how she will approach the challenges thrown at her in the Impact Arena. The world #1 last competed internationally when she won the YAE and that campaign illustrated a new capacity for patience. We know she has continued to train diligently all through the pandemic so the onus is on her rivals to upset her rhythm and conquer her.
The top half of the draw means that it’s expected TTY will clash with Michelle LI in her quarter final. If LI is 100% fit that could be a very hard match. The winner of which plausibly faces Sindhu in a semi-final.
I wonder how winter training in England has suited P V Sindhu? She has looked so happy and I would speculate that a reasonably quiet life consisting of practice and a small social circle has given her an opportunity to reset. The current World Champion is known as a ‘big match’ player and has all the tools to go a long way in this tournament. Can she win this title? Emphatically ‘yes’ so long as the self-assured, rampaging intense player we saw in the World Championship final is the one who turns up. Her technique and aggression will take her to the podium so long as she keeps her focus.
Can Saina Nehwal face down Sindhu if it becomesan all-India quarter final? Saina is such an intelligent player: mental resilience and the will to win come as standard but I think her stamina may be suspect if it goes to 3 sets. Before that she will have to overcome the Thai player Busanan Ongbamrungphan. She is unseeded but skillful and has what it takes to progress further.
Thai women’s badminton has plenty of brilliant players and at the forefront of course is wonderful Ratchanok Intanon. Seeded 4 she has got a brutal draw to negotiate beginning with YEO Jia Min in R1, Yvonne LI in R2 then moving onto a big QF clash with AN Se Young. The Korean is a frightening talent so I’m curious to see how she has matured over the past months. If she has increased her stamina as we’d expect, then Ratchanok has a fight to get to a SF that in all likelihood will be versus Marin. Carolina Marin has endured a tough year. The Prime documentary about her revealed what a truly extraordinary player and person she is. In my view, her participation at the SaarLorLux – not a tournament that we would necessarily expect someone of her high ranking to attend – illustrates her commitment to the sport she loves and the fact that she needs to play both for emotional and physical reasons. I’ve heard that she has had a slight hamstring worry but I don’t think it’s any cause for concern. There was something missing from her game in October though. Her usual dominance and competitive momentum were off the boil and it reminded me of the sequence in the Vietnam Open that’s shown in the Prime documentary. Her strategy and trust in the process set out by Rivas were slightly off. The clip where she sits on the floor, utterly devastated that the game hasn’t gone her way, is very illuminating.
It’s a new beginning and the year is going to be choc-a-bloc with quality tournaments alongside the Tokyo Olympics. Some old friends are haven’t made it this month and we’re going to miss them. I would have loved to see the new look HE Bing Jiao, Nozomi has been on a great streak of form and Akane lights up any match. We’ll have to be patient for Momota’s return to court and postpone our desire for MomoGi. Even despite this I know for sure we’ll enjoy the games ahead – finally, finally Badminton is BACK!
The King completed his hat-trick of titles in the final but it was not an easy win.
Momota’s re-emergence began with the Yonex Mix & Match in November but the serious business of sustained competition day after day commenced at the All Japan. This high quality domestic tournament has been dominated by him since 2018. Against Kanta Tsuneyama in the final the left-hander was asked some tough questions and he lost the first set 18-21. He levelled the second then found himself in the last at 16-16. How many times have we watched a match unfold where Momota has to come from behind? We begin to fear that he will not pull it back, but his grit and determination kick in and he finds something extra. So it was in this competition and the closing three points in the set were aggressive and focused: net kill, cross-court smash and cross-court smash. 21-17. Were we shocked that he came from behind to seize the title? Emphatically NO!
Match sharpness is impossible to train for so although Park Joo Bong has said that he is back to his ‘normal’ level, as an athlete Momota must stretch his legs under pressure to get back to his usual exceptional standards. The All Japan has been a useful test but I really want to see him up against the world’s best day after day. Our first opportunity to see how he really is will be the Yonex Thailand Open. In an interview with the Olympic Channel he said
“I’m really looking forward to playing against the best international players…I’m nervous but I’m really looking forward to it”
He enjoyed a glittering 2019. His invincible progress to the podium in nearly every tournament was recognised officially by Guinness World Records. Eleven titles in one season is the most recorded by a men’s singles player ever. Disaster struck just as his progress to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in front of his home crowd seemed certain.
The early morning Malaysian traffic accident in January wrecked Momota’s 2020 long before any of us had even heard of Covid19. Following hospital treatment and a return to Japan to recuperate he resumed training but then started to experience dizziness and double vision. He – and his fans – feared his career was over. Doctors identified a fracture of the eye socket and operated successfully. Whilst Momota experienced his personal crisis the world descended into pandemic: we tried to stay home as badminton was cancelled and the Olympics postponed.
In recent years his game’s foundation has been great technique, resilience and stamina. His ability to ‘just’ return the shuttle is hard won – it looks simple but that’s because he has worked and worked to get his skills to this level. His resistance to his rivals on court often exposes their strategies as one-dimensional. Game plans that rely on 400kph smashes, or going out early and hard in an attempt to burn him off are doomed to failure.
It’s curious that he reportedly commented in June that he wanted to brush up his attacking skills. Sports psychologists often identify blunders and set-backs as drivers for success and it could be argued that he has become risk-averse. If we look at his early games there were more offensive shots. This is going to be a very tricky balance for him to get right. Intriguingly he said in his post match interview from the All Japan “…I was too cautious”. All elite players need evolution of style and tactics to keep fresh and to prevent challengers from finding weak spots in their game. Momota will analyse this performance with his coaches to look for areas to improve and so preserve his dominance.
January 2021 will see international badminton reactivate in Thailand after months of hibernation. The real scrutiny of Momota and how he has fared since Malaysia will commence then. I believe that this is a player who is still driven by an inner desire for supremacy in his sport and he craves success. Without doubt his rivals will have spent the last months dissecting his tactics and constructing strategies to counter his supremacy. There are some mouth-watering clashes ahead – bring it on!
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.
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.
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.
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 2018Final 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!
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.