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Japan’s Olympic Hopes

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

Who can maintain an edge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Badminton World Championships Basel 2019: WS Preview

The Badminton World Championships start on August 19th so I’m taking a look at some of the main contenders for Women’s Singles gold.

Pic from Twitter

This discipline is full of talent – and unlike the men’s singles it’s not dominated by one person – so it will be an intriguing contest right from the beginning. All tournaments offer a rising intensity as players progress through the rounds: physical endurance can be sapped as well as the emotional drain of competition. The parity of ability amongst the top seeds means that being able to deal with tournament pressure will have a huge part to play. Who will relish the fight?

“…every player has a chance of being crowned champion.” Ratchanok

Nozomi Okuhara: Contender

From BWF TV

Nozomi’s been in the waiting room this year – she hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success as Akane and yet she is a fabulous player. Her tactics often mean she gets stuck in a war of attrition so I’d like to see a bit less patience and more drive to finish off a rally. I think her edge is blunted by predictability so it would be great to see her surprise her opponent (& us!) a bit more often. Prediction: Final.

Tai Tzu Ying: The Queen

Shutterstock

Tai Tzu Ying has never won the World Championships and goes into this competition as #2 seed. Because of her hints about retirement and her lack of big tournament form recently, fans have focused on this title with the sense that time is running out. I cannot pretend to be neutral about Tai Tzu Ying – the way she plays is brilliant and gives me so much pleasure – so I wish I felt more confident about this tournament. Her possible path to the final is tough and includes Sindhu who would relish a big battle. Prediction Semi Final.

Akane: World #1

From BWF TV

Akane’s triumph at the Indonesian Open quickly followed by success in the Japan Open – her home tournament – means that she enters the World Championships as #1. Since disappointment in the Sudirman Cup her game has become more aggressive with a willingness to push her rivals around. She can’t just win everything from now on though, can she? Prediction Semi Final.

Chen Yufei

Feifei is a very clever player with the might of the Chinese coaches behind her. I think she is good at rebalancing her game to beat whoever she faces. Often she traps ‘flair’ players into thinking they will conquer her by playing their natural game. She waits it out and then finishes them off; her natural strength means she can get through three draining games. It’s been said that her weakness is her inability to cope with her nerves but this seems to be eratic. Prediction: Final

P V Sindhu: fighter

(Xinhua/Zheng Huansong)

Sindhu is renowned as a big match player and this skill is a huge advantage in the top tournaments. By her own standards 2019 has been quite quiet but July saw her spring into life. It was great to see a refreshed player getting her game back. I love her style when she unleashes her inner badminton beast and dominates the court with her aggressive smashes and drives. I think that’s going to be the secret of success for her; when she’s confident and plays like that she can become unstoppable. She is seeded 5 and her path to success looks very tough: Zhang Beiwen in R16 and possibly TTY in the quarters. Prediction: QF owing to hard draw.

Saina Nehwal

2019 has seen Saina endure various injuries and this has obviously disrupted her training programme. Her half of the draw is no picnic & includes players like Chen Yufei and P V Sindhu. She always has the desire to win and heaps of experience but realistically I can’t see her progressing beyond QF. That’s not necessarily a bad performance in the context of her year so far. I see this competition as her opportunity to continue to work on her match fitness and focus on her aim to get to Tokyo 2020. Prediction QF

Ratchanok Intanon

“… women’s singles is so competitive that on any given day whoever can control herself and play her style of game will be the champion.” Ratchanok

May lost out in the Thailand Open Final to Chen Yufei but she played very well in that match. CYF won because she played with patience and endurance – often in rallies she was content to simply keep sending the shuttle back. Towards the end May did slightly alter her approach but by that point it was too late. It’s been noticeable that since then she has been posting plenty of evidence on IG of her hard work in the gym so perhaps this means she’s preparing her body for longer games with less reliance upon a dazzling winner and more focus on turning the screw. Prediction Semi Final

Any Surprises?

Funny things can happen in knock-out tournaments; sometimes athletes really fly through their games and suddenly find themselves in a quarter final. The Indonesian players -Fitriani & Tunjung – are both talented but frustratingly inconsistent. Their homeland can have high hopes of medals from others but it would be a welcome shock if honours came from WS.

Michelle Li from Canada can push anyone on her day and often gets good results but realistically I don’t think she would trouble Chen Yufei (assuming she gets past Saina).

Chochuwong had a great run in the Thailand Open but again her draw is tricky. Lastly He Be Jiao is seeded 6 so has to be taken seriously as a possible semi-finalist.

So, in conclusion…

That gold medal, that title, the culmination of years of work, is realistically within the reach of about eight of the players. It’s going to take an immense effort – physically and emotionally – to clinch the prize. I also think it requires someone to play with inspiration and joy; there is more to winning this than mere sweat and toil.

© 2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi: Hotter Than July

Wow! Akane – what a July!

As we enter the second half of 2019 Akane Yamaguchi is at the top of the world rankings. First she won the Indonesian Open – arguably the best tournament in the world – and then followed it up a week later by triumphing in her home tournament: The Japan Open.

Akane has always been a formidable player with plenty of successes along the way but suddenly her achievements have become supercharged and she is unstoppable. Women’s Singles is an incredibly competitive discipline at the moment so what is it that is giving her the edge over her rivals?

Bizarrely I think it was failure that has spurred her on. Looking back to the Sudirman Cup, the crucial tie in the final was the Women’s Singles: Akane Yamaguchi against Chen YuFei. It was a three game battle with neither player consistently dominant. The Chinese crowd was very noisy; it was an intense and passionate atmosphere with huge emotional pressure exerted on both athletes. It’s been noted that at one point in the game Morten Frost described Akane’s play as erratic. That’s quite a brutal assessment, but the point is that in the end she lost.

Both players finished flat out on the floor but CHEN Yufei was the victor.
Video courtesy BWF

We all know it’s a team competition but losing that three game match was pivotal to Japan’s eventual loss in the final. The Japanese team oozed togetherness and exuberance as they supported each other through the tournament so it must have been utterly devastating for them all not to get gold.

Up until recently Akane has always been known as a retriever, which often means that she is a defender. This is a very simplistic reduction of an elite athletes game; it’s quite a reactive style but she is great at covering the court and very quick to regain her base position.

However, things have changed since the Sudirman Cup…everyone had some time off before they got back to training. Time to recover physically and mentally but also an opportunity to take stock. Then came July and one of the principal events in the badminton calendar: The Indonesian Open.

It was a fresh Akane with an evolved style. Suddenly she was applying her explosive power to a more attacking game and the final against P V Sindhu showcased how effective this new aggression was.

Sindhu found her game being squeezed. Yamaguchi, above all, was being ferocious in her follow-ups. There were some ruthless flat drives, and midcourt smashes. There was more pressure applied in rallies. She began each game like a tornado and barely relaxed her focus. No longer content to react, Akane was taking the game and demanding to win.

Akane wins the Indonesia Open – Video by kind permission BWF

It was a great victory. Sindhu played well but just couldn’t equal Akane’s fierceness; without warning Yamaguchi had stepped up her game.

So we come to the Japanese Open – her home tournament. Her progression to the final took in triumphs against Sindhu and Chen Yufei to set up a meeting with her compatriot Nozomi Okuhara. The scoreline of 21-13, 21-15 lets you know it was an emphatic victory. Again, this was the evolved style. Yamaguchi went toe-to-toe with Okuhara and it was her intensity allied to some awesome accuracy that meant she was able to withstand Okuhara’s propensity for lengthy rallies.

“I was worried I wouldn’t be able to win the long rallies, but I was patient, and whenever there was a chance to make a decisive shot, I was able to make the sharp shots,” said Yamaguchi.

I think it’s a good measure of Akane as a woman and an elite player that she took the worst kind of defeat and used it as fuel for progress:

“I wish I could’ve played this well in the Sudirman Cup final. The loss in the final made me learn and helped me improve.”

The road to Tokyo 2020 has a lot of twists and turns yet but momentum and big match experience counts for a lot. I want to end this piece by urging you to watch the film clip below – the happiness on Akane’s face is so infectious it is an utter joy to see.

Akane and VERY BIG SMILES. This tweet was from the Akane Yamaguchi Fanbase (@AYamaguchiFans).

If you enjoyed this follow the link to my piece about Nozomi Okuhara https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ and also this one about Tai Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved