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/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Yonex All England 2020 pt 2

Doubles: The Bonfire of My Anxieties

Doubles is intense, it is the supreme embodiment of badminton. Fierce battles rage across the court; pace, power and guile form the contours of the match. The finest tournament in the world has an extra pressure this time around because it is Olympic year: many still strive to win enough ranking points to compete in Tokyo. This is great news for fans who love drama and stress but if you need a quiet life…look away now!

“Two people until the end, do not regret” Matsutomo

Indonesia

The magnificent MD athletes from Indonesia simply shine on every stage. Intensity, resilience and desire add up to some wonderful players.

The 2019 title holders – Mohammad Ahsan & Hendra Setiawan – famously won on 3 legs last year after an all-consuming final. I love them. They are outstanding players and incredible ambassadors for the sport. They have every chance of playing in the final so long as they carefully manage their old legs.

Gideon & Sukamuljo are top seeds and have a heavy weight of expectation loaded on their shoulders. At their best, with Marcus as reliable foundation and Kevin riffing around him they are simply unbeatable. Gorgeous shots, dazzling reactions and relentless athleticism raise the sport to heights few others can aspire to.

Fajar Alfian & Muhammad Rian Ardianto are seeded 5 and got to the Semi Final last year. Their high energy explosive game puts them firmly in the ‘fast ‘n’ furious’ camp; they should still be in the competiton by finals weekend.

If we consider WD then Greysia Polii & Apri Rahayu have had a great start to 2020 and if they play in the same way that took them to victory at the Indonesia Masters they will get to the semi-finals. I think they are more successful when Apri is decisive at the forecourt. I’ve mentioned before that their game and competitive strategy is evolving. Her power and confidence means they can really dominate rallies – they shouldn’t resort to defensive clears as a default tactic. I think they were fortunate to win the Spanish Masters because there were times when their gameplan slipped back to the 2019 version of themselves. The other Indonesian pair, Ramadhanti & Sugiarto, are in the same part of the draw as Greyap.

Japan

Park Joo-Bong – the legendary head coach – has overseen Japanese players challenge the traditional Chinese dominance in all sectors. This often means that their biggest rivals are each other.

As far as WD is concerned we are in the heart-rending position of knowing that only 2 out of the 3 top pairs from Japan are going to qualify to play in their home Olympics. The quest for points overshadows tournaments and I think the risk is that the four players who make the cut will be mentally exhausted by the time July arrives. That said, a win at the All England could virtually cement some players positions. Matsumoto & Nagahara are seeded 2 and were runners-up in 2019. Fukushima & Hirota are third seeds and are desperate to progress. And so we come to Matsutomo & Takahashi who are seeded 7 in Birmingham. Can the defending Olympic Champions get a podium finish? They need to focus every atom of experience and desire because they have a hard road to the final which includes a possible CHEN/JIA QF followed by compatriots who need success too. This is another pair who need to look after old legs.

The two main MD pairs Sonoda/Kamura and Endo/Watanabe are consistently excellent players who have to compete in a sector stuffed with Indonesian brilliance. I particularly like the fast and furious style of Sonoda/Kamura but that’s not enough to beat Marcus and Kevin. It’s possible either pair could get to a SF and then anything could happen, particularly if they can be more unpredictable with the pace they attack at.

China

Some say that China is not the dominant force it’s been in the past yet Chinese athletes are defending 3 titles at the All England this year. The strength is in the women’s sector; for now, the men are being eclipsed by the depth of other nation’s squads.

#1 Seeds and WD defending Champions CHEN Qingchen & JIA Yifan are aggressive, tough players. They are great at ratcheting up the pressure on their opponents: they can zero in on a victim with pitiless ferocity by using hard flat drives and fast smashes. Who can stop them winning? DU Yue & LI YinHui are seeded 6th but it’s hard to see them getting as far as the weekend.

There’s only one seeded pair in the MD: LI Junhui & LIU Yuchen – China used to be such a powerhouse but now the talented players in Indonesia and Japan dominate the rankings. Li & Liu are clever athletes; they can play a power game but they are also capable of varying the tempo and this can cause frustration for players like Sukamuljo. It can be a very smart tactic to break up the flow of the game against the Minions. It’s been pointed out that if Li/Liu run out of ideas they resort to a monotonous smashing game; that isn’t going to work in the big arena. Realistically I think they are going to struggle to get beyond QF.

Korea?

Korea’s WD players are experiencing a similar headache to their Japanese counterparts. As things stand there are still 4 pairs who could qualify for Tokyo. In Birmingham Lee So-Hee/Shin Seung-chang and Kim So-yeong/Kong Hee-yong are seeded 5 and 6 and look to be most likely to challenge. The drama over the past few weeks has been around the MD/XD player Seo Seung-jae who was suspended then not suspended by his national association (BKA) following confusion around sponsorship deals he had signed. It seemed disproportionate to punish his partners and destroy their hopes for this year so I’m glad he’s back in the mix.

Realistically I think we can only say that the WD teams have an outside chance of medals owing to the strength of the opposition. However, it’s interesting to observe that Korean badminton coaches enjoy plenty of success working away from home. I’ve already mentioned Park Joo-Bong and Japan, there is also Kang Kyung-jin who works with the Chinese squad plus Coach Kim who worked in India with PV Sindhu in the period she became World Champion.

Conclusions

China, Japan and Indonesia look set to see off opposition from the other nations for the doubles crowns. I adore following doubles; the tactics, tempo and talent mean that for fans the spectacle is second-to-none. The spine-tingling experience of watching the spotlit pairs as they play for glory at the All England is a joy. Ahsan & Setiawan had a fantastic 2019 and it would be wonderful to see them defend their title. As the tournament progresses, the tension will rise, legs will tire and towards the end it’s mental strength and an athletes appetite for the fight that gets them to the podium. May the best team win!


My preview of the WS part of the tournament is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/03/yonex-all-england-2020-pt1/

If you enjoyed this then take a look at my article about Polii and Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/ and this one about Kevin & Marcus https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/

©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Japan’s Fukuhiro: Can They Win Tokyo Gold?

The Champions of Fuzhou and new world number 1s are enjoying a great run of form.

It’s Olympic qualification year and the focus of elite badminton players everywhere is turning to Tokyo. Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota are one of the best women’s doubles pairs in the world, have recently reclaimed their #1 ranking, and are expected to be on the podium at the end of the competition.

At the Yonex All England Final 2018. Credit: Tang Shi/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

“Our strength is about being patient…”

Fukuhiro is an alliance built on the classic doubles foundation of a rock solid defence. They will resist any bombardment and they are so skilful at rotating position that they can diffuse the pressure between themselves. Women’s Doubles is characterised by long rallies; tension builds shot on shot, so to win they have to be able to draw on their mental strength and self belief. Take a look at the highlights from the final of the Indonesian Open (below). The speed of their reactions, commitment to each other and toughness see them triumph, and defend their title.

Video by kind permission of BWF

The essence of a great Doubles pair is two people playing with a perfect understanding of each other. It becomes something magical (think Daddies) when the players can sense what their partner is about to do. Exceptional movement is critical; this and effective anticipation is from hours and hours spent together on the practise court along with a sacrifice of the self for something grander. The video clip below from American Vape shows them training – the obvious thing to point out is that they play 2 against 3. This means they improve their endurance, their shot accuracy and their ability to handle unpredictable replies.

Training video from American Vape.

It’s clear they like each other in real life, their giggling in interviews, teasing each other and general demeanour shows athletes in tune with their partner. Showing their human side to their fans – their emotional generosity – means they are two of the most loved players in the world.

Film from Badminton Denmark.

However there is a paradox at the core of this partnership and I think it may account for the three silver medals at the Badminton World Championships. These two do not seem to have any weaknesses; they are exceptional all-rounders. So when the chips are down what do they emphasize? To be so balanced is a blessing and a curse.

Embed from Getty Images

It’s not accurate to simply define them as defensive players. They are comfortable with counter-attack. Fukushima puts a lot of work in at the rear court especially, but her strategy is not only based on clears: she has a very good disguised drop shot in her armoury. Hirota will be aggressive at the net and can snaffle points with her lightening reactions. When they are up against rivals like CHEN/JIA (who tend to be powerful and aggressive) they can endure the storm. Basing a strategy around smashing is high risk against Fukuhiro because it uses up a lot of energy. Eventually their rivals lose their bite and they are dispatched. Its a bit like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope trick in the Rumble in the Jungle.

“It’s all about qualifying for the Olympics for us…we haven’t been and we desperately want to go”

Fukuhiro are a great duo who are real contenders for gold at every competition they enter. Japanese players dominate the world rankings for WD but only two pairs can compete at the Tokyo Olympics. I would be astonished and devastated if they missed out. This is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cement their place in history with Olympic gold.

Embed from Getty Images

Here is a link to my look at Nozomi Okuhara https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/

You may also enjoy this piece about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

Or this one about the World #1 Kento Momota https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/27/kento-momota/

©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved