Yuki’s LINE message to Sayaka (Trans by Sebastien @sebad110)
Is it ok to write about FukuHiro? No Japanese Women’s Doubles medal in Tokyo would have been unimaginable six months ago but the top seeds were knocked out at the QF stage. This does not even scratch the surface of Yuki and Sayaka’s Olympics.
The badminton world was staggered when Sayaka arrived on court and revealed a heavy knee brace on her right leg. Despite the catastrophe that had befallen her the Gold medal favourites had decided to come and fight.
Sooner or later, we have to accept that for all the time spent on analysis of games and players a match will always end in victory or defeat. Nevertheless, at the Olympics the reaction of these two athletes to a serious injury subverted this into an honourable display that showed the strength of their partnership and their love of badminton played together.
The first match facing Birch/Smith was a chance to see if they could win on three and a half legs. Unbelievably they battled through in two sets. Fukushima carried a big burden: she ran for two whilst Hirota tried to avoid the back line. Their tactics succeeded: 21-13 & 21-14. There had to be a focus on keeping playing time to a minimum and the stats show that the longest rally was 54 strokes with the average length at 11. In the next game against CHOW/LEE the Malaysians seemed prepped to exploit her restricted movement and got the first set but nerves took over and the self-confidence of the Japanese saw them win the following two sets. This time the longest rally was 76 strokes with an average length of 13 per rally.
After the first game Hirota had described herself as at 70-80% and admitted that she had been injured during training on June 18th. She later said:
“It’s like it became pitch-black. I thought it was impossible to go to the Olympics anymore. I felt very sorry for Fukushima-senpai”
Interview in NHK translated by Sebastien.
After an MRI scan, she was diagnosed with an ACL tear in her right knee; some news organisations also reported damage to her meniscuses and lateral collateral ligament but she has not confirmed that. She described it as a “desperate time”. A specialist advised surgery but agreed – after two weeks rest from training – that it was feasible to wait until after the Olympic tournament. The Donjoy-style brace she wore was designed to redeploy the way playing pressure impacted on her damaged knee. The stress goes to the healthy parts and away from aggravating the pain.
The final group game was their first loss. Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu had to work hard over three sets but in the end, they just could not find a way through. This meant they had come second in Group A and would meet CHEN/JIA in a quarter final. Even if they had both been fit this tie would have been daunting. The Chinese are superb players; strong and smart so they knew they were in for a difficult day. Yuki’s LINE message to her partner that evening read
“…tomorrow regardless we win or lose, I want us to enjoy the match…Let’s overcome this together. Let’s speak together. If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”
Trans by Sebastien.
It was a brutal physical test and after three sets their goal of a home Olympics medal was gone. At the end they faced the world with tears and their arms around each other. The Chinese players’ sporting behaviour added to the emotion of the moment. Games like this can be very hard to spectate.
Sayaka has a hard six months of rehab ahead but her courageous attitude and the support of Yuki will sustain her. Fukuhiro’s Olympics was tragic and wonderful. I’m so sorry that they were not able to compete to 100% of their ability but seeing their reaction to heartbreak was inspiring. Their bravery and commitment shone through disappointment; the dream has not been lost, only delayed until Paris 2024.
Thank you to Sebastien for letting me use their translations of interviews in Japanese and also thank you to all the Fukuhiro fans out there who shared ideas and chatted about the Olympic journey with me.
This was the most joyous Gold medal. Athletes can’t buy an Olympic victory; they earn one over years of perseverance and pain. Even then, some don’t reach their dream, so to watch Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu on top of the Tokyo podium was a glorious moment.
The origins of the triumph stretch back to a young Greysia who was focused on becoming a pro:
“I was born to be a badminton player. And I had that faith when I was 13, that I wanted to make history for Indonesia”
Along the way she endured a controversial exit from London 2012 and lost at the QF stage in Rio 2016 with Nitya Krishinda Maheswari. When the news broke that her partner required surgery and was going to retire Polii seriously considered hanging up her racket too.
Looking back this was when Eng Hian – the head of Indonesian Women’s Doubles – had a stroke of genius. He convinced her to delay retirement…to stay a little longer and help guide the progress of some of the younger players. In 2017 along came the talented but raw Apriyani Rahayu: aged 19 with a dislike of being told what to do, but intelligent and ambitious enough to recognise that this was a great opportunity to learn from Greysia. As time passed and the chemistry between them formed it started to occur to Polii that if she could instill a champion’s mindset into her young partner then maybe this could lead to great things. She would need patience, perseverance and to stay injury-free. Perhaps everything that had gone before was preparing her for this.
Fast Forward To Tokyo 2020
The tournament started brightly for GreyAp. Two wins out of two in the group stages and the importance of the final game against FukuHiro escalated. Suddenly here was an opportunity to emerge from the Round Robin as group winners and therefore avoid a seeded pair in the Quarter Final.
Wars of attrition pose little threat to the Indonesian duo. They have the physical resilience to endure a lot and that style of play offers a great platform for the sudden explosions of power from Apri or the creative vision and deft touches from Greysia. The Japanese top seeds could not handle the aggressive tempo of the contest. They were stubborn and resisted over three sets but folded in the last 21-8. So GreyAp entered the knockout rounds and I was feeling optimistic.
It’s been clear over the course of the Olympic badminton tournament that the Chinese athletes’ standards haven’t suffered from their lack of international competition. In the QF against DU/LI Greysia and Apri were asked some hard questions over three sets but they stood firm and refused to let the Chinese win.
The Semi-Final against LEE/SHIN was a daunting prospect but as the match progressed it was always GreyAp who had the upper hand. The competitive momentum that they had been building since the tournamnet began carried them on to the final. Another win, a guaranteed medal, history made.
This was a final waiting to be won. There was little point in waiting to be beaten by the hot favourites: I think Greysia and Apri realised this and it fed their ambitious attitude. Rahayu brought her ‘A game’ – make that her ‘A+ game’. Her energy and bravery constantly screwed down the pressure on CHEN/JIA. Her aggressive high tempo unsettled their rhythm and her noisy, boisterous attitude helped dominate the court space. At 1-1 in the first set there was a moment when Greysia took the shuttle mid-court on her backhand and pinged it crosscourt into empty space. At that moment I realised she knew they could win. The next point was gained by Polii’s delicate drop which emphasized her intent and desire. It was a close set as the four of them traded points but in the end GreyAp won it 21-19. Advantage Indonesia.
Set two opened with them racing to a 7-2 lead. Both players were decisive and self-assured. Unburdened by tension they were playing without inhibition and exuding self-belief. Everything they did worked. The Chinese tried to get back into the flow of the game but they were being swept along by the irresistable pace and vision of the Indonesians. Incredibly at 18-10 Polii’s strings broke but she had time to grab a replacement racket and win the rally.
There was an inevitability to the final moments as they had outclassed CHEN/JIA throughout the game. The (mostly) empty arena didn’t matter – we were all crying and screaming at our screens together as they celebrated victory. Often the difference between a Silver and Gold medal is simultaneously a universe and barely a whisker. The Indonesia duo had dominated in every area of the court and had played their best ever game at exactly the right moment. Congratulations Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu: Gold medallists and history makers!
Tai Tzu Ying is the creative spark who can elevate badminton into more than sport. The fusion of brilliant shots and brave resolve is breathtaking to watch. Her sensational technical skills make comparisons with Roger Federer easy. Just like him she can do just about anything with her racket; the variety and fluency is electrifying.
However, she has struggled to play her best games at the past two Olympics. No medal at London 2012 or Rio 2016 so, with talk of retirement in the air, the focus has been on Tokyo. Fans around the world have craved a podium spot for her so The Queen arrived in Japan with a clear goal.
TAI Tzu Ying came to the final to win; CHEN Yu Fei arrived determined not to lose. Two equals but with contrasting approaches to the match. It was a fascinating clash. CHEN Yu Fei is strategically shrewd and her consistency was effective in neutralising some of TTY’s flair: she won the first set 21-18. TAI Tzu Ying fought back hard in set two to force a decider. It was a relentless battle on court and inside the player’s heads.
Set three began badly for TAI Tzu Ying. CHEN Yu Fei pounced on some errors and racked up quick points to lead 10-3. TTY’s fighting spirit was not subdued though. Over some intensely nerve-wracking minutes she clawed her way back into contention but although she almost caught up she could not alter the momentum of the contest. CHEN Yu Fei triumphed 21-18.
So finally TAI Tzu Ying has an Olympic medal; it would have been unbearable if she had returned home to Taiwan empty-handed. She was true to herself and the way she has to play the game. Just like Federer at London 2012 she came to win Gold but in the end got Silver. She couldn’t have given any more to the fight. Congratulations TAI Tzu Ying from your millions of fans – we are so proud of you!
TAI Tzu Ying was breathtaking today as she seized a place in the Olympic final. Her flair and courage were irresistable. PV Sindhu fought hard but at crucial moments she could not contain the creative genius of the Queen.
The battle for the first set saw the balance of power swing backwards and forwards between the two athletes. Sindhu has rediscovered her 2019 form in Tokyo and she refused to allow TTY to get any scoring momentum although she could not take control herself. Both players were utterly focused on their quest for the final. Sindhu led at the interval and stayed with the scoring up to 18-18 but TAI’s strategy of moving the World Champion from side to side whilst trying to push her back succeeded in minimising the threat of the Indian’s power smash. This was very shrewd and allowed her to take charge in the last three points and secure the opening set 21-18.
The second set and a change of ends saw the screw being turned by TAI Tzu Ying. Although it was pretty even at the interval the scoreline was ticking over nicely in favour of Taiwan. Errors started to creep in from Sindhu and she was finding it increasingly tricky to control the shuttle in her long shots. The pressure was relentless and TAI’s exquisite technical skills were allowing her to drive the direction of the game; in the end the set was closed out 21-12
So, we have the priviledge of being able to watch TAI Tzu Ying in an Olympic final: something I have craved for years. Since she started mentioning retirement the focus for fans has been this gold medal match. Moments like these are fleeting, I hope she enjoys the game, with no injuries and does justice to her magnificent talent.
Can CHEN Long rediscover his mojo and defend his Rio Gold or are we about to see a new player on top of the podium? Will Denmark break the hold that China has had on this competition since Lin Dan first won it in 2008 or can one of the men from Indonesia seize the medal?
The competition begins with 14 groups of three players: ONLY group winners will progress to the round of 16 on July 29th.
It was clear Momota lacked match fitness at this year’s All England so the group games will help him sharpen up. Domination of the net and forecourt blended with lightening speed is crucial to him. He exerts pressure with his great anticipation and is peerless in his match management. He is so good at judging the tipping point in an encounter; usually staying within a couple of points of his rivals score, then switching on his turbocharger and accelerating away to victory. He always has an energy reserve to draw on in the last few points of the final set. It’s arguable that this characteristic breaks the morale of opponents before they even step on court. He remains hot favourite for Gold.
Viktor was immense in Thailand in January. He created a winning momentum and dispatched rivals at will. His blend of focused power and speed was overwhelming and so the two titles he won had an air of inevitability about them. However he did fall victim to a clever strategy by Antonsen at the WTF so if he wants to upgrade his Bronze from Rio he needs to resist mind games and zero in on the prize. A possible quarter final with Jonatan Christie will be a big test.
Antonsen dreams of Tokyo Gold. His progress over the past couple of years has been impressive – he put down a marker in his victory over Momota at the 2019 Indonesia Masters and has continued to prove his quality in tournaments since. His victory at the Denmark Open 2020 was magnificent but I think his covid-adjusted performance in January’s Thailand bubble was more revealing. A first round exit followed by a SF defeat in two sets suggested he was still suffering from the effects of infection. His victory in the World Tour Finals highlighted his invention and opportunism.
Sun Tzu said “If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him” and AA certainly succeeded in unbalancing Axelsen with his tactics. I’m intrigued to see if he can repeat the feat.
Jojo has a really brutal draw to negotiate if he is to medal in Tokyo but he looked bright and hungry for success at the Simulasi Olimpiade in July so I’m optimistic that he’ll be ready for the battles ahead. His route to the final means that he will probably have to overcome Shi Yu Qi, Viktor Axelsen, and Momota. Anyone who can do that in the space of a few days deserves Gold.
SHI Yu Qi
Shi Yu Qi ‘s form is a bit of a mystery and we are only going to get a clear picture once he steps on court. The last couple of years have been disrupted by injury as well as covid but if he is back to his best then he will be a challenger for a podium place. He has a clash with Jonatan Christie in the Round of 16 and if he progresses then Viktor awaits.
Ginting has so many of the qualities we look for in an Olympic champion. Speed across the court synchronised with breathtaking shots means that he challenges for titles at the highest level. In January in Thailand he dazzled but only in flashes and I was disappointed he didn’t get to a final. There have been times when he has failed to break a rivals impetus; he gets set on a particular strategy and if that starts to fail under pressure he struggles to alter his approach and loses his grip on the game. Commentators have speculated that he would benefit from more stamina but I think it’s more to do with self belief. Anders Antonsen will probably try and block his path to the semi finals; if Anthony can get past the Dane then he has a great chance to impose himself on the competition. Dream Big Anthony!
LEE Zii Jia
About two years ago I remember seeing LEE Chong Wei tip his fellow countryman as a possible prospect for Gold in Tokyo. Since then he triumphed over Viktor Axelsen at the All England 2021 so can take a lot of confidence from beating the world’s best. He has speed, agility, power and a trademark backhand smash, but a tough route to the podium. Feasibly CHEN Long followed by a QF against CHOU Tien Chen. He doesn’t have a good H2H against Chou so this will be a big challenge to negotiate before he can start dreaming of a medal.
Lee Chong Wei recently observed that it’s impossible to know the kind of form Chen Long is in because he has only competed domestically during the pandemic. I’m unconvinced that CHEN long can defend his Gold from Rio as his form has been so inconsistent following that win. Carolina Marin seems to have coped much better with motivating herself after winning sport’s highest honour. This analysis is probably too simplistic and dismissive though. The resources of the Chinese will have been focused on preparing him for this campaign so we may see a revitalised player on court.
CHOU Tien Chen
Assuming CTC wins his group he will have a bye in the following round and a possible QF against either CHEN Long or LEE Zii Jia. His record against CL is terrible (0-9) but they haven’t met for a couple of years; against LZJ he has the upper hand (5-2) but the Malaysian is improving all the time. CTC is a consistent presence in semi finals but often just seems to lack the resources at the death to finish things off. Taiwan has maintained a good focus on the Olympics including simulations and so the second seed will be well prepared for his second Olympiad.
The QF could look at bit like this:
Too close to call
The Semi finals then would probably be Momota against Axelsen/Christie and Antonsen/Ginting clashing with LEE Zii Jia or CHOU Tien Chen. We all know that this tournament has the potential to post some freaky results; the man who adapts quickly to an empty arena and can step away from the shadows of the pandemic will have an advantage. I see Christie and Ginting as dark horses: of course they will have to overcome a substantial Danish challenge first. Always though we circle back to Momota and he must still be the favourite for Gold.
Who has the edge to get Gold? The contest for the WD title in Tokyo will suit athletes with deep reserves of stamina and resistance – however to win the battle for supremacy one of these players must be willing to turn defence into attack quickly and seize points at crucial moments.
The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.
Recently Japan’s women have built a good record of success at the Olympics. Silver at London 2012 (Fujii/Kakiiwa) followed by a thrilling Gold from Misaki and Ayaka in Rio: unfortunately their partnership is over but the quality of the Japanese squad means that the two pairs competing in this sector have every chance of winning it. Yuki Fukushima / Sayaka Hirota are top seeds and should expect to top Group A. The key to notable results will be Yuki who can drive the team forward with her precision and strength. At the Denmark Open their victory over compatriots Mayu Matsumoto / Wakana Nagahara stemmed from her power to control the theatre of battle. She was comfortable varying the tempo and sometimes ignored the percentage shot to go for the line.
The third seeds – Matsumoto and Nagahara – have every chance of making the final. Prior to the Denmark Open result I would have characterised them as the more aggressive of the two Japanese pairs so I’m intrigued how they will approach this competition. Group B rivals shouldn’t be able to prevent them getting into the next round and so as long as they snap up chances they can eye the podium with confidence. It’s important both pairs win their groups so they avoid potentially knocking each other out before the final.
Greysia Polii/ Apri Rahayu are in Group A so they will have to negotiate an early match with the tournament favourites but more worryingly their recent H2H with Malaysians CHOW/LEE makes me nervous. That is their first game in the round robin so we will have a clearer picture of what the future may hold following that. It’s Greysia’s third Olympics and I’m confident she has the experience and resilience to get through a close tie. Both players performed well in the Thailand bubble so they can approach the days ahead with courage. They are my favourite WD pair and I would be thrilled to see them with a medal. Go Girls!
Korea is sending two pairs to this competition and this is probably the discipline where they have the best chance of a medal. LEE So-hee and SHIN Seung-chan were winners of the World Tour Finals and performed consistently in the Thai bubble. They head Group C as 4th seeds. They both have Olympic experience from Rio although with different partners then. Their height and aggressive style can unbalance opponents so I expect them to approach matches with boldness and noise. KIM Soyeong and KONG Heeyong are starting out unseeded in Group D but I think it’s important to note their victory in the 2019 Japanese Open against top Japanese players in the Olympic venue. KONG’s attacking strength is nicely supported by KIM and so if they get into the knockout phase they are going to be tricky to beat.
CHEN Qing Chen / JIA Yi Fan are seeded 2 and in Group D. When I watched them win the YAE2019 final I was shocked by their power, aggression and intensity. Many fans mark them as favourites for this event but the group they are in has the potential to sap their energy: they will meet Korea’s KIM/KONG and the Stoeva sisters. This could weaken them somewhat for the following rounds which have the potential to become wars of attrition. Despite that, they are an intimidating couple and it would not be a shock to see them medal. The second Chinese Pair DU Yue/LI Yin Hui are unseeded in Group C and may struggle to emerge from it. The main danger to their ambitions are the Danes Fruergaard/Thygesen who have good reserves of stubbornness to draw on in tough games. I would never write off any Chinese pair in this competition though. Up until 2016 they had a stranglehold on Gold and I’m certain they want ‘their’ medal back!
If any of these pairs can defend against the overwhelming firepower of the Chinese duo CHEN/JIA they will probably be the ones at the top of the podium. We haven’t watched any of the players from China in ages but we know that the second seeds are formidable. It’s a competition where gritty self-belief fused with physical resilience will create the gap between medal success and failure. South Korea and Indonesia are providing the dark horses but as far as the Gold goes it’s hard to look further than China or Japan. I expect FukuHiro to be more strategically nimble than the others so if the seeding unfolds predictably they could be the ones celebrating on finals day.
If you enjoyed this then take a look at my other Olympic previews here:
Inevitably this competition will be an emotional roller coaster. Nothing is decided except that there will be a new Olympic champion.
There will be 43 competitors on day 1; in this sector there are 14 seeds and so the preliminary stages will break down into 13 groups of 3 and one group of 4. The group of four includes the #2 seed (TTY) who then gets a bye in the R16; although CHEN Yufei is in a group of three, as #1 seed she also has a bye at that stage.
Nozomi Okuhara (3)
The winner of a Bronze medal in Rio will be one of the standout players in Tokyo. She knows what it takes to get on the podium and has every chance of upgrading to Gold in her home Olympics. Her progress as a competitor since those 6 defeats in finals in 2019 has been outstanding and her victory over Marin at the 2020 Denmark Open was important with a strong redemptive quality. The only other tournament she has played in this year – Yonex All England 2021 – also ended with a win so it would seem that Nozomi has spent lockdown learning how to turn silver into Gold.
TAI Tzu Ying (2)
The exhilaration of watching TTY in full flow belongs on the world stage of the Olympics yet she has never shone in this tournament. The opportunity to win a medal here is something her many fans (myself included) crave for her. Chances like this are fleeting and she has been frank about her intention to retire ‘soon’. I would love to see this sublime player become part of Olympic badminton legend. Prediction: Gold.
CHEN Yu Fei (1)
The top seed has not competed internationally since YAE20 so I’m intrigued to discover whether she has altered much about her game. She is resilient and is adept at staying in a match. Her composure and stubborn persistence against players who have more flair means she often waits for them to run out of ideas and then attacks. Her strength may also be a weakness: I have wondered in the past how risk-averse she is because sometimes she just seems too patient. This was part of the reason for her defeat against TTY in the final in Birmingham in 2020. If she makes the final – her route may involve beating AN Se Young and Nozomi – it could prove to be the difference between silver and Gold.
Pursala V Sindhu (6)
At her best Sindhu is uncontainable and although she seems to suffer inconsistent form there’s no doubt she can raise her game at the top tournaments. Nozomi must still get nightmares about her annihilation by PVS at the 2019 World Championship final. Her part of the draw is tough, but at her best she has the beating of Blichfeldt and Akane. Indian women’s singles has a great tradition of success at the Olympics – including Sindhu’s Silver in Rio – so she has the experience to force her way into the reckoning.
Ratchanok Intanon (5)
May’s sparkling skills on court could mean a medal chance in her third Olympics but her route to the podium is scary. Probably she will meet Gregoria in the R16 and assuming she progresses past the Indonesian it’s likely that her QF will be against TAI Tzu Ying. This is a neutral’s nightmare. These two breathtaking players light up every tournament so I’m sorry that one of them will lose their chance of glory. The head-to-head stats are pretty even (15-14 in TTY’s favour) so it will be a fascinating and excruciating game to spectate.
Akane Yamaguchi (4)
Akane has been under the radar more than her compatriot during lockdown so we’ll have to wait to see what sort of form she’s in. Her counter-punching style could work effectively at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza so although she doesn’t have a particulary convincing record against some of the others in her part of the draw I see her as a firm contender.
AN Se Young (7)
ASY has been regarded as a dark horse chance for the Gold here since she flew up the rankings in 2019. Earlier this year she did OK in Thailand – getting to semi-finals – but she wasn’t able to push on to a final. She is at the stage in her career now where fine tuning and incremental gains are important if she is to dominate consistently. She’s a wonderful all-rounder but sometime I consider that she puts too much emphasis on defence. I’d like to see her take the initiative more. In a recent interview with BWF she highlighted her victory over TTY in the Sudirman Cup as a turning point but I think the frustration of being ‘nearly there’ will be perfect fuel for her ambition. Prediction: Paris 2024 Gold
HBJ seems to have been replaced by her super-slim twin sister during lockdown and I’m excited to see what has changed about her approach in the course of the pandemic. It’s unlikely that the lack of international competition will have disadvantaged either of the Chinese competitors because they enjoy such a high standard domestically so it’s feasible that she will have added a new dimension to her play. If the seeding works as expected then her first big test is going to be in a QF against Nozomi – she doesn’t have a good H2H against the Japanese so if she can pull off a win then she may have to face her compatriot for a spot in the final. Prediction QF Exit.
Women’s Singles is crowded with fine athletes so it’s tricky to highlight one player who already has a foot on the podium. Olympic Gold is someone’s destiny and it looks to me as though it will boil down to Nozomi V Tzu Ying. The person who can stay fit, focused and adapt quickly to the conditions in the arena will have an advantage, but it’s always a hard tournament to call. TTY knows she must stay patient and cut out mistakes, Nozomi has to be confident in her ability to keep asking the tough questions. I’m impatient for it to start so we can enjoy the path to victory and watch dreams come true.
I am anticipating badminton extraordinaire. The quality of this competition is outstanding with huge expectations of some players. Athletes from the Asian heartlands of the sport – Indonesia, Japan, China & Taiwan – are likely to dominate the matches but who will triumph at the end is not particularly clear cut.
We haven’t watched most of these pairs in competition with each other for over a year and it will be intriguing to see who have been able to add an extra dimension to their game or who has lost a bit of sharpness. Realistically most of them are going to need a match or two to kick-start their muscles and focus on victory. The pairs who adapt to the conditions and negotiate their group games to the knock out stages without expending too much energy or getting injured will have a big advantage. The absence of noisy, partisan crowd is also likely to have an impact on some of the players although I’m at a loss to anticipate whether it will help or hinder.
The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.
Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo & Marcus Fernaldi Gideon
The Minions arrive in Tokyo as World Number Ones and top seeds but they are going to have to play the best games of their lives if they are going to get Gold. Group A will not allow any slip ups. Challenges to them will come from every direction as the calibre of their rivals is phenomenal. The venue is expected to be ‘slow’ and they must not allow themselves to get ensnared in an energy sapping smashing competitions. Opponents work hard to blunt their attacks so they must be prepared to reappraise tactics if the game is not going their way. Kevin has one of the best badminton brains in the sport and I’m in awe of his technical skills, superhuman reflexes and sheer desire, whilst Marcus’s strength and chemistry with his partner means the two of them have the weapons to beat everyone.
First they must negotiate their group and it’s vital they fight on their own terms. Their head to head records against their challengers in the first round gives no cause for concern but the reality of an Olympic stage after relative international inactivity for a while means that everyone is a threat. Kevin has brilliance embedded deep and these two would be worthy winners at the end of the tournament. I’m anxious though about their head-to-head record with Endo/Watanabe (2-6) because it seems inevitable that they will end up playing each other in a high stakes game. Prediction: Final
Seeded four this pair are a hazard to Indonesian ambitions. They begin their campaign in Group B and should progress without too much fuss, although Sozonov/Ivanov might be able to ask them some tough questions. Over the last few years they just seem to get better and better. Left-handed Yuta is a dazzling player, his vision and speed are at Kevin levels and this is reflected in their superb head to head record against the Minions (6-2). He is relentless but I often wonder if his threat is diluted by competing in two sectors; I’m fascinated to see how he copes with these demands overlaid by the pressure of a home Olympics. Endo has always been a top player but something about this partnership has liberated him to dream big. Perhaps his stubborn, reliable approach just nicely balances Yuta’s pzazz. Prediction: Final
Hendra Setiawan & Mohammad Ahsan
Could these two nurse their old bones to a Golden final. The day I watched them win on three legs at the All England in 2019 was the day I fell in love with Indonesian badminton. No superlative can do this pair justice but they are consistent winners of the best tournaments including Hendra’s Gold at the 2008 Olympics with his then partner, the late Markus Kido. Nevertheless, in Thailand they were beaten twice by Lee/Wang; they just could not contain the exuberant Taiwanese. At the time it was clear that Ahsan was competing with a dodgy leg so I hope that they have arrived in Japan in good shape. Their rivals in Group D are tough but if they can get the results they need with no injuries then they will be into the next round. Prediction Semi-Final
Lee Yang & Wang Chi-Lin
The most likely challengers for the top spot in Group A are the Taiwanese pair: Lee Yang/Wang Chi-Lin. These two were unstoppable in Thailand, winning three out of three tournaments. I think the most rewarding wins for them must have been against Ahsan and Setiawan in the SF of the Toyota Thailand Open and the WTF. Ahsan was not at 100% but it was clear that the Dads could not live with the Taiwanese muscular approach and it must have been a massive confidence boost to beat such sporting icons. Prediction Semi-Final
Li Jun & Liu Yu Chen
These two have a lot of attacking power and can use their aggression in Tokyo to damage everyone’s dreams. They both move well, have good 3D awareness of the court spaces and can use their height for some steep shots. I think Liu’s netplay will often allow him to gain an advantage right at the start of a rally; he is hard to pass with his long reach and steadfast approach. These two have been restricted to domestic competition since YAE20, and had been in a comparative slump prior to Covid. Maybe this break will have rejuvenated their desire or they could have added some refinements to their tactics. The current status of all the Chinese competitors is difficult to analyse because we haven’t been able to watch them for ages. I’m sure that the Chinese coaches will have prepared them well and if they are back to their best then the podium beckons.
Choi Solgyu & Seo Seungjae
Seo Seungjae’s contract issues have been put to one side for the duration of the Olympics. Or should I say that the suspension given him by the BKA will not take effect until after Tokyo. Of course this is great news for his partners in MD and XD and reveals how important he is to Korea’s medal hopes. He and Choi Solgyu are in the same group (D) as Ahsan/Setiawan and Aaron Chia/Soh Wooi Yik so there are some hard battles ahead.
Keigo Sonoda & Takeshi Kamura
Can the ‘second’ Japanese pair force their way into the medal reckoning? Their brawny, boisterous style can overwhelm rivals and enthrall spectators. They are tireless and so noisy in their mutual support between points that they amplify the pressure on court. Kamura’s work around the front; his anticipation and reading of the game allied to his partners relentless energy and enthusiasm means that they can dominate matches. However their head to head stats against the absolute top pairs are weak (Minions 11-5, Dads 5-2, Endo/Watanabe 4-2, Li/Liu 7-3) so they are going to have to bring something fresh to the tournament if they want to get on the podium. They are in an intriguing position – unseeded – in Group C with the Chinese pair; they should be able to get to the knockouts and then let’s see who they play in the latter stages.
Any Dark Horses?
Lots of these pairs have the ability to trouble the favourites but whether they can do it consistently and push on to a medal is hard to say. Lane and Vendy performed superbly in Thailand and Shetty and Rankireddy have plenty of potential but I think this outing will be part of their journey to Paris success in 2024. Battling it out to progress from Group B behind Watanabe/Endo are the Danes Rasmussen/Astrup and Russians Sozonov/Ivanov. This Olympics is being held under unique protocols so athletes who can seize every opportunity, stay fit and adapt to discomfort without being distracted will be the ones who triumph.
Who will win Gold?
Can anyone stop an All-Indonesian final? A lot depends on the draw after the group stage is completed but the pair who bring intensity and fokus right from the start will be at an advantage. This is going to be a strange covid-adjusted Olympics with few fans present but millions watching from a distance. Although many think that the conditions at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza don’t naturally suit the Minions style they are triple winners of the Japan Open so the reults suggest they relish the arena. Kevin and Marcus must solve the Yuta problem but this is a fabulous opportunity to cement their place amongst the games greats. They will have to overcome some tough tests but they have everything within themselves that they need to get Gold.
China has the top two seeds in this sector and must be confident of glory – the question is, who can disrupt their plans to dominate this part of the competition? Japan has home advantage and two fantastic competitors in Watanabe and Higashino, Thailand’s Bass & Popor’s challenge is likely to be robust whilst Jordan and Oktavianti have made no secret of their focus on Gold.
The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.
Group A: Zheng/Huang (#1), Tabeling/Piek, Seo/Chae, Elgamel/Hany
ZHENG Si Wei & HUANG Ya Qiong are top seeds and expected by their millions of fans at home in China to win the tournament – probably with a victory in the final over compatriots WANG/HUANG. The pressure they exert on rivals, their energy and their technical skills all combine to make them habitual winners. Zheng’s spatial awareness – especially his use of cross-court smashes or drives – means he sets up points for his partner to snaffle at the net. The main threat in their group are Koreans Seo Seung-jae/Chae Yujung who were strong in the Thailand bubble (Silver medallists twice) so I think these two pairs will progress into the knockout rounds. SSJ is also competing in the MD so there may be issues around fatigue for him. If Tabeling/Piek could force a win against the Koreans then the remainder of the games will have more significance but they have a hard task ahead.
Group B:Puavaranukroh/Taerattanachai (#3), Gicquel/Delrue, Ellis/Smith, Hurlburt-Yu/Wu
Bass/Popor were sensational on home turf in January – unbeaten in all three tournaments – and this has raised hopes for a good Olympic run. They are hungry for success and the last couple of years has seen them challenge for titles at all the major tournaments. This is a very tricky group though. Thom Gicquel and Delphine Delrue have been attracting more and more admiring appraisals and it’s obvious they have been working hard through the pandemic. I have a feeling that their sights are set on the title at their home Olympics and this competition is part of the ongoing project. Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith should have enough experience to negotiate this part of the competition and get into the knockout stages. If they can get to the QF the Brits are possible dark horses for a medal but their head-to-head against all of the seeds is not good. Their opening game is against the French and it is a must win for both pairs.
Group C: Jordan/Oktavianti (#4),Watanabe/Higashino, Christiansen/Boje, Wing Hang Leung/Somerville
Gold is the target for the Indonesian 4th seeds and they have what it takes to deny their rivals so long as Praveen Jordan can consistently find his form. His intimidating presence, blistering smash and all-round game make him a complicated opponent; Melati is a excellent foil for him. If PraMel start sluggishly then the Japanese pair could top the group. The current All England champions are eyeing a podium spot but as Yuta Watanabe is competing in the MD too I’m curious how he’s going to manage the physical and emotional demands upon him. I’m a big fan of Arisa Higashino; her play from the rear court liberates Yuta to maraud at the front and this is one of their major advantages over many rivals. Could the Danes or Australians seize the initiative in this group and grab one of the top two places? It’s quite a big ask, so let’s see who starts smartly and gets some momentum as pressure rises.
Group D: Wang/Huang (#2), Lamfuss/Herttrich, Tang/Tse, Chan/Goh
WANG Yi Lyu and HUANG Dong Ping are likely to boss this group. HDP is always an eye-catching net player with such a reliable touch and good strategic vision whilst her partner can consistently put away chances. Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying – the Silver medalists in Rio – will expect to progress out of the group alongside the Chinese pair.
Can any of these pairs stop the top seeds winning Gold? On paper the most likely would be their compatriots but we have all witnessed unexpected results in the Olympic theatre. Praveen Jordan is a bit temperamental and this can be turned to his advantage; it’s a useful strategy to be unpredictable especially against opponents like the Chinese who tend to be ‘hard-drilled’. It’s essential that he is competing at a consistent level though; otherwise PraMel will miss opportunities to win. There have been whispers of a possible injury to Jordan but he has dismissed this and said it is inevitable aches and pains after hard training. The Thai duo, Puavaranukroh/Taerattanachai have become serious contenders and the Korean pair in Group A could be fighting for a medal but – as with Yuta – I’m concerned about Seo Seung-jae’s risk of fatigue. As for Watanabe and Higashino; I’m a little nervous about Arisa’s defence if she comes under sustained pressure so as a team they must avoid situations that allow their opponents to turn the screw. Malaysians Chan/Goh know how to win an Olympic medal likewise Marcus Ellis who with Lauren Smith could be challenging for honours at the end.
Realistically it’s hard to see beyond Zheng Si Wei and Huang Ya Qiong. Although we haven’t been able to watch them in international competition for a while there is no doubt that they will have been preparing diligently and will be excited to assert their dominance. The Chinese badminton community always approach the Olympics with the highest expectations and in this instance they are justified in expecting two medals
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.