Japan’s badminton stars made a fierce statement of intent ahead of Tokyo 2020 after taking four of the five available titles at badminton’s All England Open yesterday.
In the 122-year history of the world’s oldest badminton tournament, such remarkable success for the country is unprecedented, with Japan’s previous best haul being two.
With the absence of a number of highly-ranked players, such as Tai Tzu-ying, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the expectations for Japanese players had been high.
They did not disappoint. Of 16 players in the finals of the various disciplines, 13 were Japanese.
Reflecting this overwhelming dominance, the finals began and ended with all-Japanese affairs.
In the morning, Hiroyuki Endo/Yuta Watanabe and Mayu Matsumoto/Wakana Nagahara saw off Takeshi Kamura/Keigo Sonoda and Yuki Fukushima/Sayaka Hirota in the men’s and women’s doubles respectively.
In the afternoon, Yuta Watanabe secured a doubles double as he and Arisa Higashino beat new pairing Yuki Kaneko and Misaki Matsutomo in the mixed doubles.
In the women’s singles, world number four Nozomi Okuhara dispatched Thailand’s Pornpawee Chochuwon with relative ease.
During the first game, the experienced Okuhara, who won the tournament in 2016, controlled proceedings with accurate shots to the corners and along the lines. Chochuwon, meanwhile, appeared stilted and off the pace.
Although the world number 11 found more composure in the second game and forced Okuhara into a number of intense rallies, she was unable to consistently breach her opponent’s impressive defence, as Okuhara emerged the victor 21-12, 21-16.
Speaking after the match, Okuhara attributed her victory in part to her opponent’s inexperience. “It was her first time in the final of the All England Open, I think she felt a little bit of pressure,” she said.
Chochuwon, 23, largely concurred, praising Okuhara’s superior patience and lamenting her own mistakes.
Lee upsets favourite
In the only match featuring no Japanese competitors, Malaysia’s Lee Zii Jia produced an upset to beat defending champion Viktor Axelsen in a thrilling three-game match in the men’s singles, 30-29, 20-22, 21-9.
Despite this being his seventh-consecutive tournament final, Axelsen appeared stiff and edgy throughout the first game, which came to a thrilling conclusion as the clearly superior Lee repeatedly punished Axelsen, who struggled to score when serving.
The second game appeared to have swung decisively away from the Dane, too, when a brutal 27-shot rally ended in Lee’s favour to open up a four-point gap. However, rather than succumb, the world number two recovered impressively and grittily fought back to level the games at one a piece.
Unfortunately, the sheer effort to have done so appeared to have depleted whatever stores of energy Axelsen, whose route to the final had gone to three games in all but one match, had left.
The increasingly uncomfortable looking 27-year-old struggled to compete at all and the final game meandered to an underwhelming, inevitable, climax as the 22-year-old Lee outlasted his opponent to coast to victory for his first-ever All England Open title.
Speaking after the game, Axelsen recognised his opponent as the deserving victor and acknowledged that the tough schedule had taken a toll on his body.
An emotional Lee, meanwhile, said: “I’m happy, excited, sad. Everything has come into one moment so it’s hard to describe the feeling right now. Of course I’m happy about it.”