Badminton fans filled Yoyogi 2nd Gymnasium in Tokyo with cheers on Sunday as Tonami and Saishunkan battled against strong Unisys teams on the last day of Japan’s top badminton league.
Story and photos by Miyuki Komiya, Badzine Correspondent live in Tokyo
Badminton has become known as the one of Japan’s strong sports after the nation was treated to the spectacle of a Japanese pair winning the gold medal in women’s doubles at the Rio Olympics. At the beginning of 2016, the name of the top league changed its name to S/J League (S meaning Smash, Speed, and Shuttle) in a bid to achieve the popularity of other sports like soccer with its J-League. However, the system has not changed at all this year. There are still 8 teams each in the men’s and women’s divisions and each team tie has 3 matches: first doubles, singles, and second doubles.
As always, national team members also participate as members of their respective company teams. Many of the players actually work in offices and their company co-workers, bosses and the president visit to cheer them on with balloons and drums. The league is its own special mood with the cheering team and big sound.
Tonami’s first men’s title in 4 years
Tonami and Unisys faced off on the last day. The winner of this tie would become the men’s team champion this year.
The first match was first men’s doubles between Sonoda/Kamura(Tonami) and Endo/Watanabe(Unisys). These were the very same two pairs who played in the final of the All Japan Championship 2 months ago. Sonoda/Kamura, who won the title on that occasion, were again against former world #2 Hiroyuki Endo, and his new partner Yuta Watanabe. Sonoda/Kamura got this match 18-21, 21-14, 21-13 and they proved again that they were number one doubles pair in Japan.
“Our result is very important,” said Keigo Sonoda. “Our win should make good feeling to our singles player and second doubles pair.”
“We’re sure that our result is the key to get the team title. We needed to win as the ace doubles pair,” added Takeshi Kamura.
The second match was also between two All Japan Championship finalists. Tonami’s Kenta Nishimoto won that match against Kazumasa Sakai of Unisys back in December but this time, Sakai won in straight games.
“We lost the first doubles so that meant that if I lost our team would have lost,” Sakai told Badzine, “but I didn’t have pressure. All I ever do is give my best performance. But I’m happy with this win because I lost to him in the final of the All Japan Championship. Tomorrow is my birthday so my last day as a 26-year-old became a good day with my win.”
The second doubles became the match that would decide which team would get the title of S/J League champions. Both teams used young talented players, Hoki/Kobayashi from Tonami and Inoue/Kaneko from Unisys. Both teams’ doubles coaches are Indonesian so their tactics looks similar. They move fast with drive shots and no lifting.
The Tonami pair didn’t allowed the Unisys pair to attack comfortably and finally, it was the slightly younger Hoki/Koba who took the match 21-17, 21-13 and Tonami became the first champions of the newly-named S/J League. After the match, Kamura hugged Kobayashi, who couldn’t hold back the tears
“In fact, I had a surgery on my leg recently so I started training again 2weeks ago,” Kobayashi told Badzine. “I had a lot of pressure before the match but we were able to play as well as usual without nervous feeling during the match and our tactics worked well.”
“Of course we felt a lot of pressure but I believed I could play well today. Our level is almost same but we were a bit stronger mentally than them today,” Hoki added.
Women’s league: Saishunkan save
Saishunkan was the only team to come into the last day unbeaten. They had been relying on Olympian Akane Yamaguchi and World Championship semi-finalists Fukuman/Yonao.
But Saishunkan’s last team tie was against a formidable Unisys team which featured Olympic gold medallists Takahashi/Matsutomo and women’s singles bronze medallist Nozomi Okuhara. However, as Unisys had lost one tie to Hokuto Bank earlier in the tournament, they needed to win all 3 matches to get the league title and Okuhara was on the bench with an injured shoulder.
The first doubles match saw the mighty Takahashi/Matsutomo of Unisys take on Fukushima/Hirota(Saishunkan). Fukushima/Hirota got their spot on the national A team for this year by virtue of their semi-final finish at the All Japan Championships, where they took one game from the Olympic gold medallists. This match was the see-saw affair from start to finish but in the end, Takahashi/Matsutomo won it 21-19, 18-21, 21-18.
After the match, Takahashi said, “I didn’t have any pressure but our performance was not so good today.”
“The opponents kept the game at their pace. We should played it at our own pace but we followed their pace for a long time,” Matsutomo added.
In the singles match, up next, Ayaka Takahashi’s sister Sayaka got the nod for Unisys to take on Akane Yamaguchi of Saishunkan. This one was also a very close match, with Sayaka taking the first game 26-24 and Yamaguchi getting the second 22-20.
The decider was a see-saw game until 15 points, when Yamaguchi cleared the shuttle to the sideline without Sayaka being able to touch it. Yamaguchi was sure it had landed on the line but the line judge signalled “out”. From that point on, Yamaguchi didn’t control the shuttle well and made some easy mistakes, while Takahashi, on the other hand, played well in good spirits and won 5 consecutive points, finally getting the win 21-16.
“Okuhara is out with an injury and I’m the only singles player in the team,” Sayaka explained. “I was sure this match would be tough with many long rallies. I decided I would enjoy this match, whether I won or lost.”
With Sayaka Takahashi’s win, Unisys had won the tie against Saishunkan but the league champion still depended on the result of the second doubles match, which pitted Fukuman/Yonao against Ayane Kurihara and Naru Shinoya, who had the chance to turn a mere tie victory into a title for Unisys.
The Unisys pair did indeed win the first game, but the second game went to Saishunkan’s world #8 pair. The final game continued at Fukuman/Yonao’s pace and it was they who emerged with the 12-21, 21-18, 21-15 win. Saishunkan team lost the tie, but got the league title on the strength of winning this one match.
“Before the match, I told Fukuman that I was very nervous,” Yonao said after the match. “She advised me to play as if this were a match in a training session but I had pressure in the first game and didn’t play well. But I wanted to take the title to our home town Kumamoto so I could changed my feeling and played well after losing the first game.”
“I just kept thinking we needed to play our best so I didn’t have any pressure,” Fukuman added.
For many of the top Japanese players, February will be a month of team events. Most of the players involved in the last two key ties in the S/J League have also been named to the Japanese team for the first ever Asian Mixed Team Championships in Vietnam this week. After that, Japanese companies have no fewer than six teams entered in the 2017 edition of the Indonesia Superliga, although Saishunkan’s contingent in Surabaya will likely be missing many of their top players.
For complete results, check out the S/J League website