ALL JAPAN CHAMPS – World rankings reflect who’s best in Japan

Japan, now one of the strongest countries in badminton, saw 5 of its 7 entries in the world’s top 3 prove themselves #1 in Japan. Story and photos by Miyuki […]

Japan, now one of the strongest countries in badminton, saw 5 of its 7 entries in the world’s top 3 prove themselves #1 in Japan.

Story and photos by Miyuki Komiya, live in Tokyo

The All Japan Championships were held in Komazawa Olympic gym in Tokyo from November 26 to December 2.  At this tournament, which is the major selection criteria for next year’s team, each of Japan’s highest current entries in the world rankings – Fukushima/Hirota (WD #1), Kento Momota (MS #1), Akane Yamaguchi (WS #2), Watanabe/Higashino (XD #3), and Kamura/Sonoda (MD #3) – found their way to the top of the podium.

Making the national team for 2019 is especially important for players because only national team members will have a chance to play in the Tokyo Olympics.  Japan’s Olympic gold medallists and World Champions were all participating, along with their legions of talented challengers, to determine who is real #1 player in Japan.

None can stop the All England champions

The first match on finals day was mixed doubles, featuring All England winners and All Japan defending champions Yuta Watanabe and Arisa Higashino (pictured).  Their opponents were world #62 Takuro Hoki / Wakana Nagahara.  All England winners kept their pace from the first round and didn’t give more than 15 points in any one game.  But in the final, the pressure finally got to them.  They made some errors, but the pair calmed down and stacked the points with drop shots by Watanabe, every time duping his opponents into anticipating the smash.  With Hoki/Nagahara unable to defend deeply enough, Watanabe had ample chances to pull out his actual smashes.  Watanabe/Higashino saved the title without losing one game throughout the week.

”I’m very happy to save the title.  In fact, I had a lot of pressure this time.  Our performance wasn’t our best but we were able to help each other and receive well without giving up so we came away with the win today,” Watanabe said afterward.

“I didn’t have any pressure through the end of the semi-final,” added Higashino, “but finally, the pressure came to me in the final.  Watanabe always helped me during the match.  I  am not satisfied with my performance today but I believe we can become stronger.”

World #1,2,3 = Japan #1,2,3

 The second match was women’s doubles, featuring a familiar clash between reigning Olympic gold medallists and world #2 Misaki Matsutomo / Ayaka Takahashi and current world #1 pair Yuki Fukushima / Sayaka Hirota (pictured left).  They’ve played each other 3 times this year alone in international tournaments – two of them finals – and this time it was to determine bragging rights at home.

There are 5 Japanese pairs within the world’s top 10.  To reach the final, Matsutomo/Takahashi had to beat world #10 Takahata/Sakuramoto, who had already beaten world #6 Yonemoto/Tanaka.

On the other side, the 2018 World Championship final was replayed at the semi-final stage.  Defending champions Fukushima/Hirota beat World Champions and world #3 Nagahara/Matsumoto 21-18, 17-21, 21-13.

In the first game of the final, Fukushima/Hirota made good lead 17-9 with good tactics.  Matsutomo/Takahashi got 6 consecutive points and almost caught up, reaching 15-17, but they couldn’t get any more points.  At the beginning of the second game, Matsutomo/Takahashi led 9-6 but Fukushima/Hirota got 8 consecutive points to push out to a 14-9 lead and they kept it until the end.  The world #1s thus defended their title and proved they are the number one pair in Japan.

Sayaka Hirota said, “Last year, we played them here and got the title but we were under less pressure than they were that time.  This year, we had to play with a lot more pressure as world #1 and defending champions.  All players were trying to beat us this time.  But we still managed to get this title again, including wins against the world #2 and #3 so I really feel happy now.  These good results will make us confident and mentally strong.”

Fukushima said “As my partner said, I also felt nervous from the first round.  Right up to the semi-final, we were not able to perform our best.  But I believe we did play our best today in this final.”

Ayaka Takahashi said, “Our performance was good.  We were able to play well with our tactics but we made more errors than they did.  We will play in the soon.  We will learn from this match and try to play better to get a good result.”

Momota goes from shaking hand to winner’s handshake

In the next match, men’s singles, World Champion and world #1 Kento Momota (pictured) faced Asian Games bronze medallist Kenta Nishimoto, who is world #9 and has been a finalist in All Japan Championships three years running.  Each player has this title once, Momota winning 3 years ago and Nishimoto a year later.

Momota got a rest on Saturday because his opponent Kanta Tsuneyama withdrew from the semi-final.  Before Sunday’s match, he said, “I watched Nishimoto’s match in semi-final.  His performance was really greater than I expected.  In fact, I was not able to use net shots in the first round because my hand was shaking with nerves.  My performance was getting better and better.  I really wanted to get this title this year to show my appreciation to my supporters.”

On the other hand, Nishimoto got a win in semi-finals from former national team player Takuma Ueda, who beat current national member Kazumasa Sakai.

In the first game on Sunday, Momota won easily but Nishimoto didn’t give up.  He increased his pace and improved his control to put the shuttles on the lines.  Momota uses the challenge system twice, but they were unsuccessful, and Nishimoto got the second game 21-18.  In the decision game, Momota brought his own speed up, built up a strong 11-3 lead, and stayed in front until he had the title in his now steady hand.

“I’m happy to play with my same-age team-mate Nishimoto in the final.  I enjoyed this match very much,” Momota said afterward.  “Nishimoto played unlike in national team training.  He put a lot of pressure on me, especially in front of the net.  But I also changed my style to fit on his style.  This title makes me more confident.  I have won some titles, including the World Championship, but today’s match made me even more nervous because I really wanted this title.

“I really want to express my appreciation to my supporters, who have been supporting me for a long time.  I hope all spectators enjoyed our match today,” Momota added.

Nishimoto said, “I’m disappointed with this loss but I’m very happy to play with Momota in the final because we have been training hard for a long time.  When we came into the venue, the spectators gave us a big applause.  Actually I was surprised, but I realized many fans were looking forward to our match.  It was very touching.  My performance was good, maybe my best, but Momota is just stronger than I am.  I hope to train harder and become stronger.”

Akane’s unusual style

The women’s singles was next and top seed and world #2 Akane Yamaguchi (pictured) was the favourite, having reached the final after beating world #11 Sayaka Takahashi, who herself beat the last year’s finalist and world #18 Aya Ohori.

On the other side of the draw, world #5 Nozomi Okuhara beat non-national player Mako Urushizaki, who had made her way to the final four with wins over world #23 Sayaka Sato and world #24 Minatsu Mitani.

Yamaguchi played with unusual style.  She often plays aggressively, but she put the shuttles to four corners and made long rallies.  Nozomi Okuhara (pictured) moved speedily and attacked with her pace but Yamaguchi played some amazing defense and got first game 21-16.

The second game was close from beginning to end but Yamaguchi wasn’t able to keep her concentration in the last few rallies and Okuhara evened it up at one game apiece.  The deciding game was not close, as Yamaguchi received patiently and won 21-11 to claim the title.

“I’m very happy,” Akane Yamaguchi commented after the match.  ”My performance became better and better from the first round and I played my best in the final.  When I played well, many spectators gave us a big hand.  I realized they were enjoying our match, so I also enjoyed playing a lot.

“My coaches have often said I should play patiently and tactically and to try putting the shuttle to all four corners so this time, I tried to play along with their advice, not with my usual aggressive style,” Added Yamaguchi.

“The quality of Akane’s performance was better than the other players I played in this tournament,” said Okuhara.  “Both of us used unusual playing styles today.  Akane played defensively most of the time and I attacked aggressively today.  I got the second game by being patient but I was not able to get points in deciding game due to some errors.

“My target for this year was to play without any injuries throughout a whole year.  I managed to do it at least and I got  a lot of experience.  I hope I can play better in higher level matches.”

Men’s doubles: legend advice mental strongly

In the last final of the day, men’s doubles, the defending champions and world #8 Hiroyuki Endo / Yuta Watanabe faced with World Championship silver medallists and world # 3 Takeshi Kamura / Keigo Sonoda (pictured below).

Endo/Watanabe tried their new style in this tournament.  Endo often plays primarily in the backcourt but this time, Endo tried to move fast to the net to expand the pair’s range of tactics.  This unusual style came with some errors and Kamura/Sonoda got the first game.

In the second game, Endo/Watanabe stuck with their new style.  They defended patiently and skilfully, but Kamura/Sonota kept attacking persistently.  In the end, Kamura/Sonoda earned the title after winning in straight games.

“I was very disappointed with our loss last year,” Kamura said after the match.  “We know Endo/Watanabe can defend very well but I tried to keep attacking without giving up.  Our team coach is the legendary player Tony Gunawan.  He has been my idol since I was an elementary school student.  He advised us how to control our mental strength.  His advice worked for me.

“We still have some matches soon including the World Tour Finals so we want to train harder to raise the quality of our rallies.

“My grandmother came to watch my match for the first time so I really wanted to win the title in front of her,” added Kamura with a grin.

Sonoda said, “We really wanted to get this title this year because Olympic qualification will start next year.  My partner always rushed to the net many times aggressively.  As my coach Tony advised me, I tried to support my partner from the backcourt.  Anyway, I have confidence from this good result so I can approach the Olympic qualification with confidence.”

Endo said, “Our opponents were attacking all the time.  We tried to send our defensive shots to the back of their court but we couldn’t.  What that means is that they played better than we did today.  We tested our new style.  We didn’t think we should change back to our usual style because we needed to test our new tactics in a match, not just in training.  The good thing is what we were able to play in the final.”

Final results
MS:  Kento Momota beat Kenta Nishimoto  21-9, 18-21, 21-11
MD:  Takeshi Kamura/Keigo Sonoda beat Hiroyuki Endo / Yuta Watanabe 21-16, 21-15
WS:  Akane Yamaguchi beat Nozomi Okuhara  21-16, 17-21, 21-11
WD:  Yuki Fukushima / Sayaka Hirota beat Misaki Matsutomo / Ayaka Takahashi  21-15, 21-13
XD:  Yuta Watanabe / Arisa Higashino beat Takuro Hoki / Wakana Nagahara  21-17, 21-18

Click here for complete results (in Japanese)

 

 

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