Badminton Tokyo Olympics 2020 – The Curtain Falls

Tokyo Medals

“WHAT IS HAPPENING?!” That is what I was thinking as I watched seed after seed being toppled in the Olympics this year. Upset after upset totally undermined my predictions, and I’m sure many others! We have seen big upsets before in the Olympics but I don’t think anyone was expecting the events to unfold the way they did. Badminton in the Tokyo Olympics was certainly a rollercoaster ride!

Lessons Learned – Badminton Tokyo Olympics

If badminton at the Tokyo Olympics has proven anything, it’s that rank doesn’t matter. You can be the best in the world and not perform on the big stage. You can have a rank well outside the top ten and achieve things that the seeded players couldn’t. Granted this was a different Olympics with many difficulties leading up to the event itself. Covid hampered preparations and the delay in the games. Lack of tournaments might have also contributed to the downfall of some of the athletes. But then again, everyone was in the same boat and those with significant disadvantages have proven that they didn’t need the best quality training facilities to succeed.

China A True Power House Of The Sport

China has always been a major force in badminton. But after the retirement of their golden generation of players, there were some questions asked of their dominance in badminton. Suddenly, the fields were becoming much more level. Particularly in the women’s disciplines and men’s disciplines. But once again China proves that they are the nation for the big occasion.

Since covid shut down the BWF World Tour, they had not competed internationally. This lack of match experience against other players would easily have been considered to be a potential pitfall in the preparation of China for the Olympics. And yet, they found themselves contesting every gold medal match in badminton at the Tokyo Olympics. Even the Japanese, playing on home turf could not emulate the performance of their Chinese counterparts.

So how did they do it? Well, I can make a few educated guesses. China has such a deep pool of players that they can probably replicate similar playing styles of their opponents across their squad. Not only that, their mental game seems second to none. Most of the Chinese players show no sign of nerves at all. This is the biggest asset when you play the Olympics games. A flaw in your mentality is what leads to mistakes.

I also believe the analysis of their opponents is spot on. Although they have not played them in a long time, they are still able to pick weaknesses in their game and use them to their advantage. And lastly, their coaching staff hosts a whole list of ex-Olympic champions and World champions. All of who can impart their experience, knowledge and expertise. China was clearly on a mission to reassert its dominance in the biggest event in badminton and boy did they succeed. The badminton in the Tokyo Olympics was almost their domain.

Men’s Singles

So I was pretty off on my prediction of this one! Of course, Kento Momota was probably on the top of everyone’s list as the gold medalist. But Heo Kwang-Hee had other plans. The world-ranked 38 played such a positive game but Momota seemed almost lacklustre in his movement. Not the usual dynamic play we see from him at all. As a result, Momota’s Olympics was over after two group games.

There were other surprises at the group stage too. Toby Penty played probably the best badminton of his career at the Tokyo Olympics but was eliminated by Anders Antonsen after topping his group. En route, he beat the Thai Wangcharoen a top 20 player. He did go down fighting but unfortunately was not able to match the level of the Danish player.

Another European who perhaps unexpectedly topped their group was Mark Calijouw. The Indian, Sai Pranteeth unexpectedly failed to win a single group game. This opened up the group for Mark to capitalise on.

And of course, we have to mention Kevin Cordon. The veteran unexpectedly topped his group. Not that he wasn’t capable of it, but he had in his group world ranked no. 8 Ng Ka Long who I expected to progress. There was some controversy around Ng Ka Long but this is not to take away from Cordon’s fantastic play. His dream run continued all the way to the semi-finals which was beyond probably what he himself dared to dream. Unfortunately, Viktor Axelsen was just one step too far for the Guatemalan. A bronze medal playoff against Anthony Ginting was the last match of his campaign in which he went down fighting. This final score: 21-11, 21-13.

Ginting himself had a tough quarterfinal against Anders Antonsen, needing three games to take the match. His semi-final against then reigning champion Chen Long was a tall ask. Chen Long’s experience really showed through and he was simply able to suppress the speed of Ginting and secure himself a second successive Olympic final. Anthony Ginting would have to settle for the bronze medal. The first Olympic medal in men’s singles since the legend Taufik won gold in 2004 for Indonesia.

In the finals, Chen Long faced Viktor Axelsen. Viktor was coming into this competition in great form and for someone who hasn’t played international competitions for over a year, Chen Long looked to be as stable and dependable as ever for China. However, in the finals, Chen Long didn’t really have any answers against the clinical play of Axelsen.

Although they’re both of similar height, Viktor seems to use his height better to create angles and hit shots that even China’s great wall couldn’t defend against. Needing only two games to secure his victory, his emotions burst within him. The realisation he was now Olympic champion didn’t seem to register with him for quite some time! Chen Long this time, would have to settle for silver – completing a full set of Gold, Silver and Bronze medals across three different Olympics.

Women’s Singles

Unlike the men’s, the group stages seemed a much more straightforward affair for the seeded players, with those you would expect to progress in each group making it to the elimination stages. Likewise, in the first knock out round, there was little drama for the usual suspects who we’ve come to see dominate the women’s singles events. The spirited An Se-young beat her Thai counterpart Ongbamrungphan to reach the quarter-finals of her first Olympics which was a great achievement.

The big story at the initial knockout stages was Beiwen Zhang, who looked in great form, but had to concede to her opponent due to injury. Having been one game up as well, Beiwen was playing solid badminton until the injury and had an excellent chance to make the quarter-finals. So sad to see an athlete crash out with an injury in any tournament, but particularly the Olympic games.

Japanese hopes of a medal were shattered in the quarterfinals with, Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi being toppled by Hebing Jiao and PV Sindu respectively. PV Sindu took a relatively easy first game against Yamaguchi before having to battle for the second game, just winning 22-20. The women’s singles were perhaps one of Japan’s strongest opportunities for a medal in badminton, but it was not to be this year.

Tai Tzu Ying and Ratchanok Intanon had fought a tough battle in the quarter-finals as well. As always when these two face each other, a dynamic, closely contested match was highly enjoyable to watch, with both giving their all. But it was the Taiwanese who eventually took the match. It which was filled with spectacular rallies and all-out efforts which really showed the fighting spirit of both players. You could see the pain on Ratchanok’s face as she was eventually defeated and her Olympic dream was ended.

The bronze medal match ultimately came down to PV Sindu – who was defeated in the semi-finals by Tai Tzu Ying and Hebing Jiao, who was defeated by her compatriot Chen Yufei. PV Sindhu’s attacking play and strategy was just too good for Hebing Jiao, defeating her opponent in 52 minutes. A double Olympic medalist, she now cements her position as India’s best badminton athlete ever. A true role model for Indians, females and aspiring badminton players all over the world.

The gold medal match was decided in a three-game thriller. Chen Yufei played a great strategy against Tai Tzu Ying, who equally responded not with her usual wizardry, but a more straightforward style of play (well mostly – it is TTY after all!). Chen Yufei is like the female version of Chen Long. She likes to hold rallies until that moment comes where she can take advantage. Tai Tzu Ying is certainly fit enough to play a similar style, but her personality shows through in her game and that slight flamboyancy that we’re so used to creeps through every now and then.

And I think it was her desire to go for winners and Chen Yufei’s patience that ultimately was Tai’s downfall. Not that there was much in it at all! But the points were given away by Tai Tzu Ying on loose shots and unforced errors really cost her the match. The winners played by Chen Yufei were just a little bit more clinical. Both gave it their all which was emulated in the scores 21-18, 21-19, 21-18 in favour of the Chinese. A great final match between these two excellent ambassadors of the sport.

Men’s Doubles

Luckily for me, I accurately predicted the two teams of each group that would be going through to the knock out rounds. It was all downhill for me there though. But there was serious upset at the quarter-finals with the minions being ousted by Malaysians Aaron Chia and Soh Wooi Yik. I had a feeling the minions were going to underperform at these games but I thought they would at least medal. A disappointing result for them for sure.

And the Japanese contingent were also knocked out at this stage. Watanabe and Endo were beaten by Taiwan’s Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin and Kamura and Sonoda by the Indonesian daddies. The Japanese I think really bowed to pressure at their home games. I think we were all expecting a little more from them, especially considering on paper at least, they’re just as strong as China.

The bronze medalists were the Malaysians. An amazing achievement for them, and of course, perhaps made sweeter that they beat their idols Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan. Malaysian’s can certainly be proud of another Olympic medal to add to Lee Chong Wei’s and Peng Soon/Goh Liu Ying’s Rio campaign back in 2016.

The finals were perhaps between unexpected finalists in Taiwan’s Yang/Wang and China’s twin towers of Li/Liu. But Taiwan had been playing amazingly well throughout the tournament, taking down the daddies, Watanabe/Endo before taking down the Chinese. I must confess that although I thought the Taiwanese were playing extremely well in Thailand, they weren’t playing the likes of China or Japan. However, they certainly proved me wrong in this tournament. And the form China showed against the Malaysians was amazing. So for Wang/Yang to take China down in two straight games and claim their first (and Taiwan’s) gold medal in badminton shows just how far they’ve come. Taiwan is really becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Women’s Doubles

I have to jump straight to the women’s gold medal match when talking about this discipline. Purely because watching the pure emotion that radiated from Greysia Polii as she realised she won gold really made me tear up. I don’t know her at all but at that moment I felt like I was sharing in her moment and it was really special. She and her partner Apriyani Rahayu faced the Chinese Chen Qing Chen and Jia Yifan. China was aiming to continue their strong tradition in the women’s doubles but the Indonesian’s had other ideas. They came out all guns blazing and following a close first game, they would not let the Chinese play their way in the second game.

The world-rank number one and two pair surprisingly were out in the quarter-finals. Matsutomo/Nagahara were taken down by Koreans So-hee and Seung-chan in a close game that really went all the way. The Koreans literally edging the win 28-26 in the third game. Meanwhile their compatriots Fukushima/Hirota fell to Chen/Yifan of China.

The fact that Fukushima/Hirota was capable of even getting that far was remarkable. Hirota was playing the tournament in a knee brace which was the result of an injury that she suffered at a training camp prior to the Olympics. She will have surgery now the Olympics have finished which will put her out of action for a further six months. Not the Olympics she would have wanted. Nonetheless, she competed wholeheartedly in front of her home country and showed her Olympic spirit throughout.

Korea was guaranteed a bronze medal as it was an all Korean affair in the play-off. These two pairs know each other so well and usually, the games are very close. However, this time So-Yeong/Hee Yong was pretty dominant against a somewhat deflated looking So-hee and Seung-chan.

Mixed Doubles

In the mixed doubles – China has been absolutely dominant. And that train doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. However, the order was not what I expected! Big shout out to Lauren Smith and Marcus Ellis who won their group but just lost out in the quarter-finals against Hong Kongers Man/Suet.

Jordan and Oktavianti would have liked to emulate the achievements of the Indonesian women’s team and 2006 champions Liliyana Natsir/Tontwoi Ahmad but it wasn’t to be this year. In the quarter-finals, they had a tough battle with the world number one’s Siwei and Yaoqiong of China in which the Chinese used their trademark power and speed to overpower the Indonesians.

Watanabe and Higashino also had a tough quarterfinal match – taking on the Thai pair of Puavaranukroh and Taerattanachai. Having lost the opening game, the home favourites had to dig deep, and in their true stylish way of playing with delicate drops and speed around the court, they were able to win the second game. This gave them the momentum to follow through the third game and take it 21-14.

Unfortunately, the Japanese pair were unable to reach the semi-finals. Wang Yilyu and Huang Dong Ping halted that advancement. Likewise, the other semi-final saw the Hong Kong pair relegated to a bronze medal match, with Siwei/Yaqiong asserting their dominance to take them through to the finals.

In the bronze medal match, Japan finally made good on their potential in these Olympic games. Not the medal they would have wanted, but bronze in the mixed doubles would have to do this time. I’m sure it will give Watanabe and Higashino the additional motivation they need to push for one stage further in the Paris Olympics 2024.

The mixed doubles final was played at such a pace that I couldn’t keep up. Guaranteed a gold medal, China were no longer needed to worry about getting the medal for their country. They simply went all out. On the face of it Siwei and Yaqiong are the stronger team. But Yilyu/Dongping chose the perfect moment to start closing the gap on their head to head record.

Siwei/Yaqiong had currently beaten their opponents 12 out of 15 times. In a game that could have gone either way, the world number three’s played an amazing game that showed just how much they’d improved over the pre-Olympic training period. As training partners, and being isolated due to covid, I’m sure that they were exposed to the world number one’s a lot more in the run-up to the Olympics. This paid dividends as they played an extremely even game with their compatriots just edging the third game 21-19 to take their first gold medal.

Congrats to all the medalists for a well-fought and gripping Olympic games. With badminton at the Tokyo Olympics over now, we now look forward to 2024 in Paris. We will see if the champions can defend their titles – or if new chapters are written.

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