World Badminton Championships 2017: Nozomi Okuhara's mental strength reflects Japan's resurgence in sport
South Korean coach Park Joo Bong is credited with lending impetus to Japan’s efforts to return to the ranks of the world’s top badminton nations
Ever since 1981, when the Chinese were welcomed back into the folds of the BWF (Badminton World Federation, then International Badminton Federation), the shuttlers from the world’s most populous nation have comprehensively dominated world badminton, often sweeping all five titles at stake in the World Badminton Championships that were launched in 1977.
In their very first participation in the then triennial Worlds at Copenhagen in 1983, the Chinese women were supreme, winning two golds, a silver and two bronze medals out of the eight that were at stake in the women’s singles and doubles.
Gradually, the Chinese men climbed on to the winners’ bandwagon. At the 1987 Worlds on home soil in Beijing, they bagged four of the five gold medals. At Paris in 2010, they created history by sweeping all five titles – Chen Jin in the men’s singles, Wang Lin in the women’s singles, Cai Yun-Fu Haifeng in the men’s doubles, Du Jing-Yu Yang in the women’s doubles, and Zheng Bo-Ma Jin in the mixed.
This was bang in the middle of the Lin Dan era that had started at Madrid in 2006, and continued till 2014, when Chen Long took over the mantle of the world’s best male singles player. In fact, the last time that a non-Chinese player bagged the men’s singles title at a World Championship, it was back in 2005 at Anaheim, when Indonesia’s ‘backhand king’ Taufik Hidayat bagged the title at Super Dan’s expense in a rip-roaring final.
The results of the 2017 Worlds at Glasgow have created a furore in the badminton world. It was the first time since 1993 that China have gone home without a gold in either of the two singles. That happened in Birmingham during the golden era of Indonesian badminton, when Joko Suprianto and Susi Susanti bagged the two stellar individual crowns.
In Glasgow, it was the turn of Denmark’s towering Viktor Axelsen, who has hero-worshipped Lin Dan since his childhood days, to turn the tables on his idol, and consign the Chinese legend to only a second World Championship silver medal behind five golds between 2006 and 2013.
Lin would probably have won six golds in a row during this period (the World Championships are not held in an Olympic year), had he not sat out the 2010 edition as a result of injury. Chen Jin, who had been runner-up to Lin at Hyderabad the previous year, won the title in Paris, to help extend China’s hegemony in the prestigious event.
The Chinese domination in the women’s singles, however, had ended after the 2011 edition of the Worlds in London, when Wang Yihan had taken home the glittering yellow metal. When the Worlds resumed after the 2012 London Olympics, the women’s title went to Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon in 2013, and to Spain’s Carolina Marin in the following two years.
In both the 2013 and 2014 editions, the redoubtable Li Xuerui had to rest content with the silver.
This time, it was Japan’s diminutive dynamo, Nozomi Okuhara and India’s willowy PV Sindhu, who prevented China from having a representative in the women’s singles final. Sindhu handed the hugely talented reigning junior world champion Chen Yufei a comprehensive thrashing which might well have left scars on the Chinese youngster’s psyche.
As has been extensively documented, Okuhara edged Sindhu in a rip-roaring 110-minute final that is being talked of as one of the greatest women’s matches of all time. The results of the two singles events caused the Chinese to leave Glasgow without a gold in the stellar events, and they eventually ended the competition with seven medals – two gold, two silver and three bronze – out of a maximum possible 20 medals in the five disciplines.
Even as Chinese fortunes dipped, there was a major resurgence in the fortunes of Japan, which was a badminton powerhouse in the 1970s. The Japanese tally this time was four medals – one gold, one silver and two bronze – and it was a big improvement from the three bronze medals they had won at Jakarta in the 2015 edition of the Worlds.
Indonesia ended in third place in the medals tally with a gold and a silver, and Denmark scooped a gold and a bronze, while India produced its best performance ever, with a silver and a bronze, both in the women’s singles.
Other nations to have received an honourable mention on the medals table were South Korea, England and Hong Kong, with a bronze medal apiece.
Japan’s results at Glasgow were in consonance with the resurgence that the country’s badminton has shown in the past three years. In both the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup international team events, the Japanese have produced sterling results, and their players have also been to the forefront in individual events on the Super Series circuit.
The Japanese Uber Cup squad has strength and depth, with the 22-years-old Okuhara and 20-year-old Akane Yamaguchi leading the singles challenge, ahead of such reliables as the 26-years-old left-hander Sayaka Sato, 2014 World Championship bronze medal winner Minatsu Mitani and Aya Ohori.
The country also boasts three powerful doubles combinations, led by Ayaka Takahashi-Misaki Matsutomo, who have been the world’s No 1 combination for the past two years, and won bronze in Glasgow. Yuki Fukushima-Sayaka Hirota, who sorely troubled the Chinese winners Chen Qingchen-Jia Yifan in the final, are equally strong, while Naoko Fukuman-Kurumi Yonao, who won bronze at Jakarta in 2015, also give the Japanese Uber Cup team great balance.
The Japanese men’s team lacks the same depth as the women’s squad, but has an extremely talented player in the leader’s slot. Left-hander Kento Momota, a former world junior champion, pocketed bronze in 2015 at Jakarta, but then blotted his copybook in April 2016 by being expelled from the national squad for a year for indulging in illegal gambling.
Momota, who was No 3 in the world at the time, is back in the reckoning after serving his sentence, but faces the arduous haul back to the top after having to surrender all his hard-earned ranking points. He re-entered the world circuit at No 282 in July, and has since worked his way up to No 209. In the same manner as Andre Agassi worked his way back from No 147 all the way to the very top, Momota should be back where he belongs, among the top-10, by mid-2018.
One man is credited with lending impetus to Japan’s efforts to return to the ranks of the world’s top badminton nations – their South Korean coach Park Joo Bong. One of the best doubles players of all time, and endowed with remarkable reflexes, he won two men’s doubles and three mixed doubles world titles between 1985 and 1991, the wafer-slim Park trained the Korean and Malaysian national squads in the first decade of the current century, before taking up an assignment in 2013 as head coach of Japan’s badminton squads.
Known to be a stickler for discipline and demanding total dedication from his wards, Park is being thought of as the main catalyst in bringing mental strength to the intrinsically talented Japanese players, and turning them into world-beaters.
“You need to acknowledge Park Joo Bong’s contribution in improving the mental toughness of the Japanese players,” says Pune-based Nishad Dravid, who held the record of being India’s youngest national junior champion (at 16 years, 2 months) until a few months ago, when he was overtaken by Lakshya Sen, at 15 years 10 months.
“I remember playing against the Japanese juniors in the closing years of the last century, and found that they had plenty of talent, but were a happy-go-lucky lot, and did not believe in training much. Nor did they believe in mental preparedness. We used to refer to them as ‘TP’ (time-pass) players! Park must have taken them to task, and made them mentally tough.
“If you saw Okuhara’s performance in the closing stages of the Glasgow final against Sindhu, you could see how strong she was mentally. She matched Sindhu in the sphere of physical toughness, but went one better in the matter of mental toughness.”
The induction last year of Indonesian singles specialist Mulyo Handoyo (former coach of 2005 world champion Taufiq Hidayat) into Pullela Gopichand’s coaching team at his Hyderabad academy has already produced rich dividends, as can be seen from the recent improved international performances of Kidambi Srikanth, Sai Praneeth, HS Prannoy and Sindhu.
But there is a perceivable vacuum in the mental strength department, as could be seen from the displays put up by Sindhu and Srikanth in the just-concluded Worlds. Perhaps the need of the hour, for India’s national-level shuttlers, is a coach who, like Park Joo Bong, is also a sports psychologist and motivator.
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