Two of the smallest players in badminton stood tallest today as Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi showed the character of champions, reeling off five straight points to give Japan a historic first-ever Olympic gold medal in the sport.
In wresting the Women’s Doubles title in dramatic fashion, the giggly pair with the schoolgirl smiles denied Denmark’s Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl the honour of becoming the first non-Asian winners of this category.
History was going to be made regardless of who won, and at 19-16 up in the third game, the veteran Danes looked on course to have gleaming gold dangling from their necks when they return home.
Fate can be cruel though and a flawless onslaught of attack saw the top seeds claw back from the brink of defeat to the dizzying heights of Olympic stardom as their supporters screamed excitedly, shouting Japan’s former name: “Nippon, Nippon.”
A shot into the net by Pedersen finalised the proceedings: 18-21 21-9 21-19 to Matsutomo and Takahashi in 76 minutes.
While the podium’s top place went to Japan the enthralling war of attrition for the Rio 2016 crown was a credit to the fight and spirit of both teams and the hugs exchanged at the end were a testament to the respect of one for the other.
“We had our chances but the Japanese played really well from that point. My dream now is to go back and play from 19-16 but we feel we did the best we could,” said a candid Pedersen standing in front media, while an exhausted Rytter Juhl sat by her side.
“We have never been so tired after a match as we are right now. I am really proud how we handled this – a tough first game; a really difficult second game and then we fought our way back in the third.
“Of course we are disappointed considering we were 19-16 but we did the best we could. The Japanese took some chances. They were on a roll. That’s sport.”
The iconic moment for their country was not lost on 24-year-old Matsutomo and her 26-year-old partner, both of whom were visibly emotional with their flag ascending to the rafter and their national anthem caressing their ears at the medal ceremony.
“The Olympics have been our biggest goal and it was very emotional to realise our dream has come true. Also, it was the first time in history that our anthem was heard in an Olympic badminton venue and that was wonderful,” said Takahashi, adding that they tried to relax by thinking of the tournament as a BWF World Superseries event.
They were also motivated by seeing No.1 seeds in other doubles categories being beaten. They wanted to show that they are indeed the best in the world and to back it up by winning badminton’s most prestigious title.
Back to their fun-loving ways once the match was over, they giggled and showed their true personalities when asked what they were laughing and chatting about when they received their medal from the Crown Prince of Denmark.
Their reply: “We were saying these gold medals are quite heavy.”
The match, however, was no laughing matter as a tense struggle began immediately as the power-packing Pedersen and Rytter Juhl tried their best to overwhelm the season’s stand-out partnership. A thunderous smash by the latter secured the opening game for Denmark but the Japanese struck back impressively, blending fiery attack and feathery drop shots; Takahashi at the rear and Matsutomo on patrol up front.
A quick 21-9 game and the pairs changed sides for the third game which proved a cat-and-mouse tussle, a point or two one way and then the other. Neither could get a grip on the match. Suddenly, fortune appeared to favour the Europeans – but not so fast!
The calm and resolute Japanese weren’t done yet.
Actually, they weren’t done at all as they went on all-out attack while, ironically, their opponents seemed tentative and not willing to take risks.
“The Danes have had great form in this tournament and they are tall and powerful. We have to really think our way through this final; use our brains to beat them.
“We never expected to win easily but it was a great result for badminton in Japan and we are happy,” declared Takahashi, adding they are already being flooded with congratulations, including a message from Kimiko Ginnai who represented Japan in Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games.
The former national player told the gold medallists she never thought Japan would have such a day at the Olympics.
Meanwhile, Rytter Juhl chose to reflect about the positives in the draining campaign to the silver medal.
“It was an amazing final. It had everything,” she said.
“If anyone had said you would be so close to winning the gold and you will play your best match ever in an Olympic final, I would be proud and I would take that.
“Almost all our tears are because we are proud – only one out of 100 is because we are disappointed.”
Meanwhile, Korea’s Jung Kyung Eun and Shin Seung Chan beat Tang Yuanting and Yu Yang for the bronze medal earlier in the day, winning 21-8 21-17. It was Korea’s only medal of the Badminton Competition.
The result doomed China to its first medal shut-out in Women’s Doubles in Olympic badminton. They won silver in Barcelona and gold at every Olympic Games until this year.