Five years after her last major final – the Japan Open 2014 – Miyuki Maeda was back at her home event, but in a different role.
Maeda, one of the top women’s doubles players of her time, has followed many of her contemporaries who have chosen to work with television. China’s Wang Lin and Wang Yihan, and her own Japanese peers Reiko Shiota, Kumiko Ogura and Shintaro Ikeda are now seen interviewing players rather than being interviewed as they were in their prime.
What makes it intriguing is that the Japanese players she interviews (she is a commentator and interviewer for J Sports) are just one generation removed from hers; it is the generation she handed the baton over to. Having played with some and watched most of the others come up the ranks, Maeda admits to having fraternal feelings when she quizzes them after matches.
“This is my first time as an interviewer,” said Maeda. “I have worked as a commentator for a while. I know every player because I’ve played with them, so I sometimes feel nervous speaking to them because it’s the first time, but otherwise I enjoy doing this.
“If the player has won, I’m also happy. If they lose, I feel sad. I can feel what they feel.”
Maeda, along with Satoko Suetsuna and then Reika Kakiiwa later in her career, was part of the generation that paved the way for later dominance by Japanese women’s doubles pairs. Relying on a brand of badminton that prioritised sound defending and endless rallying skills, the Japanese found success against most opponents. Maeda and Suetsuna were fourth at the Beijing Olympics and followed up with a bronze at the World Championships in 2011; after Suetsuna’s retirement, Maeda teamed up with Reika Kakiiwa and they won bronze at the World Championships in 2014.
On the Superseries circuit, Maeda and Suetsuna were victorious at two India Opens (2011 and 2013) and one Denmark Open (2010), and finished runners-up at five events.
Japan’s women’s team was re-emerging as a power after a long hiatus; Maeda was in the team that won the Uber Cup bronze in 2010; they made the final four years later. A few members of that 2014 team would feature prominently in their historic re-capture of the Uber Cup in Bangkok in 2018.
China had been overwhelmingly dominant in women’s doubles, with a galaxy of stars to choose from – Yu Yang, Wang Xiaoli, Ma Jin, Tang Jinhua, Zhao Yunlei, Tian Qing and Bao Yixin being among them. It was an uphill battle for Maeda and her contemporaries against the Chinese, with few notable successes. Their standout performance against a top Chinese pair was their defeat of Yang Wei/Zhang Jiewen in the quarterfinals of the Beijing Olympics.
From a period when Japanese women’s doubles pairs frequently finished second-best, to replacing the Chinese as the dominant force in women’s doubles, it has been a revolutionary change, and Maeda is happy to have been one of the players who were instrumental in showing the way for the shift in power.
“The Chinese were the hardest to beat,” recalls Maeda. “I’m happy about the progress of Japanese women’s doubles. I think the level all over the world is getting higher, but I want our pairs to achieve much more,” she says. “My generation benefited from our seniors, and in turn, my generation showed the way to players like (Misaki) Matsutomo and (Ayaka) Takahashi and the others.”
The Olympics will be in Japan next year, and Maeda – whose last full season was in 2015, find herself nostalgic these days.
“It’s very hard to choose my most memorable moments because I have many. But I went to the Olympics twice and now our players are trying very hard to make it to Tokyo 2020 and so I think a lot about my own experiences at the Olympics.”