Returning to the scene of their biggest title win – the YONEX All England – and winning it after a year of not playing any international event, Hiroyuki Endo and Yuta Watanabe showed that no rust had crept in to dull the fine edge of their weapons. With just over three months to go for Tokyo 2020, the Japanese men’s doubles pair will be frontline contenders for gold.
Their path to the title in Birmingham this March was smooth, winning their first four matches in straight games. And even though Endo/Watanabe dropped a game in the final against compatriots Takeshi Kamura/Keigo Sonoda, they decimated their opponents in the final game, achieving the first title defence by a non-Indonesian men’s doubles pair since 1988.
“We won the final last year, but we haven’t been able to play since then so we didn’t feel like we had a better chance than our opponents,” said Endo, who revealed that the title was a birthday gift for his son. “So we went into the match as challengers and took it point by point. We didn’t feel we had an advantage.”
What make this pair so hard to beat? No less a pair than Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo have run aground six times in eight matches against the Japanese – all losses coming in the last six matches. The most peculiar of these was a 21-3 hiding that the Indonesians got in the final of the Badminton Asia Championships 2019.
The Japanese pair’s assets are their extraordinary defence that can frustrate the most tenacious of opponents; the rotational flexibility of Endo and Watanabe, who can switch roles and positions on court; Watanabe’s unique angles as a wristy left-hander, and Endo’s unflappable presence.
After their semifinal loss in the semifinals of the All England, Denmark’s Jeppe Bay and Lasse MØlhede commented on how difficult it was to break through the Japanese defence.
“We knew in this game there would be a lot of long rallies, they have a very strong defence so every time we came forward they just pushed us back again,” said MØlhede.
Endo’s second All England title in two years was testament to how far the 34-year-old has come with his younger partner, for previously he couldn’t break the title jinx in three finals with his then-partner Kenichi Hayakawa.
Endo and Watanabe will next be seen in action at the YONEX-SUNRISE India Open (11 to 16 May 2021), and it will be interesting to see how well the others hold up against the wonderful skills of the Japanese.