The stakes couldn’t be any higher for Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara.
Not only are they two-time and reigning world champions, they will be taking on a difficult field at their home Olympics under unfamiliar circumstances, with spectators disallowed and with the home favourites having played only one international event this year.
The world No.2 duo admit to having had a difficult time over the past year, particularly in the early months of lockdown.
“When the Olympics was postponed, and when we couldn’t practice because of the state of emergency, we lost motivation like never before,” says Nagahara. “But after that, when Covid gradually subsided, and training camps and tournaments started to resume little by little, we could re-set our mind and started working hard for the Olympics. So we are doing our best. But it’s not just us, it’s the same for all other players, so we will keep our eyes focused on the Olympics and continue to work hard.”
Her partner believes that the special circumstances under which the Olympics is being held will actually act as incentive for players to play beyond their capabilities.
“I think the athletes will be able to show their strength more than ever before because they will be competing under such circumstances. I think the Japanese athletes will even work harder for sure,” says Matsumoto.
While Matsumoto and Nagahara have played just two international events since the imposition of lockdowns worldwide in March/April 2020, they have made full use of both opportunities. They narrowly lost the DANISA Denmark Open 2020 final to compatriots Yuki Fukushima/Sayaka Hirota, but had their revenge at the YONEX All England 2021 in March, overwhelming their teammates in straight games in the final.
Nagahara traces their consistency to the confidence gained from winning their second World Championships in August 2019.
In the first half of the (Olympic qualifying) season, we were behind while other Japanese pairs were doing well, we felt that if we didn’t win the World Championships in August, the future races would be tough. So one of the keys was to see how well we could do at the World Championships. Winning the World Championships for the second time in a row gave us a lot of confidence, and we were able to gradually improve our results from there. So I think the first key point in our race was the World Championships.”