There is a lot riding on 24-year-old Yuta Watanabe’s shoulders.
As a top player in two categories, Watanabe will have double the workload of most of his contemporaries at Tokyo 2020. Yet, the world No.4 in men’s doubles and No.5 in mixed tries not to overthink by staying focussed on his immediate priorities. That’s an attitude he carried all through the qualification period.
“I just wanted to give my best performance in all tournaments I participated in. I didn’t put too much importance on the Olympics, so I didn’t have to go around the tournaments with the Olympic race in mind,” Watanabe told Badminton Unlimited.
“We’re both the type of people who don’t think too much,” he added, referring to mixed doubles partner Arisa Higashino, “so we don’t look too far into the future, and we believe that everyone’s environment is equal and cannot be changed. So, we were just trying to do what we could to make the best of the situation.”
Watanabe is one of the few players at the top level – Korea’s Seo Seung Jae is another – who will be doing double duty at the Olympics. While he has consistently maintained a high level in both categories, the Olympics will present a whole different set of challenges, given that it is on home soil.
The left-hander has had few opportunities at international events over the last two years due to the pandemic and some bad luck. After making the men’s doubles final and the mixed doubles semifinals at the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals 2019, Watanabe and his partners have played only two international events – the YONEX All England — in 2020 and 2021.
The Japanese grabbed both opportunities. Watanabe and Hiroyuki Endo held off defending champions Marcus Fernaldi Gideon/Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo in a thrilling final in 2020 for their sixth straight win over the Minions. After a year away from competition, Watanabe and Endo defended their title; Watanabe then captured the mixed doubles crown with Higashino to become the first male double titlist at the All England in nearly two decades.
“When we won the All England in 2020, I realised that what we had been doing so far was right, and that gave me confidence and I have been satisfied so far,” said Watanabe. “However, I don’t think too much about the Olympics. Rather, what’s more important for us is to keep getting good results and to play in every tournament without giving up.
“Of course, there were times when we felt anxious because we did not get results, and there were times when we felt happy when we did get good results. But in my mind, it’s good to be happy or sad for a moment, and then it all becomes a thing of the past, and there will always be competitions coming up or things we should aim for. So, in the midst of all this, it’s necessary for us to look back for a moment, but I tried to maintain a strong sense of starting from scratch afterwards.”
Watanabe hopes his performance will contribute in some way to people feeling the pain of the pandemic.
“I think all we can do as competitors is to do our best. We hope that by doing so, the people around us and the people watching us will feel something, although we can’t decide what that something is, we hope that we can give a good impression to the people around us. I think that’s what this time’s Olympics is about.”