The biggest underdog story of Tokyo 2020 was, of course, Kevin Cordon. But there were others too who, at times, punched above their weight. While those performances didn’t always result in victories, their battling displays meant they could return from Tokyo with their heads held high and greater confidence in their abilities for the challenges ahead.
The 21-year-old from Ireland comfortably handled the wares of Sri Lankan veteran Niluka Karunaratne before giving Wang Tzu Wei plenty to think about in their Group F match. Wang needed 79 minutes to make it past his young opponent, 21-12 18-21 21-12.
“I have no regrets. I think at 11-11 in third set, that’s when you start being more aggressive. I was confident in my defence so I had no regrets about opening up, I wanted to do that to myself… Definitely at the next couple of Olympics I feel I can use this experience and push forward,” said Nguyen.
The Vietnamese world No.46 has not been seen often at elite level tournaments, but she did enough to suggest that she aspire for higher things. She dismissed Qi Xuefei in straight games before giving world No.1 Tai Tzu Ying much to think about in their opening game.
“After my match with Tai Tzu Ying, my confidence got better. I think I can do well in other tournaments,” said the Vietnamese.
The world No.47 threw up the biggest surprise of the opening day when he shot down 13th seed Sai Praneeth in straight games. The Israeli continued with the momentum into his next match, against Mark Caljouw, before running out of steam in three games.
“Definitely this is the biggest win of my career. I didn’t expect to win,” said Zilberman, after beating Praneeth. “Badminton is not a popular sport in Israel so maybe this result will bring a lot of eyes on to this sport and will maybe grow the sport inside the country if I can continue to play well.”
The Canadians had a 2-0 record over Selena Piek/Cheryl Seinen going into their Group B match, but the Dutch pulled off a hard-fought win in three games. Honderich and Tsai then came out guns blazing against second seeds Mayu Matsumoto/Wakana Nagahara, very nearly toppling the home favourites before being edged out 21-18 in the third.
“Lot of emotions right now, but probably one of the best matches we’ve played,” said Honderich. “So there’s lots to be proud of. We could sense they were nervous, so we saw the opportunity, but right now we feel disappointed.”
The Canadian, at 19 the youngest player in the men’s singles draw, very nearly pulled off an upset over second seed Chou Tien Chen in Group P. Chou had a lead in the closing stages, but Yang showed great tenacity to frustrate his opponent, and Chou needed all his experience and grit to come through, 21-18 16-21 22-20, and top the group.
“Even though I lost, there was a chance for me to win,” said Yang. “I feel really proud, really satisfied with my performance. I think I exceeded my expectations.
“He was seeded two, I didn’t really have anything to lose against him, so I didn’t really feel any pressure. I’m sure he was feeling it, once I started challenging him a bit, he was like, ‘I can’t lose to this guy who’s lower ranked than me’. That’s just how the pressure works, it can affect you so much.”
The Australians hit their stride belatedly. After quick defeats to Lee Sohee/Shin Seungchan and Du Yue/Li Yin Hui, Gronya Somerville and Setyana Mapasa showcased their abilities in a hard-fought and entertaining 21-19 13-21 21-12 win over Sara Thygesen/Maiken Fruergaard, ranked 10 places above them.
“I don’t know if it’s our biggest win, but happening at the Olympics is pretty special. We’ve been pretty disappointed with our performances so far, so to finish on a win and to have played some good badminton for all of our family and friends in Melbourne and Australia to watch is very special,” said Somerville.
“I think we knew we could better, so we just wanted to try and show our best. We weren’t really dispirited from the (earlier losses); we knew we had it in us to play this kind of level so we’re really happy to have done that.”
The Danish duo raised visions of a memorable entry into the quarterfinals by upsetting Lee Sohee/Shin Seungchan in their second Group C match, in one of the most closely-fought matches of women’s doubles. However, rather against expectations, they fell in three games to Somerville/Mapasa in their final group match, which crushed their quarterfinal hopes.
“In the third set I don’t know what happened. It’s just low quality on almost every shuttle and not enough movement,” said Fruergaard, ruing the missed opportunity.