New singles winners at the All Japan Championships filled the gaping holes left by the injured Nozomi Okuhara and the disappearance of the men’s singles Big 3, whilst Takeshi Kamura took the doubles double.
Story and photos by Miyuki Komiya (live)
The All Japan Championships were held in Yoyogi 2nd Gymnasium in Tokyo from November 28 till December 4. Defending champion and Olympic bronze medallist Nozomi Okuhara stopped playing in the 2nd round due to a shoulder injury. That, combined with the absence of the dominant forces in men’s singles in recent years – Sho Sasaki, Kento Momota and Kenichi Tago – and the singles fields were wide open for new title prospects in 2016.
At the beginning of winter, the Japanese players always become somewhat nervous. The All Japan Championships, in addition to the titles up for grabs, functions as a part of the national team selection process, those who perform in front of national coaches have the best chance of being named to the national team for 2017.
Sonoda and Kamura defend the title
The first match of the final day was men’s doubles where Keigo Sonoda / Takeshi Kamura returned to Tokyo not just as defending champions but also as newly crowned winners of their first Superseries event, the Hong Kong Open title just a week before.
The other finalists were Hiroyuki Endo and Yuta Watanabe. After Kenichi Hayakawa announced his retirement this autumn, Endo paired up with the 19 year-old Watanabe, bronze medallist at last year’s World Junior Championships.
Sonoda/Kamura took the first game easily 21-11 but the second game fit the pace of Endo/Watanabe. The deciding rubber was the closest, and although Endo/Watanabe twice got to championship point, Sonoda/Kamura kept their offence strong and defended their title, winning 21-11, 13-21, 23-21.
“On the last few points, I kept my concentration strong even when our opponents had the championship points. We know their defence is great so we just focussed in each rally and tried to play patiently and not to make any mistakes,” said Sonoda after the match.
Kamura said, “I’m very happy to get this title twice. And also, we realised it is hard to defend the title.”
“Our Olympic race didn’t go so well so we were talking a lot about our tactics and so on. After that, we focused more on every match. I think our good attitude brought us the great results in Hong Kong and at the All Japan Championship these past two weeks. We will do our best in Superseries Finals in Dubai too,” added Sonoda, who has topped the Superseries standings going into his first appearance at the season-ending event.
Not easy, even for Rio gold medallists
The women’s doubles saw Olympic gold medallists Ayaka Takahashi / Misaki Matsutomo face off against world #17 pair Koharu Yonemoto / Shiho Tanaka, who had come past the world #7 Fukuman/Yonao in the semi-final to get their shot at the title.
In the first game, Yonemoto/Tanaka established a good lead taking the end 21-16, but the second game was much closer. The underdogs caught the world #1 pair at 17-all but Takahashi/Matsutomo held on and took it 21-19. The final game played closer to rankings as Takahashi/Matsutomo played a stable game and kept their way until the end taking their 5th title in this category.
“I could hear the cheering voices from our supporters during the match,” said Matsutomo afterward. “I was very happy that so many people were behind us.”
“We have a lot of experience so we have the confidence to win. We need to change some things to play better. We will play in the Superseries Finals soon and want to get the title there,” added Ayaka Takahashi.
Sayaka Sato finally returns
Whilst Olympic bronze medallist Nozomi Okuhara withdrew from her 2nd round match, another Olympian in Akane Yamaguchi faced former Olympian Sayaka Sato in final, a match up that the previous year saw Sato win in the semi-final.
Sayaka Sato had good start in the first game and took it 21-18 and whilst the second also started at Sato’s pace, Yamaguchi caught up at 11-all. The momentum changed like a see-saw for the rest of the game, at least until Sato took 4 consecutive points from 18, ending the match sat on the court in tears.
Sato said after the match, “I had been suffering after I injured my leg at the London Olympics. When I was watching the Olympics this year, I wanted to be on the court in the Olympics again. I’m really happy to get this title.”
Yamaguchi said, “I didn’t have pressure as an Olympian. Japanese women’s singles level is quite high so it is not easy to reach final in this tournament even if I’m an Olympian.”
First University student MS winner for 16 years
The real void this year was in men’s singles, with Sho Sasaki’s retirement after the Olympics and Tago and Momota not allowed to participate as a result of their illegal casino transgressions. With these players away, it provided an opportunity for another veteran or a young national player to take the title.
The chance was grasped by eventual finalists Kenta Nishimoto and Kazumasa Sakai. Sakai led the first game from start to end and controlled the second game until 18-15, but Nishimoto didn’t give up taking 5 consecutive points and the second game 22-20.
In the deciding game, Nishimoto continued his concentration stretching a big lead at 11-6, then after changing ends, he just added on the points until he crossed the line for his first title. It was the first time the men’s singles title has gone to a university student since national team coach Keita Masuda performed the feat 16 years ago.
Nishimoto said after the match, “My target was to get this title this year. Sakai’s smash was good but I didn’t want to give up till the end so I only focused on returning every shuttle.
“Actually, I don’t remember how I played. I was just focused on each rally. I am happy to make it back onto the national team with this title. I want to start winning international tournaments, too.”
Takeshi/Koharu take the double
Takeshi Kamura and Koharu Yonemoto had already won their respective finals in men’s and women’s doubles but they were also back to take a shot at the mixed doubles title they won 4 years ago. Their opponents in the final were Kohei Gondo and Sayaka Hirota, who had beaten Olympians Kazuno/Kurihara to reach their first final.
Both pairs consisted of partners who normally train with different company teams and it was Kamura and Yonemoto who adjusted quickest, keeping the upper hand from start to finish as they took the title within half an hour.
“I haven’t played mixed doubles for one year,” Kamura said afterward, “so I didn’t have the confidence to serve from behind my partner. We are both focusing on level doubles and actually we are not sure if we will play in this category in international tournaments.”
Yonemoto said, “I almost forgot how to play well in our first game but our tactics became better and better. In this category, the shuttle speed is very fast so it is good experience for me to play in women’s doubles.”
MD: Keigo Sonoda / Takeshi Kamura beat Hiroyuki Endo / Yuta Watanabe 21-11, 13-21, 23-21
WD: Ayaka Matsutomo / Misaki Matsutomo beat Koharu Yonemoto / Shiho Tanaka 16-21, 21-19, 21-14
WS: Sayaka Sato beat Akane Yamaguchi 21-18, 21-17
MS: Kenta Nishimoto beat Kazumasa Sakai 16-21, 22-20, 21-8
XD: Takeshi Kamura / Koharu Yonemoto beat Kohei Gondo / Sayaka Hirota 21-16, 21-15
More details here (in Japanese)