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Japan Para-Badminton International: Sarina Satomi & Yuma Yamazaki Victorious in a Dramatic Upset!

The HULIC DAIHATSU Japan Para-Badminton International 2019 was held from November 13-17 at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium (1st Gymnasium) in Shibuya City, the venue for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. The tournament was attended by 219 athletes from 35 countries and regions.

The battles were fierce, seeing as the tournament offered the athletes the points they would need to compete in the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Amongst the Japanese athletes, Sarina Satomi/Yuma Yamazaki of the Women’s Doubles (WH1+WH2/Wheelchair) event and Ayako Suzuki of the Women’s Singles event (SU5/Standing Upper Limb Impairment) both made their ways to dramatic victories.

Satomi/Yamazaki Overcome Rivals in an Incredible Upset

Satomi (right) and Yamazaki, with tears in their eyes

Their path to victory must have been a particularly emotional one. Their finals match against Menglu Yin/Yutong Liu (China), winner of the Para-Badminton World Championships, was a grueling 58-minute battle. And when they finally claimed victory, 21-year old Sarina Satomi’s eyes welled up with tears. Her partner Yuma Yamazaki—a mother of two—ruffled her hair, with a gentle smile.

“I was nervous the whole time, so when we finally won I felt so relieved I started crying,” said Satomi.

Since the two partnered up in July 2018, they had seen the Chinese teams, with their incredible speed, as their biggest rivals. They had, in fact, lost in the face of this overwhelming speed at the Indonesia 2018 Asian Para Games, last year’s major tournament.

In order to handle these rivals, the two had cultivated a strategy called “rotation.” The basic formation for wheelchair badminton is the “side by side,” with the two players next to each other on the court. What they had done was train so that they could move into a different offensive formation called the “top & back,” in which one of them would be in front, and the other in the back.

“We may be slower than the Chinese teams, but if we’re able to rotate our positions and cover a wider area of the court, it’s more efficient. That’s our strength right now,” said Yamazaki.

They were supposed to have played Menglu Yin/Yutong Liu, the strongest of their Chinese rivals, in the semi-finals of the World Championships, but had had to drop out due to Yamazaki’s health issues. Thus, this was their first time facing each other. In this finals match, they were trying to see how far their plays could go against the para-badminton world champions.

After all of their training, you would have expected Satomi/Yamazaki to play a rotation-heavy game. The formation they chose, however, was the side by side. Satomi revealed after the match, “I didn’t think the rotation would work for the Chinese pair, so I suggested that we go with the side-by-side.”

It was only when they found themselves backed into a corner that they realized that this had been a weak stance to hold. After each winning one game, the third game saw them trailing behind the Chinese pair 4-14. The thought of losing the match began to cross the minds not only of those in the stands, but Satomi and Yamazaki as well. It was this moment, however, that gave the two the opportunity to let go of all inhibitions and fight back. “If we’re going to lose, we might as well go with the rotation.”

A formation that has one in the front and the other in the back, with the two rotating between the positions

Turns out, this was the kick they needed. Satomi, putting her full body strength into her clear shots, Yamazaki going to cover her at critical moments. They’d regained their attack spirit. They made an astonishing ten points in a row, then pushed on straight to victory. The crowd roared at the extraordinary upset, and Yamazaki said, looking a bit stunned, “We realized the rotation is made for us.”

Satomi also came in 3rd in the Women’s Singles event. Though she fell to Thailand’s Sujirat Pookkham, with whom she battled it out at the World Championship finals, she seemed overall satisfied with her performance. “My training did work out,” she said, then went on to promise that she would win gold in two events at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Ayako Suzuki Beats Rival with Strategy in an Intense Match

Suzuki after her victory, waving at the cheering locals

The drama was not limited to Satomi/Yamazaki, however. In what seemed like a show of local pride, Ayako Suzuki also fought her way to victory through a grueling match. Her opponent in the finals was Qiuxia Yang of China, who she’d lost to in the finals of the World Championships. Both had, in fact, only ever lost to the other, but in recent years Suzuki had suffered a string of defeats against her—making Yang a tough opponent for the finals match.

Suzuki’s victory, despite these odds, came down to the footwork training she had done after the World Championships. In the past, she’d been unable even to touch many of Yang’s cut drop shots, which was why after the World Championships, she had worked to make her footwork more efficient.

And it was this footwork that shone during this finals match. Though the match itself developed in thrilling fashion, with both sides not budging an inch, the first and second games saw Suzuki holding her ground in the rallies, moving efficiently across the court at critical moments. Even at 20-all in the second game, she managed to pick up the shuttles aimed at the four corners of the court, eventually forcing Yang to make an “out” shot. The score became 21-19, then 22-20. The joy of working so hard, and of claiming victory over her biggest rival, was incredible. “This will give me confidence for the future,” she said, with conviction.

Suzuki overcame her trouble spot and claimed victory over her rival in the finals

Suzuki also went on to win 2nd place in the Women’s Doubles (SL3-SU5) event, alongside Noriko Ito. Through this, she moved another step closer to her dream, since those ranked highly in the Doubles rankings are given priority for spots in the Tokyo Paralympic Games.

Suzuki won 2nd place with Noriko Ito (front) in the Women’s Doubles event

Haruka Fujino, who came in 2nd place in the Women’s Singles (SL4/Standing Lower Limb Impairment) event, also took a step forward towards qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympic Games. Though she lost 11-21, 12-21 in straight sets against Hefang Cheng (China)—who came in 2nd in the World Championships—she seemed hopeful for the future, telling us, “I’m glad I was able to make it to the finals in what’s going to be the official venue for the Tokyo Paralympic Games. I want to play Cheng again in the finals next year.”

Fujino went all the way to the finals in the Women’s Singles event

Murayama/Kajiwara Emerge Victorious in Men’s Doubles (Wheelchair) Japan Battle

Another battleground—in the name of qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympic Games—was the Men’s Doubles (Wheelchair) event. Only one pair from each country is allowed to compete in the Doubles events. In Japan, this means that Osamu Nagashima/Atsuya Watanabe, who came in 3rd in the World Championships, are battling Hiroshi Murayama/Daiki Kajiwara, who made it to the quarter-finals of the same, for that one spot to compete in Tokyo.

New up-and-comer Kajiwara came in 3rd in the Singles event as well

It was in the quarter-finals that the two pairs came face-to-face. And the pair that emerged victorious—Murayama/Kajiwara, at 21-19, 21-9. “I was so nervous,” said Kajiwara, who is still in high school, about this match. “This doesn’t mean we’ve qualified for the Paralympics. We want to make sure we keep up the tension as we move forward,” said Murayama, who is 27 years older than Kajiwara.

Nagashima’s expression was stony as he discussed their loss. “In terms of Doubles, we’ll probably need to win all of our remaining matches. We’ll discuss our strategy from here after things settle down a bit.”

text by Yoshimi Suzuki
photo by X-1

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