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Will home advantage help Japanese shuttlers clinch gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics?

Kento Momota is eyeing his first medal at the Olympics
Kento Momota is eyeing his first medal at the Olympics
FEATURED COLUMNIST

In six editions of the Olympics since badminton was introduced as a medal sport in 1992, Japan has stood on the podium just thrice.

Mizuki Fujii and Reika Kakiiwa made history for the country at the London Olympics when they bagged Japan's first-ever medal at the Games — a women's doubles silver.

In the following edition, Japan went a step ahead and captured two medals at the Rio Olympics. While Nozomi Okuhara had to be content with a bronze in women's singles, the women's doubles pair of Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi finished on the top of the podium in a historic achievement.

However, medals at the Olympics in the men's categories have continued to elude them so far.

The Asian giants will look to change that this time around. For the last five years, Japan has grown in strength to become one of the badminton powerhouses of Asia. They have made rapid strides in all sections of the sport with multiple shuttlers aiming for the gold medal in Tokyo. Having home support will also work to their advantage and Japan looks destined to sweep the medal categories.

On that note, let's take a look at the shuttlers who could bring Japan a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics:


#1 Kento Momota - Men's singles

Kento Momota looking to finish Tokyo Olympics on a high
Kento Momota looking to finish Tokyo Olympics on a high

Kento Momota hasn't had the most ideal preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. An accident cut short his 2020 season after winning the Malaysia Masters in January. With the world plunging into the coronavirus crisis soon after, the southpaw hasn't got much of a chance to make a proper comeback and get some vital matches under his belt before the Games.

The 26-year-old returned to the BWF World Tour at the All England Open in March. Clearly rusty, the world No. 1 was bundled out in the quarterfinals by Malaysia's Lee Zii Jia.

While his lack of match practice could be a cause for concern, Momota is known for his resilience. The shuttler overcame the deadly 2011 East Japan Earthquake that struck his adopted home of Fukushima and bounced back soon after.

Ahead of the Rio Olympics, Momota was suspended for visiting an illegal casino. The Japanese didn't let that setback derail his career. Instead, he roared back to the circuit with much more determination than before, climbing to the pinnacle of the world rankings.

Momota will look to utilize this break from tournaments to sharpen his game further and launch a title challenge in front of his adoring home fans.

#2 Nozomi Okuhara - Women's singles

Nozomi Okuhara could change the color of her medal at Tokyo Olympics
Nozomi Okuhara could change the color of her medal at Tokyo Olympics

Nozomi Okuhara created history at the Rio Olympics when she brought home Japan's first-ever singles medal in badminton. But it was a bronze, and five years later, the Japanese will be eager to change the color of the metal.

With the kind of stellar lead-up she has had for the Tokyo OIympics, Okuhara is best placed to land Japan's maiden gold medal in singles.

The 26-year-old made it to the semifinals of the All England Open before the tour was halted last year because of the coronavirus outbreak. When it resumed, Okuhara came back better than before.

The Rio Olympic bronze medalist hasn't lost a single match since then, winning the Denmark Open in October last year and the All England Open in March this year.

With defending Olympic champion Carolina Marin pulling out of the event, a golden chance has opened up for Okuhara to finish on top of the podium in the Japanese capital.

#3 Akane Yamaguchi - Women's singles

Akane Yamaguchi (left) and Nozomi Okuhara could both make Japan proud at the Tokyo Olympics
Akane Yamaguchi (left) and Nozomi Okuhara could both make Japan proud at the Tokyo Olympics

Former World No. 1 Akane Yamaguchi, who is currently fifth in the world rankings, has gone somewhat quiet in the last couple of years. A dominant force in 2019, the 24-year-old's last title came at the BWF Super 300 event in Thailand at the start of 2020.

A lower back injury that plagued Yamaguchi in 2019 has robbed her of speed and the youngster has continued to struggle for consistency on her return. Yamaguchi thus hasn't been able to match the highs of her compatriot Okuhara since the tour resumed.

That said, she did show glimpses of her famous fighting spirit in her grueling three-game loss to PV Sindhu in the quarters of the All England Open in March. If the draw opens up at the Tokyo Olympics, Yamaguchi will look to make the most of it.

The world No. 5 also has the experience of winning the 2019 Japan Open title at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza, which will host the badminton events at the Tokyo Games. With her knowledge of the conditions, Yamaguchi could peak just in time to take the gold medal.

#4 Yuki Fukushima & Sayaka Hirota - Women's doubles

Yuki Fukushima (R) & Sayaka Hirota - one of the biggest contenders for the Tokyo Olympics WD gold
Yuki Fukushima (R) & Sayaka Hirota - one of the biggest contenders for the Tokyo Olympics WD gold

Japan looks all set to successfully defend its Olympic women's doubles gold medal. While Matsutomo and Takahashi were the champions last time, Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota have emerged as the leaders of the pack this time around.

They are currently the numero uno pair in women's doubles and have been a dominant force for the past few years.

Even in the truncated 2020 season, Fukushima and Hirota left their mark on the tour with big wins at the All England Open and the Denmark Open. Although they finished as the runners-up at Birmingham this year, it doesn't make them any less favorites for the gold medal in Tokyo.

#5 Yuta Watanabe gunning for double gold in men's & mixed doubles

Can Yuta Watanabe win double gold at the Tokyo Olympics?
Can Yuta Watanabe win double gold at the Tokyo Olympics?

Endowed with speed and finesse, 24-year-old Yuta Watanabe has gone on to establish himself as one of Japan's best doubles shuttlers in recent times. His meteoric rise could, in fact, see him land double gold at the Tokyo Olympics in the men's and mixed doubles categories.

He is currently ranked fourth in the world in men's doubles alongside veteran Hiroyuki Endo. In mixed doubles, Watanabe is placed fifth on the rankings charts with Arisa Higashino.

Watanabe has managed some glorious performances recently, strengthening his claim for the doubles gold. Last year he and Endo toppled the mighty Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo in the final to take the All England Open men's doubles gold.

A year later, the 24-year-old went one better, winning titles in both men's doubles and mixed doubles at the All England Open. With such a confidence-boosting start to the season, Watanabe will surely look to continue the heroics with his respective partners and make Japan proud at home.

Edited by S Chowdhury
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