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Okuhara ready to shift focus to greater challenges at 2020 Olympics

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Nozomi Okuhara said that she wanted to measure where she is on the global badminton map right now.

Yes, she captured the gold medal in the women’s singles competition at the World Badminton Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, on Sunday.

But does she think that she is on top of the world?

No.

She humbly considers herself the best in one specific world tournament.

Sure, the 22-year-old was happy to achieve what she did at worlds, but objectively looked back on a tournament that was not filled with the world’s top players because the World University Games in Taipei and the South East Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur were being held almost simultaneously.

“I don’t really feel like I won at the world championships,” Okuhara said at a Tuesday news conference for the Japanese medalists at Haneda airport after the national team’s arrival. “I consider that I stood at the summit of one particular tournament.”

Nevertheless, the title was special for Okuhara, who became the first-ever Japanese singles champion, man or woman, at worlds. Especially the hard-fought, gold-medal match against India’s Pusarla Sindhu, which lasted 1 hour and 49 seconds, was perhaps one of her career-defining contests for different meanings. The final result: 21-19, 20-22, 22-20.

But back to the reasons. First and foremost, she avenged her loss to Sindhu, the same opponent who defeated her in the semifinals at last summer’s Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where she earned the bronze medal.

“The disappointment (in Rio) is still staying in my brain, and I reflect on it, thinking that I could’ve done this and done that,” said Okuhara, the first Japanese world championships gold medalist since the women’s doubles pair of Etsuko Toganoo and Emiko Ueno in 1977. “So I was extremely pleased (to have a chance to play against Sindhu) at the center court (at worlds). So, of course, I was looking for the winning result, but I also wanted to showcase my own game with a strong mindset. I was able to do it this time.”

Another reason was that she got into the zone, so to speak, during her match against Sindhu, which had never happened before during a contest in her career.

Okuhara, the current world No. 12, was so into the game that she does not remember “anything that happened in the second game at all” in the final.

She added that she felt so unbearable earlier in the game, but the feelings eventually transformed into joy.

“From the point that the game was at 15-all (in the third game), I began feeling excited,” said Okuhara, who revealed that hurt her right calf before going to the world championships. “My opponent looked exhausted more than I was, and it wound up being a mental competition in the end.”

But she’s already put the glory in Glasgow behind her. Instead, she’d now focused on achieving her ultimate goal: a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The Nagano Prefecture native was glad to hear “Kimigayo” in Scotland, which she’d wanted to do since the Rio Games, but said that she “has no intention to be satisfied with it.”

“It rather straightened me up going forward,” said Okuhara, who added that she wants to become an invincible presence in her sport like Saori Yoshida in wrestling. “It made me think that I would like to sing the national anthem at the Tokyo Olympics three years from now.”

Women’s doubles partners Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo, the Rio gold medalist, teamed up for the bronze medal at worlds. But they seemed pleased with the result.

“We’ve not been able to overcome the final-16 rounds at the past world championships,” Takahashi said. “There’s disappointment in ourselves (having not won gold), but we rather feel relieved.”

Matsutomo said: “Before, we couldn’t win our second-round, third-round games and had an awareness that we weren’t really good at competing at the world championships. But we’ve overcome it and made some growth through this tournament.”

Japan brought back two other medals from Glasgow. Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota earned a silver in women’s doubles, while Keigo Sonoda and Takeshi Kamura claimed a bronze medal in men’s doubles.

The four medals were the most for Team Japan at a world championships, which started in 1977.

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