JAKARTA – The Japan women’s badminton team won gold at the Asian Games for the first time since 1970 on Wednesday, despite the slump of its top player, beating China 3-1 in the final and preventing it from claiming its sixth consecutive win in this event.
Singles world No. 2 Akane Yamaguchi’s horror tournament continued into the final, with the 21-year-old again dropping the first rubber of the tie as she did in the semifinals and quarterfinals.
This time it was China’s Chen Yufei that proved too tough, beating Yamaguchi 21-15, 21-12, in 38 minutes at GBK Istora Arena in Jakarta.
With Japan in a one-match hole, it fell to Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota to even the match. The world’s top-ranked doubles duo quickly changed the mood of the team by beating China’s most highly rated pairing of Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan in straight games, 21-12, 21-17.
Facing off against He Bingjiao and needing three games to put Japan into the lead, Nozomi Okuhara, ranked sixth in the world, took down the 2018 World Championships singles bronze medalist in three, 21-16, 19-21, 21-15.
With Japan just needing one more win to clinch gold, it was up to Olympic doubles champions Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi to close it out. And that they did, prevailing 21-16, 21-11 against Huang Dongping and Zheng Yu.
“China’s our biggest rival and I am extremely pleased to win this,” Takahashi told reporters after the match.
“It’s the first time in 48 years. I believe winning against China means being a real world champion. It was really good,” Japan head coach Park Joo-bong said.
“Back then Japanese players were really defense-oriented but the style has changed.”
The coach said it was a “combination of offense and defense” that allowed his players to get many points near the net.
But he added that Japan should not rest on the laurels of the team’s historic victory and instead double its efforts toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Okuhara said beating China’s badminton team was “really big” and it “proves that Japan is truly the best (now in the world).”
“I was cheered on to the end, so I was helped by that support,” she said. “Japan’s current strength is that we have a sense of trust amongst our doubles players of absolutely scoring points.”
Yamaguchi, who in the spring became the first Japanese ever to stand atop the world badminton singles rankings, rued her own poor performance.
“Overall, I could not play aggressively as my smashes did not quite go on the right course,” Yamaguchi said.
“Since I didn’t have confidence in my smashes, I thought of taking another direction but my opponent grabbed the pace in the end.”
In other sports, Takuya Haneda and Aki Yazawa swept the two canoe/kayak slalom gold medals available on Wednesday.
Haneda put down an error-free run in the men’s C1 final, paddling his canoe through the whitewater course near Jakarta to score 90.06 points, 0.52 ahead of silver medalist Chen Fangjia from China.
“I was able to defend my title and I am relieved,” said Haneda, who also won bronze in the event at the 2016 Olympics. “Because my only chance of winning was paddling my kind of race, I kept believing in myself.”
Yazawa followed her compatriot’s lead, but she had an easier time of it in the women’s kayak singles final, gapping China’s Li Tong by navigating a clean run down the course.
Yazawa’s 95.83-point score was 4.34 ahead of the silver medalist and made her the first female Japanese canoe/kayak slalom gold medalist at an Asian Games.
The men’s fencing team also joined the gold rush on Wednesday, winning the team epee 30-22 over China, the first gold in the sport for Japan at these games. The Japanese women chipped in with a medal of their own on Wednesday, a bronze in team sabre.
In team sports, Japan’s scandal-hit men’s basketball team had an 88-82 win over Hong Kong, despite going into battle with eight players, while the reigning women’s soccer champion North Korea lost to book a spot against Japan in the quarterfinals.
The Japan men’s handball team beat Iraq 27-24 to keep its hopes of reaching the semifinals alive, and the men’s hockey team stayed unbeaten with a 3-1 win over Indonesia but has a huge test against India on Friday.
In softball, Japan had another dominant day, beating South Korea 10-0 and China 14-1, and the men’s volleyball team earned a 3-2 victory over Kazakhstan to move into second in its group behind its Friday opponent Myanmar.
With Tomohiro Araya winning silver in wushu, Eri Yonamine a bronze in road cycling and Japan’s women’s gymnastics team a bronze, the country’s total medal count after Wednesday’s competition sat at 68.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5