Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo
Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo

This finals was hotly contested. The tall Danes, Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl, were facing off against the agile Japanese, Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi, for gold in badminton. The Danes were up 19-16 in game 3, and they looked to become the first non-Asians to ever win gold in women’s pairs. Could they fend off the Japanese, also looking to take their nation’s first badminton gold?

Up till 2016, the Chinese had won close to 40% of all medals awarded for badminton in the Olympic Games since the sports’ inception in 1992, sweeping gold in all categories at the 2012 London Games. Thus it was somewhat of a surprise in badminton circles that, on August 18, the 14th day of the XXXI Olympiad in Rio, the champion in women’s doubles would be from either Denmark or Japan.

The Japanese duo, popularly known as Taka-Matsu (a combination of the first parts of both athletes’ last names), have been badminton partners for 10 years, and are world #1. The Danes have been playing together for six years, and were the European champions. And these badminton pairs had already battled each other 12 times in the past, with the Taka-Matsu pair winning 7 times. More importantly, the Japanese had won the last 5 matches between them.

But that didn’t stop the Danes from winning the first game 21-18, a lengthy affair, with very long rallies. Watching badminton closely for the first time, I was amazed at the reflexes of these athletes, who were smashing the shuttle cock across the net at amazing speeds (upwards of 200 kilometers per hour).

In badminton, winning game 1 is a huge advantage as you only need to win two of three to take the match. But in game 2, the Japanese stormed to a 6-1 lead, winning easily 21-9. Game 3 would be winner take all.

The final game in the women’s double finals started breathtakingly with a long and sensational rally that gave the Danes a 1-0 lead. The Danish duo went on to take an 8-5 advantage, but the Japanese got it back to 8-8. Then 9-9. When Juhl hit it into the net, and made the score 10-9 Japan, she picked up the shuttlecock and showed it to the umpire. She was suggesting that the shuttlecock had been worn down enough to merit an exchange. The umpire said no, and Juhl continued to plead, looking frustrated. When Matsutomo went up to the umpire’s area, she extended her racquet to Juhl, essentially asking for the shuttlecock as it was Japan’s serve. Juhl did not give Matsutomo the shuttlecock, instead brusquely pushing her racquet away. Matsutomo cooly walked away, and Juhl got a warning from the umpire.

The match continued to remain even. The Japanese took the lead at 12-10, but the Danes quickly got it back to 12-12. Then the Danes won two points in a row to make it 14-12, only to see the Japanese tie it right back at 14. The contest would go on to 16-16. The championship was only 5 points away from being claimed, but which nation would take it?

The Danes made a claim. Pedersen got it to 17-16 with a cross-court winner. Juhl repeatedly defended smashes with her backhand, eventually getting it to 18-16 when Matsutomo could not match Juhl and miss hit. Then Juhl made it 19-16 with a powerful slam that Ayaka Takahashi could not handle. The Danes were only 2 points away from gold.

Misaki Matsutomo upon victory
Misaki Matsutomo celebrates the Taka-Matsu victory.

There are no five-point plays so the Japanese would need an incredible run. They’d have to get it back one point at a time. It was at this point that the diminutive and stonefaced Matsutomo took the opportunity to shine. Matsutomo showed touch with a drop shot that quickly got it to 19-17. Matsutomo smashed a cross-court winner to make it 19-18. Matsutomo, who at times dominated the forecourt, smashed the shuttlecock at the Danes once, twice, three times, four times before the battered Danes yielded the point.

Suddenly, it was all tied up at 19. Both teams were only 2 points away from golden glory. In the next point, Takahashi sent volley after volley from the back court until Pedersen misfired. Incredibly, the Taka-Matsu pair were at match point.

And finally, when Juhl hit the shuttlecock into the net, the Japanese won their fifth consecutive point, coming from behind in dramatic fashion to take the gold medal. Takahashi fell to the ground. Matsutomo beamed broadly.

“For just a moment, I thought we were going to lose,” said Takahashi in this Japan Times article. “But I watched Kaori Icho’s wrestling match on TV yesterday, and all three Japanese wrestlers came from behind to win their matches. I remembered that and I thought we had a chance to turn it around. I thought we might lose for one second, but I soon got it out of my system.”

Taka-Matsu pair’s incredible come-from-behind triumph bodes well for Japan. No doubt a generation of young Japanese badminton talent were inspired, and will gun for glory when the Olympics come to Tokyo in 2020.

Juhl and Pedersen get their silver medals

Juhl and Pedersen get their silver medals.