It has been a phenomenal year for Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara.
The Japanese duo kept their feet on the pedal following their famous win at the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2018 and were rewarded with the world No.1 ranking last week.
The ranking was a reflection of their consistency: this year, they have been in three finals (winning one, the Singapore Open) and three semifinals – a strong follow-up to the second half of the 2018 season, when they won the French Open and were runners-up twice in China.
What is it about their partnership that has made them so successful?
Nagahara believes part of the reason could be that they have different personalities that match up well.
“I’m a bit impatient but Matsumoto is more relaxed and does things at her own pace. We have different qualities, so we are well matched in covering each other’s good and bad qualities,” says Nagahara.
Her partner agrees.
“Well, our characters are totally different but they blend together to produce our best playing style,” says Matsumoto.
Matsumoto and Nagahara are part of Japan’s powerful squad which will attempt to win their maiden Sudirman Cup in Nanning; a few months later, it will be time to defend their title in Basel.
Matsumoto and Nagahara are still thrilled by their sensational triumph in Nanjing.
“To be honest, when we won the World Championships, I thought it must have been a dream, but now we both realise it’s for real. We have won awards and lots of media coverage, so we have slowly realised it’s real,” says Nagahara.
“We had never beaten our opponents (Fukushima/Hirota) before that. We lost the first game because we were flustered, but we were determined to fight until the end. So we weren’t disappointed after losing the first game and things turned out well.”
In quick time, Matsumoto and Nagahara have transformed from promising prospects to becoming one of the pairs to beat. Matsumoto recalls that there was little pressure on them in Nanjing.
“We thought of ourselves as the challengers, so our opponents were not an issue. We had discussed and decided to play our own style. I think communication between us was the key.”
Although many are surprised at the quick rise of the Japanese duo, Matsumoto and Nagahara reveal that even as young players, they had set high standards for themselves.
“I was influenced by a teacher I met when I entered junior high school,” recalls Nagahara. “I started to have this desire to be a top player in Japan, after that I had a strong feeling of wanting to be No.1.
And with the Olympics on home soil, Nagahara and Matsumoto have added motivation to qualify ahead of their compatriots. Only two pairs per NOC can qualify, and with Japan having a number of strong pairs, it will take a consistent run for them to assure themselves of a place in Tokyo.
“Playing at the Olympics has always been my dream since childhood – I’ve always dreamt about playing on the big stage,” says Matsumoto.
There will be many fans cheering them along on their journey to Tokyo 2020.