No smash & grab for Japan

No smash & grab for Japan
The Japanese men's badminton team celebrates after their Thomas Cup badminton final win against Malaysia at Siri Fort Stadium in New Delhi on May 25, 2014.

When China's Du Pengyu sent his return long in the semi-finals of the Thomas Cup last Friday, delirium momentarily overcame the Siri Fort Indoor Stadium in New Delhi.

Kento Momota collapsed in sheer ecstasy, while on the bench, his Japanese team-mates roared in unison at having played a part in the 3-0 demolition of defending champions China to secure Japan's first Thomas Cup final.

And, amid all the cheers and high-fives, Japan's veteran coach Park Joo Bong realised that something even greater had been achieved in the Indian capital.

The South Korean, a doubles specialist in the 1980s and 1990s, had won world championships and Olympic titles but was never part of a team strong enough to lift the Thomas Cup.

So when the 49-year-old witnessed the collapse of a China side who have won five consecutive titles, he knew his team had accomplished something special.

"It was Japan's first time playing in a Thomas Cup final," head coach Park told The Straits Times in a phone interview yesterday.

"(But) the team became more confident. They thought to themselves - we can win. We can win this after beating China."

The victory erased a psychological barrier against a seemingly invincible China. But as is often the case in sport, the question also remained whether the breakthrough could propel them to greater heights or see the team overwhelmed by new expectations.

Japan went on to make history, edging out a Malaysian side led by world No. 1 Lee Chong Wei 3-2 in the final on Sunday to become just the fourth nation in the 65-year history of the tournament to bag the trophy.

Belief was what carried them in the final. Similarly, belief was what prompted radical changes in the game in Japan when the game was at its lowest.

The team's rise from being a second-rate side to one who have consistently put themselves in contention for major titles - this was their third straight time finishing among the top four - started in 2004 when a major shake-up of the national training structure was introduced.

That year, Japan's 11-member squad across five events posted a miserable performance at the Athens Olympics, managing just one match win.

Since then, primary focus has shifted from playing for club to competing for country.

"There is now better communication between the Nippon Badminton Association and the clubs are more supportive of the national team," said Park, who has coached Japan for a decade.

Instead of having their best shuttlers scattered across the country, a national training centre was built in 2007.

Then came the foreign expertise, with former Chinese national players Gu Jiaming and Ding Qiqing among those who have coached the Land of the Rising Sun's prospects.

The efforts have also borne fruit for the women's team, who finished Uber Cup runners-up this time after losing 1-3 to China in the final.

Already, there is talk that Japan's team of young shuttlers - their top three men's singles players have an average age of just 23 - can go on to be a force to reckon with for years to come.

Said Park: "China is still the strongest team in the world. But I think my players have gained confidence. We can (now) fight against them. Next Thomas Cup, we will try to win one more time."

This article was first published on May 27, 2014.
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