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With decade-long partnership, Japan women's badminton doubles team aims for gold

Ayaka Takahashi, right, and Misaki Matsutomo celebrate their win in the badminton doubles semifinal against the South Korean pair at the Rio Olympics, on Aug. 16, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- A strong mutual trust between Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi built over a decade as partners was the foundation for their 2-0 win over South Korea in the semifinal of women's badminton doubles at the Rio Olympics, taking them one step closer to an Olympic gold medal.

It is unusual even in the world of badminton doubles, which requires good teamwork, for a pair to remain together for so long. Takahashi, 26, expressed joy after the Aug. 16 semifinal win, saying, "We demonstrated our style where we play as one."

The world's top ranked duo showed off a perfect flow of moves in the semifinal against South Korea's Jung Kyung-eun and Shin Seung-chan, with one covering the rear-court when the other steps forward. Despite their height disadvantage, with Takahashi being 165 centimeters tall and Matsutomo only 159 centimeters, compared to their South Korean opponents who are both over 170 centimeters high, the Japanese pair utilized their fine moves to advance to the gold medal match scheduled for 11:50 a.m. (11:50 p.m. Japan time) on Aug. 18.

Matsutomo, 24, and Takahashi have known each other since elementary school. When Takahashi was a fifth-grader, her team in Nara Prefecture traveled to Tokushima Prefecture to play in a friendly match with a local team where then fourth-grader Matsutomo was a member. The two were already top players in the grade-based rankings at the time and they played against each other in the final, in which Takahashi swept the match. They then started corresponding as they recognized each other as a potential rival.

They formed a doubles team in the summer of 2007 during their high school years at St. Ursula Gakuin High School in Sendai. Takahashi was in second grade and Matsutomo was a first-grader at the time. Mitsuo Tadokoro, the general manager of St. Ursula Gakuin's badminton club, says he wanted to pair up Matsutomo, who was the quiet, hardworking type, with the energetic, leader type Takahashi. He had his own theory that a pair of friends from the same grade would just comfort each other if they lose, but two people completely opposite of each other with a certain age difference would make a better pair.

The playing styles of Matsutomo and Takahashi are completely different, too. Each player established their own role in matches soon after they teamed up, with Matsutomo creating chances with her fine control while Takahashi executes smash shots. They have built strong trust in each other as both of them say they would not have made it this far if it was not for the other.

In Japan, the former badminton duo of Kumiko Ogura and Reiko Shiota that reached the quarterfinals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics still remains popular. In international badminton, however, the Takahashi-Matsutomo pair was the first Japanese duo to secure the top position in the world rankings in 2014 and has since clinched titles in various world tournaments. They were the gold medal favorites for the Rio Olympics. They have been competing to be recognized by the world, not just in Japan, and they need one more win to get Japan its first Olympic gold in badminton. (Yuta Kobayashi, Mainichi Shimbun)

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