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Takahashi, Matsutomo learned from losing on way to badminton gold

Misaki Matsutomo, foreground, and Ayaka Takahashi jump for joy after winning gold in the women's badminton doubles final at the Rio Olympics, on Aug. 18, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Shin Yamamoto)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsutomo's strong comeback to clinch Japan's first Olympic gold in badminton was the result of their "mentality reform," through a series of losses in international matches and advice from a former top world female tennis player.

The moment the shuttlecock returned by the Danish pair, Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl hit the net to hand the Japanese duo victory in the women's badminton doubles final at the Rio Olympics on Aug. 18, Takahashi fell to the floor and shed tears while Matsutomo jumped into the air with a big smile on her face.

The world's top ranked pair was in a tight battle with the Danish duo in the middle of the third and final game of the match as the Danes kept scoring net cord points.

"I admire players who can get net cord points even in a match as close as this one. I enjoy playing against such talented players," Matsutomo recalled, while Takahashi said, "The opposition was about to turn the match in their favor, but I didn't want to lose. I thought I would return all shots no matter what."

The Japanese pair had the reputation for not playing well under pressure, but that was no longer the case for them on Aug. 18. They concentrated on winning each point, and scored five straight points to come back from 16-19 to win the final game and the match.

The Takahashi-Matsutomo pair was ranked fourth in Japan and about 20th in the world after an international competition to secure spots in the 2012 London Olympics ended in spring that year. Nihon Unisys, Ltd., which employs the pair, sought to have the duo move up their rankings by allowing them to participate in international competitions while other pairs participating in the London Games began full-scale preparations.

Since some prominent players retired after London, the Takahashi-Matsutomo pair moved up the rankings to eighth in the world by November 2012, meaning that they could be granted seed in different tournaments.

Ayaka Takahashi, left, and Misaki Matsutomo congratulate each other after winning gold in the women's badminton doubles final at the Rio Olympics, on Aug. 18, 2016. (Mainichi Photo/Masahiro Ogawa)

However, the pair was mentally unprepared for international competitions because their ranking rose too quickly.

In October 2014, the Takahashi-Matsutomo pair became the first Japanese players to top the world rankings, but was not satisfied with their play. They were surprised when they were branded losers after coming second in an international competition.

The pair was suddenly thrown into the limelight and came under pressure to win important competitions. They participated in the Badminton World Championships as the top-seeded players, only to be defeated in the third round.

Worried about their future, the pair met Ai Sugiyama, a former top tennis player, who advised them to be optimistic. "You should think positively," Sugiyama told them. The pair then overcame pressure and came to think, "What we should do remains unchanged. We'll be fine if we bring out our best in competitions."

After falling to the fourth rank in the world at the end of last year, the Takahashi-Matsutomo pair regained the top spot again in May by winning the All England Open Badminton Championships in March and other competitions. They no longer felt pressure.

"I learned a lot from my losses. My experience of being unable to win major events also helped me a lot," said Matsutomo.

The pair's well rounded experience over the past four years helped them win gold. (By Yuta Kobayashi, Mainichi Shimbun)

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