Kenichi Tago — face of the new generation?

The Japanese rookie’s upset of two top Chinese has been the talking point of this All England

Dev S Sukumar. Birmingham

What began as a stiff easterly breeze has now developed into a whirlwind that has blown people’s minds at the All England.

Kenichi Tago, a 20-year-old only in his second year of senior badminton, astonished spectators over the week as he surmounted one improbable barrier after another to become the first Japanese since 1966 in the All England men’s singles final. Displaying a physical and mental maturity far beyond his years, Tago is the story on this year’s All England — appropriately, the 100th edition. By the look of things, he might define the next decade. As he knocked out two top-ranked Chinese, he ensured this would be the first All England since 1999 when no Chinese will figure in the men’s singles final.

Beginning with his first round defeat of the tough Vietnamese no. 7 Ngugen Tien Minh, and then — in energy-sapping three-set battles over no.25 Joachim Persson, 2008 champion Chen Jin and no.6 Bao Chunlai, Tago grew wing when he was expected to limp. Against Chen Jin — a man of great speed and power — Tago replied by dragging the Chinese across the court in long rallies, displaying soft touch when he needed to, and at other times, whipping a wicked jump smash that had Chen on the defensive. When Chen led 15-10 in the second after losing the first, it seemed Tago was playing for a third set, to conserve his energy.

“He kept surprising us,” coach Park Joo Bong said later.

It was his tenacity at this point that killed Chen’s belief in himself. Tago fought for every shuttle; Chen had to kill thrice before he won a point, and the Chinese was pushed to the limit in winning the second game. There was little left in the third.

Next, against an opponent who had beaten world champion Lin Dan in the quarters — Bao Chunlai — Tago showed the same depth of courage, of outstanding physical and mental ability.

He was exceptional on all counts. He provoked Chunlai into rallies, displayed finesse at the net when required to; slowed down the pace; quickened it; dived to retrieve, dragged his opponent back and forth, and kept leaping to smash. Not even in the end stages of the third game against Chunlai, when lesser men would’ve played safe and hoped to win, did Tago hesitate to leap up and force the result.

Tago is the son of badminton-playing parents. His mother Yoshiko Yonekura was twice runner-up in the All England women’s doubles final. He is yet a rookie on the circuit, and his progress has astonished even battle-hardened people like Park Joo Bong. “I never expected him to recover,” said Park. “But he has shown great maturity, and physical and mental strength. I’m surprised. Bao is top class, his net game is beautiful. But today, Tago was better. This is a great result for Japan.”

Tago himself is a lad of few words. “I didn’t want to only be Japan champion,” he said. “I have been aiming at the world level since the beginning… I’m not happy about making points through my opponents’ errors; I want to make points myself.”

How far can Tago go? And what does this mean for world badminton?

I detected excitement all around, not just from the Japanese, but from the Malaysians and Indonesians as well. At last we have somebody who can challenge the Chinese on their terms. Taufik, Sony, Peter Gade and the rest have resisted them for long, but they don’t have time left. They are not the future. The outcome was getting predictable. The world needed a young challenger. Tago seems to fit.

He comes from a country that has had few world-class men’s singles players. Perhaps it can excite others in Japan. The presence of another top country is important. It gives variety to the mix, makes results unpredictable.

At the end of the first decade of the new millennium, it was important to have a fresh face that we can look up to. Tago, in his astonishing journey to the All England final, seems the likeliest contender to usher in a new era.


About badmintonmania

Sometimes I wonder if I'm the Indian in Thoreau's Walden who makes cane baskets and is surprised nobody wants them. A. was talking about discipline when she said: "But Dev, if you want to move ahead in life, you'll have to be like that," and she may as well have defined everything else for me. I've played the low percentage game for too long to believe there's anything in it but the romance; the odds keep getting jacked up higher and higher; and you may be a good Idealist but a worse Fool.
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