The postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics finally took place last summer and proved worth the wait, and the competition is the undisputed highlight of the badminton season.
The six English players made up a total of seven GB team members heading to the land of the rising sun, with Ben Lane, Sean Vendy, Toby Penty, Chloe Birch, Lauren Smith and 2016 bronze medalist Marcus Ellis, all on the plane for Japan.
With Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour completing the team in the women’s singles, there were high hopes for another strong team performance, and perhaps even for a medal like the one previously secured in Rio five years earlier.
It was a perfect start in mixed doubles with Ellis and Smith in top form since their first serve at Musashino Forest Sport Plaza.
The pair defeated Frenchman Tom Gicquel and Delphine Delrue, 21-18, 21-17, before a dominant 21-13, 21-19 victory over Canadian pair Josephine Wu and Joshua Hurlburt-Yu reserved their place in the quarterfinals.
After the win, Ellis said, “Of course we expected a win from us, we expected to win, but it’s very rare to play against a couple in these big tournaments you haven’t played in yet, so it was something new for us.
“They play in a way we may not have played against before, so there’s definitely something to take away from the game, something to learn from.”
This meant that the last match in the group against cunning opponents from Thailand, former junior world champion Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai, would decide who would be first in the group.
Smith and Ellis won 21-17, 21-19, which means they went into the knockouts without losing a single game.
A similar story was for Toby Penty at the beginning of the male single.
The shuttle Walton-on-Thames flew through Group K, with a notable scalp along the way knocking out the world bronze medalist and 14th seeds of Kantaphon Wangcharoen from Thailand.
– Toby Penty (@TobyPenty) July 28, 2021
Penty won the group’s decision-making score 21-19, 21-12, to lead the group and arrange a meeting with silver medalist at the 2019 World Cup, Dane Anders Antonsen, in the next round.
It was a tough time for Ben Lane and Sean Vendy in the men’s doubles.
The duo were placed in a high-quality Group A – rightly called the ‘death group’ – in which they were eliminated after three defeats in three matches.
However, the young couple gave a notable fight against some of the best couples in the world, including eventual gold medalists Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin from Chinese Taipei.
It was an important step in their development and they will both hope that the experience in Tokyo will serve them well as they enter the Paris cycle.
Chloe Birch and Smith also faced high-quality group stage opposition in the women’s doubles competition.
The English duo lost 21-13, 21-14 against Japan’s top seed Yuki Fukushima and Sayake Hirota in their opening match and failed to recover.
– Team GB (@TeamGB) July 24, 2021
They also failed to leave Tokyo with a victory, but Smith’s trip to the Japanese capital was not over yet and he was soon preparing for the mixed doubles quarterfinals against Hong Kong pair Tang Chun Man and Tse Ying Suet.
Unfortunately, despite a lead at one point in the second set, it wasn’t exactly like that as Smith and Ellis succumbed to a 21-13, 21-18 defeat that ended their hopes of a medal.
“It was definitely an opportunity,” a disappointed Smith said afterwards. We know we can beat them, last time we did, but we also know that they are a very good couple. “
Ellis, a bronze medalist in the men’s doubles five years earlier, added: “Looking back, I think we can say we had very good performances.
“But I didn’t come here to lose in the quarterfinals. I’m not happy with the loss at this stage. “
In the women’s singles, Kirsty Gilmour fell in the group stage after a tough draw brought her against Japan’s fourth seed Akane Yamaguchi in a decision match.
The 27-year-old was defeated 21-9, 21-18, but even participating in the Games was a remarkable effort given that she had been on crutches months earlier after suffering a foot injury.
Returning to the men’s tournament, Penty’s hopes of a medal were dashed by the impressive Antonsen, third seed.
The Dane simply had too many qualities that day, despite Penty showing an abundance of his protected fighting spirit, and he won 21-10, 21-15.
“There’s a little bit of frustration,” Penty said. “I felt that I was here perhaps more than the result suggested.
“He is simply a very good player. He plays the situation so well and I felt it was a big difference today, when he needed to improve his game as much as he could. ”
This ended the interest of the GB, Ellis and Smith teams who had left the day before in mixed doubles.
It was not Antonsen who eventually won the gold medal, but his compatriot and world number one tennis player Viktor Axelsen.
The 27-year-old defeated Chen Long of China 21-15, 21-12 in the final and upgraded the bronze he won in Rio in 2016.
World number three Chen Yu Fei won the women’s singles title, while Indonesia’s Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu won gold in the women’s doubles.
Also on the day of the finals, Lee Yang and Wang Chi-lin won gold in the men’s doubles, while Chinese pair Wang Yilju and Huang Dongping triumphed in the mixed doubles.
This time there may have been no medals, but there have been excellent performances by the UK team, which can gain valuable experience playing in the Olympics in such unique circumstances.
Roll on Paris 2024!