Our look back at the main sport’s stories from March include controversies in sumo and baseball, badminton, table tennis and curling finals, a victory for the first rookie female jockey in the JRA for 16 years and Davis Cup disappointment. We start though with football as Shinji Okazaki’s Leicester side stretch their league in England. The impossible dream is edging closer to becoming a reality.
Football At the start of the season Leicester City were 5000/1 to win the Premier League. To put that in to some context you could’ve got the same odds on finding Elvis Presley alive, discovering the Loch Ness monster or on Kim Kardashian becoming American President by 2020. In other words it was too absurd a notion to even contemplate, yet with just seven games to go the Foxes remain five points clear at the top. Japanese international Shinji Okazaki has played his part with six goals in all competitions, the latest of which came against Newcastle this month. His spectacular overhead kick earned his side a crucial 1-0 victory over the Magpies. He then put in a typical energetic performance in the victory over Crystal Palace before returning home where he scored a delightful opener for Japan in the 5-0 defeat of Afghanistan. After that he capped a memorable month by making his 100th appearance for his country in another 5-0 win, this time against Syria. Things haven’t been going so well for the women’s side who failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics after losing to China and Australia. The final match in the group – a 1-0 win over North Korea – was coach Norio Sasaki’s last game in charge.
Baseball The new season began with a number of apologies after Kyosuke Tagaki became the fourth Giants pitcher to admit to betting on games. As well as a number of groveling press conferences, club owner Shoichi Oikawa and new manager Yoshinobu Takahashi were also forced to say sorry to a packed Tokyo Dome crowd for the latest scandal to have rocked their side and the league. The controversy was then soon put to one side as badminton star Kento Momota delivered the ceremonial pitch to mark the opening game which the Giants won 3-1 against the Yakult Swallows. The league’s oldest team currently top the table with five wins from six ahead of the Hanshin Tigers who’ve won three and drawn one. A seven run seventh innings helped the Chunichi Dragons overcome a five run deficit to defeat the Hiroshima Carp on Thursday. Both sides have three wins and three losses to their names. In the Pacific League Seibu Lions and Chiba Lotte Marines lead the way win three victories, the other teams all have two.
Sumo Hakuho is just 28 wins away from reaching a career total of 1,000 as he stormed to a record 36th Grand Tournament Championship in Osaka. It should have been a moment to savor for the Mongolian, but he looked visibly shaken at the end as his victory was greeted with a mix of cheers and boos. Some of the crowd weren’t happy with his tactic of stepping to the side on the jump-off in his last bout against fellow yokozuna Haramafuji. Earlier in the week he had been reprimanded for what was seen as an unnecessary shove on an opponent that ended with a judge suffering a broken leg. He recovered from an opening day defeat to win 14 bouts in a row to claim yet another title after a three tournament drought. At the start of the competition all eyes were on ozeki Kotoshogiku to see if he could follow up his January success and earn a promotion to sumo’s highest rank. He disappointed though, losing seven of his 15 bouts.
Tennis As expected Japan bowed out at the first round stage of the Davis Cup to current holders Great Britain. It was 1-1 on the opening day with Kei Nishikori and Andy Murray both winning their opening games convincingly. The latter then partnered his brother in the doubles to an easy three set victory over Yoshihito Nishioka and Yasutaka Uchiyama. The clash that most fans had come to see was between Murray and Nishikori and they weren’t disappointed. In a thrilling encounter the first two sets were narrowly won by the Scot, but then “Air K” came roaring back to take the next two. Murray eventually managed to get over the line, winning the final set 6-3. It was enough to see the reigning champions through to the next round where they will play Novak Djokovic’s Serbia. Attempting to put that setback behind him Nishikori flew out to play in the BNP Paribas Open, but after a promising start was eliminated in the quarter-finals by Rafael Nadal. He’s currently playing in the Miami Open where he just beat Gael Monfils 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 to reach the semi-finals.
Table Tennis For the first time since 1971 both the Japanese men and women reached the final of the World Team Table Tennis Championships at the same tournament. The female side won the gold back then, but were unable to repeat that feat this time as Ai Fukuhara, Kasumi Ishikawa and 15 year old Mima Ito went down 3-0 to China in the final. It was exactly the same result two years ago at the last World Championships in Tokyo. For the men it was a first final for 39 years. Jun Mizutani, Maharu Yoshimura and Yuya Oshima were too strong for England in the semi-finals, but China proved a step too far. Xu Xin, Ma long and Zhang Jike all won their three games comprehensively in straight sets. The Japanese women’s team are seeded number two in the world while the men are ranked number three. Unsurprisingly China lead the way in both categories.
Best of the Rest Urawa racecourse was the venue for the first victory of jockey Nanako Fujita’s career. In the third race of the day the 18 year old’s horse Ascii Code led throughout, eventually finishing two lengths ahead of its nearest rival. She then followed that up by riding Win Ambition to victory later that day. The teenager is the seventh ever JRA female rider and the first for 16 years. The Japanese women’s curling team became the first curlers from this country to win a medal at the World Championships. Satsuki Fujisawa, Chinami Yoshida, Yumi Suzuki and Yurika Yoshida had to settle for silver, though, after losing 9-6 to Switzerland in the final. In Super Ruby the Sunwolves are still looking for their maiden victory but are getting closer. In their last game against the Bulls they only lost by three points. Nozomi Okuhara became the first Japanese female for 39 years to win the badminton singles title at the All-England Championships. Ayaka Takahashi and Misaki Matsumoto also triumphed in the doubles. In figure skating Yuzuru Hanyu looks on course to take back the world title he lost last year. He has a commanding after the short program. Earlier in the week he accused rival Denis Ten of intentionally colliding with him.