My heart pounds a little quicker at the mere thought of the upcoming YONEX OPEN JAPAN as a whole host of fond memories come flooding back to the forefront of my mind. It is the event which kicked off my international career on the world stage; my first experience of a major international tournament outside of the UK, and an event at which all the world's very best badminton players converged.
As we approach the official 32nd staging of this prestigious event, I feel privileged to know that I, along with the unwavering support of the title sponsors Yonex, was there from the very beginning; because I competed in the very first Japan Open way back in 1981. It was a full scale dress rehearsal before the first "official" YONEX OPEN JAPAN staged a year later in 1982.
I was a youthful teenager setting out on an adventure of a lifetime. It was my first trip to Asia; my first experience of a major event and my first cap for England. Little did I know at the time that this trip was to be the catalyst which really ignited, and consummated my enduring love affair with badminton.
It is a trip I will never forget. Everything about it was new and exciting. I, together with my friend and fierce rival at junior level, were the youngest in the England team that departed London to compete first in Taipei before travelling on to the Japan Open. The flight itself was a nightmare of a journey, stopping in Rome, Cairo, Abu Dhabi, New Delhi, Bangkok and Hong Kong before we eventually arrived in Taipei three full days after departing Heathrow! Given the length of the journey, the England Team management was determined to maximise each player's experience from the trip, hence England International matches had been arranged against both Chinese-Taipei and Japan prior to the start of each tournament.
These were my first England caps at senior level. Every athlete, from every sport dreams of one day representing their country, and despite ending my career almost 15 years later with 145 appearances, a record number of caps for any English athlete from an individual sport, it is those first against both Chinese-Taipei and Japan that I remember with absolute clarity, and those which I hold so dear in my heart.
It is inconceivable today that such international matches would be organised prior to a major event. It would be considered detrimental to an individual player's chances of success in the tournament. But things were very different back in 1981. Today the complexity of the crowded calendar, with various different tiered tournaments simultaneously taking place in all corners of the globe, it is difficult to comprehend that 32 years ago the globalisation of the world tour was still very much in its embryotic stage. The 1981 Japan Open was a one of the first "majors", an event which, together with the All England, was both pioneering and instrumental in the establishment of an elite tournament circuit which today has been reformed and restructured into the Super Series.
I remember the excitement of walking into the stadium, which had been built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. The arena was swathed in the striking Yonex colours of lush green, royal blue and white. It looked so fresh and bright and somehow reflected both the cold, crisp January weather outside and the purity and excitement that comes with the dawning of a new beginning. A tingle rushed down my spine. I couldn't wait to play.
I lost in the first round of both the singles and doubles. Yes, I was disappointed but that disappointment did little to dampen my enthusiasm for watching and learning from the world's best. Despite my defeats and therefore my elimination from the tournament, I was still at the stadium from the moment play started until the last match of the day had been concluded. I watched in awe at the athletic ability of the men's singles winner Rudy Hartono and I marvelled at the defensive qualities of Tokuda and Yonekura who defeated the English pair of Perry and Webster to capture the women's doubles title.
It was inspiring; and I was hooked. I wanted to play more of these major tournaments, and furthermore I dreamed of one day being announced onto court on finals day at the Japan Open and even of one day lifting the trophy. And so my love affair with the YONEX OPEN JAPAN was born.
I left Tokyo with a new enthusiasm; a new determination to work harder in training and to develop my game. Just two years later my dream was realised when I won the women's doubles title with Gillian Gilks. It was the first of four finals for me at the YONEX OPEN JAPAN, which included a total of three women's doubles titles, achieved with three different partners. To add to the title won in 1983 with Gillian Gilks I also won in 1989 with Julie Munday and in 1991 with Gillian Gowers.
No wonder the YONEX OPEN JAPAN holds such a special place in my heart. No wonder I am once again looking forward to making my annual pilgrimage, now as a television commentator, to the event which was the catalyst in inspiring me to eventually achieving my world number one status as both a women's and mixed doubles player.