Hiroe Yuki was born on November 15, 1948, in Hiroshima, Japan. She picked up a racket and began playing badminton at the age of 12 years old. She studied at Sanyo Gakuen High School in Okayama before attending Japan Women’s College of Physical Education in Tokyo where she played for Team Kawasaki.
In 1967, Yuki won her first international titles at the Chinese Taipei Open. At that tournament, she tripled crowned by winning Women’s Singles, Women’s Doubles with Saori Kondo and Mixed Doubles with Suzuki. The year after, she won a title in Women’s Singles at the Malaysia Open and Women’s Doubles with Noriko Takagi at the Singapore Open.
It was in 1969 that Yuki announced herself to the badminton world with a big bang. Yuki double crowned at the Danish Open in both Women’s Singles and Women’s Doubles with Takagi. A few days later, Yuki won her first All England title in Women’s Singles. In both Women’s Singles finals at the Danish Open and All England, she had to defeat her doubles partner, Takagi, to take the title.
Despite being the first Japanese and Asian woman to win the prestigious All England singles title, the Japanese youngster did not realize the importance of her feat. Decades later, Yuki humbly said , “I won the All England Championships in 1969 more due to my young age than due to my power. I participated in it for the first time and won without knowing the importance of the event.” The Straits Times disagreed and stated that “Miss Yuki’s greater accuracy and incisiveness at the net proved the deciding factor”. Indeed, Yuki’s ability to anticipate her opponents’ shots to the net and execute a tight net shot often ended the rally in her favor.
That win was not without any cost. The Japanese Badminton Association did not have the funds to send her to the All England so her family sold some of their property to raise the needed sum of 500,000 yen (around 1400$ USD at the time) to cover the expenses of the trip.
Yuki also represented Japan at the 1969 Uber Cup final held in Tokyo. In the final, Japan played against Indonesia and won 6-1. Yuki lost her singles match to Minarni but won her two doubles matches with Takagi. This was Japan’s second consecutive title at the Uber Cup.
Despite her early success on the international scene, it was only in 1969 that Yuki won her first national championships title, in singles. Yuki would make up for her late start on the national scene and attain a total of 6 titles in Women’s Singles and 2 titles in Women’s Doubles by the end of her career.
In 1970, Yuki quickly proved that her previous year’s success was no fluke. At the 1970 Asian Games, she won the gold medal in Women’s Singles. At the same tournament, Yuki also helped Japan win gold in the team event. Four years later, Yuki would be unable to defend her Women’s Singles title and go home with the bronze medal at the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran.
The year after, Yuki won her second consecutive Women’s Doubles title with Takagi at the Danish Open. In Women’s Singles, Yuki met Takagi again in the final and the latter was the one who finished on top. The following week, at the All England, Yuki fell in the quarterfinal round of the Women’s Singles event. She redeemed herself in Women’s Doubles with Takagi by winning their first Women’s Doubles title at the All England.
In 1972, Yuki won the Women’s Doubles event at Danish Open again but with a new partner, Mika Ikeda. At the All England,
Yuki was knocked out of Women’s Singles by her former Women’s Doubles’ partner, Noriko Nakayama née Takagi. Nakayama would become the third Japanese player to win an All England title. With such strong players, it was no surprise that Japan was the favoured winner in the 1972 Uber Cup final held in Tokyo. Japan triumphed over Indonesia with the tie score of 6-1. Yuki won all three of her matches – one singles and two doubles. In September of that year, Yuki competed at the 1972 Olympics in which badminton was a demonstration sport. She fell in the semi-final round to Dewi Utami of Indonesia with the scores of 5-11, 9-11.
The year of 1973 would be a quiet one for Yuki. She won her only title of the year at the Danish Open in Women’s Singles. The year after, Yuki would start anew and replicate her double win in Women’s Singles at the Danish Open and the All England. In the All England final, she defeated the famed Gillian Gilks of England. Yuki faced off Gilks again the following year at the 1975 All England final. She successfully defended her title and achieved her third All England title. Gilks’ loss in 1975 to Yuki was the third consecutive time Gilks failed to win an All England title in Women’s Singles.
Due to political turmoil between China and Chinese Taipei, Yuki’s dominance on British soil was briefly halted In 1976. She came back in 1977 by winning her third March fiesta: the Danish Open and All England back-to-back in Singles. In the 1977 All England final, Yuki had a three game marathon against Lene Køppen of Denmark. In the third game, the Dane ran out of the steam at 7-7 and conceded defeat with the final scores of 7–11, 11–3, 11–7. Despite the wonderful match, it was the trophy presentation that was the best remembered. After the presentation of trophies, Køppen raised Yuki’s arm in a display of fair play, much to the crowd’s appreciation. This would be Yuki’s fourth and last All England title.
Yuki’s 1977 All England title was the highlight of her career. She said “The most memorable one is the All England Championships of 1977 in which I won the women’s singles for the fourth time. I had heard that anyone winning the title four times would earn the trophy outright, but nobody seemed to know for sure. Naturally I was keen to win such a cup if possible. This final was the toughest match I have ever experienced. The latter part of the final set became a game of sheer force of will and spirit, pursuing the shuttle to continue rallies for so long that by the time we reached a position to make a smash we had lost the power to do so.” She added, “and then I received the supreme honor as a badminton player. I was handed, by the Princess Margaret, the trophy which I had desired so much to get – the permanent cup.”
Later in 1977, Yuki was among the four Japanese players who made it to the quarterfinals of the first World Championships. This feat itself was a testament to the strength of the Japanese female badminton players at that time. Yuki advanced to the semi-finals and was stopped by Gilks with the scores of 4-11, 7-11. Yuki was awarded a bronze medal for her result at the World Championships.
At the 1978 edition of the Uber Cup, Japan won its fourth Uber Cup title. The tournament was held in New Zealand and Japan won 5-2 against Indonesia in the final. During the team tie, Yuki lost her singles match to the future 1980 World Champion, Verawaty. The 1978 Uber Cup campaign would be Yuki’s last participation at the tournament. Japan would win one more next edition of the Uber Cup in 1981 and mark the end of a fierce rivalry between Japan and Indonesia on the Uber Cup scene. All of the Uber Cup titles from 1966 to 1981 went to either Japan (1966, 1969, 1972, 1978, 1981) or Indonesia (1975).
Yuki officially retired from competitive badminton in 1981 at age 32 after winning one last Women’s Singles title at the German Open.
Upon Yuki’s retirement, the great Gillian Gilks commented that “against her, if you’re not careful, you beat yourself. Yuki has a bit of everything. She has strokes and she uses them very soundly; she is a good all-around player with good physique, a good runner, a good temperament, a good champion – there’s very little you can fault her on. Any time you beat her, you’ve done well. I reckon possibly the greatest match I ever played was when I beat her in the All England semis of 1978.”
Badminton historian, Pat Davis, also praised her skills: “A robust competitor with a powerful backhand and finely balanced movement.” Yuki herself also agreed that her best shot was her high backhand. At the time, her racket weighed 350 grams but she could still hit a high backhand as well as any male athlete. Despite her heavy racket, Yuki was very light on her feet and had an amazing attitude of refusing to let the shuttle land on her side of the court. The legacy of Yuki’s never dying attitude on court can be seen in the following generations of Japanese athletes.
After her retirement, Yuki married a famous singer, Kenji Niinuma, in a much-publicized wedding in January 1986.
Yuki was honoured with the IBF Distinguished Service Award in 1990. In 2002, she became the first Japanese player to enter the International Badminton Federation Hall of Fame.
Hiroe Yuki passed away from cancer at the age of 62 years old in Tokyo on September 7, 2011. She was survived by her son, daughter and husband, Kenji Niinuma.
1990 – IBF Distinguished Service Award
2002 – IBF Hall of Fame
BIBLIOGRAPHY & REFERENCES
Badminton Handbook (Bernd-Volker Brahms)
Badminton Magazine (Japan)
Danmarks Badminton Forbund gennem 75 år (DBF)
Encyclopaedia of Badminton (Pat Davis)
Gillian Gilks – A Life of Badminton (David Hunn)
Guinness Book of Badminton (Pat Davis)
International Badminton – the first 75 years
-- By Yves Lacroix