Today was a day that will long be savoured by Indian badminton fans as their team overcame their status as underdogs to lift the trophy. Today was the day that legends were made.
This was a brilliant win engineered by a group of athletes and coaches who all performed with distinction. Sen looked in danger of being overwhelmed by Ginting but after yielding the first set he coolly played his way to the win. Rankireddy/Shetty were up against Ahsan/Sukamuljo and lost set 1 but fought back with fast and furious tactics to force a second victory. Kidambi wrapped it all up in a brisk two sets. Indonesia just couldn’t disrupt the winning momentum of this squad.
The campaign has been bruising right from the start, but the resolve of these athletes proved impossible to break. This success, built on dedication, grit, and an obstinate refusal to let any match go is a testament to their self-belief and desire. When pivotal points had to be won every athlete in the Indian team had the mental strength to grasp the advantage. They relished the challenge.
They started as slight favourites at the Round Robin stage in Group C and began with 5-0 demolitions of Germany and Canada. However, the final tie – against Taiwan – to decide the group winners was a difficult contest. CHOU Tien Chen and LEE/WANG won the first two matches and although Kidambi pulled a game back, they lost 3-2. Taiwan topped the group. This meant that their route to the final in the next phase of the tournament suddenly was full of badminton’s big beasts
The knockouts require total focus and a quarter final against Malaysia was the first barrier at the sudden death stage of the tournament. This badminton superpower arrived in Bangkok with LEE Zii Jia as MS1. He crushed Sen (reportedly suffering with food poisoning) in two sets but as the tie advanced the impetus of the teams ebbed and flowed. It was Prannoy in the last match with the scores equal at 2-2 who grasped victory for India and a chance for a pop at Denmark.
The semi-final with Denmark gave us a repeat of the All-England final in the first match. Viktor continued his recent imperious form and dismissed a below par Sen in two. However, once again in a team contest Antonsen – at MS2 – struggled to keep his focus and Kidambi’s victory gave his teammates hope. With the scores level at 2-2 Prannoy stepped onto court; Gemke took the first game but couldn’t maintain his advantage and after 73 minutes history beckoned. India were in the Final!
This team matured and became battle-hardened as the week progressed This was a collective effort that overcame benchmark teams like Denmark, Malaysia and Indonesia. History has been made; its a proud moment for the players and all their supporters.
A spectacular lineup of the top women players will be contesting the Uber Cup in Thailand. There are mouthwatering head-to-heads promised as 16 teams chase their dream of winning the Uber Cup. Can anyone stop China from keeping hold of the trophy for another 2 years?
Just like the Thomas Cup this tournament begins with a Round Robin. The top 2 from each pool of four then progress to the Death or Glory knockouts.
Group A: Japan, Indonesia, France, Germany.
Akane’s regeneration since the Olympics has been dazzling; now she has rediscovered her joy at simply playing badminton and with this squad I would expect the Japanese team to dominate all their encounters in group A. Once they get past this stage though, they will be tested. A fully fit Nozomi is one of the best players in the world but lately there are question marks around her recovery from recent injuries. In doubles FukuHiro are back and should be able to hold their own along with NagaMatsu. The athlete who potentially can provide the special ‘something’ for this team is Misaki Matsutomo. Currently with the team as a refugee from XD, her touch and vision could make the difference when the pressure is on. I still feel a gnawing regret that she is no longer full-time in the WD sector. As she has made the trip to Bangkok the implication is that she will be part of a scratch pair.
The puzzle in this group is who will come second. Indonesia has sent some of its lesser known players who are unlikely to go further. Germany’s players had an excellent European Championship, so this points to progress to the quarter finals ahead of France.
Group B: China, Taiwan, Spain, Australia.
This group holds the possibility of some fabulous ties. WANG Zhi Yi could be seen as China’s WS3 but her recent triumph over Akane in the singles final at the Badminton Asia Championships has highlighted what a talented player she can be. Along with new-look HE Bing Jiao, CHEN YuFei and in WD CHEN Qing Chen/JIA Yi Fan China’s athletes must be optimistic that they will be unbeaten through the entire tournament.
The battle for second place must be between Taiwan and Spain – both teams with an iconic singles player at their head. Carolina is back after her second major injury layoff and although she won the title at the European Championships she is 20% off her best. That still means she is an exceptional player, but she needs games to fine tune her net play and to eliminate mistakes. Rumours are swirling around that she wont be playing at all; she’s sitting out the first tie against Taiwan so after that we’ll have to wait and see. TAI Tzu Ying should be able to lead Taiwan to second place but the heavy-lifting of progress is going to come down to the desire and tactics of teammates of both superstars.
Group C: Thailand, Denmark, Malaysia, Egypt.
Thailand are in a tough group but if they can win it they must fancy their chances of a semi-final or better. In WS May and Mew along with Busanan are capable of great wins; in WD Prajongjai/Kitithatakul will face tough games against Denmark and Malaysia and these results could be crucial to their progress. I wish Popor was part of their squad.
It’s hard to write off Malaysia against Denmark for second spot. The Danes have the edge in singles, but doubles is more even. Analysts are favouring the Europeans, but Malaysia has talent; if they get their winning momentum then they could get through.
Group D: Korea, Canada, India, USA.
Korea must be strong favourites with their foundation of exceptional WD blended with AN Se Young in singles. None of the other 3 in this group will be able to equal them so once again the debate will be around who can come second. I’m hesitant about the Indian team; some of the selection decisions were controversial and it’s arguable that they have subsequently had no luck regarding injuries. Of course, PV Sindhu is one of the best singles players in the world, but she cannot win the trophy singlehanded. It’s so disappointing that the duo of Treesa Jolly & Gayatri Gopichand Pullela who were brilliant at the All England this year have had to withdraw. Canada’s team can challenge because they have a balance of good quality singles and doubles, and perhaps a bit more depth.
China must be confident that they can defend this trophy as they just ooze all-round quality. However, sport can be unpredictable and the Japanese team could upset Chinese hopes so long as they are all playing to their maximum. There’s so much to look forward to in this tournament including Group B H2H between TAI Tzu Ying and CHEN YuFei, Misaki guest-starring in Women’s Doubles, and – as usual – Nozomi cheerleading from the sidelines with the rest of BirdJapan by her side. It’s going to be great!
Can Indonesia rekindle the spirit that delivered gold last October or will another squad challenge their possession of the coveted trophy? History tells us that this tournament tends to be dominated by Asia’s players so although 16 teams are travelling to Bangkok it will be a shock if badminton’s status quo is upset.
This is the 32nd time that the event has taken place and it starts with the sixteen teams split into four groups for the Round Robin portion of the competition. The top two in each group will advance into the draw for the quarter finals and this is where the battles become brutal. Some players thrive under pressure but these knockout stages and subsequent pathway to the podium will expose weaknesses. The athletes and coaches with a mental edge are the ones who will triumph.
Group A: Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, Singapore.
As defending champions Indonesia can step back onto court optimistic that they have the players who can repeat last October’s victory. Marcus Gideon is still rehabbing from ankle surgery but Kevin Sukamuljo has travelled to Bangkok so he will partner someone else if needed. The strength in depth of the MD cadre should give opponents nightmares. It is stuffed with winners. In singles, the red-hot form of Jonatan Christie was kick-started by his Thomas Cup heroics last time and he must be solid in his results now because Anthony Ginting has no winning momentum since his bronze at the Olympics.
Thailand are the home team but I think they will struggle to escape the group because Korea’s men have performed well lately. The fight for the second spot will be between these two although Singapore can expect LOH Kean Yew to make life difficult for everyone he faces.
Group B: Denmark, China, France, Algeria.
This is such an intriguing group; I’m excited to see who emerges from it. For Denmark, Viktor Axelsen is virtually unstoppable these days whilst Antonsen, Vittinghus and Gemke can all create winning opportunities in matches. The MD pairs can usually mix it with the best so it was a surprise that they won no medal at the recent European Championships. They must step up a level if they want to mount a realistic challenge for the cup. Behind Denmark, France is probably the second best team in Europe right now and they have sent six European Junior champions to Bangkok. They will need a hard miracle to get to the knockouts but they are building a formidable side.
Only a fool would describe any Chinese team as ‘weak’ so lets flip that and say they don’t look invincible. No SHI Yu Qi and an evolving MD landscape means that it’s hard to predict how far they can go, nevertheless it’s China and that means badminton success. This is a wait and see situation.
Group C: India, Taiwan, Germany, Canada
I’d love this Indian team to realise their potential and get to a Semi-Final. Sen is the man of the moment – his fearless competitiveness at the All England was scintillating – add in Kidambi and Prannoy and MS looks strong. In MD Rankireddy/Shetty will trouble everyone they meet so barring injuries this group of athletes could win their group.
After a long absence from the international stage LEE Yang/ WANG Chi-Lin are back for Team Taiwan. The Tokyo MD Gold medalists plus CHOU Tien Chen should have enough to escape Group C along with India but Germany might run them close. Mark Lamsfuss was outstanding at the recent European Championships so along with his partner Marvin Seidel may fancy his chances of an upset or two.
Group D: Japan, Malaysia, England, USA
Both Japan or Malaysia could get to the semi-finals of this competition. Japan’s strength in MD will probably decide who tops the group although Momota’s alarming dip in form compared to the rise of LEE Zii Jia could keep things very close. The English team will want to scrap for some results and they could see some encouraging development but it’s not likely that they or the USA will progress.
Indonesia’s quality is going to be hard to beat; the squad is stuffed full of proven top 10 players. However retaining a title is notoriously tricky. China and Denmark are probable medalists but they both will want their ‘fringe’ players to be ready to force results when the pressure is high. Other than these three then Japan, Malaysia or India could push through but they will need intelligent strategy blended with stamina and no injuries. There will be a few surprises along the way and the team who can cope with this will be the one with their hands on the Thomas Cup.
From a partnership created in 2015 these 2 athletes have enthralled fans whenever they step on court. Kevin’s showmanship and exquisite racket skills are box office gold; Marcus is the bedrock of the duo. Rivals face unbearable intensity from over the net as the two Indonesian superstars wind up the pressure with split second finesse.
They are two-time champions at the All England, but recent history means that there is a sense of unfinished business at this event. Supporters crave an exhilarating run to the final. Whatever happens in 2022 they have a legacy of dazzling battles in Birmingham: some of their most electrifying games have been played here.
2017 Semi-Final v Conrad-Petersen/Kolding
What a Thriller! From the moment the first shuttle was hit it was obvious that this was going to be a special match. There were traces of nerves, but all four players were driven to brilliance by each other. The European champions had the measure of the Minions in set 1; after some astonishing passages of play they closed it out 21-19. Set 2 – and the destiny of the final – turned on Kevin’s flick serve when the scores were level at 12-12. The Danes were outraged, the Indonesians were inspired then won 10 points in a row, eventually levelling 21-13. Rubber…points were traded but it was deadlock up until 17-17 when Kevin and Marcus seized the lead and then refused to relinquish control. Gideon’s match winner was a delicate disguised drop shot. 21-17.
2017 Final v v LI Junhui & LIU Yuchen
Fast & Furious! How much firepower would they have left after the previous night’s epic SF? The contest fizzed with passion and desire. Set 1 was close – just edged by the Indonesians – but Set 2 saw them hit another gear as Kevin went beyond the range of normal perception. His zest and speed of thought were phenomenal. Gideon’s magnificent play liberated Kevin. It was breathtaking as he executed shots that mere mortals cannot even dream of. It felt like non-stop attack; they both were tireless as they pushed for the title. The Chinese duo tried to resist but in vain as the Minions were unstoppable. Their first All England title was won in a whirlwind 35 minutes 21-19, 21-14
2018 Final v Mathias Boe/Carsten Mogensen
The defending champions came back to Birmingham on a spectacular run of form that continued through to the final. Kevin’s mercurial brilliance blended with Gideon’s tough, focused play meant that they limited the Danes to controllable flurries of resistance. Even though Boe & Mogensen were competing hard and never out of touch on the scoreboard the result seemed inevitable. Kevin’s superhuman anticipation for the winning point – a sharp net kill – epitomized the pair’s dominance of the court. Title retained in straight sets: 21-18, 21-17.
The effervescent genius of Kevin & Marcus has consistently lit up the All England over the years. The tempo of their games, their athleticism and their desire to win this historic tournament always creates high hopes when they arrive in the UK. Once again they are top seeds and should be fighting for a third title by the end of the competition.
Is TAI Tzu Ying the greatest ever Women’s Singles champion at the All England? I think so. In 2020 a landmark third trophy was won, and this triumph proves her consistent dominance of the elite in an era of great players. Five years on from her first title in Birmingham she is still world #1 and seeded #1 for this year’s championship.
It’s enjoyable to curate happy memories so I want to revisit some of her best games in Birmingham. There is no doubt that when an outstanding opponent inspires her, she reaches levels of artistry that confound expectations. When TTY is in the arena all eyes turn to her.
I have chosen three of my must-see matches. It is fascinating to reflect that these games feature exceptional opponents who all favour unique styles & TTY outplayed them all.
Final 2017 v Ratchanok Intanon
El Classico! Two incredible talents who spurred each other on to heights of excellence – a pattern we would see repeated in many other clashes between them down the years. The creative vision of both players, the pace of the game, the precision, and the desire to win were incredible. After losing the first set May played all out to level the match and was consistently in front . At 19-18 Ratchanok executed an outstanding combination of shots to outplay TTY and get to set point 20-18. Regardless of the peril she was in TTY replied with verve and focus; winning four points in a row to seal the Championship 21-16, 22-20. Brilliant badminton.
Final 2018 v Akane Yamaguchi
Epic Battle! The defending champion stepped onto court to face the #2 seed and what followed was one of the best Championship ties ever. Akane was aggressive and pacey, working hard to keep TAI Tzu Ying away from the net and was in position to close out the first set at 20-19. The shuttler from Taiwan answered with supreme racket skills, using wonderful touch to get variations in velocity and power. Again, she competed with no fear despite intense pressure from her Japanese rival. Of course, she used a reverse slice straight drop to gain the initiative and lead 21-20 then secured set one 22-20. The second set was more of the same. Absolute commitment and focus from the pair of players. Akane covered every millimeter of the court as TTY’s cross- court drives, sudden injections of pace and use of deception displayed her genius. Yamaguchi gave everything but could not neutralize Tzu Ying and she collected the All England title for the second year in a row. 22-20, 21-13. Breathtaking badminton.
Final 2020 v CHEN Yufei
Previous meetings with CYF had exposed TAI Tzu Ying’s tendency for self-sabotage. This time she was resilient. This was an encounter that revealed a great deal about her inner strength and ability to evolve. TTY turned one of CYF’s great assets – Patience – against her. It was a trump card. TTY was majestic: she stayed calm and focused her attacks with precision never allowing the Chinese player to escape the relentless pressure. 21-19, 21-15. There was an inevitability to this win; it was a career-defining victory.
Simply the Best!
No one flukes three titles at the All England. TAI Tzu Ying’s record in Birmingham reveals an authentic legend. I can’t wait to see her competing again soon.
TAI Tzu Ying’s sensational reign as World #1 has hit the 200-week milestone this month. She is the sport’s MVP, the athlete who bewitches neutrals and is the embodiment of badminton at its best.
She is unique, spontaneity and deception are deep-rooted in her game’s DNA. Tzu Ying has rewritten the algebra of the shuttle’s flight, and this is core to her resilience at the sport’s heights. Her audacious style has never been squashed by the need to play percentages.
The finest players are always able to find a few beats of extra time when they are under pressure. TTY excels in this part of a game. Her unscripted approach and technical excellence gives her an advantage that most opponents fail to neutralize over the passage of a match – so long as she keeps her patience. An impulsive player’s shots are hard to anticipate, and this gives a crucial edge on court.
Women’s Singles overflows with talented players and it is fascinating to recognize that no single style prevails. But…sometimes I think that some shots have been invented for the use of one particular player. TAI Tzu Ying’s Reverse Slice Straight Drop is a beautiful thing that should live in the Badminton Hall of Fame. It’s a Get out of Jail shot: when she’s in a tight corner with no way out it can offer an escape route.
A reliable measure of greatness in any sport is longevity at #1. The challenge is to keep possession of the top spot once it is secured. It is an extraordinary accomplishment to dominate the top ten since December 2016. This is a similar level to Serena Williams or Roger Federer’s success in tennis. An uptick in pressure on the person at the top always happens because opponents have an extra incentive to triumph. Early rounds of tournaments against unseeded players can suddenly acquire a new tension.
Her kaleidoscopic talent for incredible shots is only part of the story. TTY’s resilience was forged early in her career – perhaps it was something that always existed within her anyway? She is part of an incredibly supportive family unit and she also has a wonderful coaching team around her. An elite athlete’s life is tough so it is impossible to overstate how important these people are to her success.
TAI Tzu Ying is a phenomenon whose imagination and vision have kept her at the peak of Badminton for a long time. I can’t wait to see her on court again soon.
It has been an extraordinary 12 months: alternating between feast and famine as the players enter bubbles for intense periods of competition and then exit to recover. These are my biased, sentimental, affectionate awards for 2021.
Player of the Year: TAI Tzu Ying
In 2021 we have watched this impulsive free spirit confirm her reputation among the greats of the world game. Outstanding technical skills and creative genius often elevate her shots to works of art. A key target this year has been to step up her performance at the Olympics and World Championships so winning Silver at both is a significant improvement. She has stayed fresh and relatively injury free by focusing on only a few tournaments and she has been ever-present in the finals. The good news is that we can expect to see her on court in 2022 as the threat of retirement seems to have been put on hold for the time being.
Runners Up: CHEN Yufei for her error-free capture of Olympic Gold and Akane Yamaguchi who has been indefatigable and a worthy World Champion.
Best Competitor: Greysia Polii
The breathtaking Gold in Tokyo was a sensational, momentous achievement. Of course, Apriyani Rahayu had a significant role in the victory, but I want to highlight Greysia. Although retirement appeared to be on the horizon she was determined not to fade quietly into the background. A last Olympics, a last chance to get on the podium and boy did she grab it. Congratulations Greysia, always one of my favourite players
XD Player of the Year: HUANG Dongping & Sapsiree Taerattanachai
I cannot choose between these two brilliant players. HUANG Dong Ping’s Gold at the Olympics was magnificent; the final was a glorious tie between four gifted athletes. She is brave, has great reflexes and is adept at using the flat game to aggressive advantage. Popor has also enjoyed a stunning 12 months, winning eight titles, and – other than the Olympics – she and Bass have dominated the XD scene. Their physical resilience and mental strength are second to none. Interestingly both stand-out players compete successfully in WD as well.
Best Pair: Nami Matsuyama & Chiharu Shida
It’s been fascinating to watch their improvement recently; the leap from Super 100/300 up to the top levels has been harmonious and their upwards momentum got great rewards at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton. Maybe the Japanese ‘house style’ is evolving because they are more aggressive and more willing to try and seize the initiative than we expect. Both work hard, support each other and obviously enjoy their matches.
Runners Up: Greysia Polii & Apriyani Rahayu – seeing my two favourites get Gold at the Olympics is one of my best badminton moments ever.
Parabadminton player of the Year: Leani Ratri Oktila
Gold, Gold, Silver at the Tokyo Paralympic games – at Parabadminton’s debut the world #1 was totally dominant.
If He Was A Woman I’d Give Him An Award Too: Viktor Axelsen
A year packed full of achievements – bravo Viktor!
These are just some of the people I have loved to watch in 2021: it’s just my subjective opinion, I can’t pretend that I have spent any time evaluating the stats. The Olympics and the tournament bubbles have made this year unique. Some have thrived but injuries and withdrawals from tournaments have been common; let’s hope for less of a treadmill in 2022. There have been so many highlights (which I’ll cover in my Review of the Year) so I would like to thank all the players and everyone from the badminton community for making this such a memorable twelve months.
2021 has been a breakout year for this young and exciting Malaysian pair. Their dynamism and tenacity have won them plenty of new fans over the past twelve months because they have been seriously challenging players ahead of them in the rankings
When they were at junior level, they were not WD partners unlike many of their current rivals. They have competitive familiarity across the sectors but the main factor significant to their current style of play is the influence of XD as the pair have both got experience in this discipline. Their bold approach to matches is refreshing and I sense that there is a shift happening away from the more traditional, old fashioned neutral play towards tactics that allow players to take the initiative in a match.
Their performance in the first round at the Toyota Thailand Open was an “aha moment” for fans and analysts. It was an exhilarating contest packed full of drama. After losing the first set they levelled then refused to concede the third. It was simply gripping. They were down 18-20, saved four match points and eventually won 27-25. It was an 87 minute white knuckle ride where they kept their focus and eventually earned victory.
As a pair they are keen to disrupt their rivals rhythms with intelligent use of angled shots. Thinaah has a strong front court game and both can unleash some power. Naturally they are good defenders but it’s the intensity and pace of their attack that enables them to seize command with flat drives and effectively screw down on their opponents.
Their first world tour title win at the 2021 Swiss Open was confirmation that they are on the right track. A straight set victory over the quintessence of defensive WD – the Stoeva sisters – felt like a shot of adrenaline to the heart of the discipline. It was proof that the partnership has raised their game over the past couple of years.
These two athletes are possible stars of the future and are part of the generational shift following Tokyo 2020. They still have a lot of hard work to do if they want to move up to the consistent standards set in Women’s Doubles by the Japanese pairs. It was revealing that in their recent Indonesian Master’s game against Matsuyama/Shida they were carried along by the momentum of the Japanese attack without really being able to derail it and they were beaten in two sets. They must have more tactical options if Plan A is not successful.
“You’ll see us fail, I guarantee it. But you will never see us quit”
Thinaah Muralitharan on her Instagram
It’s exciting to watch a pair with a fresh approach. They are ‘work in progress’ but they have the potential to keep moving up the rankings and can aim to be top 10 players. Their spirit and gritty resolve mean that they can frighten any opponent so they can regard the future with hope and optimism. I can’t wait to see how they meet the challenges of the next couple of years.
Akane in a recent article by Dev Sukumar. Courtesy BWF
Watching a revitalized Akane win back-to-back tournaments in Denmark and France has been one of the highlights of the last few weeks.
She has been the standout player on the circuit recently. Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of multiple competitions since Tokyo 2020, she has flourished.
Sudirman & Uber Cup
Akane was at the heart of Japan’s success in the team competitions in Vantaa and Aarhus. Two silver medals do not do justice to her immense contribution. Both times Japan lost in the final to China, but both times she chalked up victories against CHEN Yu Fei in straight sets. There was an all-consuming intensity to these games. She seldom made mistakes and as she upped the tempo of the match CYF struggled to find scoring opportunities because her rival’s court coverage was formidable. Contrast this to their previous meeting in the same competition (Sudirman Cup 2019) and her improvement is clear. The next time these two face each other over a net is going to be awesome.
Victor Denmark Open: October 2021
In the Uber Cup AN Se Young was the only player to unpick Akane’s defence (in two sets) and so this final was an opportunity to see what effect the loss had had upon her Japanese foe. The first set was controlled by ASY; despite a heavily strapped thigh her movement was fluid and dominant. The second set began in much the same way with Yamaguchi struggling to summon up the energy to put any fizz on the shuttle; she was making mistakes too and there seemed to be an inevitability to the Korean’s advance to the top of the podium. By 16-16 Akane was fighting desperately to stay in the match: diving, scrambling, scrapping and just giving everything to stay in contention. 18-18. 19-19. A match point to ASY came and went amidst exhausting rallies. The score reached 23-23 before Akane was able to get the points needed to close it out 25-23. Ominously, in the interval, ASY ripped off her strapping and called for the doctor for the second time.
The third set was a story of triumph and tragedy. As it began, it was obvious that the Korean was less smooth in her movements. With the score against her at 3-7 she was red carded for ‘delay’ but effectively she was trying to work out whether she could continue and at 16-5 down she admitted defeat.
No-one ever wants to win a title in these circumstances, but Akane’s triumph was based on perseverance and her emphatic refusal to concede the game in the second set. AN Se Young missed her opportunity to win when she failed to convert her match point. Akane was very courageous in Set 2 since she committed everything to those long rallies; her grit paid off as ASY wilted under the grueling examination of her stamina. This was a fascinating duel.
Yonex French Open 2021
Yamaguchi’s European success continued with her title win against compatriot Sayaka Takahashi in Paris. A straight sets victory, this was a little more straightforward but there are no easy games at this level. Akane’s top-quality defence and stamina effectively neutralized her opponent’s threat; Takahashi stayed with the momentum at first, but she was forced to cut her margins and go for the line so, as she tired, mistakes crept into her game. The final score was 21-18, 21-12.
Back in July 2019 Akane Yamaguchi was world #1 – albeit briefly – but later suffered training disruption and some shock defeats owing to niggly injuries. In common with many in the Japanese team there were substantial expectations on her shoulders when the Olympics began but she was unable to make a significant impact. Now I think she has revisited her motivation to compete and it has given her a fresh outlook. Her epic battle with AN Se Young for the Denmark title showcased her unending resilience and phenomenal court coverage; I hope we get the chance to see plenty more clashes between these two. As one of the most lovable athletes on the tour plenty of fans will be cheering her on to more podium finishes. The Bali bubble beckons and she can travel to Indonesia with plenty of confidence that she will be making a big impression.
Hot on the heels of Odense the action moved to Paris. It quickly became obvious that some athletes were running on empty; the challenges of a schedule that includes an Olympics, a Sudirman Cup, a Thomas, or Uber Cup and the Denmark Open over the space of 12 weeks following lockdowns, quarantines and illness was a lot to embrace, physically and mentally. Which brings me to Akane, Momota and The Unseeded.
Akane – Winner Women’s Singles
Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of tournaments since the Tokyo Olympics, Akane has thrived. She arrived in Paris as the Denmark Open champion and continued her hot streak right through to victory in the final again. These back-to-back wins suggest she has rediscovered the form that made her world#1 back in July 2019. It was her defensive excellence, swift court coverage and faultless anticipation which neutralised Takahashi’s challenge today. Akane is the standout Women’s Singles player in the world at the moment.
The Unseeded win Men’s Singles and Doubles: Tsuneyama, and KO/SHIN
It’s always magical to watch an unseeded player battle through to a final and win. Both of the men’s titles in this tournament went to players who were expected to lose earlier on. Kanta Tsuneyama triumphed over the more experienced CHOU Tien Chen in three tough sets; his perseverance and precision shots were the foundation of success and his delight in victory was irresistible.
In Men’s Doubles KO Sung Hyun and SHIN Baek Cheol faced Gideon and Sukamuljo. The Koreans are the former world champions who have been enduring a very lean period over the past couple of years. The Minions are working their way though their own existential crisis at the moment so it was hard to know what to expect from this contest. The Korean’s victory was quite brisk, no long rallies but a relentless drive for the title that stopped the Indonesian pair from getting any sort of toehold in the match. It was a long way from a classic, but KO and SHIN deserved the win. I hope Kevin and Marcus can take some encouragement from getting to the final.
“….the body is worn out but the heart is fine so it’s OK”
Kento Momota IG story (rough translation)
Sometimes sport is more than victory. Over the past few weeks Momota has consistently refused easy options. His resilience and character has driven him on to compete. When it seems as though his body is aching for a rest he has stepped back on court to play again. As the beaten finalist in Denmark he could have – maybe should have – withdrawn from this tournament; instead his desire for badminton carried him on to the Semi-Final where he eventually had to concede the match because of injury. It’s clear that he is still getting back to his best form but every time he plays he progresses. I’m looking forward to Bali and I reckon it’s not going to be long to wait before his next title. (WTF?)
Yuta and Arisa
Yuta Watanabe continues to impress on the XD stage. I love his spatial awareness: his ability to find gaps on his opponents side of the court is second to none. His support for Arisa – on and off court – is exemplary and so this is the basis of a partnership that will keep developing and keep winning. After today’s win they can go to Bali feeling confident about their ability to be in the mix at the end of a tournament.
Apart from top seeds LEE/SHIN winning the WD competition, the story of this Yonex Paris Open is of athletes triumphing over low expectations, injuries and fatigue. Kanta Tsuneyama’s, road to the MS title as an unseeded player was tough but it’s always extra special to watch ‘upset’ wins like these. SayakaTakahashi reached the WS final despite a career threatening back injury last year. Kevin and Marcus got to their first final since AE2020 and although they lost out to unseeded KO/SHIN they must find some positives in that to fuel recovery from their slump.
Nineteen years of waiting is over – today Indonesia have won back the Thomas Cup.
This team just got better and better as the competition progressed and to beat China 3-0 in the final was a measure of how far they improved together. This band of brothers will always be renowned as the athletes who won the trophy for Indonesia’s 14th time with the legendary Hendra Setiawan as their captain.
Who could have predicted what this team was capable of? It was packed with talent but some of the athletes had been misfiring in recent games and others were looking lackluster. The first tie was a 5-0 leg-stretcher against Algeria but next came Thailand. This match was equal at 2-2 with both senior MS losing, so it required Rhustavito to step up at the end to keep his team winning. The contest with Taiwan was also finely balanced: this time Ginting and Christie won, only for the MD to lose. Again they had to look to Rhustavito to rescue the result. This victory was crucial to confirm seeding into the knockout stages.
The ‘El Classico’ against Malaysia in the quarter final was a tie I was regarding with a mixture of dread and excitement. It was lose-able. But this is when the team really started to look like they were contenders. LEE Zii Jia is in the form of his life but he was dispatched by Anthony in straight sets; the Minions overcame CHIA/SOH over three and the tie was wrapped up by Christie. No need for any five match dramas.
A semi-final against Denmark on their home turf is always going to be a daunting prospect; especially when the first encounter is against Olympic Champion Viktor Axelsen. It was playing out true to form until the third match when Jonatan Christie walked on court to battle Anders Antonsen. What followed was a truly great performance from a man who has struggled with his form for a while. Over 100 minutes he stayed cool, kept to his plan and exposed Antonsen’s bland attack and his lack of stamina. This blow to Danish ambitions was mortal, and Alfian/Ardianto executed the coup de grace for a 3-1 win.
One of the exceptional features of this team is that there was always a win around the corner from a loss. Their self-belief escalated as the days passed. They knew that history was waiting to be made and when the chances came against China they grabbed them. A 3-0 victory is really something. The last words belong to one of my favourite players ever. Hendra Setiawan is an absolute icon and a wonderful ambassador for badminton; I’m thrilled that it was him who raised the trophy on the podium
This edition of the SC was lit up by the brilliance of the women players. Their spirit and strength were at the heart of the most successful teams.
The return by Misaki to Women’s Doubles for this tournament was a bittersweet gift to her admirers. The scratch pairing with Mayu Matsumoto had a few rough edges yet it was a treat to watch. Misaki is a genius at the net – her touch and vision are sensational – but the skill that lifts her to Goddess status is her will to win. At critical moments she can find a new level and seize victory. In the semi-final against Malaysia, especially in the second set, her drive and aggression were unplayable and they beat TAN/THINAAH to seal the win for Japan. I wish her all the best in her Mixed Double’s journey but I wish she was still playing WD.
Akane Yamaguchi – Most Valuable Player
At a pivotal time in the final Akane gave a stellar performance: she had the self-belief and resources to challenge the best and gave BirdJapan hope. She is an outstanding defender; in the final there were patches against CHEN Yufei when she was under intense pressure from the Olympic Champion. Her strategy of keeping her tempo and defending everything however hopeless meant that CYF could never really settle into the sort of rhythm that lets her win 5 or 6 points in a row. Often functioning on instinct, she was simply brilliant and won the match in two games 21-19, 21-16.
In the run-up to the final, CYF was always the nucleus of Chinese victory. In the quarter-final against Denmark her match against Mia Blichfeldt was a ‘must win’ because China – already trailing – risked elimination 0-3 if she could not level before the Men’s Singles. The tie was pulsating with the competitive advantage ebbing and flowing between the two athletes. She held her nerve under intense scrutiny and clung on in the decider to win. In the semi-final against Korea, she lost the first set to AN Seyoung but was resolute and sucked ASY into her patient, error-free style which suffocated resistance. It was only in the final against Yamaguchi’s faster pace that she lost a match.
Pearly TAN & THINAAH Muralitheran
The young Malaysian pair have been catching my eye for the last year or so and they have really started to challenge some of the more established doubles teams. They stood out in this competition because of their fighting spirit and unwillingness to concede defeat. Against GreyAp in the quarter final they battled the Olympic Champions for 90 minutes and saved six match points. There’s no doubt they are the rising stars of this sector and I can’t wait to watch them again.
Honourable Mentions Also To:
CHEN Qing Chen and JIA Yi Fan for closing out the final and refusing to be intimidated by MatsuMatsu. Gregoria for making a fight of it in Indonesia’s quarter final and ending the competition with a 100% record. Mia Blichfeldt for her epic encounter with CHEN Yufei, and Greysia Polii for ‘surviving’.
Congratulations to China for their twelfth win in the Sudirman Cup – even without some of their best-know stars they arrived as favourites. There were some nail-biting matches and Denmark came close to eliminating them but in the end they deserved their victory.
Yuki’s LINE message to Sayaka (Trans by Sebastien @sebad110)
Is it ok to write about FukuHiro? No Japanese Women’s Doubles medal in Tokyo would have been unimaginable six months ago but the top seeds were knocked out at the QF stage. This does not even scratch the surface of Yuki and Sayaka’s Olympics.
The badminton world was staggered when Sayaka arrived on court and revealed a heavy knee brace on her right leg. Despite the catastrophe that had befallen her the Gold medal favourites had decided to come and fight.
Sooner or later, we have to accept that for all the time spent on analysis of games and players a match will always end in victory or defeat. Nevertheless, at the Olympics the reaction of these two athletes to a serious injury subverted this into an honourable display that showed the strength of their partnership and their love of badminton played together.
The first match facing Birch/Smith was a chance to see if they could win on three and a half legs. Unbelievably they battled through in two sets. Fukushima carried a big burden: she ran for two whilst Hirota tried to avoid the back line. Their tactics succeeded: 21-13 & 21-14. There had to be a focus on keeping playing time to a minimum and the stats show that the longest rally was 54 strokes with the average length at 11. In the next game against CHOW/LEE the Malaysians seemed prepped to exploit her restricted movement and got the first set but nerves took over and the self-confidence of the Japanese saw them win the following two sets. This time the longest rally was 76 strokes with an average length of 13 per rally.
After the first game Hirota had described herself as at 70-80% and admitted that she had been injured during training on June 18th. She later said:
“It’s like it became pitch-black. I thought it was impossible to go to the Olympics anymore. I felt very sorry for Fukushima-senpai”
Interview in NHK translated by Sebastien.
After an MRI scan, she was diagnosed with an ACL tear in her right knee plus damage to her meniscuses and lateral collateral ligament. She described it as a “desperate time”. A specialist advised surgery but agreed – after two weeks rest from training – that it was feasible to wait until after the Olympic tournament. The Donjoy-style brace she wore was designed to redeploy the way playing pressure impacted on her damaged knee. The stress goes to the healthy parts and away from aggravating the pain.
The final group game was their first loss. Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu had to work hard over three sets but in the end, they just could not find a way through. This meant they had come second in Group A and would meet CHEN/JIA in a quarter final. Even if they had both been fit this tie would have been daunting. The Chinese are superb players; strong and smart so they knew they were in for a difficult day. Yuki’s LINE message to her partner that evening read
“…tomorrow regardless we win or lose, I want us to enjoy the match…Let’s overcome this together. Let’s speak together. If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”
Trans by Sebastien.
It was a brutal physical test and after three sets their goal of a home Olympics medal was gone. At the end they faced the world with tears and their arms around each other. The Chinese players’ sporting behaviour added to the emotion of the moment. Games like this can be very hard to spectate.
Sayaka has a hard six months of rehab ahead but her courageous attitude and the support of Yuki will sustain her. Fukuhiro’s Olympics was tragic and wonderful. I’m so sorry that they were not able to compete to 100% of their ability but seeing their reaction to heartbreak was inspiring. Their bravery and commitment shone through disappointment; the dream has not been lost, only delayed until Paris 2024.
Thank you to Sebastien for letting me use their translations of interviews in Japanese and also thank you to all the Fukuhiro fans out there who shared ideas and chatted about the Olympic journey with me.
This was the most joyous Gold medal. Athletes can’t buy an Olympic victory; they earn one over years of perseverance and pain. Even then, some don’t reach their dream, so to watch Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu on top of the Tokyo podium was a glorious moment.
The origins of the triumph stretch back to a young Greysia who was focused on becoming a pro:
“I was born to be a badminton player. And I had that faith when I was 13, that I wanted to make history for Indonesia”
Along the way she endured a controversial exit from London 2012 and lost at the QF stage in Rio 2016 with Nitya Krishinda Maheswari. When the news broke that her partner required surgery and was going to retire Polii seriously considered hanging up her racket too.
Looking back this was when Eng Hian – the head of Indonesian Women’s Doubles – had a stroke of genius. He convinced her to delay retirement…to stay a little longer and help guide the progress of some of the younger players. In 2017 along came the talented but raw Apriyani Rahayu: aged 19 with a dislike of being told what to do, but intelligent and ambitious enough to recognise that this was a great opportunity to learn from Greysia. As time passed and the chemistry between them formed it started to occur to Polii that if she could instill a champion’s mindset into her young partner then maybe this could lead to great things. She would need patience, perseverance and to stay injury-free. Perhaps everything that had gone before was preparing her for this.
Fast Forward To Tokyo 2020
The tournament started brightly for GreyAp. Two wins out of two in the group stages and the importance of the final game against FukuHiro escalated. Suddenly here was an opportunity to emerge from the Round Robin as group winners and therefore avoid a seeded pair in the Quarter Final.
Wars of attrition pose little threat to the Indonesian duo. They have the physical resilience to endure a lot and that style of play offers a great platform for the sudden explosions of power from Apri or the creative vision and deft touches from Greysia. The Japanese top seeds could not handle the aggressive tempo of the contest. They were stubborn and resisted over three sets but folded in the last 21-8. So GreyAp entered the knockout rounds and I was feeling optimistic.
It’s been clear over the course of the Olympic badminton tournament that the Chinese athletes’ standards haven’t suffered from their lack of international competition. In the QF against DU/LI Greysia and Apri were asked some hard questions over three sets but they stood firm and refused to let the Chinese win.
The Semi-Final against LEE/SHIN was a daunting prospect but as the match progressed it was always GreyAp who had the upper hand. The competitive momentum that they had been building since the tournamnet began carried them on to the final. Another win, a guaranteed medal, history made.
This was a final waiting to be won. There was little point in waiting to be beaten by the hot favourites: I think Greysia and Apri realised this and it fed their ambitious attitude. Rahayu brought her ‘A game’ – make that her ‘A+ game’. Her energy and bravery constantly screwed down the pressure on CHEN/JIA. Her aggressive high tempo unsettled their rhythm and her noisy, boisterous attitude helped dominate the court space. At 1-1 in the first set there was a moment when Greysia took the shuttle mid-court on her backhand and pinged it crosscourt into empty space. At that moment I realised she knew they could win. The next point was gained by Polii’s delicate drop which emphasized her intent and desire. It was a close set as the four of them traded points but in the end GreyAp won it 21-19. Advantage Indonesia.
Set two opened with them racing to a 7-2 lead. Both players were decisive and self-assured. Unburdened by tension they were playing without inhibition and exuding self-belief. Everything they did worked. The Chinese tried to get back into the flow of the game but they were being swept along by the irresistable pace and vision of the Indonesians. Incredibly at 18-10 Polii’s strings broke but she had time to grab a replacement racket and win the rally.
There was an inevitability to the final moments as they had outclassed CHEN/JIA throughout the game. The (mostly) empty arena didn’t matter – we were all crying and screaming at our screens together as they celebrated victory. Often the difference between a Silver and Gold medal is simultaneously a universe and barely a whisker. The Indonesia duo had dominated in every area of the court and had played their best ever game at exactly the right moment. Congratulations Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu: Gold medallists and history makers!
Tai Tzu Ying is the creative spark who can elevate badminton into more than sport. The fusion of brilliant shots and brave resolve is breathtaking to watch. Her sensational technical skills make comparisons with Roger Federer easy. Just like him she can do just about anything with her racket; the variety and fluency is electrifying.
However, she has struggled to play her best games at the past two Olympics. No medal at London 2012 or Rio 2016 so, with talk of retirement in the air, the focus has been on Tokyo. Fans around the world have craved a podium spot for her so The Queen arrived in Japan with a clear goal.
TAI Tzu Ying came to the final to win; CHEN Yu Fei arrived determined not to lose. Two equals but with contrasting approaches to the match. It was a fascinating clash. CHEN Yu Fei is strategically shrewd and her consistency was effective in neutralising some of TTY’s flair: she won the first set 21-18. TAI Tzu Ying fought back hard in set two to force a decider. It was a relentless battle on court and inside the player’s heads.
Set three began badly for TAI Tzu Ying. CHEN Yu Fei pounced on some errors and racked up quick points to lead 10-3. TTY’s fighting spirit was not subdued though. Over some intensely nerve-wracking minutes she clawed her way back into contention but although she almost caught up she could not alter the momentum of the contest. CHEN Yu Fei triumphed 21-18.
So finally TAI Tzu Ying has an Olympic medal; it would have been unbearable if she had returned home to Taiwan empty-handed. She was true to herself and the way she has to play the game. Just like Federer at London 2012 she came to win Gold but in the end got Silver. She couldn’t have given any more to the fight. Congratulations TAI Tzu Ying from your millions of fans – we are so proud of you!
TAI Tzu Ying was breathtaking today as she seized a place in the Olympic final. Her flair and courage were irresistable. PV Sindhu fought hard but at crucial moments she could not contain the creative genius of the Queen.
The battle for the first set saw the balance of power swing backwards and forwards between the two athletes. Sindhu has rediscovered her 2019 form in Tokyo and she refused to allow TTY to get any scoring momentum although she could not take control herself. Both players were utterly focused on their quest for the final. Sindhu led at the interval and stayed with the scoring up to 18-18 but TAI’s strategy of moving the World Champion from side to side whilst trying to push her back succeeded in minimising the threat of the Indian’s power smash. This was very shrewd and allowed her to take charge in the last three points and secure the opening set 21-18.
The second set and a change of ends saw the screw being turned by TAI Tzu Ying. Although it was pretty even at the interval the scoreline was ticking over nicely in favour of Taiwan. Errors started to creep in from Sindhu and she was finding it increasingly tricky to control the shuttle in her long shots. The pressure was relentless and TAI’s exquisite technical skills were allowing her to drive the direction of the game; in the end the set was closed out 21-12
So, we have the priviledge of being able to watch TAI Tzu Ying in an Olympic final: something I have craved for years. Since she started mentioning retirement the focus for fans has been this gold medal match. Moments like these are fleeting, I hope she enjoys the game, with no injuries and does justice to her magnificent talent.
Inevitably this competition will be an emotional roller coaster. Nothing is decided except that there will be a new Olympic champion.
There will be 43 competitors on day 1; in this sector there are 14 seeds and so the preliminary stages will break down into 13 groups of 3 and one group of 4. The group of four includes the #2 seed (TTY) who then gets a bye in the R16; although CHEN Yufei is in a group of three, as #1 seed she also has a bye at that stage.
Nozomi Okuhara (3)
The winner of a Bronze medal in Rio will be one of the standout players in Tokyo. She knows what it takes to get on the podium and has every chance of upgrading to Gold in her home Olympics. Her progress as a competitor since those 6 defeats in finals in 2019 has been outstanding and her victory over Marin at the 2020 Denmark Open was important with a strong redemptive quality. The only other tournament she has played in this year – Yonex All England 2021 – also ended with a win so it would seem that Nozomi has spent lockdown learning how to turn silver into Gold.
TAI Tzu Ying (2)
The exhilaration of watching TTY in full flow belongs on the world stage of the Olympics yet she has never shone in this tournament. The opportunity to win a medal here is something her many fans (myself included) crave for her. Chances like this are fleeting and she has been frank about her intention to retire ‘soon’. I would love to see this sublime player become part of Olympic badminton legend. Prediction: Gold.
CHEN Yu Fei (1)
The top seed has not competed internationally since YAE20 so I’m intrigued to discover whether she has altered much about her game. She is resilient and is adept at staying in a match. Her composure and stubborn persistence against players who have more flair means she often waits for them to run out of ideas and then attacks. Her strength may also be a weakness: I have wondered in the past how risk-averse she is because sometimes she just seems too patient. This was part of the reason for her defeat against TTY in the final in Birmingham in 2020. If she makes the final – her route may involve beating AN Se Young and Nozomi – it could prove to be the difference between silver and Gold.
Pursala V Sindhu (6)
At her best Sindhu is uncontainable and although she seems to suffer inconsistent form there’s no doubt she can raise her game at the top tournaments. Nozomi must still get nightmares about her annihilation by PVS at the 2019 World Championship final. Her part of the draw is tough, but at her best she has the beating of Blichfeldt and Akane. Indian women’s singles has a great tradition of success at the Olympics – including Sindhu’s Silver in Rio – so she has the experience to force her way into the reckoning.
Ratchanok Intanon (5)
May’s sparkling skills on court could mean a medal chance in her third Olympics but her route to the podium is scary. Probably she will meet Gregoria in the R16 and assuming she progresses past the Indonesian it’s likely that her QF will be against TAI Tzu Ying. This is a neutral’s nightmare. These two breathtaking players light up every tournament so I’m sorry that one of them will lose their chance of glory. The head-to-head stats are pretty even (15-14 in TTY’s favour) so it will be a fascinating and excruciating game to spectate.
Akane Yamaguchi (4)
Akane has been under the radar more than her compatriot during lockdown so we’ll have to wait to see what sort of form she’s in. Her counter-punching style could work effectively at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza so although she doesn’t have a particulary convincing record against some of the others in her part of the draw I see her as a firm contender.
AN Se Young (7)
ASY has been regarded as a dark horse chance for the Gold here since she flew up the rankings in 2019. Earlier this year she did OK in Thailand – getting to semi-finals – but she wasn’t able to push on to a final. She is at the stage in her career now where fine tuning and incremental gains are important if she is to dominate consistently. She’s a wonderful all-rounder but sometime I consider that she puts too much emphasis on defence. I’d like to see her take the initiative more. In a recent interview with BWF she highlighted her victory over TTY in the Sudirman Cup as a turning point but I think the frustration of being ‘nearly there’ will be perfect fuel for her ambition. Prediction: Paris 2024 Gold
HBJ seems to have been replaced by her super-slim twin sister during lockdown and I’m excited to see what has changed about her approach in the course of the pandemic. It’s unlikely that the lack of international competition will have disadvantaged either of the Chinese competitors because they enjoy such a high standard domestically so it’s feasible that she will have added a new dimension to her play. If the seeding works as expected then her first big test is going to be in a QF against Nozomi – she doesn’t have a good H2H against the Japanese so if she can pull off a win then she may have to face her compatriot for a spot in the final. Prediction QF Exit.
Women’s Singles is crowded with fine athletes so it’s tricky to highlight one player who already has a foot on the podium. Olympic Gold is someone’s destiny and it looks to me as though it will boil down to Nozomi V Tzu Ying. The person who can stay fit, focused and adapt quickly to the conditions in the arena will have an advantage, but it’s always a hard tournament to call. TTY knows she must stay patient and cut out mistakes, Nozomi has to be confident in her ability to keep asking the tough questions. I’m impatient for it to start so we can enjoy the path to victory and watch dreams come true.
China has the top two seeds in this sector and must be confident of glory – the question is, who can disrupt their plans to dominate this part of the competition? Japan has home advantage and two fantastic competitors in Watanabe and Higashino, Thailand’s Bass & Popor’s challenge is likely to be robust whilst Jordan and Oktavianti have made no secret of their focus on Gold.
The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.
Group A: Zheng/Huang (#1), Tabeling/Piek, Seo/Chae, Elgamel/Hany
ZHENG Si Wei & HUANG Ya Qiong are top seeds and expected by their millions of fans at home in China to win the tournament – probably with a victory in the final over compatriots WANG/HUANG. The pressure they exert on rivals, their energy and their technical skills all combine to make them habitual winners. Zheng’s spatial awareness – especially his use of cross-court smashes or drives – means he sets up points for his partner to snaffle at the net. The main threat in their group are Koreans Seo Seung-jae/Chae Yujung who were strong in the Thailand bubble (Silver medallists twice) so I think these two pairs will progress into the knockout rounds. SSJ is also competing in the MD so there may be issues around fatigue for him. If Tabeling/Piek could force a win against the Koreans then the remainder of the games will have more significance but they have a hard task ahead.
Group B:Puavaranukroh/Taerattanachai (#3), Gicquel/Delrue, Ellis/Smith, Hurlburt-Yu/Wu
Bass/Popor were sensational on home turf in January – unbeaten in all three tournaments – and this has raised hopes for a good Olympic run. They are hungry for success and the last couple of years has seen them challenge for titles at all the major tournaments. This is a very tricky group though. Thom Gicquel and Delphine Delrue have been attracting more and more admiring appraisals and it’s obvious they have been working hard through the pandemic. I have a feeling that their sights are set on the title at their home Olympics and this competition is part of the ongoing project. Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith should have enough experience to negotiate this part of the competition and get into the knockout stages. If they can get to the QF the Brits are possible dark horses for a medal but their head-to-head against all of the seeds is not good. Their opening game is against the French and it is a must win for both pairs.
Group C: Jordan/Oktavianti (#4),Watanabe/Higashino, Christiansen/Boje, Wing Hang Leung/Somerville
Gold is the target for the Indonesian 4th seeds and they have what it takes to deny their rivals so long as Praveen Jordan can consistently find his form. His intimidating presence, blistering smash and all-round game make him a complicated opponent; Melati is a excellent foil for him. If PraMel start sluggishly then the Japanese pair could top the group. The current All England champions are eyeing a podium spot but as Yuta Watanabe is competing in the MD too I’m curious how he’s going to manage the physical and emotional demands upon him. I’m a big fan of Arisa Higashino; her play from the rear court liberates Yuta to maraud at the front and this is one of their major advantages over many rivals. Could the Danes or Australians seize the initiative in this group and grab one of the top two places? It’s quite a big ask, so let’s see who starts smartly and gets some momentum as pressure rises.
Group D: Wang/Huang (#2), Lamfuss/Herttrich, Tang/Tse, Chan/Goh
WANG Yi Lyu and HUANG Dong Ping are likely to boss this group. HDP is always an eye-catching net player with such a reliable touch and good strategic vision whilst her partner can consistently put away chances. Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying – the Silver medalists in Rio – will expect to progress out of the group alongside the Chinese pair.
Can any of these pairs stop the top seeds winning Gold? On paper the most likely would be their compatriots but we have all witnessed unexpected results in the Olympic theatre. Praveen Jordan is a bit temperamental and this can be turned to his advantage; it’s a useful strategy to be unpredictable especially against opponents like the Chinese who tend to be ‘hard-drilled’. It’s essential that he is competing at a consistent level though; otherwise PraMel will miss opportunities to win. There have been whispers of a possible injury to Jordan but he has dismissed this and said it is inevitable aches and pains after hard training. The Thai duo, Puavaranukroh/Taerattanachai have become serious contenders and the Korean pair in Group A could be fighting for a medal but – as with Yuta – I’m concerned about Seo Seung-jae’s risk of fatigue. As for Watanabe and Higashino; I’m a little nervous about Arisa’s defence if she comes under sustained pressure so as a team they must avoid situations that allow their opponents to turn the screw. Malaysians Chan/Goh know how to win an Olympic medal likewise Marcus Ellis who with Lauren Smith could be challenging for honours at the end.
Realistically it’s hard to see beyond Zheng Si Wei and Huang Ya Qiong. Although we haven’t been able to watch them in international competition for a while there is no doubt that they will have been preparing diligently and will be excited to assert their dominance. The Chinese badminton community always approach the Olympics with the highest expectations and in this instance they are justified in expecting two medals
The British have chosen 11 players to challenge for medals at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics but they are not necessarily the athletes we expected to be on the list at the start of June. In an astonishingly brutal decision the Rio bronze medallists – Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge – were dropped in favour of the young guns: Ben Lane and Sean Vendy. Of course, we know that regardless of qualifying via BWF ranking points the final gift of a place is decided by the coaches but it appears to be a decision that was communicated at the eleventh hour. This probably means it’s too late for any sort of meaningful appeal. As an observer I have no inside knowledge but Langridge’s instagram post from June 4th suggests he thought he was part of the team.
Men’s Doubles: Ben Lane & Sean Vendy
Lane and Vendy were excellent in Thailand in January. They thrived in the bubble and I really feel that their level of performance went up by several notches. The challenge for them now is to maintain that improvement with an eye on the future. Their pathway leads to the Paris Olympics and if they are going to disrupt the stranglehold that Indonesia, Japan and China have on this sector then the hard work is only just beginning. Tokyo offers vital experience and they must use it to enrich their future matches.
Mixed Doubles: Lauren Smith & Marcus Ellis
These two can go toe-to-toe with the best and I’m very excited about their chances for a medal. Ellis is a fantastic athlete: he never gives up and keeps fighting right to the end. His chippy attitude often means he seizes victory in 50/50 situations or even when defeat seems to be looming. It’s disappointing that he can’t defend his MD Bronze, however playing less games will narrow his focus and may help his load management. XD glory ultimately will stem from Lauren Smith and how she plays in the tournament. It’s vital that their strategies reflect her importance and the essential interceptions that Ellis can give at the net.
Women’s Singles: Kirsty Gilmour
This is Kirsty Gilmour’s second Olympics and it was no surprise that she qualified for the competition. Her title win at the 2020 SaarLorLux and especially her hard-fought semi-final triumph over Carolina Marin showed what a wholehearted competitor she is. She’s had a few injury niggles and training disruption but I hope she can progress through the tournament.
Men’s Singles: Toby Penty plus ParaBadminton Dan Bethell (SL3), Jack Shephard (SH6) and Krysten Coombes (SH6)
Penty will be making his Olympic debut in Tokyo so it will be interesting to see how he progresses and uses the experience to push on to – for instance – a possible medal at the Commonwealth Games next year. A lot is going to depend on the draw and his reaction to the pressure of the tournament.
Dan Bethell – who upgraded from tennis to badminton a while ago – has a genuine shot at Gold in his category (SL3) at the Parabadminton tournament. He won Silver at the World Championships in Basle 2019 and was beaten by Pramod Bhagat that day. The Indian is a superb player who has a habit of winning, so Bethell must be at his best if he wants to be on top of the podium.
Jack Shephard is an athlete who will be disappointed if he doesn’t win Gold in the SH6 class. He successfully defended his 2017 World Title in 2019 and he is the player all the others have to beat. Krysten Coombes – world #5 – is in the same sector. He won European Gold in 2016 and so knows what it takes to win high pressure games.
Women’s Doubles: Chloe Birch & Lauren Smith.
These two won silver at the European Games a couple of years ago and would be considered one of the best pairs in Europe. How far they progress is hard to predict simply because the duos from Japan, China, and Korea tend to dominate top level tournaments. A good draw and quick adjustment to local conditions could see them advance.
Men’s WH2: Martin Rooke
Rooke is a well-known competitor in both the singles and doubles of WH2. He’s one of those players who has a habit of winning so it would be no surprise to see him on the podium in Tokyo.
Can I Mention Rachel Choong?
I’m extremely disappointed that the first Paralympics to include badminton also excludes multiple world champion Rachel Choong. Her SH6 category is not included this time. Actually, it’s just the women’s SH6 that is left out, Jack Shephard and Krysten Coombes who is in the men’s SH6 will be in Tokyo. Perhaps someone can clarify the reason for this? I’m told it’s partly because when the programme for the parabadminton was announced the women’s SH6 did not have a wide global representation. Hopefully Paris 2024 will see this rectified.
Our Team GB athletes have four realistic chances of parabadminton medals including Gold and a chance of a further medal in the able-bodied sector. It has been a very hard year for all competitors and some nations have found it easier than others to maintain the function of a national training centre, to hold meaningful national competitions or to run Olympic Simulations.
Back in 2010 there was a magazine article http://www.theleisurereview.co.uk/articles10/christy.html that claimed Badminton England’s strategy was to be the number one badminton nation by 2016. That was a pretty taxing target but nevertheless the mission statement in 2021 still says that “Olympic success [is] at the heart of our ambitions”. The harsh truth is that success brings funding so it’s crucial that the national body can point to victories that show progress, that engage the population at large and inspire the next generation. It’s disappointing that there are no women athletes from the parabadminton community that have qualified. Of the 11 people travelling to compete only 3 are female; perhaps I can count Lauren Smith twice as she will compete in two sectors but whatever way we look at it something is not working. In terms of representing the community at large it might also be worth considering the lack of apparent diversity in the athletes backgrounds and whether this means that there is a source of talent that is not being included. I don’t know, I don’t have accurate information to hand regarding this.
The Olympics is always a hard competition to call. I hope that our athletes thrive and play their best games. It’s been a long journey to get to this point and all our players deserve their spots and the opportunity to compete against the best.
I miss seeing my favourites on court so, as a response to the gloomy news about the postponement of the Malaysia Open, I have worked out the essence of a perfect player by taking the best bits from some of the finest athletes in the men’s game.
Vivacity: Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo
We delight in Kevin as an unstoppable force of nature. His zesty intelligent play on court is exhilarating for spectators and often overwhelming for opponents. His expertise at reading the game gives him stellar anticipation and fused with his technical ability, it’s not hard to see why he and Marcus Gideon have been World #1 for so long. I love his high-speed reactions, his ambition and his imaginative vision.
Momota’s will to win, his unflappable demeanour and apparently unlimited stamina have all driven him on to the top of many podiums. On court he is economic with his emotions and strategy but his relentless return of the shuttle breaks his rivals resolve and often exposes their lack of ideas. Over the years he has overcome so many hurdles that his invincible aura just becomes brighter and brighter. He is an awesome athlete who plays with speed and accuracy and deserves his World #1 status.
Speed: Anthony or Yuta?
Intuitively I’d always choose Anthony Ginting in this category – his effortless, flowing movement is so classy and quick. His fleet-footed style dovetails nicely with his silky racket skills too…however I ran a Twitter poll a few weeks ago and some fan’s answers made me reconsider a little especially Mia Wenas who suggested Yuta Watanabe. Comparing singles and doubles players is tricky but Yuta’s court coverage and agile movement is hard to equal. I always think he wears a shirt that looks too big and this disguises his movement somewhat. He is one of the few players who can face Kevin over a net as an equal and so because of that he has to be recognised here.
100% Legend: Hendra Setiawan
Nobody wins all the major titles in their sport by chance: Hendra is an icon of the game. His calm demeanour under pressure, his quick-witted strategic assessments on court and his extravagant skills at the net make him a truly wonderful player. His humble response to compliments and victories are the mark of a real gentleman. A badminton role model worldwide.
Street Fighting Man: Anders Antonsen
Antonsen has stepped up a level in the past couple of years; like all elite badminton players his technical skills are superb but what I really like about him is that he is a resourceful scrapper. Many were shocked by his somewhat controversial tactics when winning against Viktor Axelsen at the World Tour Finals back in January. His energy conserving strategy of conceding the second set was daring and ultimately successful; it took a ton of confidence to risk everything for the title but his gamble worked.
Firepower: Praveen Jordan or Viktor Axelsen
Probably the two hardest-hitters in the game but that does not do either man’s game justice. I’m fascinated to see what these two competitors can achieve at the Tokyo Olympics – they have a realistic chance of Gold but power alone does not win badminton matches.
I’ve really enjoyed trying to nail down the charactersitics of a Gold Medal player but this was just for fun. I’m sure that on another day I may’ve found room for Jonathan Christie, CHOU Tien Chen or SHI Yuqi. It’s hardly fair to single out players without mentioning their partners if they are from the doubles sector so don’t take this too seriously. Comments are welcome.
Inspired by the recent BWF series I started thinking…
Vision: TAI Tzu Ying
TTY’s creative genius is Box Office Gold. Everyone wants to see that backhand reverse slice straight drop, especially when they least expect it. Her bedrock is superb technical skills blended with fitness. The cocktail of flair, bravery and total self-belief is irresistable. Because her shots are so unpredictable she stops rivals from anticipating her moves and this give her a tremendous competitive edge. Any player who nurtures aspirations to get to the very top has to be inspired by TAI’s style.
Explosive Power: Carolina Marin
Marin’s superb athleticism blended with her attacking style makes her a formidable opponent. She smashes, lunges and kills with venomous force. She blazes on court; once she seizes the momentum of the game 6 or 7 points are in her pocket in the blink of an eye. She is a rowdy, disruptive, noisy adversary who has harnassed her passion to carry her to the top of the sport.
Win-Ability: Misaki Matsutomo
There’s just something about Misaki Matsutomo – she seems able to force a victory, to break opponent’s will to win even when they are in a commanding position. Of course the best example of this was the WD Rio Olympic final in 2016. On the surface she looks mild but underneath she has an iron will. Her instinctive response to danger is defiance; at 19-16 behind in the Gold medal match something was unleashed from deep inside her. Her clever movement, trust in her partner and dominance at the net saw her at the top of the podium. I’d love her to reach these heights in her XD career.
Accuracy: Ratchanok Intanon
May has a lot in common with TTY in terms of the technical quality of her strokes and she can execute some of the most breathtaking shots one would see on a court. However, sometimes having the ability to land a shuttle on the line is a blessing and a curse. Under pressure, and losing patience Ratchanok will often adopt a ‘death or glory’ approach. Instead of playing percentage badminton and simply keeping the rally going she will push up a level and try for the point. When it works it is majestic and a joy to watch.
Stamina: Nozomi Okuhara
Her style of play has long rallies at its core so her endurance is second-to-none. However, this is a too simplistic view of this brilliant player. She is fleet-footed and agile around the court with excellent flexibility. She is clever and has superb technical skills although sometimes I think she delays finishing off a rally for too long – the opposite of Ratchanok. I really respect her strength of focus in her pursuit of Tokyo Gold at a very tough time for the sport. On a personal level, she is adorable. When BirdJapan play team competitions she can be spotted on the sidelines leading the cheering for compatriots, and her all-round grace under pressure make her a very special person.
Potential: AN Se Young
In a couple of years time ASY could dominate the world scene. For now, shes a tournament random variable: often able to vanquish more illustrious opponents but not yet able to consistently reach finals weekend. I’d like her to work on the ability to shock. For now she has great anticipation and good all-round skill but she is quite reactive – to get to the next level I want to see effective shots that I don’t expect and better stamina over the duration of a competition.
It’s been amusing to try and build my Women’s Gold medal player, but there’s no doubt that some skills will outweigh others in tournament conditions in a drifty stadium. I didn’t include some of my favourite players: Saina’s intelligence and will to win, Sindhu’s power, Yuki’s consistency and Greysia’s defence but in the end this was just for fun. I’m sure you can suggest people I should have included – feel free to use the comments option.
If NASA can land a rover on Mars why did it prove so difficult to get some elite athletes together in Birmingham for the Yonex All England 2021?
No one has given a coherant explanation for decisions that were made. I wasn’t there, I’m not employed by any badminton organisation or the British authorities so this is just a speculative opinion piece from a fan.
“…this has been an extraordinarily painful and disappointing event for all of us…”
Badminton Indonesia – translated into English
There are some things that must be stated explicitly. There is never any excuse for the harassment of players, officials or the wider community. The winners of the titles are legitimate champions – none of these victories would be a surprise in ‘normal’ circumstances. The people at the ‘coal face’ worked incredibly hard to stage the tournament.
January in Thailand saw a quarantine bubble with three successful tournaments, facilitated by cash from the Thai government. Contrast this with the situation in England. In September 2020 the Chief Executive of Badminton England said that the Championships were under threat unless the British Govt gave £1M to support it; this was followed up by an announcement on 19.11 of £2M funding and then a government press release that confirmed £1.3M to cover “essential costs to ensure the survival of these organisations”. Given the significant reserves held by the BWF it’s disappointing that these funds were needed.
Perhaps lack of cash was the reason that no pre-tournament quarantine bubble was enforced for this competition. Players were travelling long distances by air to a nation that had suffered over 125,000 dead in the pandemic, the general population were enduring their third lockdown plus the UK Test and Trace system is widely regarded as a national scandal. What could possibly go wrong?
Even before the bombshell of the Indonesian team’s withdrawal there were remarkable events earlier in the week.
Scottish players who travelled on a flight from Zurich after competing at the Swiss Open had to withdraw owing to a positive test on their flight.
Mathias Boe questioned the authenticity of the tests after members of the Indian team returned positive results despite isolation in Zurich for the Swiss Open and 5 negatives in 14 days. (Of course this ignores the risks of infection on a flight to the UK.)
One of the Danish team support staff tested positive and there was the real possibility of the whole team missing the tournament.
In fact, during the testing in Birmingham there had been 7 positives from players of 3 different nations and numerous ‘inconclusives’. In my opinion a sensible decision was made to retest but I am not clear why so many worrying results were produced. Were the samples collected and processed correctly and in a timely manner? ‘Inconclusive’ suggests contamination so is this the reason that retests were allowed?
Other peripherals also seemed odd. In the official preview it was a surprise to see Marcus Gideon and Kevin Sukamuljo described as ‘the Daddies’ whilst Praveen Jordan was called a former YAE MD champion (he is XD). Earlier pieces had called the Stoeva Sisters Belarussian (they are Bulgarian) and suggested that Marin was the beaten finalist in 2020 (she was knocked out in the SF).
It was remarkable that BWF had provided so few officials. How could it happen that in the R1 match between the Indonesian pair of Ahsan/Setiawan and Englishmen Lane/Vendy the service judge appeared to be from England too? Most sports do not allow compatriots to officiate over competitors – for obvious reasons.
I don’t think anyone – apart from the directors at Badminton England – has a clear timeline as to when the decision was made to require the Indonesian team and Neslihan Yigit to withdraw. Choosing this option rather than simply suspend play for the evening to give time for careful consideration meant that irreversible decisions with far-reaching consequences were put in motion. Presumably BWF had already discussed English covid protocols and worse case scenarios with all the team managers and yet the requirement for 10 days isolation came as a shock.
It is not easy to understand why the NHS ‘Test to Release’ scheme was not appropriate in this instance. It allows foreign travellers arriving in England to take a covid test on day 5 of their quarantine; a negative triggers a discharge. Reportedly there were impassioned attempts by BE to explore options to continue the players participation but they were unsuccessful. It was refered all the way up the line to Ambassador level but nothing could be done. The ‘covid positive’ on the Istanbul flight trumped any possible solutions.
It’s a painful fact that it’s irrelevant to UK Covid law that the entire Indonesian team had consistently returned negative swabs and had been vaccinated before departure from Jakarta. There is a strong sense of injustice. The instances of positive results were not treated in the same way. Because no-one has explained what the differences are, there have been ridiculous accusations of foul play and unacceptable behaviour from people who are not fans and supporters of badminton. I think it has been naive of the badminton authorities to try to move the narrative swiftly away. This has been a opportunity for strong leadership and a willingness to learn but instead we are mired in a swirl of speculation and disappointment. I’m aghast at the insensitive tone of some social media posts; allowing poisonous comments to be appended to them is completely irresponsible as it inflames a difficult situation.
I feel sad because this has overshadowed one of the best tournaments in the world and it was so avoidable. It seems to me that the players are the ultimate victims but they have no strong unified voice to call for change. Why encourage athletes to travel halfway across the world without providing a pre-competition quarantine bubble? If the Court of Arbitration in Sport can unpick the facts from this who has to take ultimate responsibility?
The whole tournament is dominated by the most eagerly awaited comeback in modern badminton history. The return of Momota. The spotlight will be on him from the second he steps back on court.
Kento Momota is like a ravenous lion circling a water hole and preparing to pounce on unsuspecting antelope; here is a lion who hasn’t tasted red meat in a looong time.
It’s impossible to guess his level of fitness after such a lengthy absence but his superior mental strength will have driven him on to train and stay focused. He has all the weapons to regain his title after missing the AE last year and he can often expose highly seeded opponents as one-dimensional. He has an aura of a returning king although he must feel some nerves about the standards he can reach at the beginning of his campaign. Viktor Axelsen has set a high benchmark over the past three months so Momota must be on guard. Prediction: Final
Viktor Axelsen – the defending champion – had a brilliant January in Thailand so he will be arriving in Birmingham with high hopes of keeping his title. He has been awesome at grabbing opportunities to win over the past 3 months: a living embodiment of Carpe Diem. However, that loss at the WTF keeps niggling away at me. His power, fitness and will to win are second to none but he was unsettled by Antonsen’s cunning tactics. Falling prey to a version of the rope-a-dope trick must have been incredibly frustrating and I wonder what the effect of that will be long-term. Axelsen has introduced us to his ‘mental coach’ recently, who is an ex special forces soldier so he clearly wishes to explore how his psychology can give him an edge. In the final of the Swiss Open he was unstoppable as he bulldozed his way to the trophy. It’s worth noting that his opponent – Vitidsarn – did start the encounter well and his tactics reminded me of Momota’s ‘waiting game’ approach, but he made too many errors and ran out of steam. Momota has plenty of stamina and he knows not to give VA power to feed off, so if they meet in the final Viktor should be pushed harder. Prediction Runner up
Anders Antonsen – the WTF Champion – is never a person to fade into the background and the past six months have been full on drama. Starting in October, his epic battle against Gemke in the final of the Denmark Open left both unable to walk unaided from the arena, in November he contracted Covid, January saw patchy performances in the first two tournaments in Bangkok then he roared back to form in the WTF to snatch victory away from Axelsen; this all adds layers of experience to an intelligent player who needs to be on court. Viktor has better fitness and stamina but Antonsen has better strategies. Last year’s YAE saw him retire hurt from his semi-Final against CHOU Tien Chen which was a huge disappointment as he had every chance of making the final at that point. He is seeded 3 so it may be that we see an all-Danish semi final with the liklihood of a fired-up Viktor looking for revenge.
Anthony Ginting spearheads the Indonesia challenge in this sector. When he is consistently at his best, he is unstoppable and we saw flashes of this brilliance in Thailand but he didn’t have enough for a podium finish. On the whole, after such a long break, his performance gave some cause for optimism, or at least no cause for alarm. In the SF of the Yonex Thailand Open he came up against a resolute VA in the third set but overall, he lost that tie 53-55 which puts a revealing slant on his defeat. His levels dropped off in the next two tournaments and this is exasperating as he is such a glorious player. I saw lockdown as a useful opportunity for some players to improve areas of their game and instinctively I would point to his ‘third set’ strategies. There are not really gaps in his technique but something is missing in this area that his coaches need to address. I would love to see him come to Birmingham and gift us fans a MomoGI in the semi final. And then I want a final.
Kunlavut Vitidsarn was the World Junior Champion for three years running (2017/18/19) and is one of badminton’s rising stars. Axelsen demolished him in the second set of the final of the Swiss Open but his fluency around the court and technical skill is exciting. As he builds on his experience and puts more hours in at the gym we will see an improvement in stamina and pace. The fact that he stayed with Viktor in the first set whilst playing patiently should worry Jonatan Christie who plays him in the first round.
Jonatan Christie is seeded 5 and has a brutal draw: possibly meeting Axelsen at the QF stage. If so then he could struggle to progress as their h2h coupled with the Danes form doesn’t indicate any easy points. It would be wonderful to see him get to the weekend but it would be a bit of a jaw-dropper if he can subdue the Dane. Last year LEE Zii Jia who is seeded 6, had a thrilling run to the SF before losing in a closely fought match with VA. He is very mobile, with good technical skills, a great player for a neutral to support. He looked a bit lethargic at the Swiss Open so perhaps he is an athlete who needs to compete consistently to maintain his focus and pace. A possible Quarter Final with Momota is on the horizon and to have any dream of progress he must improve on his recent form.
Owing to Marin’s late withdrawal from the tournament the top half of the draw is suddenly looking less intimidating for the other players. Akane, Pornpawee, and Pursala would have had to beat her to get to the final; now there is one less obstacle on the road.
Akane Yamaguchi is seeded 3 but still, this will be the first time we have seen her in an international tournament for a year and I honestly don’t know what we can expect. She was the beaten finalist (in three sets) against Nozomi at the All-Japan National Championships in December. Before the pandemic her brief period at World #1 was followed by some inconsistency. At her best, she is a contender for the title, so the puzzle is about the level she is at when she hits the courts on the 17th March. She is known as a retriever but there have been occasions when she has used a fiercer style; combining more aggression with her great court coverage will give her more options when she is under pressure. The prospect of a QF against Pornpawee is intriguing. Mew nearly beat Marin in the Semi Final of the Swiss Open; she seemed down and out but hauled herself back into contention. Peppery unpredictability with unlimited stamina could be a good strategy.
Nozomi Okuhara‘s victory in the final of the Denmark Open over Marin came after a dazzling two sets; she would not let the Spaniard get a foothold in the game. The strategy of frustrating and denying her the chance to build a competitive rhythm disrupted her momentum and was a key element in Nozomi’s success. In the context of 2019 where she consistently reached finals only to lose this was a big breakthrough. The court coverage, stamina and sheer stubbornness of Nozomi are hard to break. She last won in 2016 but with the Tokyo Olympics in mind she will be aiming to become a hard player to beat at the end of a tournament so this is the perfect place to set a marker. The hall conditions should suit her but she must get the right balance between attack and defence.
Ratchanok Intanon – the #4 seed – is coming to the All England for another shot at winning the title. She was close in 2017 but was relegated to Silver by TAI Tzu Ying. We often criticise TTY for lack of patience but I think that May suffers with this too – her sublime technical skills sometimes mean that she doesn’t play the percentages. May could potentially be looking at a semi-final against Nozomi which would be a dream for fans. Rather like Anthony in the MS I wish she was more solid in the third set. It’s harder than it looks to behave with restraint in that section of a match but it is within her capabilities; we have all watched epic games where she fights with incredible grit and courage. In her 2020 win at the Indonesia Masters she overcame Marin in three sets so she can be inspired by this.
Pornpawee CHOCHUWONG’s progress since her victory over Carolina Marin at the Spain Masters in 2020 has been dislocated because of the effect of Covid cancellations on the badminton tour. Nevertheless, she had victories over TAI Tzu Ying and Ratchanok in Bangkok which shows that she has the ability to compete with the best. Her recent SF match against Carolina Marin at the Swiss Open was a defeat but she pushed all the way with a gritty and skilful display. Seeded 6 she has every reason to be optimistic if she can cut some of her errors. It would be an upset if she won the title but she has a chance – especially in the absence of Marin – and the mental stamina to push all the way to the end of a third set. Her obstinate outlook is a big advantage and it could be the foundation of tremendous achievements.
I would love to see Pursala V Sindhu rampage through the early rounds of this competition in the sort of form that won her the title at the World Championships in 2019. She’s a great athlete, but it just seems that sometimes she cannot dig herself out of a hole when the game tilts away from her. The final at the Swiss Open showed her difficulties; she struggled on her lunges to the front court to reach wide shots and wasn’t using any creativity to stop Marins anticipatory game. On the positive side she did get to the final and in the first set she seemed to have a bit more speed around the court. I hope that her coaching environment becomes more settled so that she can continue to develop her range.
So we have a men’s competition where we have to measure athletes against Viktor’s tough standards but Momota has returned to complicate things and a women’s competition that is missing TTY and Carolina but still features players with a realistic chance of the Gold medal later on in the year in Tokyo. All England success this year will go to the competitor who can come to the court with intensity and desire after twelve months of disruption and boredom. Can Viktor prove that he is the new King of the courts?
The arena in Birmingham awaits. The stage is set for badminton royalty to remind fans why they dominate world badminton. A Super 1000 tournament is the ultimate test and a Super 1000 title is the sign of sporting magnificence.
Will anyone be able to stop the Minion’s progress to the title? Indonesian men’s doubles is the finest in the world but that doesn’t mean the path to the podium is painless.
Kevin Sukamuljo & Marcus Gideon – were last year’s beaten finalists and are top seeds. The key question is whether or not they can overcome the sort of strategies Yuta & Endo used against them in the final last year – have they been able to add those couple of extra percentage points to their performance to grab the gold? It is vital that they are focused from the minute they step on court in R1 because there are some outstanding rivals ready to eliminate them. If they get to the QF it’s possible they may meet the talented Indian pair Rankireddy/Shetty or the recent Swiss Open champions Astrup/Rasmussen. Both of these can defend a barrage of flat, aggressive shots so a crucial asset for the Minions is going to be patience, and to be confident in the breadth of their attack. Prediction: Final – they will rock the All England together!
Takeshi Kamura & Keigo Sonoda are Japan’s highest seeds at 3. Kamura has great vision and anticipation with shuttle hunting at the core of his game. Sonoda is the steadfast partner who backs him up and feeds off what he creates. They are the epitome of “fast and furious” with rowdy shouting and a brawny, dynamic approach. They never run out of energy but their head-to-head record against the Minions is quite weak so if they face each other over the net on the Saturday all the stats point to an Indonesian win. Prediction: Semi Final
Hiroyuki Endo/Yuta Watanabe: I adore Yuta’s swashbuckling style and he is nicely balanced by Endo’s steadier approach. It’s a rare player who can match Kevin Sukamuljo’s net play but Yuta is not intimidated by the Indonesian’s blistering reactions and can hold his own. Last year’s champions have every chance of defending their title but as they are ‘only’ seeded 4 they are not going to get an easy passage to the final. It seems extraordinary to me that Yuta has a realistic chance of winning XD as well; surely there must come a point where his stamina is diluted?
Hendra Setiawan & Mohammad Ahsan: these two badminton heroes keep playing at the highest level and digging out results in taxing games. Hendra’s skills belong to a different dimension when he is at the net, and he brings such control and determination to his matches. They did play well in Thailand but were not able to stop Lee/Wang’s hat-trick of titles; in the final of the WTF they were simply overwhelmed by the Taiwanese players high speed muscular approach. They are seeded 2 and I never ever write them off. Prediction SF.
Fajar Alfian & Muhammad Rian Ardianto. I’m not sure what to expect from the fifth seeds. I didn’t feel that they hit their stride in Thailand but when these two are at their best the combination of Ardianto’s crisp smashes and Alfian’s control of the net is exhilarating. It’s crucial that they find their competitive groove quickly, their rhythm in Thailand was too stuttery and they used a lot of energy chasing points rather than dictating games. Its feasible that they could meet the Dads at the QF stage and they will not be the favourites to win that game.
There are exciting athletes in XD at the moment. I’m intrigued to watch the new unseeded pairing of Olympic Gold Medallist Misaki Matsutomo with Yuki Kaneko. When TakaMatsu broke up last year, Misaki switched disciplines from WD to XD in a bid to get a spot at the Tokyo games. I don’t think they can expect to get beyond a Quarter Final but she is a competitor from the top draw and her fans would love to enjoy watching a good run in this tournament. It feels as though this is a competition ready to be won by someone unexpected, especially as Bass/Popor have decided not to compete. I can’t lie, I would adore it if they over-achieved.
Praveen Jordan & Melati Daeva Oktavianti. Seeded 1 and the defending champions – PraMel are sharp-witted and shrewd players. Jordan always looks so strong and menacing; no one has a smash as hard as him. If he is in the right frame of mind he can ride the momentum of a game and annihilate opponents. Melati needs him to be focused and fit so she can concentrate on her own role. He has had an injury but is reportedly back to full training so the mission to retain their title is feasible.
Yuta Watanabe and Arisa Higashino: Yuta is not necessarily the most powerful player but he makes up for that with his anticipation and creativity. It’s incredible that he has the stamina to compete at the highest level in two disciplines. I like the partnership with Arisa because of her strength, when they find their positions reversed Yuta can rely on her to defend the back as he rules the front. This brings an extra dimension to their attack and can really turn the tide in their favour in a game. They are seeded 2 and I can’t really see who can stop their progress to a medal.
CHAN Peng Soon & GOH LIU Ying are the Rio silver medallists and should be looking at this competition as a good opportunity to win a title. I think they must start brightly to try and build self-confidence before the possibility of a QF against Thom and Delphine. They can get to the semi-final so long as they don’t get overwhelmed by the ebullient French pair.
Thom & Delphine: These two are being touted as the future of European XD and possible gold medallists at the Paris Olympics. For now, they are just at the start of their journey but they are a confident duo who like to dominate and dictate the momentum of a match. They are a stylish pair to watch, creative, zesty and always looking for gaps, especially out wide. The intensity and quality of the competition they will face here is a step up from the Swiss Open but it is intriguing to measure them against some of the best in the world. Prediction QF
FukuHiro are top seeds and defending champions – they seem to have added a sprinkle of something extra to their game over the past year. I think they have given themselves permission to be more than good. In Denmark back in October Yuki Fukushima’s energy and desire propelled them on to the title. Hirota’s swiftness of body and mind, her precision and anticipation screw down the pressure on opponents. If they bring the same aggression and accuracy to Birmingham the pair will be unstoppable. Prediction: Final
Nagahara & Matsumoto are often regarded as the Japanese pair with the most creative spark and aggression. Matsumoto can unleash some brutal smashes and together they are a partnership that routinely wins big events. Their rivalry with their compatriots will be an extra motivation especially after their defeat in the final at October’s Danish Open. They failed to neutralise the influence of Fukushima and that was the decisive difference between them. Prediction: Final
Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu: So, this looks like the last time Greysia will play at the All England and I’m sorry I can’t be there in person to cheer for one of my favourite players. GreyAp competed fearlessly in January’s matches in Thailand and their triumph at the Yonex Thailand Open was a well-deserved, emotional victory. I would love to see them on the podium here but I think the top seeds may just have a little bit extra over them. Prediction: My heart says final but my head says Quarter Final. Good luck girls!
JongkolphanKititharakul & Rawinda Prajonjai can be a quick aggressive pair and are capable of despatching lower seeds without too much fuss but their head-to-head stats against the established Japanese players suggest that they are going to struggle to progress much further than a QF. Their R1 game against Tan & Thinaah could be an awkward encounter.
Pearly TAN & THINAAH Muralitharan have a really tough draw because they are unseeded, but since playing in Thailand they have impressed everyone. They possess winnability and seem to be able to squeak a result even when they are up against more experienced opposition. Their victory in the final of the Swiss Open against the Stoeva sisters was a good illustration of their desire; they played to win, not just to defend and they reaped the reward. These two young Malaysians could be some stars in the making.
The doubles competitions in Birmingham are fascinating this year because so many of the top seeds have been absent from the international tour for a year or so. Their challenge is to adapt to quarantine protocols quickly so they can compete at the levels of intensity and focus we expect. There’s no doubt that the people who get to grips with the new procedures will be at an advantage. The saying goes that ‘when the sun comes out it dulls the other stars’, I’m very curious to see what the overall standard of play is. Will the athletes who have been missing now blaze a trail to the trophies despite their lack of match practice? or will they discover that while they’ve been away their European rivals have upped their levels?
TAI Tzu Ying is celebrated as a dazzling player: the best of her generation. She is a sensational athlete who combines breath-taking technical skill with daring and panache. She is applauded by millions of fans worldwide whenever she appears. However, when she wins a title her celebratory snapshot on Instagram always contains at least four more people. This is her acknowledgement of the huge team effort behind her victories. In this article I want to look at some of the people who help light TTY’s path to glory.
Coach LAI – Head Coach
“…all we can do is be better than before.”
Coach LAI in conversation with BWF TV
The badminton Gods were smiling on the day LAI Chien Cheng was assigned to work at TTY’s high school for his Substitute Military Service. Over the years this chance meeting sparked a collaboration that has been a blessing for both. LAI had a good badminton background but made the decision to finish his sporting career when he was 21 preferring instead to put his energy into his post grad studies. After connecting through her school badminton programme, at first, he was TTY’s sparring partner but his importance to her meant that his contribution expanded and in Feb 2015 he became her official coach. By the end of 2016 she was world #1
LAI’s strength is that he understands what style to use to inspire TAI. He is in a position of respect but he is on TTYs wavelength, so his emotional literacy enables him to get the most from his player. She has commented in the past that other coaches have attempted to change her style but she ‘can’t’ play like that. He recognises that there will be no reward in altering her game.
TTY’s impulsiveness and freedom to express badminton joy on court means that she uses shots that rivals can’t imagine. LAI has said that he tries to focus on areas to improve and look for incremental gains. At elite level small advances can make a huge difference and revitalise a player’s armoury. LAI remarked recently that his biggest challenge has been to innovate in training – he was reluctant to copy other people’s methods because it would lead to stagnation. I have heard a similar observation from Fernando Rivas when he has spoken about his work with Carolina Marin. Both men understand that to achieve the extraordinary they have to be pioneers.
Crucially LAI says that he will often find more than one solution to a problem. He has a genuine relationship with TTY that has a foundation in trust and honesty so the communication between them allows a focus on the process of training and this builds a winning attitude.
It was no big surprise in February 2019 to hear that LAI had been asked to become the head coach for the Taiwan badminton team for the Olympics – he was widely regarded as one of the brightest young coaches in the world at that point. In the following six months TTY’s titles dried up. He resigned from his role in October 2019 so that he could concentrate his attention back to her.
However, the relationship did not resume exactly as before. The support team had been reinforced in Jan 2019 and this meant there were three more people to help fuel the search for excellence:
WAN Chia Hsin – Coach
We often see Coach WAN talking to TTY and holding the ice pack to her neck in the intervals in matches. He competed internationally for Taiwan up to 2014 and now works in her team. His responsiblity is to implement Coach Lai’s plans. This is a vital part of the framework around TAI Tzu Ying. He will provide precise assessments on areas for attention, and feedback to LAI to influence strategies. A second coach means that ideas and tactics can be analysed from new viewpoints.
Wang Shih-Ting – Physiotherapist
A large part of WANG’s role is to address aches and pains; I doubt that any elite athlete can avoid these niggles so the challenge is to manage discomfort effectively. Like TTY’s physical trainer – FAN Zan-Yu – she is a graduate of Kaohsiung Medical University. Her responsibility covers post-practice and post-match recovery. Physios tend to use manual therapies like massage to manipulate the body. This helps blood flow and relieves stiffness and we often see photos of this on Instagram as TAI Tzu Ying lies on a treatment table. She will note injury patterns, plan rest and use this information to help fine tune training routines.
FAN has been a great all-round athlete across many disciplines from swimming to frisbee but she’s mainly known as a basketball player. Her duties are centred around maintaining fitness and running the pre-match warm up. She works closely with the physio and ultimately her contribution will give TTY confidence that she has the stamina and agility to beat her rivals. I think that there is an intriguing synergy between basketball and badminton. Both need explosive power, high speed directional changes and 3D vision and both make huge demands on an athlete’s body.
TTY has a loving and supportive family who are united in support of her. When they were children, her parents took her and her sister along when they played badminton. As she got older her father used to enter her in ‘open’ tournaments when she would compete against seniors – and lose! She now credits this as a formative experience, one that taught her to accept defeat. Her father is responsible for the idiosyncratic stringing pattern we see on her racket. It’s revealing that she was treated with understanding by them when she wanted to give up training so she could have fun with her friends but they also supported her when she restarted. Her happy relationship with her Grandma is famous on Instagram.
Some fans have suggested that I add a little more about TTY’s father here. As well as being a caring and supportive dad he was pivotal in picking Coach LAI as a sparring partner in the first place so it was his shrewd judgement that initiated this fruitful alliance. Throughout her career he has been her manager; overseeing arrangements and ensuring she continues her journey in badminton in the best way possible.
Coach Lai and the team have worked in partnership to inspire and motivate her but they are only part of the story. She is adored by fans and has often commentated that she wants to win for them. Win or lose they offer unconditional support. It’s fascinating to consider how many people have walked along the path to excellence with TAI Tzu Ying.
I’d like to thank everyone who helped with information for this piece including DeeTree (@tty4ever and taitzuyingfans.wordpress.com), Shodo0702 (@Sandrali13), eeye24 (@eeye24), Jenny Day, TTY’s Facebook admin and of course BWF TV.
Michelle Li is the finest player in the Pan Am region ever; she sits in the top 10 world ranking with 4 Pan Am Games gold medals, 4 Pan Am Championships gold medals, and a Commonwealth Games gold medal in her pocket. However, that success didn’t come instantly. She has had her own struggles around lack of funding and solo travel while coping with injuries and playing with pain. Badminton glory is something she has pursued since she was a little kid, even after disapproval from her closest people. There was one thing she knew for sure; she is very passionate about badminton and she wouldn’t give it up. She chose to follow her dream.
In her best days, Michelle Li is a pure delight to watch. Her beautiful shots and powerful smashes, paired with her tenacity, make for a great badminton match for spectators. It’s obvious that she loves to play and enjoys being part of the sport.
Born in Hong Kong, Michelle Li moved to Canada at the age of six with her family. She picked up her first racket at age 11, playing with her mom at a local community center. Not long after, she started training at her current club, Lee’s Badminton. Even in the early days, her coach, Jennifer Lee saw her mental toughness and believed she could succeed.
In Canada, badminton does not get a lot of attention so she has to constantly deal with the lack of financial support. Even though she is a top 10 athlete, it is still a struggle for her to get sponsors. Badminton Canada tries their best to help but they just don’t have enough funding to fully support their athletes.
““Because badminton is such a small sport in Canada, sponsors aren’t interested in badminton. And if I go to Asia, they wouldn’t sponsor someone from Canada. They’d sponsor someone from their own country. So, it has always been a struggle financially to figure out how I’m gonna fund my next tournament,”
In the past, she often had to travel on her own without a team in her corner. Once in a while her coach could come along, but not always. Incredibly they would sometimes have to talk through WhatsApp to discuss tactics. Definitely not the ideal situation for an athlete mid-tournament. More recently though, she has started working with a personal coach and a therapist from Taiwan who have been able to accompany her to competitions and that has helped her a lot. Covid has restricted this to some degree but she is usually with the Team Canada coaches and fellow players.
Like most elite athletes Michelle has had to overcome injuries. Leading up to the 2016 Olympics, she discovered that she had a tear in her patella tendon, right knee, and hip, along with a broken bone in her right foot. After Rio, she went through surgery and was forced to take significant time off from competing. She underwent grueling hours of rehab just to make her whole right leg felt like hers again. She had to relearn the basics and crawl up the ranking board anew. It was a year that she described as being “really really tough”.
After the rehab things started to look bright again. With strong determination Michelle Li trained hard and has kept improving ever since. She has won 2 Macau Open titles, and made it to the semifinals of some big tournaments beating tough opponents like Tai Tzu Ying and Nozomi Okuhara along the way. Her ‘A’ game is creative and hard-hitting. So long as her focus isn’t diluted by worries about money or pain, she can go toe-to-toe with the world’s best and come away with a result.
With the Tokyo Olympics coming up, Michelle Li has a dream to stand on the podium. Her motivation is to change the sport on her side of the world for the better. She believes a medal would really raise the profile of badminton in Canada and help her make that happen.
Her story will encourage other aspiring juniors to defy odds, pursue their dreams, believe in what they can do, and become champions. She always felt that she wasted a lot of time just trying to figure things out alone, and she hopes her experience can help others speed up their own process. She wants to promote the sport and help people have a better chance of succeeding. Let’s wish her all the very best for the coming Olympics and for the rest of her career! Keep fighting, Michelle!
For more coverage of Michelle Li follow @michellethe22 on Twitter
Shock withdrawals, shock exits and shock reinstatements; January’s tournaments were never dull. Unless of course, you happen to be a player quarantined in the Bangkok Novotel for 20 hours a day with chicken for dinner again. Indomie products were suddenly currency and some athletes were incentivised by the prospect of a year’s supply of the world’s best instant snack.
This is my look at the three Thailand tournaments. I’m not pretending that I’m unbiased, or that I can cover everything but I hope my highlights remind you what a cracking few weeks fans have just enjoyed.
HK Vittinghus’ January was epic. Initially on the reserve list he had the ambition to gamble and start the long trip to Thailand from Denmark with no guarantee of a game. Events moved in his favour when the Japanese team turned back at Tokyo airport following Momota’s positive test. His story stuttered at the Yonex Thailand Open when he lost to compatriot Gemke in R1 but the following week saw him excel and become the focus of fierce support from fans in Indonesia who had realised that the further he progressed the more likely Anthony Ginting was to qualify for the World Tour Finals. Some wild incentives involving Indomie noodles were offered. Through very intense games he found a route to to the final and a match against Axelsen. Along the way, his results meant that Anthony Ginting did qualify. Axelsen powered through the encounter but HK can be proud of his month’s work.
Astonishingly there were triple champions in MD and XD and double champions in MS and WS which suggests that finding the winning formula fast in the impact arena offered big rewards. I think that people with good underlying fitness combined with the resilience and drive to make the most of opportunities were at an advantage. Fatigue – mental and physical – was a factor for some as there was little breathing space between each tournament.
The Danish men controlled the courts all month – I’ve already mentioned Vittinghus but the fluctuations in the balance of power between Axelsen and Andersen is fascinating and I’m really looking forward to see who has the upper hand in March. Andersen prevented his fellow Dane from a clean sweep of titles by some tactics at the World Tour Finals that some found controversial. Not me. I felt he was strategically very smart. It’s unfair to reduce his astute strategy to his ‘easy’ concession of the second set. Throughout the match he refused to give Viktor pace from smashes to feed off and this was a key element in his win.
There were times when we saw sublime standards from Anthony Ginting and I was disappointed that he didn’t get to a final. His challenge is to stay with a game at the death. CHOU Tien Chen consistently made the semi-final of all three tournaments but somehow just lacked the resources to finish a match off.
Carolina Marin – like Viktor – completely dominated her sector in the first two tournaments; bulldozing TAI Tzu Ying aside as she triumphed in both of their finals . At the season’s finale she was prevented from making it a hat trick by a tactically astute performance by TTY who finally managed to eliminate errors when it came to the crucial stage of the game. This link will take you to my article that discusses TTY’s win in more detail https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/02/02/tai-tzu-ying-genius/
I’m often dazzled by Ratchanok Intanon to the extent that I don’t give enough attention to the other athletes in the Thai team. Pornpawee Chochuwong can look back over her matches with a lot of satisfaction. We saw her potential twelve months ago when she beat Marin in the final of the Spain Masters and it turns out that that was not a fluke. At the end of a hard month she was a semi-finalist at the World Tour Finals and posed a threat to every player. AN Se Young also caught my eye: she got to three semi finals but couldn’t quite push through to a podium finish.
A deserved hat-trick of titles for the home pair Dechapol Puavaranukroh & Sapsiree Taerattanachai (Bass/Popor). They have been on the brink of good results for a while and this month they competed with gutsy resilience and strong self-belief. They are a wonderful team with excellent mobility, stamina and racket skills.
“This is my reward for nine months of hard work and dedication”
Sapsiree Taerattanachai courtesy BWF Media press office
This success could see them start to dominate their sector.
I’ve always been a big fan of GreyAp and so I was beyond thrilled to watch their emotional win in the YTO. Soon their journey together will end. I’m delighted that they have used these tournaments to showcase their best style: Greysia smiling and Apri roaring on to victory. Well played girls!
The Taiwanese duo – LEE Yang and WANG Chi-Lin – really enhanced their reputations throughout January. Not only did they win all three competitions but their humble self-deprecating comments endeared them to watching fans. Playing to their strengths they used power and muscle non-stop to overcome rivals. They were too fast and furious even for Ahsan and Setiawan to tame and no-one beats the Dads by accident. On the subject of the Dads; once again these two gnarly warriors battled through adversity and showed why they are admired worldwide. Here is my look at Ahsan’s gritty fight to stay in the game when he was struggling with an injury https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/01/20/mohammad-ahsan-player-of-the-day-total-legend/
Finally…Coach Kim, Happiness and Hope
The effervescent Coach Kim popped up in Thailand with the Korean team. Her energetic style radiates confidence and is irresistible. During the interval she seems able to outline any observations to her team in about ten frenetic cheerful seconds then she calmly sits down whilst the opposition coach remains standing.
It was an uplifting few weeks. Back to back tournaments undoubtedly stretched athletes but they still delivered some breathtaking matches full of skill. I think they gave supporters hope that there is a return to regular badminton just around the corner.
TAI Tzu Ying is the benchmark for all that is captivating about badminton. Her triumph at this year’s World Tour Finals was a radiant festival of skill fused with courage.
Fans suffered through an intense game. The score see-sawed as neither player was able to subdue the other. Marin had dominated January’s tournaments in Bangkok: played 2 won 2. At 15-10 up in the last set of this final she was starting to look unstoppable; she had the hat-trick within her grasp.
I hate matches like this. I love matches like this.
All through the battle TTY had a potent strategy: keep Carolina from dominating the forecourt and net area, keep her pinned back and persist with the difficult questions of her rear-court backhand. It was the unforced errors that were jeopardising her challenge. Marin’s noisy, boisterous approach, constant towel-downs and delays brought friction to the encounter. I have never seen TAI Tzu Ying refuse an opponent’s request for a new shuttle before and she seemed irritated by some of her opponent’s attempts at psychological warfare.
When she stepped on court TTY knew that she had to stay patient and eliminate mistakes. Once a rival hands the initiative to Marin she will lock in on victory, her velocity increases and she bulldozes her way to Gold. Trailing 17-19 in the final set TAI roused herself for a final effort. She pulled and pushed Marin around the court’s four corners and to draw level she produced an exquisite drop that was unplayable. 19-19. She brought up match point with another dazzling drop. Two points in a row and no errors. The title was sealed by a shot that forced Marin to turn and retreat to the back line. Slightly off-balance she misjudged its trajectory and it fell in. It was all over. Victory to TAI Tzu Ying.
An arena with no spectators erupted with applause. All around the world, fans who had been watching through their fingers could celebrate.
“Finally, I won. When I can remain calm and patient, I can win the game. In the end it was a tight game…before this match today I kept telling myself that I had to play patiently. In the previous matches, all my mistakes were caused my own impatience…I made some mistakes and that cost me against Marin because she is fast. I need to put a lot more effort to keep up with Marin’s pace.”
TAI Tzu Ying courtesy BWF Press Office
This win confirms her rise to legendary status. Like Michael Jordan and Lionel Messi, she is an athlete whose skills transcend her sport. Flair blended with ambition is a rare joy to witness and we are privileged to enjoy the genius of TAI Tzu Ying.
The King completed his hat-trick of titles in the final but it was not an easy win.
Momota’s re-emergence began with the Yonex Mix & Match in November but the serious business of sustained competition day after day commenced at the All Japan. This high quality domestic tournament has been dominated by him since 2018. Against Kanta Tsuneyama in the final the left-hander was asked some tough questions and he lost the first set 18-21. He levelled the second then found himself in the last at 16-16. How many times have we watched a match unfold where Momota has to come from behind? We begin to fear that he will not pull it back, but his grit and determination kick in and he finds something extra. So it was in this competition and the closing three points in the set were aggressive and focused: net kill, cross-court smash and cross-court smash. 21-17. Were we shocked that he came from behind to seize the title? Emphatically NO!
Match sharpness is impossible to train for so although Park Joo Bong has said that he is back to his ‘normal’ level, as an athlete Momota must stretch his legs under pressure to get back to his usual exceptional standards. The All Japan has been a useful test but I really want to see him up against the world’s best day after day. Our first opportunity to see how he really is will be the Yonex All England. In an interview with the Olympic Channel he said
“I’m really looking forward to playing against the best international players…I’m nervous but I’m really looking forward to it”
He enjoyed a glittering 2019. His invincible progress to the podium in nearly every tournament was recognised officially by Guinness World Records. Eleven titles in one season is the most recorded by a men’s singles player ever. Disaster struck just as his progress to the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics in front of his home crowd seemed certain.
The early morning Malaysian traffic accident in January wrecked Momota’s 2020 long before any of us had even heard of Covid19. Following hospital treatment and a return to Japan to recuperate he resumed training but then started to experience dizziness and double vision. He – and his fans – feared his career was over. Doctors identified a fracture of the eye socket and operated successfully. Whilst Momota experienced his personal crisis the world descended into pandemic: we tried to stay home as badminton was cancelled and the Olympics postponed.
In recent years his game’s foundation has been great technique, resilience and stamina. His ability to ‘just’ return the shuttle is hard won – it looks simple but that’s because he has worked and worked to get his skills to this level. His resistance to his rivals on court often exposes their strategies as one-dimensional. Game plans that rely on 400kph smashes, or going out early and hard in an attempt to burn him off are doomed to failure.
It’s curious that he reportedly commented in June that he wanted to brush up his attacking skills. Sports psychologists often identify blunders and set-backs as drivers for success and it could be argued that he has become risk-averse. If we look at his early games there were more offensive shots. This is going to be a very tricky balance for him to get right. Intriguingly he said in his post match interview from the All Japan “…I was too cautious”. All elite players need evolution of style and tactics to keep fresh and to prevent challengers from finding weak spots in their game. Momota will analyse this performance with his coaches to look for areas to improve and so preserve his dominance.
January 2021 saw international badminton reactivate in Thailand after months of hibernation. Momota and the rest of the Japan team could not compete. They turned back home at Tokyo airport after he tested positive for Covid. The real scrutiny of Momota and how he has fared since Malaysia was postponed. I believe that this is a player who is still driven by an inner desire for supremacy in his sport and he craves success. Without doubt his rivals will have spent the last months dissecting his tactics and constructing strategies to counter his supremacy. There are some mouth-watering clashes ahead – bring it on!
The quest for badminton glory has come to an end for one of the greatest Japanese WD pairs ever. When Ayaka Takahashi announced her retirement earlier this year she ended a partnership of 13 years. The glittering bond between her and Misaki Matsutomo has been forged during a wonderful journey to the pinnacles of sporting success.
The Golden pair of Japanese badminton are loved by millions of fans worldwide. Their story begins before the London Olympics. They played together in High School; but as far as 2012 was concerned whilst their compatriots prepared for those Games they continued with their routine. After 2012 they started moving up the rankings but as players, they were incomplete and still learning their trade. After a sequence of defeats, it was suggested that they could not withstand pressure but Matsutomo later reflected that it was the experience of losing that made her the competitor she turned into.
One of the characteristics I admire is their ability to evolve over the years: it is at the core of their success. In this article I’ve tried to illustrate this whilst celebrating some of the highlights of their glorious career.
Uber Cup Final 2014
This was the beginning of the TakaMatsu legend. It was obvious that they had made significant alterations to their patterns of play. The underpinning of any WD pair is reliable defence – naturally this was still in place – but they had transformed themselves into shuttle-hunters and their rivals could not equal their aggression and determination. With Takahashi patrolling behind her partner, Matsutomo was released to create chances from the net that they both snapped up eagerly. Incredibly, after winning the first 21-18 the Japanese pair were towelling down in the interval of the second 11-1 up. Even as they dominated the second half the commentary team started to speculate whether a Chinese comeback was on the cards. It wasn’t. Match won 21-18, 21-9.
2016: Annus Mirabilis
Seven titles were collected in 2016 including the Yonex All England. It is difficult to pick just one game but the Rio Olympics was where they took their place amongst the immortals. The final against Pedersen and Juhl was terrific: set one was scrappy but the Danes took their chances and closed it out 21-18. In Set 2 the momentum began to shift because Takamatsu improved their attack strategy. Matsutomo’s work at the net and mid-court was crucial: she exploited the weaknesses of the Danish left/right combination and started getting traction by executing some punchy, flat drives. In combination with Takahashi’s hard work at the back they were able to create space in the opposition’s court where they could score points. All square 21-9.
The start of final set gave us some long draining rallies alongside the ‘shuttlecock incident’ at 10-9. Juhl’s frustration and annoyance at being denied a fresh shuttle boiled over when she brushed away Matsutomo’s racket. I often wonder what went through Misaki’s mind at that point – I like to think that an imaginary switch was tipped in her brain – but on the surface she remained calm. The points stayed balanced: 12-12, 14-14, 16-16 because neither pair could impose themselves. Then suddenly the Danes were 19-16 up, 2 points from Gold.
In an extreme situation defiance is a better strategy than submission. This was Matsumoto’s moment. Born of utter confidence in her partner and her own ability she was decisive and swift. Like all true greats she discovered another level within herself. With brilliant vision and movement, she refused to lose; together they created five opportunities to score and she executed the chances. GOLD.
WTF 2018Final against LEE & SHIN
This is another milestone match. It’s fascinating because it shows that their style is still progressing. They have embraced the philosophy of creating attack from defence and this is what enables them to generate pressure from all over the court.
In this match Ayaka is still putting in huge amounts of physical work and it’s striking that her defensive lifts/clears are crucial but she has refined them since 2012. Now they are mostly aimed for the corners, making space and opening the opponent’s court up so that they can implement attacking combinations. This is synchronised with Misaki’s beautiful precise net play so they can both get chances to block and push the opponent’s shuttle back to the mid-court when they are under attack. This resilience is hard to break.
In the second game LEE & SHIN have levelled at 20-20 and we’re starting to look at a third and deciding set. It’s a classic Matsutomo moment. Her resolve and focus drive the pair to resist Korean momentum, two points and job done, another title won.
TakaMatsu won Japan’s first badminton Gold at the Rio Olympics and Japanese women’s badminton has achieved staggering success in the years since. With their endless achievements it’s impossible to do them justice in a short article. We’ll miss them but they will not be disappearing from view. I’m excited at the idea of Matsutomo in mixed doubles and Takahashi was in the commentary box at the Danish Open…imagine Ayaka commentating on her old partner’s games next year. They have been inspirational athletes with a golden legacy.
Lots of people gave me ideas and contributed suggestions whilst I was writing this. I’d like to mention the badminton Twitter community including: Stefany Monica, Ulfa, Mongnoona2, MarieLgvl, Rakisdianrd, Kantaphon Wangcharoen, Lavern, Aakash Joshi and a big shoutout to @birdjapansuki, a great resource for anyone interested in Japanese Badminton. Sorry if I missed anyone – DM me and I’ll add you!
I miss international badminton, I miss the joy and stress of watching Anthony on court, I miss writing previews for this blog, I miss chatting about matches on Twitter and of course I miss TAI Tzu Ying.
A gathering storm: Wuhan in January then Italy in February led us to a covid-denying Britain in March. The All England went ahead after huge efforts by everyone at Badminton England to provide a safe environment for everyone involved. Thank God that work was largely successful albeit that there were reports that a young member of the Taiwan team had tested positive for the disease.
Walking away from the arena in Birmingham after watching TAI Tzu Ying nail her third Yonex All England title I never would have predicted that it was the last tournament I’d enjoy of any note for six months. Six months!
So, the stakeholders in the badminton community have found themselves in some sort of limbo. It seems to a large proportion of badminton fans that there has been no overarching strategy to protect the sport from the effects of this long layoff. Indoor sports have uniquely tricky circumstances to address but we have all seen top quality tournaments staged nationally in many countries so they do seem to be able to overcome these problems to the satisfaction of players and staff.
No one in power has shared any sort of vision for the short-term and so we have wildly different approaches from different nations. Of course, none of us has had to run a global sport during a pandemic before however I see some of the national associations striving to give their athletes and fans a temporary way forward. In Asia we’ve enjoyed a series of home tournaments, notably in Indonesia, Korea & Malaysia. The Chinese domestic league has given it’s superstars some seriously testing games and in Europe there have been demanding ‘home tests’ in Denmark. The Taiwan Sports Authority staged a Mock Olympics in order to keep their athletes on their toes and the sports-loving public entertained.
Badminton’s reactivation was supposed to happen in October with the Thomas & Uber Cups in Aarhus plus a Danish Masters and a Danish Open in Odense. Cracks appeared in this plan once key nations started to withdraw: Taiwan, Korea and then mighty Indonesia all citing safety concerns. The BWF decided to trim its ambitions and has abandoned everything bar the Open. Social media channels have erupted with disappointment and criticism directed mainly at the governing body; our community is desperate to get tournaments back on the agenda but not at any price. As an observer it is just not clear what the BWF has been doing to reassure competitors that its safety protocols are the strictest possible.
We just seem to ricochet between disappointments at the moment. At time of writing the Open is still going ahead but with Malaysia, China, Thailand & Indonesia missing. My thoughts go out to the Danish organisers who have been blown in the wind by events and decisions they have no hope of influencing.
So here we stand. A weakened Open in prospect followed by 3 back-to-back tournaments in Thailand in January and then a crammed calendar in the run-up to the Olympics. Only the sunniest optimist could see this going ahead without a hitch – the situation is so volatile.
What bothers me most about the place we find ourselves in is the apparent disconnect between the BWF and the badminton community AND the clear lack of lessons learned from other sports. We have seen others successfully implement bubble systems, tough testing regimes and hygiene protocols so why not badminton? Players cannot be expected to stay motivated and focused indefinitely with no reassurance about their future. Some fans may be satisfied with reruns of old matches but the majority will want new contests and so the danger is they will turn their attention to other sports which have restarted successfully like the Premier League, IPL and Motor Racing. Now is the time to have a clear vision for the short and long-term well-being of the game otherwise we risk losing a generation. Who will step up?
No competitive badminton worldwide since March and I’ve reached the point where I’d be happy just to watch TAI Tzu Ying open a new tube of Victor shuttles; albeit in a new and unexpected way. And so it was with a sense of glee that I heard that the Sports Administrators in Taiwan had made the shrewd decision to arrange a Mock Olympics for their qualified athletes.
All sportspeople need the grind of training to be freshened up at times otherwise they become stale. The challenge was to find suitable opponents to play Badminton’s world #1. The tournament needed to be a worthwhile venture; something to keep TTY on her toes and give her something to think about.
Sensationally they decided to pit TTY against male players. Suddenly this became news all around the world.
“Playing like a girl means you’re a badass”
In July a video was uploaded on TTY’s Instagram of some sparring against HSUEH Hsuan Yi. In the clip we see her scoring points with pinpoint accuracy down the tramlines. Her deception skills mean that she can wrong foot him at times. Crucially we do not observe his power. I’m not sure if this is because her strategy is based around denying him the chnce to smash or if for the purposes of the training session he has retired that shot. He is a very good player: six times Taiwan National MS Champion with a highest world ranking of 31. This is a tough training regime.
It is physiologically impossible for a woman to compete equally against a man in sport. At least, it is nearly impossible. Fans of 1970’s Women’s Tennis will remember the incomparable Billie-Jean King beating Bobby Riggs over three sets in a supposed triumph against male chauvenism but this isn’t the same situation at all. Here it seems that we have male and female badminton players collaborating for the good of TAI Tzu Ying and for Taiwan’s hopes for an Olympic medal.
Round 1: TTY against LIN Chia Hsuan
The game begins with TAI Tzu Ying allowed an 8 point advantage per set. It’s clear that she wants to keep him moving around – she keeps probing his deep backhand. This is the foundation of her strategy, she is trying to build shot sequences to find gaps and to test his endurance. She often scores down his backhand tramline and she takes the first set 21-19. There were times when she was falling into the trap of aiming right for the lines and giving herself no margin of error – he did profit from this.
The second set goes to LIN 21-18. When he gets an opportunity to use his power TTY can usually handle his shot; I think this is down to her great technique allied to fast reflexes and clever anticipation. When he gets through her defence it often seems to be a smash combination of left/right. He is also varying the pace and trying to keep the pressure on. She can’t quite cover the court. The net exchanges are very interesting, both of them executing some beautiful shots but a few errors from TTY give him points.
The third set is a fascinating passage of play and is, I think, extraordinarily revealing about TAI Tzu Ying. It’s clear she wants to win. She is grazing her knees while retrieving wide shots and goes into the interval 11- -1 up. Play resumes. A reactive midcourt backhand kill gets the score to 15-5. LIN is making mistakes and my feeling is that he is tired. The Queen wins the set (&therefore the match) 21-11. I think that it was her superior stamina and resilience that carried her through.
Round 2: TTY against TSAI Chien Hao
A shorter, 2 set match which TAI Tzu Ying loses. In this contest she is only given a 3 point head-start and it’s not really enough. TSAI Chien Hao is a lively opponent – not known at all on the international circuit – but by all accounts a player who spars with the national team and who is still attending University.
Despite the loss we still see some beautiful shots from TTY. In Set 1 a couple of lovely disguised XC drops. Characteristically she also keeps retrying her gentle XC net reply – really just a caress of the shuttle – until she succeeds in scoring from it after a couple of fails. At 15-16 she tried a fast, flick serve but this highlighted the difficulty with playing against a man; it was just smashed mercilessly back. Possibly my favourite shot of the whole tournament was at 2-0 during a rally when TCH tried a disguised shot at the net, it wrong footed TTY but she turned, stuck out her racket and created a magical xc reply that just gently dropped over the net. Absolute genius.
By Set 2 both players are tiring. There are mistakes interwoven with astonishing skills from the Queen but she cannot get any sort of foothold in the match as TCH’s progress to 21 points is unstoppable.
Men’s Singles has some crucial differences to the women’s game and it was interesting to consider that TTY would not really be able to use her high serve in these two games. This meant that she had to alter elements of her playing style; unrelenting pressure at the net upon her low serve was potentially an issue. The other noteworthy observation is the length of the games. The advantage TTY gained from her first male opponent starting 8 points behind should be balanced by the fact that this tended to mean each game had more points to contest. Her concentration mid-match can sometimes waver and so these games would show that this is no longer a problem.
This was a very enjoyable sequence of games for all TTY fans. Of course it offered a somewhat artificial situation but it was a lively competition that reminded us all what we’ve been missing since Tzu Ying’s triumph at the All England. Congratulations to all the competitors and thanks to the organisers.
“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”
Anyone who loves badminton must adore watching Ratchanok’s matches. Her racket skills are magnificent and they have been the foundation of a fantastic career. There are countless highlights – too many to list – but becoming World Champion in 2013 at age 18, being ranked world #1 in 2016, a bronze at the World Championships in 2019 and a consistent spot in the Top 10 confirm her status as one of the most outstanding players of her generation.
May’s movement around a court is smooth and graceful; this elegance is wonderful to watch but it is also efficient. A core strategy of Women’s Singles is movement – the urgent pressure on a rival to cover distance and direction at pace. As she skims over the court, she exerts time-pressure on her opponent. The nanoseconds she gains all add up to an advantage. She often seems able to hold a shot for a split second before she pulls the trigger; this means she lures the other player to anticipate the shuttle’s destination, often with unfortunate consequences.
My favourite element of her game is her net play. She can go toe-to-toe with anyone and emerge victorious. Her net spin shot is delicate, precise and it often gets her out of trouble. A typical sequence is net spin, answered with a weak lift then a point winning smash/kill from May. There is so much complexity and technical skill to her game. It’s a misconception that players are born with this talent; May can execute these shots because she has practised for thousands of hours and she has the imagination and tactical ability to use them effectively.
I also regard her as a courageous player – although on occasion this is a blessing and a curse. Her precise shots mean that she has the confidence to place the shuttle on the line. Under pressure from an opponent who ‘just’ keeps it in play – for example a strategy used by CHEN Yufei – she can sometimes be tempted to try and cut a rally short and go for a quicker point rather than play percentages and wait for a clear opportunity to score. Some analysts have questioned her resilience as a result of this.
The COVID crisis has been hugely disruptive to most athletes training programmes and different nations have tried to tackle this dislocation in assorted ways. We’ve seen home tournaments in many places including Indonesia and Taiwan, and more coach-supervised training. The people who have exited the lockdowns having added to their game, rested injury niggles and refreshed their outlook are going to enjoy a significant advantage in competitions.
May has been very clear about her goal of winning an Olympic medal. The road to Tokyo2020 had more twists and turns than we could have ever predicted and despite playing well she was knocked out in an epic encounter with TAI Tzu Ying. If we look at her social media posts, they are full of gym work. It looks like she is addressing questions about her endurance. She is always a gritty competitor who knows how to win and so enhancing her stamina is going to be one of those incremental gains that could be significant in the heat of battle.
Ratchanok Intanon is one of badminton’s most loved players. It’s not simply due to her attractive playing style. She works hard and takes nothing for granted; her gracious sporting attitude, bravery under pressure and obvious enjoyment of life means she is a great role model for aspiring athletes. Over the course of the three tournaments in Thailand in January 2021 she consistently was competing at a good level but couldn’t quite get to a final. This year’s All England could be a golden opportunity for her to grab a S1000 title; I would simply be delighted if she was standing on the podium in March and in Paris 2024.
Sometimes a player is more than just a player because they inhabit a unique style that captures the essence of their sport. TAI Tzu Ying is one of these people. Like Serena Williams or Lionel Messi she has that star quality whenever she competes. She is a free spirit who brings a creative exhilaration to any match.
When the kid from Taiwan first bust onto the international scene it was her magnificent racket skills that drew fans to her. She has the gift of being able to control time – it slows and expands to contain her talent. It is still that sensational expressive style that makes people fall in love with her but over the past decade she has added extra layers to her game. Her mesmerizing skill continues to glitter however 2020 has seen her game continue to evolve.
Tournaments at the beginning of this year have shown her address the tension between artistry and scoring points. Regular analysts had identified a tendency to lose focus midway through a match often allowing a rival to regain a foothold in the set. At the core of TTY is the power to sparkle rather than to merely play but during her campaign at the All England this year we witnessed a new element in her game – the ability to wait. The vitue of patience is a sharp weapon in badminton. The beauty of this strategy is that, in the past, it has been used against her.
I think this willingness to include new facets in her play is the sign of a great player. Developing her mental stamina alongside her prodigious gym work adds extra options when she approaches a match. There was a tangible sense in Birmingham that the time for mistakes was past; errors were reduced. Of course she is still the Queen of Deception, her magical misdirection when she is in full flow is wonderful.
In 2019 TTY sent a chill through supporters hearts when she uttered the alarming word ‘retirement’. The demands of elite sport are incredibly restrictive. The physical and emotional cost of training, competing, and international travel does not leave much time for normal life. One more Olympics, one more season and then she would finish; she talked longingly of cycling holidays around Taiwan, and of perhaps opening a school. Her instagram posts often feature her hiking in the mountains or paddling a canoe; she is obviously a person who delights in the natural world around her
None of us could have foreseen the disruption to normal life this year. With the Olympics postponed the players who keep their motivation and stay in shape will gain an advantage. There is a national competition that has been organised for elite Taiwanese athletes in August to help them review progress and sharpen their focus after this gap. TAI Tzu Ying is due to play some male rivals in order to measure herself against a tough challenge: it was decided that the available women players would not push her enough. Her victory at the All England in March was a warning to her rivals and a reassurance to her fans; the dream of seeing TTY on the podium at the Olympics is still real. This feels like a date with destiny. What a time to love women’s badminton.
In badminton Taiwan is a small nation that hits big. From a population of roundabout 24 million people there is perhaps a chance of three Olympic badminton medals. Of course, the tournament in Tokyo will test the best; there are so many battles between now and that podium place it is fascinating to consider who could write their own Olympic legend.
TAI Tzu Ying
The wonderful TAI Tzu Ying lights up every tournament. She sublimates sport into art; there is no limit to her creative imagination. The fusion of an unpredictable, inventive vision with brilliant technical skills is at the heart of TAI Tzu Ying’s strategies, but it will take more than this to seize glory in Tokyo.
In Thailand in January she was beaten by Marin in two finals. To her credit she was not crushed – in the third final between the two of them she triumphed. Her inner spirit and motivation to compete are a significant part of her emotional armoury. Top level badminton is not glamorous: after years of sweat, pain and criticism athletes earn the chance to endure sweat, pain and criticism on the Olympic stage. I’m confident she has the psychological strength to face up to the challenges thrown at her on court at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza.
Maybe TTY has lost a second or two of speed across the ground as she has got older but recently she has offset that with patience, and focused patience will give her a massive advantage over her rivals. Restraint – the ability to judge calmly when the time is right in a rally to commit to the winning shot – is surely the characteristic that divides great players from good ones. TAI’s not-so-secret weapon is her deceptive play and this can disrupt her opponents flow.
Can she return to Taiwan with a medal? Yes, of course! Of all the Taiwanese athletes she travels with the highest expectations on her shoulders. The women’s singles competition is going to be fierce, fellow contenders like Nozomi and Carolina have the experience of medalling in Rio 2016 and they know better what it takes to succeed in front of millions of people. But TTY has the advantage of a formidable coaching team and rock-solid family support – she has all the skills to fulfill her potential and win.
CHOU Tien Chen & WANG Tzu Wei
In men’s singles CHOU Tien Chen is an ever-present at tournament finals with his ebullient physio Victoria Kao courtside. In the early rounds of the World Tour Finals back in January he beat a couple of the players who could block his path to an Olympic medal: LEE Zii Jia & Anthony Ginting. However he lost twice to Viktor Axelsen and that also reminds me of his campaign at the 2020 All England; where he seemed to lose his focus against the Dane and made too many errors. If he comes up against Axelsen it’s important that he doesn’t give him speed to feed off but tries to disrupt the Danes equilibrium.
CTC famously trains and competes without a coach which is uncommon for any elite athlete. This unorthodox approach has liberated him to take responsibility for his development and I think if I wanted one skill to be fine-tuned it would be his killer instinct. Sometimes, when he has the upper hand in a match he is not brutal enough to finish off his opponent and they stage a recovery. He’s at his best when the tempo of the match is under his control and he can feed off errors.
WANG Tzu Wei also enjoyed some great wins at the start of the WTF, notably in three sets against Kidambi and a straight sets victory over the eventual champion Anders Antonsen – losing to him in a return match in the semi-final. At Taiwan’s ‘Mock Olympics’ last year he was beaten in three sets by CTC and he needs to find another level to genuinely be in with a chance of a medal in Tokyo.
I think in the men’s competition it is hard to look beyond Momota but if one of these two get early momentum they could mount a solid campaign. CHOU Tien Chen is the equal of any of the other competitors. His success will depend upon being focused, cutting errors and sometimes just staying with a game. If he can do this and maintain his self belief he could be bringing a medal home.
WANG Chi-Lin/LEE Yang
These two enjoyed a dazzling run of form in Thailand at the start of this year; they carried off all three titles in a clean sweep of the Men’s Doubles competitions. Most notably they beat Indonesian legends Ahsan & Setiawan for gold at the World Tour Finals. So how will they fare in the Olympics against the best that Indonesia, Japan and China can throw at them? I think the draw will be all-important as it’s inevitable they will have tough matches right from the start. It’s hard to expect them to beat the Minions or Endo/Watanabe but their muscular, ferocious approach can be hard to contain. If they get a bit of luck, and carry on their momentum from January they could have an outside chance of Bronze.
I’d love to see one of these players win their nation’s first badminton Olympic medal. It’s a wonderful achievement for any athlete to compete at an Olympics and Taiwan’s shuttlers can travel to Japan with confidence in their ability and with high hopes.
Last year’s results were, on the face of it, bittersweet. Six finals and the runner-up spot each time. However, I think that when we analyse them from distance we can see and understand that she is an athlete who always demands the best performance possible from herself. To be a constant presence on the podium is the foundation of success and the margins between first and second spot are slim. Women’s Singles is enjoying the best of times, the dazzling talent in the Top 10 means that there are no effortless matches.
Whatever tournament Nozomi Okuhara enters the honours are always within her grasp so she began 2020 with a big chance of an Olympic medal. We have had to postpone the dream of seeing a favourite player on top of the podium in Tokyo; none of us is untouched by C-19 but for an athlete who has devoted a huge proportion of her life to earning the chance to perform at the Olympic tournament it must be incredibly frustrating. She already holds a Bronze medal from Rio and she would love to upgrade it in front of her home crowd.
“The Olympic Games remains the most important target for me, especially as it will be held in Japan this time. It will be difficult but I want to win gold medal for the fans.”
Nozomi is known for her defensive style characterised by long rallies however there is so much more to her game than that. If you rewatch her victory at the All England in 2016 it brilliantly illustrates the depth of her talent. In this match it was very difficult for WANG Shixian to exert any sustained pressure upon her partly because she is so nimble and fast across the court. Her lovely racket skills, snappy reflexes and precision shots are delightful to watch and nearly impossible to oppose.
Over the years it seems as though her emphasis has changed so that the defensive approach is her predominant tactic. The pressure she exerts on a rival – because she is willing to extend a rally – means that she can feed off unforced errors. She has good stamina and this allows her to play with this strategy. The problem with this plan is that her opponents may refuse to be drawn into it. For instance when she and PV Sindhu met in the final of the 2019 World Championships she was annihilated by the Indian’s brisk aggression. Sindhu was smashing, following up, and giving full rein to an onslaught that was unmanageable.
The Quarter Final against Sindhu at this years All England was revealing. The first set was quite brutal and she lost it 12-21; in spite of that, this was not another demolition. She hauled herself back into the game and won the next two sets to progress to the Semi. I had already seen her play in Round 1 against Michelle Li and I was shocked by the power and speed she was using then. There was a point when she turned and smashed straight down the line with such venom that her intent was unmistakable.
I think the best version of Nozomi would be one who has lost patience and sharpened her sword. I love it when she dictates the match and keeps to a pace that suits her. The tempo she can play at plus her tenacious approach make her one of the best athletes on the tour. Being able to play with more bite will enhance her attack within the rally. When competitive badminton restarts it will be fascinating to see if she rebalances elements of her game. She will be one of the favourites to triumph at the Olympics, she has all the talent to succeed in her wish to earn Gold for her country.
At 17 she burst onto the BWF world tour with a tremendous victory in the New Zealand Open final against Chinese legend LI Xue Rui. This was her breakthrough moment. As she despatched the Olympic Gold medalist there was a palpable feeling of a generational shift. Better was to follow, as she became the youngest ever winner of a Superseries 750 title – the Yonex French Open – she came out on top in three sensational sets against Marin. Along the way she also collected two Super 100 trophies: the Canada Open and the Akita Masters.
AN Se Young is not the finished article but she has the skills and power to ask serious questions of any women’s singles player in the Top 10. Other badminton nations are looking on with envy because her potential is unlimited.
Analysts and fans would put her firmly in the ‘retriever’ category of players. Retrievers force their opponents to work, and work hard. She is physically robust with a puppyish energy around the court. She isn’t one of the big beasts – like Marin – but her style is a sustained, nagging pressure. She will stifle her rival by defusing attacks and then feed off mistakes when they abandon percentage play and go for winners to force the issue. It is a very tricky style to counter.
At the start of 2019 she was ranked just inside to world top 100. At the moment, while positions are frozen owing to the C-19 crisis she is #9. Here is her view about what catapulted her to the top 10.
“I changed my play style this season. Last Year  my playing style was more attacking, but it used to make me more tired and burnt out easily. I decided to evolve my playing style to defend more and make it more all round. I think that has helped me this year. Now I prefer playing defence rather than attack”
This is such an interesting self-analysis because it contains at it’s heart a paradox. AN Se Young changed her style and the result was some good successes. However, if she continues to pursue these tactics she risks stagnation. There are retrievers galore in the Women’s Singles sector and some of them are better at these strategies than she is.
A good example to illustrate this is her recent R1 match at the All England against the top seed CHEN Yufei. Both of these players have excellent all-round skills, both like to sit and wait, but only one of them could triumph and it was CYF. The problem was that AN Se Young lacked a cutting edge. She was covering the court but not hitting enough winners. She could not/would not vary her pace and most of the time she seemed unable to force Yufei into errors. The Chinese star consistently found space cross-court to AN Se Young’s forehand and gained a lot of points down this route.
She is still at the stage in her development where she is learning to win. It could be that the postponement of the Olympics will allow her to explore the areas she should use when the match is not going her way. There are glimpses of her attacking ability in every game and more experience will mean her ability to analyse and neutralise her opponents’ threat will improve. At the moment she relies too heavily on the covert menace in her style; once she includes more attacking bravado – without running out of stamina – she will have the badminton world at her mercy.
“After the announcement a few days ago about the cancellation of competitions, I told myself to cherish every moment on court and to play my very best”
TAI Tzu Ying to Badminton Unlimited 15.3.20
TAI Tzu Ying is adored all over the world because her are fans captivated by her genius on court and her personality off it. Is she the greatest ever? With her 2020 victory at the Yonex All England – her third title in four years – we have to salute a dazzling talent, a player who is the best of her generation, a legend.
She is the one who will light up any game with her bewitching skills. In her heart there is the need to enjoy the spontaneous pleasure of a great shot however this has co-existed with errors which have cost her titles. This tension – between artistry and efficiency – needed to be tackled. Tzu Ying arrived in Birmingham threatening retirement after the Olympics; immortality beckoned, could she focus, cut the mistakes and cement her iconic status?
Semi-Final against Carolina Marin
Marin began like a runaway train. She was loud, powerful and effective. At 10-6 she sent TTY sprawling and went into the interval five points up. Tzu Ying was mainly serving high and pulling/pushing Marin all over the court but making errors. Serve alternated between then but Marin kept her edge until it the scores got to 18-12. TTY served, Marin didn’t attempt to play the shuttle and it was called out: Tzu Ying challenged. Hawkeye called IN. This was a turning point, the shuttle had caught the line by a whisker. Marin went on to win the first set 21-19 but something had changed, the balance of power had shifted.
TTY started the second set in imperious form. She moved Marin everywhere keeping her under constant pressure and forcing errors. Tzu Ying was pitiless. Marin lost her concentration and lost the set 21-13. Third set, TTY continued with her exceptionally beautiful play. Marin’s pace and power were being dismantled by the majestic skills of TAI. Marin’s focus and game were demolished, and she lost 21-11. Marin was a gallant opponent, she said struggled with the drift but she just could not contain TTY’s brilliance.
Final against CHEN YuFei
Her fourth consecutive final at the Yonex All England and a rematch of 2019 when CHEN YuFei was victorious in straight sets. We know that when Yufei gets to a final she does not lose. Last year one of CYF’s main weapons in defeating The Queen was patience, this year the tables were turned.
“Today I kept reminding myself that I had to be very patient in order to win, because CHEN is a very consistent player and good mover. So with my style of play, there’s actually more pressure on me.”
TAI Tzu Ying to Badminton Unlimited 15.3.20
Over the week, as the intensity of the competition surged, we watched as TAI Tzu Ying simply got better and better. There was a focus and cool determination. Interestingly I think she has modified her game. Patience is a sharp weapon to add to her armoury. There were less errors because she was more precise about when she chose to launch her attacks. She was relentless in the way she attacked CYF. As against Marin she used her high serve to push her opponent back and limit her options and like Marin CHEN could not get control of the rallies. The first set went to Tzu Ying 21-19, the second 21-15; towards the end TTY was simply sensational. Her courage and mental strength made her an unassailable opponent.
She had a wonderful week in Birmingham which ended in a tremendous victory. She is a giant of the game, a sporting icon of the same calibre as Messi or Federer. What a time to be a fan of women’s badminton!
This was a competition that favoured players who could keep focus and grab opportunities. There is a joy to badminton that we all recognise and these are the times when we should celebrate happiness and curate our memories of watching the greatest tournament in our sport.
“Before its 21 anything can happen”
Mixed Doubles – Praveen Jordan & Melati Daeva Oktavianti
The XD was an unexpected pleasure this year. Top seeds fell by the wayside and we arrived at Saturday night with the home favourites Lauren Smith/Marcus Ellis facing Praveen Jordan/Melati Daeva Oktavianti for a place in the final. The first set went to form – PraMel were shrewdly pulling Ellis out of position to neutralise his threat – but in the second the Brits held their nerve, saved two match points and roared on by the crowd forced the match to a decider. Praveen is notoriously unpredictable, however the hoohah around ‘time wasting’ and ‘being ready’ which resulted in an undeserved yellow card definitely lit a flame and the last game was a more comfortable 21-11 victory. The Indonesians were quicker and cleverer and deserved to progress.
No Thai player has ever won an All England title so Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai were staring down the barrel of history. They are a strong, fast pair and this was a match for all XD devotees. It ebbed and flowed but the balance of power was decided at the net. Praveen is such an imposing, athletic partner; he reached everything, his smash was vicious so this freed Melati to damage the Thai pair again and again. Even if she couldn’t score she keep the attacking momentum. Bass/Popor grabbed the second set but had given too much and were beaten 21-8 at the last.
Winning an All England title is the mark of a special player and Praveen Jordan has now won two with two separate partners.
Men’s Doubles – Hiroyuki Endo & Yuta Watanabe
This sector was lit up by the brilliance of Yuta Watanabe. He is faster than a flash. His net interceptions, his resilience and strength were irresistable. For his partner, it was a fourth appearance in the MD final, the first with his new partner and another chance to win the title that has eluded him.
This match sparkled. Gideon & Sukamuljo – world #1 – have already won the title twice but in the last year have consistently lost to the Japanese duo. The pace was superhuman. There was little to choose between these two teams as the intensity increased. No one cracked, no one avoided responsibility, here were four athletes trying everything to succeed. In the final set the Minions trailed 0-6, at the break they had pulled it back to 9-11. Marcus and Kevin bombarded Yuta & Hiroyuki in the last points but the Japanese held firm under incredible pressure. In the end the Japanese pair won the title. They deserved to win but Kevin and Marcus did not deserve to lose. It was a priviledge to watch.
Women’s Singles – Tai Tzu Ying
The Queen is the Queen.
All of TTY’s fans must have anticipated this tournament with a mixture of excitement and dread. We knew she had enjoyed success in January with the Begaluru Raptors and it was clear she was focusing on key competition in the run-up to Tokyo 2020. Her committment and strategy were perfect and in a repeat of 2019 she met CHEN Yufei in the final. This time the honours went to the Queen. (a longer appreciation of TTY’s progress through the YAE will be appearing on this blog as a standalone piece).
All week Fukuhiro had been focused with a quiet confidence. This match had them in dominant form with Hirota especially dazzling with her interceptions at the net. Early on they were finding space with long cross-court precise shots. Their movement around court was fluent as they continued to pressurize DU/LI and raced to a 10-4 lead. The Chinese pair were struggling to find space but they gradually slowed the Fukihiro momentum to get to 9-14.
Hirota’s competitive vision and her ability to get to the shuttle at pace meant that DU/LI could not challenge the control the Japanese pair had. Fukushima was equally aggressive and her appetite for smashing – especially XC – was significant in keeping DU/LI ‘s ambitions down. The Japanese pair secured the title in two sets and they were worthy winners.
Men’s Singles – Viktor Axelsen
Axelsen demolished the #1 seed CHOU Tien Chen in two sets. No games at this level are ‘easy’ but Viktor bulldozed his way through it whilst CTC will want to forget his error strewn match. The Dane grabbed his opportunity and after such a tricky 2019 disrupted by injury and allergies it’s fair to say he is getting back to his best.
I feel that this sector was dominated by players who were absent as much as those who competed. We all know the situation Momota is in. I was astonished by the exit of Ginting and Christie in R1. I watched Ginting’s match and he simply had no answers to Gemke, he could not raise his level to get any foothold in the game. Frustratingly, another YAE passes him by.
The unseeded LEE Zii Jia was one of the stars of the tournament and it was Christie’s misfortune to meet him in R1. LEE looks hungry. He is athletic, explosive and speedy around the court – I think he may fancy his chances at the Olympics.
This year’s tournament was buffeted by external forces out of the control of the players and these, of course, will be a huge part of all our lives for the next few months. All of the athletes must, to some extent, have been affected by anxieties. Firstly, would it even go ahead? Secondly would they get home? Despite this it was drenched in quality right from the start and the right people won.
I would like to thank all the people who contributed to the competition. As well as the athletes/coaches/support staff there is a huge group of people behind the scenes including the Badminton England volunteers. I’d particularly like to mention Jan in the media centre – always cheerful, professional and kind.
Saina Nehwal is the superstar who has leapt over mere sporting boundaries to make history all through her career.
Millions of fans have followed her since the early days of succcess when she was the torchbearer for women’s badminton in Indian. Before her famous victories its profile was modest but she sent a jolt through the sporting community and now the sport is enjoyed and supported by millions.
“when I was a match point down it was like a shock. It was a big match and winning it means a lot to me. Even many years from now those present here will remember how Saina won the Gold. It is a proud feeling” Saina after her CG Gold.
What she says is true. Speak to any devotee and they will remember where they were on the day of the Delhi Commonwealth Games WS Badminton final. Some were at the office watching on a shared TV, some at a club, others were at home with family but everyone recalls the happiness and relief of that moment when she seized her destiny.
She is a dangerous, complex player to face. Her foundations are rugged, she possesses the full array of shots and takes a somewhat orthodox approach: a standard singles strategy of pulling and pushing her opponent around the court, shifting focus from side to side, waiting for a weak return to seize upon and punish. This is hardly the full story though. The characteristics that have elevated her are psychological strength combined with tactical dexterity.
While she doesn’t have the pace of three or four years ago she can compensate for this with her resilience. She is a good defender and although too much reliance on retrieving can be a weakness I don’t recognise this as a fault in her game. She is an intelligent reader of other players and can out-maneouvre opponents during the match. Of course, this mental strength really draws the sting of a rival. She is lethal once the momentum starts to go in her direction. As soon as this happens she turns the screw and can make sure the other player suffers a drought of opportunities. Her emotional muscle often overpowers because the other player just runs out of ideas.
Since the All England Championships 2019 she has had to cope with a sequence of injuries which will have affected her training and so her fluency on court. As she recovered her fitness the world went into Covid lockdown and numerous tournaments were cancelled. In the end events out of her control have meant that she was not able to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
Saina: The First
Saina was the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championships (2008)
She was the first Indian woman to win a Super Series Tournament (Indonesian Open 2009)
First Indian to win an Olympic medal at badminton (London 2012)
First Indian Woman to be ranked World Number 1 (2015)
Saina would have been a success whatever profession she chose; she could have been a scientist, engineer or architect, it wouldn’t matter. She is a person who brings 100% commitment and integrity to whatever she undertakes. She has inspired millions of people all around the world and given so much to the badminton community. The loyalty and passion of her fans is second-to-none and the sport is by far the richer for her influence.
It is 2022 and all our favourites have returned to Birmingham to chase a place on the podium. There are unanswered questions from last year’s competition in both sectors and I am expecting to see plenty of athletes playing with a point to prove.
The #1 seeds and crowd favourites will be trying to capture an elusive third title. Kevin Sukamuljo and Marcus Gideon create a thrilling aura of stardust together and must feel eager to get back on court to express themselves. Kevin’s brilliant inventiveness belongs on the grandest stages at the biggest moments. They should be wary of their first match as they haven’t played competitively since Bali. Originally they were listed in R1 to meet CHOI/SEO though it seems that the Korean’s may’ve withdrawn.
If the seedings unwind as expected, they will clash with the fifth seeds Rankireddy/Shetty in what should be fierce quarter final. I love the Indian’s willingness to attack but of course in a tie against the Minions they risk having their intensity turned against them. It will be fascinating to discover which pair prevails in an arena that traditionally offers slowish conditions.
The current World Champions Hoki/Kobayashi have seized their opportunities and really grown into their role as Japan’s top pair. Their control of the game under pressure, their bravery and shuttle placement will give them an advantage in Birmingham. As third seeds they could face Gideon/Sukamuljo in the semi-final which has the potential to be a Battle Royale.
At the opposite end of the draw the second seeds Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan will be aiming to face their compatriots in the final. There are not enough superlatives in my thesaurus to describe these two. Their touch and teamwork are outstanding, but their badminton intelligence is what sets them apart from many of their rivals. The traps they set are subtle, their anticipation is exceptional and their hearts are big.
The strength in depth of the Indonesian MDs is astonishing. There are 6 pairs travelling to Birmingham. Alfian/Ardianto (seeded 6) will play Carnando/Marthin in R1 but whoever prevails in this tie has a tough route to finals weekend. The Malaysian team has brough 5 pairs: the most dangerous are the beaten finalists from a few years ago Aaron CHIA & SOH Wooi Yik. They won Bronze at the Tokyo Olympics and have made no secret of their desire for Gold in Paris 2024. They are a well balanced combination of speedy reflexes, athleticism and desire; they could be podium bound. GOH Sze Fei & Nur IZZUDDIN will be buzzing after their victory at the German Open but as unseeded players they have hard games lined up.
There are plenty of other pairs who could flourish. China always challenges hard; their players are so well-drilled in fundamental badminton skills that new ‘unknown’ combinations alway have the potential to prosper. The main Danish challenge will spring from the seventh seeds Astrup/Rasmussen, France has sent the Popov brothers, and the home audience will be hoping that Lane/Vendy can make things awkward in the top half of the draw.
Viktor Axelsen’s band of brothers – the athletes who have worked with him in Dubai away from their national setups – have been dominating men’s singles results recently. The Olympic Champion has been in the form of his life since the bold move to warm-weather training. Viktor has so many strengths but his competitive advantage stems from his emotional maturity. He has understood that the time is now. So, the question is: who can stop him winning back the title?
Anders Antonsen is seeded 3 and has to be aiming for the podium. He has an intriguing R1 tie against current World Champion and member of the Dubai Gang LOH Kean Yew. If he gets past this hurdle, he may have to face Lakshya Sen another player who has enjoyed an improvement since training in Dubai. Next up, Lee Zii Jia in the SF for a chance against the King of Dubai himself: Viktor Axelsen There have been stamina issues in the past and I often catch myself wondering if he has hip problems when I look at his gait. Behind all the messing around with peripherals like blogging he must be wondering what be achievable if he too was to start training in the gulf.
Another Dubai participant is the defending champion LEE Zii Jia. His challenge in Muelheim for that title fizzled out in the SF against Kunlavut Vitidsarn. The recent row with BAM about his professional status cannot have helped his preparation for Europe but he has to bring a more zesty attack to Birmingham. Anything less than a semi-final appearance will be a shock.
Kento Momota is seeded 2 but this does not tell the whole story of his circumstances. The car accident in Malaysia shifted his internal axis somehow .He has not regained his surgical precision or his focus. His is still an exceptionally talented player but he is beatable. Vittinghus must be looking at this match with a gleam in his eye. Momota can expect to be asked the tough questions every step of the way in Birmingham.
Aside from these players we have to look at the unseeded LakshyaSen who has refocused and matured since working with Axelsen. In January he beat LOH Kean Yew to win the S500 India Open then, at the German Open, he stunned VA to get to the final. He had looked dead and buried at 15-19 down in the last set but his grit and tenacity are great weapons when they are blended with his reliable defence and willingness to rally. Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn was the eventual winner in Germany. Both of these players could disrupt a senior seed’s progress.
It didn’t look as though Jonathan Christie would be able to participate owing to his positive test last week. But he has travelled to the UK so perhaps he will be OK. As far as Anthony Ginting is concerned – because he is Jojo’s roommate – we are waiting to see the official confirmation if he is cleared to play or not. It will be a pity if he misses the chance to make a mark at the All England. In the past it has never seemed as though he has been able to impose himself on the tournament. It’s been a while since we’ve enjoyed a good MomoGi.
The influence of Viktor Axelsen and his Dubai training camps has tilted the balance of power in Men’s Singles since the Olympics. That group of athletes will probably supply the eventual winner in Birmingham and that will give other players and coaches a lot to consider. Men’s Doubles is harder to call, although this may be an occasion for Kevin and Marcus to reassert their dominance of the title. Unfortunately, the situation is quite volatile regarding the impact of Covid upon athletes participation; it’s hard to imagine that these championships will avoid positive tests so let’s enjoy matches when we can and hope that everyone stays healthy.
A sparkling line-up in all the women’s sectors promises some brilliant battles ahead. The stars are back! The German Open has been full of upsets with some seeds struggling to impose themselves on the tournament. Let’s see if this unpredictable picture lingers into England.
Three-time winner TAI Tzu Ying usually has a scintillating presence on court & brings stardust to any tournament; exceptional racket skills and unconventional genius means that she will be challenging for the title. However there are some big challenges ahead. In 2021 Akane Yamaguchi hit a dazzling run of form. Liberation from Olympic expectations unleashed a new focus, her fitness has returned, and she must be eyeing the trophy with confidence. These two are seeded to meet in the final in a repeat of 2018. On that occasion TTY triumphed so Akane will want revenge. Neither of them were on good form in Germany; both crashing out in their R2 matches so they both must step up their play if they want the trophy.
China is consistently producing exceptional women players. It’s astonishing to realise that CHEN Yufei – the current Olympic champion – is only seeded #3. Of course she has not been able to participate fully in the tour owing to China’s Covid restrictions. She is a deadly opponent who can drain the fight from a rival before putting them to the sword. The bottom half of the draw is arguably able to offer her a smooth journey to the SF and a potential game versus Akane or Sindhu. Realistically her consistency and fitness make her favourite for this title. HE Bing Jiao is always a bit of an enigma. During the pandemic she has become leaner, but has she become meaner? I think we will probably find out if she makes it to a QF with her compatriot CHEN Yu Fei. After beating Akane in Germany her confidence should be sky high. The other notable Chinese player bringing form to the UK is ZHANG Yi Man who dispatched Sindhu in three sets in Mulheim. She meets CYF in R1 so it’s a tough ask to expect progress.
As the defending champion Nozomi Okuhara has little to prove but has a harsh draw to negotiate. She has remained quite low profile since Tokyo but in December – for the third year running – was crowned winner at the All Japan Badminton Championships. In the first couple of rounds she’ll have to overcome a double Danish challenge; in R1 round she is meeting Denmark’s Line Christophersen then R2 could offer Mia Blichfeldt. Further in, TAI Tzu Ying, May or AN Se Young await. She will need to be on her game from the moment she steps onto court on day 1.
Is this going to be AN Se Young’s tournament? The top half of this draw offers a lot of banana skins & she would probably have to overcome May, TTY or Nozomi to get to the final. This is my worry. I’m a little unconvinced that her stamina will hold up through a bruising tournament – the cumulative effect of game after game after game does have a cost, so she must be tactically clever and try to conserve energy wherever possible.
Ratchanok Intanon was in good form at the Olympics; the battle with TTY in Tokyo was outstanding and there is a possible repeat of that epic match in prospect in the semi-final. First May has to negotiate early rounds that include ASY. Under pressure she often she executes extraordinary shots, disdains percentage play and can unravel a rival with her extravagant skill. I love to watch her compete like this but I think sometimes it’s the consequence of a desire to speedily finish off a rival; if they manage to hang in the game there can be Trouble.
The renowned Big Game Player – Pursala V Sindhu – is hard to analyse. She has an Olympic bronze from 2021 but often over the past 2 or 3 years she has struggled to build a winning momentum that takes her all the way to the top of the podium. She wasn’t able to progress beyond R1 at the German Open in the run-up to this tournament so I’m not sure what we can expect. She is one of the best of her generation but Akane awaits in the QF.
I see CHEN Yufei as favourite for this title. However Akane enjoyed impressive form at the end of 2021; if anyone can beat her they are serious contenders.
All the badminton community is anticipating the international return of FukuHiro with warmth in their hearts. They are such a likeable pair: their spirit against the odds at the Tokyo Olympics was admired the world over. We have watched Yuki Fukushima joining forces with other players whilst Sayaka Hirota recuperated from knee surgery but now is an opportunity to see them attempt to recapture the title they won together in 2020. It’s hard to estimate where they are in terms of form and fitness. They will have to take one match at a time and see what happens. Nothing is impossible for two of the best players on the circuit.
The #1 seeds (and winners in 2019) can be a real handful for any opponent. CHEN Qing Chen is a valiant, tireless player who screws down the pressure whilst left-handed JIA Yi Fan loves to smash or get a hard flat rally going. They both have plenty of power and use it with venom. If it boils down to a brawl at the end of a game for the last few winning points then probably the Chinese pair will edge through. If they bring their A game to Birmingham, they will be unstoppable.
It’s been a while since Korea won the WD title in Birmingham. In fact, it was 2017 when LEE So-hee won it with CHANG Ye-na. What a record LEE has of competing and winning at the highest levels in badminton over nearly a decade. She is seeded 2 with SHIN Seung-chan and they kick off their campaign with a tricky tie against the Stoevas. KIM So-yeong and KONG Hee-yong are seeded 3 in the top half of the draw – both pairs have all the skills to get to finals weekend and once they are there anything can happen.
2021 was a break-out year for Nami Matsuyama and Chiharu Shida who upped their competitive levels and enjoyed plenty of success at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton. Their creative aggression marks out the evolution of the Japanese house style. I’m excited to see if they continue their development into the last stages of this competition.
I’m not neutral, I’ve followed and admired Greysia Polii for years. That gold medal win at the Olympics was one of my happiest badminton days so I want to watch the 6th seeds go deep into this competition. Although the GreyAp partnership remains in place for Birmingham it’s noteworthy that Apriyani Rahayu planned to be with a different partner at the German Open but unfortunately a minor injury scuppered that idea. PBSI have to plan for the future but I hope the Olympic Champions play well in Birmingham, no injuries and do themselves justice.
The current champions Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara who habitually win big events have been forced to withdraw because of a knee injury sustained during training.
This doubles competition does have the potential for a few upsets from unseeded pairs. PearlyTAN and Thinaah Muralitheran never know when they are beaten and their opponents are always in for a difficult hour or so on court. Likewise Maiken Fruergaard and Sara Thygesen can mix it with the best – in round one they face GreyAp and that’s a tricky challenge for the sixth seeds.
I want to include XD in my women’s preview because I believe that it’s the performance of the woman in the duo that leads to victory . The role of the woman partner has shifted over the last 15 years to a more proactive aggressive stance – I think mainly because of the influence of Liliyana Natsir, one of the true greats of the game. This benefits mobile players who are comfortable in attack and defence.
It’s quite hard to see beyond the first four seeds for the title. Deservedly at the top of the draw are the Thai pair Bass/Popor. They are physically strong, worked hard through 2021 and got plenty of success. They didn’t participate last year because of their focus on Olympic prep but 2022 will see them travelling to the UK with a strong chance of grabbing the trophy for Thailand. I think it’s significant that Sapsiree Taerattanachai is not competing in WD too. Her sole focus at this tournament will be XD. The two shutters who can stop them are the Tokyo Olympic Champions: WANG Yi Lyu & HUANG Dong Ping. I’m a big admirer of HUANG who is a wonderful doubles player with power, touch and plenty of smarts. The destiny of the title is probably in her hands.
Who could challenge the favourites for the title? Japan’s Yuta and Arisa are a formidable pair. I love to watch them switch roles and see Yuta marauding at the net; this is a huge competitive advantage and very difficult to neutralise. The #2 seeds ZHENGSi Wei and HUANG Ya Qiong must also be eyeing the trophy but they have a very unconventional preparation for the tournament as they will be competing with different partners the week before in Germany.
So, a wonderful tournament hosting the best women players in the world lies ahead. The athletes who can stay fit and focused on their goals will be the ones who carry away the trophy on Finals Day. Every shot counts.
This was a bravura performance from the world #1 that finally advanced her beyond QF at the World Championships for the first time in six attempts.
TTY’s touch and strategy today were dazzling. From the outset she took control of the tie. Her shots – especially her drops – punished Sindhu all over the court. Deploying pinpoint accuracy, TTY was mean with her margins and screwed down the pressure on her opponent. The rallies were driven on at a brutal pace; in-between the rallies TTY barely took a breather, she kept focused and kept the momentum of the game rolling. Sindhu could not get any foothold in the match however hard she fought. A virtuoso victory over two sets: a wonderful time to love TAI Tzu Ying.