Ratchanok Intanon: Can Thailand’s Sweetheart Get Gold?

Ratchanok Intanon is a magnificent player.

Malaysia Open 2019. Picture credit: Shutterstock.com

She is so elegant – almost balletic – she glides around the court with incredibly light feet. This graceful style is one of the features that makes her so enjoyable to watch. There’s a lot of depth and technical skill to her game so this combination makes her a very successful competitor and a tricky opponent to beat.

May’s 24 though it seems like we have enjoyed watching her for years: she turned professional in 2007 and first exploded onto the international scene when she was only 14. How she came to the sport is quite a well-known story. Her parents worked at a sweet factory in Bangkok whose owner encouraged his employees children to play at the factory’s badminton courts to keep them away from the cooking and hot sugar. Her natural athleticism was recognised and so she was encouraged and supported to follow her pathway to success.

She has been called the ‘Queen of Comebacks’ and I think this is a strong element of her approach. She doesn’t know when she is beaten; it’s rare that she just gives in. This must partly be the result of her experience but it also says something about her as a person. She is renowned for her determination and focus in training so I think this attitude carries through into matches quite easily.

She won the Vietnam International Challenge in 2009 she was just 14, then became the youngest ever winner of the BWF World Junior Championships also when she was still 14. In 2013 she was triumphed in the BWF World Championships beating Li Xuerui over 3 games in the final and is still the youngest ever singles winner of that event. That year she also suffered from a foot injury and a back problem which limited the other tournaments she entered. The following two years were reasonably quiet by her standards – perhaps the older players had ‘found her out’ and possibly she lost some fitness through injuries – however 2016 is a different story.

Rio Olympic year saw Ratchanok win 3 Superseries titles in a row (India, Malaysia, Singapore): she beat Li Xuerui, Tai Tzu Ying and Sun Yu in each of the finals. This extraordinary run of form saw her become the first Thai to hold the world Number One spot, qualify for the Olympics, and was the flag bearer at the opening ceremony. In spite of this she was halted by Akane Yamaguchi and didn’t get beyond the round of 16; the rest of the year fizzled out somewhat owing to the knee injury she picked up in Rio.

Since then there are so many achievements, an honour roll can’t begin to tell the whole story. I cannot remember ever seeing her play an ugly game. She has a beautiful touch at the net; it’s almost as though she can hold the shot back for a split second longer than the opponent expects – so not strictly speaking deception but still deceptive. She can vary the pace of the game and this tactic often disrupts her rivals rhythm.

She has a ‘fast racket’ and great technique which of course means that a full armoury of shots are at her fingertips. She is 169cm tall and uses her height and reach shrewdly, I love seeing her set up net kills that she executes so sharply. Her reverse slice drop shot is a thing of beauty, there are also punchy clears plus she has a dangerous straight and cross court smash. Her precision is outstanding; she will consistently place the shuttle right on the line.

So what does the future hold? She has been clear about her ambition:

“…to win an Olympic gold medal and to be Number 1 in the world”

Is Tokyo Gold a realistic possibility? In terms of ability and experience definitely yes but we can all name some outstanding players who will stand in her way. Morten Frost pointed out that the key to that medal will lie in the seeding and her weakness is that she is stagnating as a top 10 player. The consistency needed to stay in the top 10 for as long as her is remarkable but she needs to be in the top 4 so she can avoid meeting competitors like Akane or Tai Tzu Ying until the semi finals.

This is a very interesting look at Ratchanok’s training and it includes her mum cooking! Video courtesy of BWF.

It seems to me that she has lots of motivations for playing. Partly she has been driven by her desire to provide for her family but it also is important that she enjoys her games. Similar to Tai Tzu Ying she is not really a percentage player – I think she revels in her skills – for instance when she plays a cross court over the net to mid court it could go horribly wrong. It’s death or glory, but the glory on offer is too delightful to ignore. She’s an intelligent woman who loves her sport and is loved by everyone who watches her – we all want this refined, clever player to continue to win and make history.

Follow the links to read more about three of her main rivals. AN Se Young is an increasingly dangerous opponent https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/ My article about Nozomi Okuhara is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ and Tai Tzu Ying is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/03/18/tai-tzu-ying-taiwans-sporting-icon/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Badminton & TeamGB: 2019 European Games

England were magnificent in their Sudirman Cup games against Denmark this year. The matches were full of courage, a refusal to give in and the desire to beat their main rivals for European supremacy. England eventually won the tie 3-2 by triumphing in all the doubles disciplines and this included Chloe Birch, Lauren Smith and Marcus Ellis playing in two 3 game matches each

England upgrades to become TeamGB for the European Games starting in Minsk on June 21st and the key difference for the badminton contingent is that the Scot, Kirsty Gilmour is a potent addition to the Women’s Singles. She is a powerful athlete: the third seed with a great chance of getting to the medal stages of the tournament. She is very energetic – not bothered about grazing her knees as she dives around – and never hesitates to give everything to defend a point. Chloe Birch is seeded 8 and will get through her group; as in the Sudirman Cup she is playing in two disciplines – unusually in modern times she competes in both singles and doubles.

video by kind permission BWF

Lauren Smith and Chloe Birch were the two players who brought it home for England against Denmark. It was a glorious game; on a knife edge throughout. If you take a look at the BWF highlights above you can see they showed immense bravery and character to clinch it – watching their relief and elation at the end was very exciting. They defeated Sara Thygesen and Maiken Fruergaard and coincidently they have drawn each other again in the group stages. It’s bound to be a spicy encounter with the Danes out for revenge but even though they are the top seeds they are the ones who should be nervous. Smith and Birch are in a winning habit this year; they have already triumphed in the Orleans Masters and the Azerbaijan International Open. The Stoeva sisters are absent because of a dispute with their national body so I see the British duo as the best Women’s Doubles pair in Europe at the moment. They are genuine contenders for gold.

Toby Penty performed well against Viktor and took him to 3 games in his Sudirman Cup tie. His autoimmune condition has been in the news recently but as he has said, on court is where he can feel like himself and concentrate on the game. He’ll get through his group but after that it’s hard to predict how far he can progress. Axelsen has withdrawn owing to allergies so arguably he and Antonsen are the two top players in Minsk. Penty’s form is coming good at the right time too following his recent silver medal at the Spanish International. Men’s Doubles sees Marcus Ellis partnering Chris Langridge. These two are battle hardened campaigners: I always feel eager to watch them because I know they will give everything – remember the ‘cramp collapse’ at the end of the SC tie? They play to win and are a great partnership – a good example of two players who support each other to success.

TeamGB has the top two seeds in Mixed Doubles. Britain’s best-known shuttlers – the Adcocks – are competing as top seeds and should progress through Group A without too much fuss. the start of 2019 was a bit lukewarm, mainly due to niggly injuries but they had a pretty good tournament at the Australian Open in June, reaching the quarter finals. Always ambitious, they have the drive and courage to take this title and I assume this is part of their pathway to realise their desire for Olympic Gold in 2020.

Lauren Smith and Marcus Ellis are also competing in the XD in Group B and may be asked some tough questions before they get to the knock out stages. In the Sudirman Cup they held their nerve in a tricky match. Smith is physically strong and bold so I don’t think it is easy to intimidate her at the net. The dream is for them to meet the Adcocks in the final and at that point anything could happen!

It’s always a thrill to follow tournaments like this and I think TeamGB have got the talent and character to dominate in the badminton. The Sudirman Cup showed that the British players have the mental strength to step up and challenge the Danes; at this level results often turn on a refusal to give in, to chase, and just sheer hard work and we’ve proved we’ve got that. It would be a shock if significant medals went to anyone other than Denmark or GB and in this year leading up to Tokyo 2020 being in the winning habit is going to pay dividends.

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved