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Barcelona Spain Masters: WS Preview

After the excitement of the PBL and the Team Championships the tour arrives in Europe for the next few months

We are counting down to the end of the Olympic qualifying period. The situation for players who have already confirmed their spot – such as Marcus & Kevin – is excellent. They can manage their preparations to peak in July; no need to risk injury or burn-out. However, athletes who are hovering in the borderlands, those who are in the position of being ranked between about 10-25, are going to get drawn into an increasingly fraught scrabble for points. Some will be anxiously looking over their shoulders whilst others know that they can get to Japan, with a huge effort plus a bit of luck.

Because of the tragic situation in China and elsewhere regarding Covid-19 the travel restrictions have had an impact upon some players attendance. I believe the Chinese team are going to have a European base for a while to help with their quarantine compliance. Unfortunately this will not be in time for this Spanish tournament so there have been some significant withdrawals. Well, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good; the competitors who can make Spain must make the most of the circumstances they are in.

Women’s Singles – WARNING! THIS IS ALL ABOUT SAINA

Carolina Marin must be looking at the other players in her home tournament in much the same way that a lion views antelope drinking at a water hole. Prediction: Winner!

Screenshot BWF TV

Her die-hard supporters are still focusing all their positivity around Saina Nehwal‘s push to qualify for the Olympics again. If she can, it would be a magnificent acheivement. If she fails, then armchair fans can easily identify areas that should have/could have been managed differently. It’s a lack of consistency that has frustrated her ambitions over the last 12 months. She has had persistant injuries and has commented that her problems on court stem more from an inability to move smoothly rather than any lack of desire. There also seems to be a lack of clarity around her coaching support. As an experienced elite player she surely is the best judge of who she needs courtside but I feel lukewarm about the idea of her husband providing this help. Tactical advice should come from an expert. It’s undeniable that she has fallen prey to distractions away from the game too: Vogue covers and political ambition may refresh a jaded player or they may dissipate focus.

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At a minimum she must get to the semi-final but Line Kjaersfeldt awaits in R2. She has already beaten the Indian this year at the Thailand Open and, during the Indonesian Masters back in January, she shocked CHEN YuFei in the second round in straight sets so Saina must be awake from the minute she gets on court. Kjaersfeldt could easily play the sort of strategy that exploits Saina’s lack of fluency. The key question is: Can Saina’s cunning carry her through? If she can play the sort of game that saw her win against AN Se Young in Malaysia then the answer is YES! Prediction: Semi

XXXX STOP PRESS XXXX DANES WITHDRAW XXXX

After their wonderful victory in the European Women’s Team Championships on 16.2.20 some key Danish players have withdrawn from the tournament citing injuries. Unfortunately Mia Blichfeldt (originally seeded 2), and Line Kjaersfeldt will be missing from the Women’s singles. Saina MUST take advantage of this to accrue Olympic points; she will not get dealt a better hand by fate this year!

Busan Ongbamrungpham and Pornpawee Chochuwong are two Thai players who are often overshadowed by May’s superstar status but I’m sure there are benefits to this. They must get to train with her at times and it’s interesting that Thailand is getting more strength in depth these days (consider the success of the juniors). Either of these two could get themselves a podium place but the prize on offer will be more than that. Both are still fighting for an Olympic spot, but both cannot go because of Ratchanok. Chochuwong is slightly behind her compatriot in the rankings so I think she needs to do well here. Saina needs to watch out because either of these two could trample on her ambitions to fulfil their own.

Conclusion

The BWF ranking list that’s due to be published at the end of April will confirm which players make Tokyo and who stays home. Some athletes are on a knife edge now; they have to seize the moment. The absence of many of the Chinese players gives an unlooked-for advantage to the competitors in this tournament. If we consider Marin, her side of the draw looks reasonably trouble-free; she should be able to pocket this home tournament. The interesting question is, can Saina rise to the challenge?

Screenshot from BWF TV

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

If you’re a Saina fan take a look at this https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/10/08/indias-saina-nehwal-trailblazer-legend/

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CHEN Qing Chen & JIA Yi Fan

Chinese players were the dominant force of the 2019 All England Championships: of the five titles up for grabs they won three.  The current holders of the Women’s Doubles trophy, CHEN Qing Chen and JIA Yi Fan will be in an upbeat mood as they analyse the year they had – altogether six tournament victories – and optimistic about meeting the challenges ahead. 

From BWF TV

Women’s Doubles is contested by lots of talented twosomes from all over the badminton playing world but it’s interesting to note that there is no Momota-like presence who rules supreme.  Consider the five Super750 tournaments from last year, remarkably they were each won by different pairs.  However, CHEN & JIA have the competitive edge when we look at the most coveted trophies on the tour, the Super1000.  They are able to inject a bit of extra sparkle under pressure and this enabled them to win two of the 3 – the YAE & the China Open – and bronze in the third.  This trio of elite competitions are the ones that all players want to win, so to bag two in a year is a mark of superiority and it illustrates their enjoyment of performing on the big stage in front of a large crowd.

What is it about this partnership that makes them thrive at the highest level?  They have been playing together for years and so the crucial foundation of rotation and mutual support has become effortless.  The flow of movement is very smooth, this underpins their attacks and lets them pummel opponents into defeat.  Crucially they both have reliable serves (the most important shot in the game in my opinion) so unlike some of their rivals they can expect to gain control of the rally right from the start.  And, of course, they have the expertise of the Chinese coaches to support them at every match.

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CHEN is a pressure player, always busy with energy and focus.  Good technique means she can generate a lot of power despite her lack of height (164cm).  Her superb cross-court smashes are unleashed with ferocity and accuracy to gain a lot of points for the team.  At the start of her senior career she competed in Mixed and Women’s Doubles and has enjoyed success in both.  Nowadays she concentrates more on WD but playing against men has informed her style.  She’s brave, resolute and will face down aggression easily.  She provoked headlines at the YAE last year when she cut short her celebrations, trimmed her lap of honour and avoided the spotlights.  She explained later that she wanted a low profile so as not to distract her friend CHEN Yufei, who was about to enter the arena to play her Women’s Singles final.  This shows a good mark of respect for her teammates and a lack of ego.

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It’s often said – most notably by the great Morten Frost – that JIA Yi Fan is the key to this partnership’s success.  If she is playing to her potential then they tend to win.  She is left-handed and like CHEN can produce a lot of power.  She is a decisive player who will smash, follow-up and then bury the shuttle to clinch a point.  Her flat drives build pressure to force mistakes especially when she puts them together in her attacking sequences. She has a delicate touch at the net too, and can take the sting out of a speeding shuttle to wrongfoot opponents.

As a pair they play at a high tempo and with venom.  I watched their semi-final and final in Birmingham last year and was stunned by their hostile bombardment of their opponents.  The experience of seeing them play live was memorable because the speed and accuracy they can produce is overwhelming.  They can be unceasingly intense and often opponents get pinned down midcourt as flat vicious drives and smashes zero in on them.  I always think that the attacking combination of a lefty with a conventional right-hander is a mix guaranteed to unsettle rivals.  They have to unpick their muscle memory to modify the standard defence routines so a proportion of their automatic responses to pressure are obsolete.

Can they retain their title in Birmingham?  They’ve begun the year in anticlimactic fashion at the Malaysian Masters but I don’t think we should read anything major into that result. As we know, 2020 is Olympic year which is significant to the focus of athletes’ training cycles. The danger from the Japanese WD pairs is huge. There are lots of players who are going to be pushing to the limit because qualification for Tokyo is restricted to two WD pairs per country.  Fukushima and Hirota, Matsumoto and Nagahara, not to mention the current Olympic Champions Matsutomo and Takahashi all need success in England.

So, there are threats to CHEN & JIA’s desire to make it two in a row in Birmingham but not many players who have the firepower that they can bring to a match.  The pace and power they unleash is breath-taking. Momentum in sport is so important and any athlete with ambitions to win in March will need to bring their best game to the All England.  On the big stage, in the important competitions is where this Chinese pair shine and there is no better tournament for them to cement their legend.


This first appeared on the Yonex All England website https://www.allenglandbadminton.com/news/chen-qing-chen-jia-yi-fan-in-depth/

If you enjoyed this you may like my article about one of their biggest rivals, Fukuhiro https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/

Or this one about Polii & Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

The Adcocks

The most prestigious badminton tournament in the world has been missing something since 2005: an English winner of a final.  The All England title is the Special One, the one that every elite player covets – in Mixed Doubles can Gabby and Chris Adcock make it to the podium in 2020 and confirm their place amongst the legends of the sport?

Screenshot from BWF TV.

Through the years this sector has seen some iconic winners, not least the hattrick of victories by the Indonesian pair Lilyana Natsir and Tontowi Ahmad between 2012-2014, however we have to go back to 2005 to find the last English triumph.  Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson’s 3 set win over the Danish duo of Thomas Laybourn and Kamilla Rytter Juhl was a red-letter day for home fans.  They were a tough couple who just refused to be beaten on their native soil.  They narrowly failed to defend their title the following year, and in 2007 Anthony Clark and Donna Kellogg got to the final but came away with the silver medal.  So now we look to the Adcocks to see if they can seize the chance to get Gold in Birmingham.

Gabby and Chris are a partnership that was always meant to be.  As children they used to play badminton together, but as they got older, they were paired up with other people.  The London 2012 Olympics came and went with not too much to remark upon. However, when they rekindled their partnership on and off court a sequence of competitive success began.  They married in 2013 and one of their first major titles was Commonwealth Gold in 2014, successfully retained in 2018. Amongst their other achievements have been Gold at the BWF Superseries season ending event in Dubai 2015 (the only Brits before or since) and World Championship bronze in 2017, not to mention the 2017/2018 European titles.

Embed from Getty Images

Gabby Adcock is a great XD partner.  It’s noticeable that in the last couple of decades our expectations of a woman’s role in XD have evolved.  There is more equality of responsibility and although traditional positions and movement are still fundamental there is a new flexibility in approach; Natsir has been a very progressive influence on this. Gabby has the ability to perform well within this tactical framework and in an evenly balanced game the woman player’s skills will have a big impact. It should go without saying that she is a great player at the net, with sharp kills she brings a fearless intensity to the position.  As she is mostly playing at the front she is always alert to strategic possibilities.  It’s crucial that she will make interceptions, her fast feet and good spatial awareness help her to control the tempo of the game and this can be a valuable platform for Chris’s aggression.  The ferocity in the team does not just come from him though; she has a great smash and the strength to repel attack if she finds herself in the rear court.

Chris Adcock is one of the best XD men players in the world.  He likes to maintain the offensive focus and is skilful at supporting Gabby’s position.  He likes to compress the space by moving forward a little in midcourt to keep the pressure on the opposition; it means that gaps for rivals to score in are harder to find. He has a powerful smash so any attempt to hit over him has to be very accurate.   He has been a successful MD player in the early years of his career and this has given him plenty of confidence to step up to the net if necessary, he’ll execute nice blocks with flat pushes over the net and he’s good at finding openings to exploit.  They work well together to engineer winning chances. 2019 in review has to go down as a patchy year; uneven results stemmed from persistent injury niggles including very painful toe joint problems for Gabby.  Their best ever world ranking – #4 – came in 2017.  Now, two years later they have slipped out of the top 10.  The consequences of injuries are broad because they disrupt both partners training programmes as well as tournament performance.  The value of ranking positions is that it affects whether athletes are seeded for competitions, if they are unseeded it means that they will probably have to play strong pairs early on.   

2020 has some wonderful opportunities on the horizon for this duo.  Once again, they are playing in the Indian PBL with the Pune Aces. There are undoubted benefits to a fresh approach, new training partners and a lively fan base. Take a look at this quote from Chris

“The biggest thing to happen this year is to have a quality player like Hendra Setiawan in your team. You can train with him, you can learn from him. We (he and his wife and mixed doubles partner Gabrielle) are obviously very experienced players but Hendra is obviously in a different world and amazing to watch,”

Adcock, England!
Screenshot from BWF TV

In the past there have been some nerve tingling games in Birmingham involving the Adcocks.  After losing in the semi-final in 2016, the following year they found themselves playing for a shot at the title again against LIU Kai and HUANG Yaqiong from China.  They each won a set, and Chris served for the match in the third with the score at 20-19. This was the moment that he has described as “the worst string break of all time”.  In that instant the game turned as they lost the next points, the third set and the match.  It was an excruciating slice of bad luck. 

So, in March, will we see English representatives in the XD final?  There’s no doubt that Chris and Gabby have the skills and drive to do well.  I’d love to see them begin 2020 injury-free so that they can start building their competitive momentum for success at the Yonex All England; earning back their status as seeds with some good results is the first step.  The whole of the English badminton community – from village hall players to the elite – would enjoy watching them triumph in Birmingham.  If they win here, they will reinforce their status as England’s #1 XD pair and become legends in the game for all time.


A version of this post first appeared on the Yonex All England website https://www.allenglandbadminton.com/media/


If you enjoyed this then click the link to read about another England legend, Lauren Smith https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/09/lauren-smith-doubles-for-britain/ or this one about TAI Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/16/tai-tzu-ying-the-queen/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved