Badminton Outliers

Sometimes players burst onto the badminton scene from nations with no obvious tradition in the sport. It’s a fascinating topic to examine, not least because it includes some of our favourites. It’s remarkable that the majority of these athletes are women who play singles. Here are people who have had to break down barriers at every point in their careers and it’s arguable that a resolute focus translates best to the singles game. The loneliness of the court, often with no support staff can be a difficult challenge. To be able to meet the challenge and succeed takes an exceptional person.

Carolina Marin. The current Olympic Champion hails from a country that has never enjoyed headline success in badminton yet she has won the World Championships 3 times and has been on the podium at just about every BWF tournament at some time in her career. Initially she loved flamenco, but after watching a friend play badminton she was hooked. The sport had such a low profile in Spain it’s said that her parents had not even heard of it when she asked for her own racket. It’s important to her story that her coach – Fernando Rivas – has also been a single-minded pioneer. He is a sports scientist who has studied badminton and conducted research in other European countries. He had been a player but not the country’s best. When he arrived at the national training centre in Spain (2005) he encountered signifiicant resistence to his new approach. The prevalent culture had been shaped by an influential coach who had left but there was a reluctance to embrace a different style. The rise of Marin could not have happened without Rivas and his development of a new way of training. Likewise Rivas needed a talent like Marin to prove that his methods worked. Clearly they do; the next step is to see if a badminton legacy is created and Spain becomes a European powerhouse of the sport.

Saina Nehwal. Today Saina is a worldwide superstar whose appeal reaches far beyond sport. It’s not true to say that badminton was unknown in India before she came along because Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand had been high profile men’s shuttlers – both winners of the All England amongst other titles. Nevertheless Saina elevated the game and contributed hugely to the normalisation of women’s participation in it in so many countries. Often in the early days, her career was characterised by the phrase ‘Saina versus China’ because the world scene was dominated by exceptional Chinese players. Her determination and stubborness got her to the point where she could compete with – and beat – the world’s best. She is an inspiration to millions of people who have taken up the sport because of her. A true trailblazer.

Michelle Li is the best Canadian to compete in World badminton. Although she was born in Hong Kong her playing career began after her family settled in Canada. She receives no financial support so has to fund her tournament participation. Despite this she is a top 15 WS, who has come back from serious knee surgery

“…I kind of do everything on my own. When I’m in Canada I don’t have any training because I don’t have anyone to train with…most of my training happens in tournaments…For sure, if I win a medal in Tokyo it will get better. Nobody in Canada expected me to do well. If I can generate better results for Canada, it will change the situation.

Michelle Li in Sportstar.

Kirsty Gilmour is Scotland’s stand-out player. Recently the Scottish women’s team qualified for the Uber Cup and will make their debut in the competition with Gilmour as a key component. Although Britain has a vibrant badminton community, athletes who make it into the world top 30 are not common and it’s a tribute to her dedication that she can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world. She set her sights on Olympic qualification and this has taken her on what can be a lonely road to get enough points. She often has to compete with no coach at her side but should qualify for Tokyo as a member of TeamGB.

It’s not true to claim that these players came out of nowhere. They are athletes who have emerged from a club environment with an extra spark that has driven them to new competitive heights. Most of them are self-funded with a tiny support network compared to Chinese or Indonesian players. There are plenty more that I could have looked at: Beiwen Zhang (USA) and Yvonne Li (Germany) are two obvious examples. They are typically women who have had to work hard and sacrifice things along the way to achieve a dream. I hope we see them all compete successfully at the Olympics and continue to inspire others to enjoy a wonderful sport.


If you enjoyed this take a look at my longer article about Saina https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/10/08/indias-saina-nehwal-trailblazer-legend/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Indonesia’s Olympic Hopes

Indonesia’s badminton achievements at the Olympics has been outstanding. Along with rivals from Korea and China their players are the aristcrats of the sport. Badminton is a recent addition to the games, it was only introduced in 1992 and since then, the nation’s athletes have won at least one Gold at every tournament bar London 2012.

Ahsan & Setiawan as All England Champions 2019. Screenshot from BWF TV.

Men’s Doubles: with three pairs in the top 10 the depth of Indonesia’s talent in this sector is extraordinary. Power, speed, net skills and resilience are all key, but the essence of a successful doubles team is balance between the two players. The magnificent World #1s Sukamuljo & Gideon have been at the top for a while. Kevin’s sublime ability paired with Marcus’s more muscular game is almost irresistable, but they are not invincible. Their millions of fans must be anticipating the olympics feeling a mixture of impatience and anxiety because if an opponent manages to disrupt their prefered formation they can be vulnerable (as we saw in the 2020 All England Final). Endo/Watanabe were able to win because their strategy stopped Kevin dominating at the front. Ahsan & Setiawan are ranked #2. Hendra Setiawan is one of the greatest MD players ever; already an Olympic Gold Medalist (2008 Beijing with Markis Kido), he has won everything and then won it it again. I get goosebumps when I think about the Daddies after watching them win on three legs to clinch the 2019 All England: they are inspirational figures who play with great heart. Commentators often point to their age – it’s not irrelevent of course but that it is a small disadvantage that is outweighed by their poise and experience. Lets not forget Alfian/Ardianto: ranked #6 but as things stand these two will miss Tokyo because of the quota. This must be heart-breaking for them but the only attitude they can take is to keep competing. They are hungry and their time will come. Prediction: I’m frightened of Endo/Watanabe but I’ll say Gold for one of these pairs.

Men’s Singles: Anthony Sinisuka Ginting is a sublime player, but he can be simultaneously exciting and infuriating. His inconsistency costs him titles. When he is at his spectacular best the speed of his reactions, his touch at the net, and his courage means that he is a genuine Gold medal prospect. I would love to see a MomoGi final; at the moment Momota has the edge in their encounters but Anthony is still a developing athlete and I’m excited to see how he’ll emerge from the current hiatus. Jonatan Christie should be getting to Tokyo ranked #7. Another fine player, if he can get through the round robin stage unscathed he could have a chance at a medal. Prediction: At least one medal…& I crave a final with Anthony v. Kento.

Women’s Doubles: Two of my favourite players – Polii & Rahayu – should go to Tokyo ranked #8. This will be Greysia Polii’s last Olympics (possibly her last major competition) and she is another inspirational athlete who has served her sport well. The women’s sector is stuffed full of brilliant double’s teams and so these two may struggle to make the podium. The key to success or failure will be how Apri is deployed. We know that they can defend all day but predictable play will not be enough. I loved the way they battled when they won at the Indonesia Masters back in January and at the time I felt that their game was evolving. Apri was much more aggressive at the front and they were able to exert prolonged pressure on their opponents. Prediction: Maybe a Bronze? I hope so.

Mixed Doubles: One of the legacies of Liliyana Natsir is the XD title from the Rio games. Can the Indonesia players defend this successfully? The Mixed tournament is quite open so although on paper the Chinese duos Zheng/Huang and Wang/Huang look to be favourites at lot will depend upon how Jordan/Oktavianti and Faizal/Widjaja progress through the early stages. This competition is all about seizing the moment and if Praveen Jordan can be at his imperious peak at the right time the Gold is possible although it’s too close to call.

Womens Singles: All fans of this sector know that it is overflowing with dazzling players so for Gregoria Mariska Tunjung to survive the cut and get into the knockout stage would be great. She is a wonderful player to watch, with impressive skill and imagination. For her to make headway at the tournament outside factors will need to be in her favour in addition to her playing to her potential. If she can build up some momentum and confidence anything can happen. Tokyo will perhaps be a stage on her journey to more success rather than a defining competition.

So what then can we expect in Tokyo? Owing to the worldwide C-19 crisis everyone has had to endure disruption to training programmes and anxiety and frustration. The athletes who will triumph at the delayed games are those who have been able to maintain focus and keep their competitive hunger without burn-out. It’s a tricky balancing act because no-one can stay at peak performance for ever. Most competitiors training regimes would have been carefully constucted to peak for July 2020; so now they need to keep the pot simmering without it boiling dry. On the other hand, a break from relentless touring and a chance to address chronic injuries could be a key factor. Those who can step back and make adjustments without losing their momentum will have a huge advantage.

As an outsider looking in I see badminton as the Olympic sport where Indonesia dominates – not simply because of talented players but the influence of Indonesian coaches can be seen all over the world in other national teams. Of course we cannot ignore China’s leading position or Japan’s current abundance of world-beaters but this is what makes the tournament in prospect so thrilling. We have had extra time to build our anticipation for this event, when we emerge from quarantine and the BWF tour resumes it will be wonderful to support our favourites back on the road towards Olympic Gold.


If you would like to read more about Greysia Polii and Apri Rahayu follow this link https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/ and my piece about Anthony Ginting is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/25/anthony-sinisuka-ginting/

If you are interested in the Minions here is an article I wrote last year https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Nozomi Okuhara

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.

At the All England in 2020. Screenshot from BWF TV

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.

Nozomi in the AE final 2016. Screenshot from BWF

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.


If you enjoyed this article take a look at an earlier one about Nozomi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ or this one about Fukuhiro https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/


©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved