A new year with old rivalries and the added piquancy of the Olympics in July. We are six months away from the biggest athletic event on the planet, the intensity and desire for success is going to build with each tournament and this all adds up to a scintillating few months in prospect for fans. The anticipation of qualification is offset by the dread of failure. 2020 has started with some thrilling matches; finals day at Istora was a cauldron of raw emotion – who didn’t relish those results with utter joy? What have we learned in January, who is up for the fight? Who has that podium in Tokyo in their sights?
TAI Tzu Ying has been treading a different path to her rivals this year. She is cherry-picking the best tournaments to support her ambition. This feels like an athlete with a plan and along with her coaches she understands that entering every tournament is not the effective way for her to achieve her goal. Getting the balance right between training, competition and fitness is what coaches are paid to do. I think it’s been a stroke of genius to play in the PBL. It has freshened up the daily grind, there are some excellent training partners for her and she gets to play matches that are important but it’s not a catastrophy to lose. For instance, only 16 years old but Gayatri Gopichand took a set off TTY in the PBL whilst playing for Chennai Superstarz – now here is a girl with ambition!
As ever, this is the most dynamic, exciting sector of badminton with the best athletes. Head-to-head battles between the top 20 players are often gloriously unpredictable. In contrast to the men’s game there is no dominant player except that CHEN Yufei won 7 tournaments in 2019 and significantly she does not lose finals. As current World #1 she started 2020 in good form and won the Malaysia Masters by beating TAI Tzu Ying in two sets. Crucially she hasn’t built upon this opportunity to dominate; she was knocked out of the Indonesian Masters on the second day by the unseeded Line Kjaersfeldt.
Carolina Marin has been cultivating her old aura of unbeatability and has been on the podium at all three competitions this year. Reliable results should be a good indicator of future success so we have to acknowledge that she is the person in January who has delivered. Nevertheless, no titles yet and she has been beaten by three different players: CYF, May & Akane, so this tells me that she still has loads of work to do if she wants to defend her 2016 Gold medal.
Akane & Nozomi: no-one can be under greater pressure to do well in Japan than the two home players. January has been a good month for Akane. Her win over AN Se Young in the Thailand Masters final is perhaps a sign that she is emerging from a hard few months of injury disruption. Nozomi has had a quiet start to the year after a successful and frustrating 2019. Five finals, five runners up medals. There were times last year when she was modifying her game to incorporate more aggression, she has to be less predictable to just get that extra 1% that makes the difference between Silver and Gold.
Indian Badminton does seem to be going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment, last year was pretty uneven and not much has improved. Saina Nehwal is a true great of the game but results are not good enough at the moment to ensure her qualification for Tokyo. Only a fool would write off her chances at this point and on a positive note her triumph over AN Se Young in R2 of The Malaysia Masters was a reminder that she can beat anyone. I’m unconvinced that her current coaching setup adds to her competitive edge though; I think that if her fluency improves and strategies to get her qualification points whereever she can are used then we still may see her in Japan. Her withdrawal from the Badminton Asia Team Championships plus her recent political work point to a lack of focus. As an observer I just see chaos.
P V Sindhu has a reputation as a ‘Big Tournament Player’ and is the current world champion. Nevertheless, her tendency to crash out of tournaments too early is frustrating. We often excuse her underperformance because we see her respond well to the biggest challenges. I am sympathetic to this view but surely it’s better to win and get some competitive momentum rather than travel here, there and everywhere only to crash out early? Nevermind, emotions aside, I don’t think her results over the past six months are much worse than Akanes so perhaps it’s better to just enjoy the rollercoaster. Of course she will get to Tokyo, but will she get on the podium? On the strength of January’s performances I am sceptical.
My highlight in January across all sectors has to be Polii & Rahayu’s victory at the Indonesia Masters. Their semi-final and final were emotionally exhausting epics. It’s taken a lot of courage for them to analyse and rebuild their game. Over the next few months I hope we see this revitalised pair win more. No Japanese duo has made a final yet this year and it’s still not decided which of them will be competing in Tokyo. This must be a difficult situation because they need to compete well to get ranking points to increase their chances of qualification however over-training and too much competition could risk injury or burn out. CHEN/JIA are very dangerous players, so strong and such brutal attackers but they are not dominating tournaments yet. It’s a very fluid picture; there is an opportunity in this sector for a pair to really boss the results – who will step up?
Winning an Olympic Gold is never a fluke but rather the result of years and years of dedication. Carolina’s consistency in the routine of competition is the opposite of what we observe from P V Sindhu and yet judging by January’s results both of them risk being denied medals. TTY looks focused and although we know she can be perfectly imperfect, at the moment the logic of her regime seems sound. I’ve barely mentioned May or AN Se Young. Ratchanok had an excellent win over Marin in the final of the Indonesian Masters and no worries about her stamina in that 3 set match. ASY is still work in progress, but she is transtioning from Giant-killer to Giant. I wonder if this will be achieved by July?
There’s still a long way to go, a lot of matches to be played. The first milestone is the end of the qualifying period on the 26th April. Nerves are jangling a little already, once we have the final list of players the anticipation and dread can really begin.
I need to acknowledge the incredibly sad road traffic accident in Malaysia and offer sincere condolences to the family of the deceased driver, Mr N Bavan. I also send sympathy to everyone affected by this. We should appreciate the good things in our lives everyday. As Dato Lee Chong Wei said in his Chinese New Year Message …”time to put down everything, shut down the computer…go back home. There is someone there thinking for you. Always remember to treat it as the last new year you would ever have. Cherish your love one.”
If you enjoyed this article follow the link for my recent piece about Polii & Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/ or this one about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/
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