Thanks be to Yonex who have created a series of tournaments under their ‘Legends’ banner.
A team game with different rules. A new “flight” system which allows a team of six to switch players on and off court between points. So, to Japan first and of course hard-core fans are desperate for a glimpse of the two team captains. The players emerge to blasts of dry ice and swirling spotlights; Momoto looks stern then his game face cracks and he waves to the camera. The teams were announced in advance but it is still a shock to see four 15year old players – Nakagawa, Hashimura, Noguchi and Kohara preparing to play.
Kento Momota is the leader of Team Kansha whilst Akane Yamaguchi is boss of team Sixth Sense. So, a tournament where success is based around effective tactics but not traditional badminton game plans: no athlete holds enough flights to remain on court and win a game single handed. It’s up to the captains to decide when to change people about over a total of five matches, 3 doubles and two singles. Potentially the best strategist should win.
A quick photocall, warm up and then to the games. No one can stop smiling. Win a point – celebrate, lose a point – smile. The happiness is irresistible. As the cameras pan round the delight that the athletes feel while playing is clear. It’s been mentioned before that in team tournaments the members of BirdJapan always turn up to support each other and this is another manifestation of that attitude.
Sixth Sense raced into a 2-0 lead. Akane was relishing her court time and playing some great net drops but in game three the Kansha team halted her players momentum. Game 4 was singles and the highlight was the Momoto versus Kamura flat drive rally. Kamura, the doubles specialist coming out on top but the tide had turned and that one was chalked up to Kansha too. Game 5 was the decider. Sixth Sense were being reeled in. The classic pattern that we see in Momota’s matches was enacted here too; Kansha won after being behind.
So, it was badminton…but not as we know it! Who cares? It was a chance to see some great players and some up-and-coming ones too
Akane showed some delicate touches, Momota played sportingly and didn’t just try to muscle his way to victory, and Higashino was on good form. Most of all I watched Kamura exude joy on the court and around his teammates.
It wasn’t really possible to gain any insight about the recovery of the World #1 or how game fit these players are. However, in what was essentially a fun exhibition match everyone acquitted themselves well. It’s hard to say where this fits into the training programme but the nature of the games was very stop-start, so potentially making the players cope in a context where they have lost their rhythm is a worthwhile exercise but that probably wasn’t the point. It fills a gap until the tour reactivates in Thailand in January and it was entertaining from the moment the players appeared on screen.
Writing from the depths of lockdown life – where many of us find it difficult to jettison our pyjamas much before midday – it’s incongruous to imagine the elite athletes who are sticking with their pre-covid routines and dreams. But these are the times when we truly see players mettle. Commitment to reaching the Olympic podium won’t be switched on or off according to whim: it’s a vow made in childhood and it has to be honoured.
Who can maintain an edge?
The genius at the centre of the Japanese badminton world is coach PARK Joo Bong. As a player he described himself as ‘greedy for Gold’. His XD Gold at the Seoul Olympics – when badminton was a demonstration event – plus his MD Gold in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics confirm his place amongst the game’s greats. After retirement and some coaching roles in England, Malaysia and back home in Korea he became head coach of the Japanese team in 2004. In 2012 there was a WD silver for Japan in London then Rio 2016 saw TakaMatsu win WD Gold and Nozomi Okuhara clinch Bronze in WS. His masterplan is designed to reach a crescendo at the Tokyo Olympics.
Badminton stumbled back to life his October. Whilst other sports have reactivated, we have been beset by delays and cancellations. However, the Danish Open – a prestigious Super750 event – offered the chance to gauge which players had maintained their edge. Disappointingly it suffered withdrawals, nevertheless ‘everyone’ from Japan appeared to be ready to travel. Flights and hotels were booked but just before the start of the tournament Denmark experienced a spike in Covid cases and club owners asked their players to remain in Japan. Although this was frustrating for fans waiting to see the re-emergence of Momota the women’s sector still sent most of the top athletes.
Women’s Doubles– The final at the Denmark Open between NagaMatsu & FukuHiro – was seen by many as a possible rehearsal for the Olympic final. The starring role of deciding who may get Gold in Tokyo was taken by Yuki Fukushima. She was a handful all through the match. Her consistency, precision and variations were top quality and so she defused the more attack-minded rivals. The 2020 All England champions Fukushima and Hirota are a team with plenty of experience. Their defence is rock solid and they are all-rounders with no real weakness except that sometimes they become a little predictable. The 2018 and 2019 BWF World Champions – Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara – are a very sparky duo; happy to take chances and be creative when they are hunting points. Matsumoto is a tall hard-hitter who is spatially aware and great at the net. I used to think they have the best chance of Gold but after the DO I’m not sure. It wouldn’t be a shock if the final was an all Japanese duel.
Women’s Singles – Nozomi was in dazzling form at the Denmark Open. Her victory over Carolina Marin in the final meant we didn’t have to suffer with her on the podium as she added to her silver medal collection from 2019. Clearly she has continued to train hard and her play was at a consistently high level. Already an Olympic medallist she has unswervingly said that her target is Gold in front of her home crowd. Akane Yamaguchi did not travel to Europe but is another who has big expectations on her shoulders. Briefly world number 1 last year, the end of 2019 was disrupted by injuries. It’s likely that despite the disadvantages of this hiatus in play she may benefit from the break to address those niggles. The conditions at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza are likely to suit both players so with a good draw they will be challenging for top honours.
Men’s Doubles – in world badminton this sector produces the most insanely exciting games and two of the best pairs are from Japan. The real speed kings reside here, with the emphasis on swift reflexes, shrewd tactics and power. The current All England champions – Yuta Watanabe and Hiroyuki Endo – have all these characteristics along with resilience, determination and courage. There is quite a big age gap between them (Yuta is only 22 and Hiroyuki 33) and so we would have to wonder if the partnership will continue after the Olympiad, but never mind, for now they burn bright. Yuta’s brilliant net play balanced by Hiroyuki’s strength and power from the rear court is hard for rivals to counter. They have a remarkable record against the world Number 1s – Indonesia’s Sukamuljo & Gideon, and a final between these four exceptional athletes, a repeat of the final in Birmingham is one that would delight everyone. The second duo from Japan consists of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda: they live the phrase ‘the fast and the furious’. Sonoda is always bouncing on his toes, his internal dynamo just never seems to rest. These two can dazzle with their speed and athleticism and it’s likely they will be fighting compatriots for a medal at the knockout stages in Tokyo
Men’s Singles – Momota is world number 1 and favourite for the Gold. His net skills, anticipation and reflexes mean that his games have a quality that makes victory seem inexorable. His psychological power over his rivals – the aura that surrounds him on court – gives him an extra weapon to use. His mental strength and emotional self-reliance are key characteristics that will help him survive yet another delay to his date with destiny. Who has the ability to challenge him? The Danish Open showcased the progress of Anders Antonsen who will try to upset him. Viktor Axelsen along with Taiwan’s CHOU Tien Chen are credible challengers too, but, all fans crave a MomoGi final in every competition, and Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting definitely has the potential to earn a medal in Tokyo. The importance of stamina and focus can’t be overstated in the context of beating Momota. I’m confused as to who the other Japanese competitor may be. Kenta Nishimoto made the SF in Denmark or Kanta Tsuneyama – who did not travel – could be the second player.
Mixed Doubles – the leading Japanese pair, Yuta Watanabe & Arisa Higashino, are the All England champions of 2018 and runners up from 2019. Arisa is renowned as an aggressive hard-hitter if she is in the rear court, so when she and Yuta find their traditional positions reversed in a match, they do not suffer too much disadvantage. Her partner has fine technical skills and is always searching for space to score points. They are a formidable pair but there is a risk that Yuta may be spread too thinly.
There’s no doubt that once the XXXII Olympiad starts the Japanese competitors will be challenging for a podium spot in every sector. The standout athlete for me is Yuta Watanabe; he is an extraordinary player who competes in Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles. The big question is whether he can win two events; can he withstand the physical and emotional strain that getting to the knockout stages in both would bring? A home Olympic medal guarantees immortality and to wait an extra year before walking out onto the court at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza must be particularly frustrating for the Japanese team. All of us – players and fans – are eager for the sport we love to restart properly.
Welcome to the greatest badminton tournament in the world. This is the one that all elite players want to win and the one that fans from around the world long to attend. A dislocated build-up to this tournament will undoubtedly have tested players focus. All of us have fretted about the coronavirus and the postponement of the German Open will have disrupted the training plans of some.
Winning this tournament is never a fluke; years have been spent training for these games. All those drills, the weights, the sweat have all been leading to the moment when the competitors walk onto the court in Birmingham and begin.
We are in the Golden Age of women’s badminton. This is the zesty sector, full of talent and excitement, the top 20 players is a corps of excellence drawn from around the world. CHEN Yufei is the current holder of the title and there are 3 other ex-champions TAI Tzu Ying, Carolina Marin and Nozomi Okuhara taking part as well.
Badminton immortality beckons – who will answer the call?
TAI Tzu Ying – Seeded 2 – Champion in 2017 & 2018
At the core of TTY is the desire to sparkle not to merely play. No-one has the technical mastery she brings to the court; the breathtaking shots she executes are simply magnificent. Her vision and creative energy elevates her game to a level of brilliance that we expect of a genuine great of the game. Her achilles heel is her lack of consistency: sometimetime her focus can wander, I think she can sometimes be bored into losing a game. Her participation in the PBL in January was a clever way to undertake a segment of training; it allowed her to hit with new partners, get match practice and enjoy herself. It’s been pointed out that perhaps playing games only up to 15 points may help her concentration – well, we’ll see! Rumours that she plans to retire after the Tokyo Olympics are adding an extra sense of desire from fans who just want to see the QUEEN win everything. Prediction Final
Nozomi Okuhara – Seeded 4 – Champion in 2016
Nozomi’s 2019 synchronised hope and despair – her fans watched so many finals that ended with Silver. She knows what it takes to win in Birmingham and possibly the hall conditions will help but she has to be the boss a bit more frequently. I want to see her snap up points. Patience is such a cornerstone of her tactics but to be effective it must be used alongside impatience, unpredictability and aggression. Sometimes we see flashes of a more attacking player and if she could get this part of her strategy right it would make the difference between winning and coming second. There are no easy games at Super 1000 level but she has the ability to get right to the final.
CHEN Yufei – Seeded 1 – Champion 2019
The defending champion has enjoyed an excellent win streak since her victory last March. After the All England she appeared in six finals and was unbeaten. Despite her status as top seed she has a very difficult route to finals weekend. In R1 she faces Korean Wonderkid AN Se Young, R2 will be Busanan or Blichfeldt and QF could be Ratchanok. She is an even more resilient player than last year; she has high fitness levels, great patience and solid technique. It’s her patience in games that proves to be such a key weapon. Opponents have to be very sure of their own stamina to equal her, she will often soak up pressure throughout the match before ambushing her rival in the last few points. Prediction Quarter Final.
Ratchanok Intanon – Seeded 5 – Runner Up 2017
Ratchanok often employs a ‘do or die’ approach and I adore her for that. A wonderful win at Istora in the Indonesia Masters final against Marin over 3 sets settled my nerves about her resilience so I think she has an outside chance here. A possible QF against CHEN Yufei awaits; she must not let CYF bore her into losing the match! Prediction Semi Final, Go May!
Saina Nehwal – Unseeded – Runner Up 2015
Desperately seeking points to secure her fourth (yes, fourth) Olympic spot Saina has a dangerous R1 clash with Akane to begin. To have any chance of progressing she must start well; to her credit since her QF exit at the Spanish Masters she has been training in Denmark. She identified her movement on court as one of the reasons for underperformance last year and it’s true she has often lacked fluency. If she has addressed this weakness then her shrewd gameplay will have a solid foundation. She is a tenacious fighter and even if Akane dispatches her I still don’t think her Olympic hopes are finished. Prediction: it’s not over
AN Se Young – Unseeded
The dynamic, dangerous prospect from Korea could pose some serious questions to CHEN Yufei in R1. This tie could go either way; CYF should have enough resilience and experience to get over the line but I’m not certain of this result. In the past ASY seems to falter as the cumulative efect of hard games pile up. I think this is only because she is young, soon it will not be a problem. She could beat CYF but I don’t think she’ll win the title.
P V Sindhu – Seeded 6 – Rio Olympics 2016 Silver Medal
Sindhu’s underwhelming performances since her magnificent triumph at the World Championships in Basle have often been explained by the phrase ‘big tournament player’. Her motivation – if that is the problem – should not be an issue here. Like TTY she also particiated in the PBL so it will be interesting to see if the different vibes around playing for the franchise team had a positive effect. At her best she will annihilate her opponent with a savage exhibition of pressure badminton, at her worst she can crash out in R1. Beiwen Zhang is her first challenger and that is a match that could go either way.
Akane Yamaguchi – Seeded 3 – Runner Up 2018
I hope that Akane’s triumph at the Thailand Masters means that the fitness issues that have been dragging her down since last August are conquered. That final was against AN Se Young who just seemed to run out of ideas. More importantly though, Akane did not run out of legs. BirdJapan has such a colossal few months coming up it’s vital that she regains the form she had back in July 2019. I think her performance in this competition will be the first indication of what we can expect at the Uber Cup and then at the Olympics. Prediction: Semi
After a ghastly 2019 dominated by her ACL rupture and rehab Caro has returned to competition and is back on court. Noisiness is part of the strategy, she likes to dominate the space physically and aurally, it contributes to unsettling her opponents. She has not won a title this year yet and I was shocked that she lost the Spain Masters to Pornpawee Chochuwong. This was a well-worked victory, Marin’s ability to deal with a gruelling three set match was questioned and Chochuwong exploited cross-court opportunities really effectively. Prediction QF.
Women’s Singles is choc-a-bloc with talent; the quality of the unseeded players competing here means that upsets and shocks are inevitable. The Yonex All England is a critical showcase for athletes in Olympic year and success here could mean participation in Tokyo is guaranteed. I’m not neutral, I hope the Women’s Singles title is won by the player who is adored around the world and whose style sums up the joy that is fundamental to her game. If this is TAI Tzu Ying’s last championship then I would love to see her on the podium. There have been distractions and anxieties but now is the time to focus on sport.
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.”
There’s something extra spicy about tournaments this close to the Tokyo Olympics.
Womens Singles Preview
For me, this is the most exhilarating sector in world badminton; the calibre of the athletes outside the top seeds means that shocks and early exits are standard fare.
AN Se Young – Seeded 8
What a breathtaking year 2019 was for this young player: the stand-out result had to be her victory in the final of the French Open against Marin in three sets, but there were plenty of other wins along the way. She’s a great retriever, patient and happy to keep the shuttle in play but there is also a depth of skill to her game at the net which makes it hard for a rival to intimidate her. We shouldn’t think of her as a giantkiller…she is becoming the giant! Prediction: Final
!!UPDATE. AN Se Young crashes out to Saina in R2 to set up a Clash of the Titans with Carolina Marin in the quarter final. What a performance from Saina. The 29 year old beat ASY in straight sets 25-23 21-12. I think this means that her dream of qualifying for Tokyo is still alive. Bravo Saina.
TAI Tzu Ying – Seeded 1
Every badminton fan aches to see TTY in a final. Her sensational skills are a non-stop source of wonder and joy. It’s clear that Coach LAI and her team have the podium in Tokyo as the focus for the year; each of these tournaments form a percentage of her preparation for that. Ultimately beautiful shots – in isolation – will not be enough and I think we are starting to see a realisation that cutting out mistakes and halting the drift of games when she loses momentum are key. Prediction: Final
Akane Yamaguchi – Seeded 4, and Carolina Marin – unseeded
Akane has a nightmarish R1 draw lined up against the unseeded (!) Carolina Marin. She had such a patchy end to 2019 that it’s impossible to say how this encounter will go. Carolina is back and she is hungry.
CHEN Yufei – Seeded 2
Although a lot of attention has been paid to Momota for his supremacy in the men’s singles last year, I think CHEN Yufei’s acheivements have been equal if not better. Arguably she is in a more competitive sector with more variations of style to cope with. She finished the year as World #1, seven titles and she was a member of the triumphant Chinese Sudirman Cup team. She is strategically mature, able to sit and wait or be more agressive depending on her opponent. Prediction: Final
Ratchanok Intanon – Seeded 5
May has won this title for two years in a row and is always a brave player in tight situations. This can be a high risk strategy although I love her for it. A gritty ‘death or glory’ approach means that she is vulnerable to patient players like CHEN Yufei who know that keeping the shuttle in play will eventually lead to an opportunity to score. Prediction: QF
Nozomi Okuhara – Seeded 3
Towards the end of last year I thought Nozomi was introducing more attacking play to her game. She is known as a patient retriever, and that style has been getting her to tournament finals but the issue is that she hasn’t been winning them. She has to alter the balance of her game somehow to give herself a tactical edge. Prediction: Semi Final
Any one of these four could find themselves in the semi-final but they all need to find some extra sparkle from somewhere. The last twelve months have contained frustration, injury, bad-luck and poor form. What to say about Sindhu? The too-brief period with coach KIM brought a new focus and better technique; a pressure game that crushed all her opponents at the World Championships. Where has that player gone? If she rediscovers that badminton beast she can be unstoppable. Saina has also suffered through a very uneven year with a lot of disruption because of injury and, it seems to me, lack of continuity around her coaching support. Of all the top players she is the one who is in serious danger of missing qualification for the Olympics if she doesn’t turn things around soon. She has the prospect of a R2 against AN Se Young which is going to put her fitness and resolve under heavy scrutiny. Tunjung is a delightful player who just seems to find it difficult to build a momentum of good results. Her R1 game is against May which means that progress is going to be tough but not impossible. HE is consistently a top 8 seeded player without many titles to show for it and I don’t really see that changing anytime soon.
Eleven titles for Momota in 2019 and who is going to stop him dominating the Men’s sector this year as well? Technically, strategically and physically he is ahead of his rivals and we know that in the sporting arena athletes are able to remodel their game to give themselves a new edge Recently Yosuke Nakanishi (his coach) has been reported as saying that SHI Yuqi is his biggest rival. I also think that Anthony Ginting – possible quarter final opponent – and Anders Antonsen are dangerous. Within the context of this tournament it is SHI’s recovery from last year’s injury that is crucial; if he is back to full fitness the combined challenge to Momota from the other seeds as he progresses through the competition will give him a good test.
It’s Olympic Year and suddenly every competition seems a little more significant; not only in terms of qualification but also to read the clues as to who could be destined for Gold. Tokyo seems so near and yet there are plenty of tournaments and dramas to enjoy before that. Momota is secure at the top of his sector for now, however the contrast with the woman’s sector couldn’t be clearer. The depth of talent in the woman’s game means that no player is able to dominate. It’ll soon become clear who is starting the new year at a run; sporting momentum is important and the skill of seizing a victory then building on it is crucial. Who has the hunger to succeed?
It’s been a year of sensational results in the women’s singles sector; now we are at the much anticipated season’s finale. The round robin format at the start means that the intensity will be focused from the first game so hold on tight for a tournament of dazzling skills and thrilling contests.
TAI Tzu Ying‘s supporters have been eyeing this tournament with a delicious mixture of anticipation and fear. No other mortal can play like her, she is an artist with her racket and consistently plays at a creative level beyond most rivals imagination. Although she has won three tournaments this year (Denmark/Malaysia/Singapore Open), none of them were at Super 1000 level. Recently, coach LAI has resigned his role with the national team to focus on her and there does seem to be a subtle shift in outlook. A victory here would settle the nerves a little as we head towards the Olympics. Prediction: Semi-final (but my heart wants her in the Final).
CHEN YuFei…is NOT the WTF female player of the year, however she has the knack of converting appearances in finals into wins – it’s a great skill – since winning the All England back in March she has added 5 more titles and been a part of the Chinese team who won the Sudirman Cup. She can counter any opponents style of play and has to be favourite for this title, especially as she may feel she has something to prove to the WTF now. It would be a shock if she were not in the final.
Ratchanok Intanon is always a contender. Brilliant technical skills (matched only by TTY) and a gritty never-say-die attitude get her to semi-finals and beyond. From her IG & FB posts it seems to me that she is putting a lot of work in at the gym to improve her endurance in matches. I think if the arena suits her and she gets a good start then she could grab Gold but realistically it’s probably going to be a Semi-final.
Akane Yamaguchi has had a year of contrasts. Her achievements in July were magnificent: triumph over P V Sindhu in the final of the iconic Indonesia Open was followed by the Japan Open title. These results contributed to her World #1 rank. But from August onwards she has endured a miserable few months with numerous injury niggles and shock exits from tournaments from unseeded opponents. Never mind, she is a superb player; it would be wonderful to see her progress beyond the round robin.
Nozomi Okuhara is one of the most consistent and popular players on the circuit – her results this year have been simultaneously good, unsatisfying and heart wrenching. The puzzle is that she has got to 5 finals but lost each time. I think her game is evolving, she seems to be a little more willing to take the initiative and be aggressive. It may be that what we see is ‘work in progress’ with the Olympic podium as the ultimate goal. I hope that she finds that extra couple of percent for her game to help her transform silver to gold this time. Prediction: Final
Busanan Ongbamrungphan is cementing her position as Thailand’s #2 behind Intanon and this should see her competing in the 2020 Olympics. She’s a positive, intelligent and aggressive player has taken some good scalps this year. Can she progress to the semi-final, or further? I hope the different format of the competition will do her a favour: she is usually unseeded on the tour and often has to fight her way through tricky early rounds, this time she is in the thick of it right from the start.
As World Champions are guaranteed their spot in the tournament, P V Sindhu‘s place is already reserved in Guangzhou. She is renowned as a “Big Tournament Player” – put more simply she often seems to find it hard to triumph in smaller competitions. Calamatous R1 exits or finals have characterised the past 12 months. Her recent work with Coach Kim has been very successful but it’s come to an end now. Can she defend the title she won last year? Perhaps, but she cannot afford a slow start.
HE Bing Jiao: A highlight of the year was seeing her keep her nerve to end her 3-year gold drought and win the Korea Open. She has the skills to do well but in the context of a very competitive sector she often fails to land titles.
Only eight players can qualify to attend from each sector (& eight teams from the doubles disciplines). There will be no room for AN Se Young; the new kid on the block has earned some astonishing results in the second half of this year but overall she has not done enough to be eligible to play. Michelle Li is another notable absentee but is a player who is going to have a great 2020.
So this is a clash of the ‘best of the best’ in the singles sector. At the time of writing the groups haven’t been announced for the round robin stage of the competition and it’s possible this will have an impact on the progress of a player. It’s been a long season with lots of shocks, beautiful shots, and plenty to enjoy. It is hard to predict how much tiredness and niggling injuries are going to influence everyone’s performance but all of these athletes deserve our admiration for their commitment to the sport we love. We are privileged to have witnessed the 2019 campaigns of these players & may the best woman win!
Women’s Doubles: A Brief Overview
The women’s doubles sector has been dominated by pairs from Japan over the past year as their training programme peaks in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. Fukuhiro have enjoyed a distinguished year and are many people’s favourites for the end-of-year gold. They are a model doubles pair with a great understanding of each other and magnificent defensive wall; however they are not invincible. The second Japanese duo Matsumoto/Nagahara arrive in Guangzhou as World Champions so it’s not hard to expect them on the podium at the end of the tournament.
Heartbreakingly Matsutomo/Takahashi – who won the title in 2018 -will miss out on the trip to China because only 2 pairs from each country are allowed to compete, regardless of their position in the rankings. As an aside, this will be a live issue in the run up to the Olympics as well. It is a very hard rule to like.
This part of the tournament has terrific athletes with no obvious weak candidates. KIM/KONG are very dangerous: the Koreans have the technical skill at the net to dissect any challenge and it seems irrelevant to point out that they have not played together for very long. The winners of the 2019 All England – CHEN/JIA – seem able to power their way through most encounters; their swift reactions and willingness to attack gives them the advantage in some ‘fast’ arenas. To be honest I haven’t seen much of their compatriots, DU/LI, the second Korean pair LEE/SHIN or the Thais Kititharakul/Prajongjai but the stats speak for themselves – they haven’t reached Guangzhou by accident. Polii/Rahayu have had a lacklustre few months since winning bronze at the World Championships in Basle. We know that Greysia has had an injury that hampered her so this could be a difficult competition for them to progress in.
Like Women’s Singles this is a very competitive line up with no obvious front runners. I think that CHEN/JIA are my favourites for the title; I’m basing that assessment on their performance at the All England Championships this year that I was lucky enough to watch live. Their speed and strength were breathtaking and so this, plus home advantage, I think will propel them in the direction of the podium. I can’t wait for the competition to begin.
The excitement and unpredictability of WS comes from the brilliance of the athletes involved. So what can we expect from the final Super750 tournament of 2019? R1 will have a shock exit, either Carolina Marin or TAI Tzu Ying will depart early because they have drawn each other in the first game of the competition. Neither of them can risk a sluggish start to that match.
TAI Tzu Ying: Seeded 1
A traumatic first round game awaits Tai Tzu Ying’s fans as she meets Carolina Marin. This clash is the pick of the first day: Zen-like calm meets shouty #1. TTY has no equal when it comes to technique. Her beautiful style belies an intensity below the surface; unusually during the French Open there were glimpses of a player desperate to win. There was less acceptance of error and more ferocity. Her exceptional play in the QF against Sindhu did seem to have a physical cost that she paid in the SF against Marin. This time she wont have been softened up. Prediction: Final.
P V Sindhu: seeded 6
The mark of a great player is never to be satisfied, to look for constant improvement, and it’s clear that Sindhu had been renovating her game under the guidance of coach KIM. The superb World Championship win has been followed by some disappointment in the smaller tournaments on the BWF tour but her QF collision with TAI Tzu Ying in Paris was an immense game: pacy, skilful and aggressive albeit grumpy at times. Coach KIM has had to leave but her gift to PVS was to resurrect her self-confidence as a player. I think Sindhu has recaptured her focus despite all the hullabaloo that seems to accompany her life. She’s World Champ, she has Olympic silver, she has nothing to prove yet she has the inner drive to push herself to new achievements. Prediction: Early exit or Final.
The young and hungry ASY will fear no-one in this competition. Her victory against Marin in the French Open final – at 17 the youngest winner ever – leaves no doubt that she is a star on the rise. She is writing the future now. Her ability, drive and intelligence joined with the quality of the Korean coaching set up means she can expect to compete at the highest level for years. Prediction: SF
Nozomi Okuhara: World #1
I’ve mentioned in the past that Nozomi’s over reliance on her (outstanding) retrieval skills can hinder her hunt for points at key moments in a match so recently it’s been refreshing to see her sharpening her sword a little with more aggressive smashes down the lines. Her win against Marin in Denmark was terrific. Now, with Tokyo2020 in her sights, she has to be able to seize the initiative in games that count. Her World #1 status was confirmed at the end of October and is a reflection of her consistent appearances in finals recently. Prediction: Final.
The Home Team? CHEN Yu Fei & HE Bing Jiao
Home advantage can be a double-edged sword: the expectations of a raucous, knowledgable crowd may weigh heavy but I think the benefits balance this out. Less travel time, more cultural harmony, along with the support of family and friends amounts to a small competitive bonus point.
CHEN Yufei goes into this tournament as defending champion and third seed. She rolled her ankle in the SF of the Danish Open which should’ve healed by now, so we can expect her to be sharp and ready for action. CYF is an intelligent strategist, often beating rivals by conserving her energy until the final few points in a game, then accelerating. Prediction: QF
HE Bing Jiao has had less podium success than her compatriot. The Korea Open title was her first for 3 years and it may be that this success will give her confidence a boost; she is a fantastic player who just needs to transform competing well into winning. Often she uses a similar strategy to CYF – wait, wait, wait, pounce. Prediction QF
Ratchanok Intanon: seeded 5
May’s precise, technical style is always a joy to watch but she has been vulnerable to rivals like HE and CHEN. She has beautiful shots in her armoury and rather like TAI Tzu Ying it’s clear she revels in her skill. I like her courage in games although this can occasionally backfire: there are times when she would win the point without having to aim for the lines, playing the percentages does have a place at the elite level – it could be worth only 2 or 3 points but that can be the difference between a podium finish and early exit. She is a brave player who never gives up even when it seems the game is lost. A favourite of mine, her gracious on-court behaviour and her never-say-die attitude are admirable. Prediction Semi-Final.
Saina’s fluency has suffered this year because of injuries but at last it seems that she is beginning to regain her fitness. The loss in the QF of the French Open to AN Se Young was an honourable defeat; as we expect from Saina she fought hard (scoreline 22-20, 23-21) and was beaten by the eventual champion. Her fans hopes of watching her compete successfully in Tokyo are growing. Prediction QF
Akane Yamaguchi: Seeded 2
A wonderful July – culminating in the world #1 slot – has been overshadowed somewhat by the following three months. A persistant injury has disrupted training and she has suffered regular R1 exits. Definite signs appeared in the Yonex French Open that she is emerging from this problem; she enjoyed a run of games up until defeat at the semi-final stage. In the context of recent weeks that was a great result and I hope she will take a lot of encouragement from her performance. Prediction SF
Marin’s return to the game has been at full-throttle. Forget about a gentle easing back to competition; her pace and aggression around the court are undiminished. AN Se Young gave her a good working over in the final of the French Open though. She was pushed back frequently – to both sides – only to fall prey to sharp smashes right on the trams. For someone with a good reach it was a surprise that she was vulnerable to this attack. Prediction – not sure!
This is an exciting competition with clashes of styles and generations to look forward to. Can AN Se Young keep building her momentum? Will TAI Tzu Ying cut out the infuriating errors? The excellence of the players in this tournament means the title will be won by the person who copes best with early round challenges and local conditions. As the athletes advance through the week the pressure will intensify; I hope to be astonished by amazing comebacks, outrageous shots and a winner who seizes her moment of glory.
The tour swings by Europe for October: first Denmark then France. In the last few months we’ve seen Akane dispatched in R1 (thrice), Nozomi crumple somewhat after her World Championship final mauling by Sindhu and HE Bing Jiao end her 3 year search for a title; so what does the Danish tournament have in store? In a year of jaw-dropping upsets, giant killings and injuries will we have predictable problems or unexpected catastrophes? One thing is certain, the final in Odense will not be between the top two seeds….or will it?
TAI Tzu Ying: Defending Champion & World Number 1
So what can we expect? Well, the extraordinary is ordinary for TTY. Her stunning technical ability combined with a no-limits approach is an irresistible blend. Her weakness is often her focus, which can drift. Sometimes she snaps back into the match and scores points at will, but occasionally the momentum is handed to her rival and the game is lost. She is defending champion but only seeded 4. To her advantage, Coach Lai will be looking after her full-time now he has stepped down from his Taiwan national team duties. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: World Champion & seeded 5
Following the excitement of Basle, Sindhu has crashed out of two tournaments without touching the podium. In the larger context of her career this isn’t a concern; clearly her normal life has been disrupted by the hoohaa surrounding her fabulous victory. More alarming though is the unfortunate departure of coach Kim; I hope appropriate support is in place to fill the gap. Tunjung is her R1 opponent and she is very capable of beating the Indian. AN Se Young is potentially her next challenge. It’s no exageration to say she has the worst draw of any of the seeds. Prediction either early exit or final!
CHEN YuFei: Ms Consistency & seeded 2
Since the beginning of 2019 Feifei has won four finals (including the All England), lost 5 semi-finals, and had a crucial role in China’s victory in the Sudirman Cup. Her style is patient and clever; often she ‘just’ keeps the shuttle in play and sets traps for her unwary opponents to walk into. Perhaps because of this approach she seems less susceptible to injury. Her first round opponent is the giant-killing YEO Jia Min who could spring a surprise: if CYF is to progress she must be ready as soon as she steps on court. Prediction: Semi
Carolina Marin: She’s Back!
What a thrill to see the irrepressible Marin back on court and winning the China Open! She was playing freely with no loss of speed so it seems that her recovery from her horrible injury has been good. It’s difficult to predict how she will progress here but there is no doubt that she is entering tournaments because she can win them. Don’t underestimate how unnerving it will be for her opponents to play her so soon after damaging her ACL: should they try and put pressure on the wounded side? Prediction: Hmmm, not sure…
HE Bing Jiao: Seeded 7
Winner of the Korea Open – including saving 4 match points against Ratchanok – HE Bing Jiao is often an overlooked player on the tour. This low profile has been caused by a Gold famine (3 years up to Korea) and her compatriot’s success. It’s feasible that her Korea Open win will be the beginning of a medal rush. Seeded 7. Prediction QF.
Ratchanok Intanon: Seeded 6
“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”
The losing finalist at the Korea Open has enjoyed a good year so far. For all her balletic grace on court she is a gritty fighter who never gives up even when the situation seems irretrievable. Her racket shoulder does seem to be quite heavily strapped these days but that isn’t particularly unusual for many players. Recently I think she has been beaten by CYF & HBJ because they sat back and let her try to force the game. She doesn’t need to play like that, it would be good if she sometimes had a bit more patience. Prediction: QF
Nozomi Okuhara: Seeded 3
Things haven’t been easy for Nozomi since her loss in the World Championship final against Sindhu. A couple of bad results haven’t suddenly made her a bad player though. In my opinion she can sometimes rely too heavily on her retrieving abilities. I’d like her to be a bit more ‘Momota’, that is to say, more unpredictable and more explosive. All top players are refining their skills constantly so it will be exciting to see how her game evolves in the run-up to Tokyo2020. Prediction: Final
Can Saina & Akane Escape From The Treatment Room?
Saina’s had a miserable few months with injuries; just as it seems she is back to full fitness she suffers a setback. This must make it impossible to follow a progressive training regime and the risk exists (albeit small) that she will not qualify for Tokyo. Prediction 50/50 whether she is fully fit to play but if she does then QF
Akane – seeded 1 – on the other hand has had a pretty good year culminating in a wonderful July. She became world number 1, won the Indonesian Open and then the Japan Open over a few crazily successful weeks. The euphoria around this has diluted somewhat owing to her premature exits in the World Championships, the China Open and the Korea Open. She has had a back complaint; this disrupted her training and hindered her movement in a match. However, the good news -according to Morten Frost on Badminton Central – is that she has told him the back injury is healed. “No back problems any more”. However, she is having a problem on her right calf muscle. Prediction QF
These two players- if they are fit- could win the tournament, but there’s no evidence either of them have regained full fitness. I’m more hopeful for Akane and a decent run of games is just what she needs now.
Any Fairytales For The Home Contingent?
The WS category has Line Kjaersfeldt and Mia Blichfeldt who are both fine players but the seeding is against them and I can’t see either making much headway against Ratchanok and similar top 10 competitors. Just as an aside I think it’s a different story in MS. Who would bet against Viktor getting to the final? He’s ‘only’ seeded 7 but I think that’s the product of his allergy blighted summer. Anders Antonsen is another live prospect; his improvement over the last months has been terrific and it would be no big shock to see him on the podium too.
Any surprises? The most competitive sector of badminton always throws up something. It wouldn’t be impossible for someone like SUNG Ji Hyun, Tunjung or AN Se Young to overachieve and get to a semi-final. If the seeding plays out then it will be Akane Vs Feifei on October 20th. I love to watch tournaments unfold; it’s not only about the spectacular wins, for true fans its also the pleasure in seeing a favourite improve, a new player burst onto the scene, courage under pressure or simply a beautiful shot. Often the player who gets a feel for the arena early on can build her momentum towards Gold. P V Sindhu has a very harsh draw, but if she can hit the ground running it could be a great final to contest. Aside from podium finishers, I hope Saina can compete well. She’s a legendary player and this year must be terribly frustrating for her. This is going to be a fascinating competition and may the best woman win!
The road to Tokyo2020 has been a bumpy one for a lot of the WS competitors so far – I wonder if the China Open is going to be any smoother for them?
I think this tournament will pose some awkward questions for several players. 2019 has produced upsets crafted by rising stars of the new generation and there hasn’t been a dominant athlete. So here is the last Super 1000 of 2019 and my opinions about the top seeds.
P V Sindhu: World Champion
Since witnessing her obliteration of Nozomi in the World Championship final every player should be frightened of what Sindhu can do. It was an imperious campaign powered by Coach Kim and her refocus on skills. In that sort of form Sindhu can beat anyone, but she knows that to keep winning she cannot stand still; improvement must be continuous. It’s possible she might come up against Tai Tzu Ying in the SF and I think this will pose a new sort of problem. Prediction: Semi Final.
TAI Tzu Ying: The Queen
TAI Tzu Ying’s skills are always spinetingling to watch but her form has been a bit lacklustre recently – by her own extraordinary standards she is underachieving. Her focus sometimes wavers in the middle of matches: she needs to control this and be more cunning. In order to get to the final she may have to overcome Saina and vanquish the resurgent Sindhu. Can she do it? Of course! Will she do it? Hmmmm. Prediction: Final
Note to fans: Suffering is optional.
Akane Yamaguchi: World #1
After a fabulous July, Akane was brutally dumped out of the World Championships in R1. It was a gloomy sight for all her supporters who will want her to rediscover the touch that got her to World #1. Prediction QF.
Will She? Wont She? Part 1 – We Need To Talk About Saina.
Saina has been on the comeback trail after a wretched six months of injuries and illness which started back in March. We expected to see her at the Chinese Taipei Open at the beginning of September but she withdrew at the last minute. A month earlier at the World Championships in Basel she had an unlucky – albeit controversial – loss to Mia Blichfeldt early on but seemed to be playing reasonably smoothly. Her fans ache for the ‘old’ Saina to turn up, literally and metaphorically. Saina plays to WIN not for the exercise but on this occasion I don’t think she’s going to progress beyond QF.
Ratchanok Intanon: Seeded #6
May was obviously overjoyed with her Bronze at the World Championships in August – she deserved it – she had to fight for it, save match points, and be patient. May knows how to win. That spirit and drive for success is such an asset in competitions crowded with talent which is why my prediction is: Final
Chen Yufei: Seeded #3
Feifei has home advantage in this tournament…except I’m not sure how much of a help this will be to a player who can blow a bit hot and cold. She is a patient, fit athlete with good stamina whose strategy often seems to keep the shuttle in play. She has the ability to adapt her game as a match progresses so this is a major strength. However, the knowledgable crowd are capable of undermining her occasionally shaky confidence and she could meet AN Se Young in R2 which is an awkward match to call. Prediction: either early shock exit or QF.
Nozomi Okuhara: Seeded #4
Nozomi was brutally destroyed by Sindhu at the World Championships; at times it was hard to watch – can she bounce back so soon after that carnage? According to the draw she will meet Marin in R1, and potentially Tunjung after that. She must bounce back from the disappointment of Silver in Basel quickly, her game was dismantled too easily and she had no way of fighting back. Too tough to call – time will tell!
Will She? Wont She? Part Two – The Return of Carolina Marin
Carolina’s first outing since rupturing her ACL back in January ended with a R1 exit at the Yonex-Sunrise Vietnam Open however, there are reasons to be cheerful. Her mental grit and defiance have to be applauded; treading the hard yards in rehab is no picnic but she has dedicated herself to returning to competition. I think that she will have to see how her body responds to her this outing and then structure her competitive calendar accordingly. Prediction:R1 exit to Nozomi
Gregoria Mariska Tunjung
Gregoria has a great opportunity to progress in this tournament, even though she’s unseeded with a fairly tough draw. Her matches are often tantalisingly poised, and there have been some agonising losses. If she can get off to a good start and find her tournament rhythm quickly her moment will come. Prediction: QF
SUNG collected the Chinese Taipei Open trophy in early September and along with HE is always a respected player in these competitions, despite their seeding though it would be a major upset if they were to win. As for ASY, she is still a raw talent who is very capable of giant-killing but I don’t feel she is able to construct a long campaign on that basis yet.
From a personal viewpoint I would love to see the final contested by Ratchanok May and Tai Tzu Ying in front of the Chinese crowd. It’s always fascinating to watch these tournaments unfold: there are dramas along the way as the intensity builds and we get swept along by the momentum of the games. May can dig out wins when all seems lost, and TTY can dazzle us all. Who desires this title the most?
“I don’t want to just participate at the Olympics. I want to achieve something.”
Gregoria’s thrilling ability makes her games a delight to watch. She has a great touch at the net – soft hands – so the shots from her forecourt are one of her best assets. If there is a scale of styles with artistry & grace at one end (May/TTY) and raw power (Marin/Sindhu) at the other, she is located in the neighbourhood of TTY. That’s a huge simplification of course, because she is also athletic and very precise with her placement of the shuttle. She often replies to a high serve with a vicious smash, hit with pin-point accuracy just out of her rival’s reach. Her clever deception and skill allow her to easily execute cross-court drops to good effect.
A defining theme of her strategy is often her cross-court play. This can be a great way to control a rival because it will disrupt their momentum; the constant direction changes are eventually mentally and physically tiring. When she mixes these shots up with some deeper ones it means the pace is unpredictable too so it is hard for her opponent to settle into any sort of rhythm. In her recent loss against May at the 2019 World Championships in Basel the Thai player was on the ropes, and commented afterwards that she was grateful at times to just keep the shuttle in play and stay alive.
Back in 2017 Gregoria won the Women’s Singles category of the Junior World Championships. Other distinguished players who’ve held this title include: Saina, Ratchanok, and Nozomi.
This was an epic match that ebbed and flowed through three games. In the last one GMT was losing 17-19, then losing 19-20 but she eventually triumphed 24-22. She drew on immense mental strength to claw herself back from match point down in the biggest game of her career. It’s interesting to consider this because often recently her ‘inconsistency’ has been attributed to psychological factors – does she have a ‘mental block’ about beating the top players?
I don’t think so. If we consider any of the senior women players in the top 20 this year there isn’t a single one who we can say consistently wins. Akane was dumped out of the World Championships in the R1, CHEN Yufei blows hot and cold and TTY is in the middle of a dip in form. Firstly badminton is a demanding sport so it is hard to sustain excellence (Momota is exceptional in MS). Secondly – it’s a cliché but it’s true – we are in the middle of a golden generation as far as Women’s Singles is concerned, so the level of play is high. As Gregoria hasn’t been able to break into the world top ten yet, the way the seeding system works means she comes up against big-name players early on in a tournament. This is a difficult bind to escape.
I want to see her acquire the ability to win, once she can close out games she’ll lose her reputation for inconsistency. This is an area that all top sportspeople have to work on once they graduate from junior ranks. Being able to grab victory even if she is not playing well is a skill she needs to have if she is to progress further. We see it in flashes, I’m sure it’s there, her coaches have to discover the key to this part of her badminton brain. Her recent quote about the Olympics continued:
“I feel a bit nervous because of the in-house competition. There are three of us, so at each tournament I feel I have to perform better than the others” [Ruselli Hartawan & Fitriani Fitriani]
She needs to forget about the compatriot competition and get on with her own game. Being the best out of those three will not be good enough to get on the podium in Tokyo 2020. Given the quality of the opposition it is going to take a monumental effort to get to where she aspires to be but ‘if you want it you’ve got to sweat it’. It’s not impossible, tournament play in the emotional heat of the Olympics does weird things to some athletes and she needs to be ready to grasp every opportunity now to seal her right to compete at the top of her sport.