Today was a day that will long be savoured by Indian badminton fans as their team overcame their status as underdogs to lift the trophy. Today was the day that legends were made.
This was a brilliant win engineered by a group of athletes and coaches who all performed with distinction. Sen looked in danger of being overwhelmed by Ginting but after yielding the first set he coolly played his way to the win. Rankireddy/Shetty were up against Ahsan/Sukamuljo and lost set 1 but fought back with fast and furious tactics to force a second victory. Kidambi wrapped it all up in a brisk two sets. Indonesia just couldn’t disrupt the winning momentum of this squad.
The campaign has been bruising right from the start, but the resolve of these athletes proved impossible to break. This success, built on dedication, grit, and an obstinate refusal to let any match go is a testament to their self-belief and desire. When pivotal points had to be won every athlete in the Indian team had the mental strength to grasp the advantage. They relished the challenge.
They started as slight favourites at the Round Robin stage in Group C and began with 5-0 demolitions of Germany and Canada. However, the final tie – against Taiwan – to decide the group winners was a difficult contest. CHOU Tien Chen and LEE/WANG won the first two matches and although Kidambi pulled a game back, they lost 3-2. Taiwan topped the group. This meant that their route to the final in the next phase of the tournament suddenly was full of badminton’s big beasts
The knockouts require total focus and a quarter final against Malaysia was the first barrier at the sudden death stage of the tournament. This badminton superpower arrived in Bangkok with LEE Zii Jia as MS1. He crushed Sen (reportedly suffering with food poisoning) in two sets but as the tie advanced the impetus of the teams ebbed and flowed. It was Prannoy in the last match with the scores equal at 2-2 who grasped victory for India and a chance for a pop at Denmark.
The semi-final with Denmark gave us a repeat of the All-England final in the first match. Viktor continued his recent imperious form and dismissed a below par Sen in two. However, once again in a team contest Antonsen – at MS2 – struggled to keep his focus and Kidambi’s victory gave his teammates hope. With the scores level at 2-2 Prannoy stepped onto court; Gemke took the first game but couldn’t maintain his advantage and after 73 minutes history beckoned. India were in the Final!
This team matured and became battle-hardened as the week progressed This was a collective effort that overcame benchmark teams like Denmark, Malaysia and Indonesia. History has been made; its a proud moment for the players and all their supporters.
Can Indonesia rekindle the spirit that delivered gold last October or will another squad challenge their possession of the coveted trophy? History tells us that this tournament tends to be dominated by Asia’s players so although 16 teams are travelling to Bangkok it will be a shock if badminton’s status quo is upset.
This is the 32nd time that the event has taken place and it starts with the sixteen teams split into four groups for the Round Robin portion of the competition. The top two in each group will advance into the draw for the quarter finals and this is where the battles become brutal. Some players thrive under pressure but these knockout stages and subsequent pathway to the podium will expose weaknesses. The athletes and coaches with a mental edge are the ones who will triumph.
Group A: Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, Singapore.
As defending champions Indonesia can step back onto court optimistic that they have the players who can repeat last October’s victory. Marcus Gideon is still rehabbing from ankle surgery but Kevin Sukamuljo has travelled to Bangkok so he will partner someone else if needed. The strength in depth of the MD cadre should give opponents nightmares. It is stuffed with winners. In singles, the red-hot form of Jonatan Christie was kick-started by his Thomas Cup heroics last time and he must be solid in his results now because Anthony Ginting has no winning momentum since his bronze at the Olympics.
Thailand are the home team but I think they will struggle to escape the group because Korea’s men have performed well lately. The fight for the second spot will be between these two although Singapore can expect LOH Kean Yew to make life difficult for everyone he faces.
Group B: Denmark, China, France, Algeria.
This is such an intriguing group; I’m excited to see who emerges from it. For Denmark, Viktor Axelsen is virtually unstoppable these days whilst Antonsen, Vittinghus and Gemke can all create winning opportunities in matches. The MD pairs can usually mix it with the best so it was a surprise that they won no medal at the recent European Championships. They must step up a level if they want to mount a realistic challenge for the cup. Behind Denmark, France is probably the second best team in Europe right now and they have sent six European Junior champions to Bangkok. They will need a hard miracle to get to the knockouts but they are building a formidable side.
Only a fool would describe any Chinese team as ‘weak’ so lets flip that and say they don’t look invincible. No SHI Yu Qi and an evolving MD landscape means that it’s hard to predict how far they can go, nevertheless it’s China and that means badminton success. This is a wait and see situation.
Group C: India, Taiwan, Germany, Canada
I’d love this Indian team to realise their potential and get to a Semi-Final. Sen is the man of the moment – his fearless competitiveness at the All England was scintillating – add in Kidambi and Prannoy and MS looks strong. In MD Rankireddy/Shetty will trouble everyone they meet so barring injuries this group of athletes could win their group.
After a long absence from the international stage LEE Yang/ WANG Chi-Lin are back for Team Taiwan. The Tokyo MD Gold medalists plus CHOU Tien Chen should have enough to escape Group C along with India but Germany might run them close. Mark Lamsfuss was outstanding at the recent European Championships so along with his partner Marvin Seidel may fancy his chances of an upset or two.
Group D: Japan, Malaysia, England, USA
Both Japan or Malaysia could get to the semi-finals of this competition. Japan’s strength in MD will probably decide who tops the group although Momota’s alarming dip in form compared to the rise of LEE Zii Jia could keep things very close. The English team will want to scrap for some results and they could see some encouraging development but it’s not likely that they or the USA will progress.
Indonesia’s quality is going to be hard to beat; the squad is stuffed full of proven top 10 players. However retaining a title is notoriously tricky. China and Denmark are probable medalists but they both will want their ‘fringe’ players to be ready to force results when the pressure is high. Other than these three then Japan, Malaysia or India could push through but they will need intelligent strategy blended with stamina and no injuries. There will be a few surprises along the way and the team who can cope with this will be the one with their hands on the Thomas Cup.
It is 2022 and all our favourites have returned to Birmingham to chase a place on the podium. There are unanswered questions from last year’s competition in both sectors and I am expecting to see plenty of athletes playing with a point to prove.
The #1 seeds and crowd favourites will be trying to capture an elusive third title. Kevin Sukamuljo and Marcus Gideon create a thrilling aura of stardust together and must feel eager to get back on court to express themselves. Kevin’s brilliant inventiveness belongs on the grandest stages at the biggest moments. They should be wary of their first match as they haven’t played competitively since Bali. Originally they were listed in R1 to meet CHOI/SEO though it seems that the Korean’s may’ve withdrawn.
If the seedings unwind as expected, they will clash with the fifth seeds Rankireddy/Shetty in what should be fierce quarter final. I love the Indian’s willingness to attack but of course in a tie against the Minions they risk having their intensity turned against them. It will be fascinating to discover which pair prevails in an arena that traditionally offers slowish conditions.
The current World Champions Hoki/Kobayashi have seized their opportunities and really grown into their role as Japan’s top pair. Their control of the game under pressure, their bravery and shuttle placement will give them an advantage in Birmingham. As third seeds they could face Gideon/Sukamuljo in the semi-final which has the potential to be a Battle Royale.
At the opposite end of the draw the second seeds Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan will be aiming to face their compatriots in the final. There are not enough superlatives in my thesaurus to describe these two. Their touch and teamwork are outstanding, but their badminton intelligence is what sets them apart from many of their rivals. The traps they set are subtle, their anticipation is exceptional and their hearts are big.
The strength in depth of the Indonesian MDs is astonishing. There are 6 pairs travelling to Birmingham. Alfian/Ardianto (seeded 6) will play Carnando/Marthin in R1 but whoever prevails in this tie has a tough route to finals weekend. The Malaysian team has brough 5 pairs: the most dangerous are the beaten finalists from a few years ago Aaron CHIA & SOH Wooi Yik. They won Bronze at the Tokyo Olympics and have made no secret of their desire for Gold in Paris 2024. They are a well balanced combination of speedy reflexes, athleticism and desire; they could be podium bound. GOH Sze Fei & Nur IZZUDDIN will be buzzing after their victory at the German Open but as unseeded players they have hard games lined up.
There are plenty of other pairs who could flourish. China always challenges hard; their players are so well-drilled in fundamental badminton skills that new ‘unknown’ combinations alway have the potential to prosper. The main Danish challenge will spring from the seventh seeds Astrup/Rasmussen, France has sent the Popov brothers, and the home audience will be hoping that Lane/Vendy can make things awkward in the top half of the draw.
Viktor Axelsen’s band of brothers – the athletes who have worked with him in Dubai away from their national setups – have been dominating men’s singles results recently. The Olympic Champion has been in the form of his life since the bold move to warm-weather training. Viktor has so many strengths but his competitive advantage stems from his emotional maturity. He has understood that the time is now. So, the question is: who can stop him winning back the title?
Anders Antonsen is seeded 3 and has to be aiming for the podium. He has an intriguing R1 tie against current World Champion and member of the Dubai Gang LOH Kean Yew. If he gets past this hurdle, he may have to face Lakshya Sen another player who has enjoyed an improvement since training in Dubai. Next up, Lee Zii Jia in the SF for a chance against the King of Dubai himself: Viktor Axelsen There have been stamina issues in the past and I often catch myself wondering if he has hip problems when I look at his gait. Behind all the messing around with peripherals like blogging he must be wondering what be achievable if he too was to start training in the gulf.
Another Dubai participant is the defending champion LEE Zii Jia. His challenge in Muelheim for that title fizzled out in the SF against Kunlavut Vitidsarn. The recent row with BAM about his professional status cannot have helped his preparation for Europe but he has to bring a more zesty attack to Birmingham. Anything less than a semi-final appearance will be a shock.
Kento Momota is seeded 2 but this does not tell the whole story of his circumstances. The car accident in Malaysia shifted his internal axis somehow .He has not regained his surgical precision or his focus. His is still an exceptionally talented player but he is beatable. Vittinghus must be looking at this match with a gleam in his eye. Momota can expect to be asked the tough questions every step of the way in Birmingham.
Aside from these players we have to look at the unseeded LakshyaSen who has refocused and matured since working with Axelsen. In January he beat LOH Kean Yew to win the S500 India Open then, at the German Open, he stunned VA to get to the final. He had looked dead and buried at 15-19 down in the last set but his grit and tenacity are great weapons when they are blended with his reliable defence and willingness to rally. Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn was the eventual winner in Germany. Both of these players could disrupt a senior seed’s progress.
It didn’t look as though Jonathan Christie would be able to participate owing to his positive test last week. But he has travelled to the UK so perhaps he will be OK. As far as Anthony Ginting is concerned – because he is Jojo’s roommate – we are waiting to see the official confirmation if he is cleared to play or not. It will be a pity if he misses the chance to make a mark at the All England. In the past it has never seemed as though he has been able to impose himself on the tournament. It’s been a while since we’ve enjoyed a good MomoGi.
The influence of Viktor Axelsen and his Dubai training camps has tilted the balance of power in Men’s Singles since the Olympics. That group of athletes will probably supply the eventual winner in Birmingham and that will give other players and coaches a lot to consider. Men’s Doubles is harder to call, although this may be an occasion for Kevin and Marcus to reassert their dominance of the title. Unfortunately, the situation is quite volatile regarding the impact of Covid upon athletes participation; it’s hard to imagine that these championships will avoid positive tests so let’s enjoy matches when we can and hope that everyone stays healthy.
A sparkling line-up in all the women’s sectors promises some brilliant battles ahead. The stars are back! The German Open has been full of upsets with some seeds struggling to impose themselves on the tournament. Let’s see if this unpredictable picture lingers into England.
Three-time winner TAI Tzu Ying usually has a scintillating presence on court & brings stardust to any tournament; exceptional racket skills and unconventional genius means that she will be challenging for the title. However there are some big challenges ahead. In 2021 Akane Yamaguchi hit a dazzling run of form. Liberation from Olympic expectations unleashed a new focus, her fitness has returned, and she must be eyeing the trophy with confidence. These two are seeded to meet in the final in a repeat of 2018. On that occasion TTY triumphed so Akane will want revenge. Neither of them were on good form in Germany; both crashing out in their R2 matches so they both must step up their play if they want the trophy.
China is consistently producing exceptional women players. It’s astonishing to realise that CHEN Yufei – the current Olympic champion – is only seeded #3. Of course she has not been able to participate fully in the tour owing to China’s Covid restrictions. She is a deadly opponent who can drain the fight from a rival before putting them to the sword. The bottom half of the draw is arguably able to offer her a smooth journey to the SF and a potential game versus Akane or Sindhu. Realistically her consistency and fitness make her favourite for this title. HE Bing Jiao is always a bit of an enigma. During the pandemic she has become leaner, but has she become meaner? I think we will probably find out if she makes it to a QF with her compatriot CHEN Yu Fei. After beating Akane in Germany her confidence should be sky high. The other notable Chinese player bringing form to the UK is ZHANG Yi Man who dispatched Sindhu in three sets in Mulheim. She meets CYF in R1 so it’s a tough ask to expect progress.
As the defending champion Nozomi Okuhara has little to prove but has a harsh draw to negotiate. She has remained quite low profile since Tokyo but in December – for the third year running – was crowned winner at the All Japan Badminton Championships. In the first couple of rounds she’ll have to overcome a double Danish challenge; in R1 round she is meeting Denmark’s Line Christophersen then R2 could offer Mia Blichfeldt. Further in, TAI Tzu Ying, May or AN Se Young await. She will need to be on her game from the moment she steps onto court on day 1.
Is this going to be AN Se Young’s tournament? The top half of this draw offers a lot of banana skins & she would probably have to overcome May, TTY or Nozomi to get to the final. This is my worry. I’m a little unconvinced that her stamina will hold up through a bruising tournament – the cumulative effect of game after game after game does have a cost, so she must be tactically clever and try to conserve energy wherever possible.
Ratchanok Intanon was in good form at the Olympics; the battle with TTY in Tokyo was outstanding and there is a possible repeat of that epic match in prospect in the semi-final. First May has to negotiate early rounds that include ASY. Under pressure she often she executes extraordinary shots, disdains percentage play and can unravel a rival with her extravagant skill. I love to watch her compete like this but I think sometimes it’s the consequence of a desire to speedily finish off a rival; if they manage to hang in the game there can be Trouble.
The renowned Big Game Player – Pursala V Sindhu – is hard to analyse. She has an Olympic bronze from 2021 but often over the past 2 or 3 years she has struggled to build a winning momentum that takes her all the way to the top of the podium. She wasn’t able to progress beyond R1 at the German Open in the run-up to this tournament so I’m not sure what we can expect. She is one of the best of her generation but Akane awaits in the QF.
I see CHEN Yufei as favourite for this title. However Akane enjoyed impressive form at the end of 2021; if anyone can beat her they are serious contenders.
All the badminton community is anticipating the international return of FukuHiro with warmth in their hearts. They are such a likeable pair: their spirit against the odds at the Tokyo Olympics was admired the world over. We have watched Yuki Fukushima joining forces with other players whilst Sayaka Hirota recuperated from knee surgery but now is an opportunity to see them attempt to recapture the title they won together in 2020. It’s hard to estimate where they are in terms of form and fitness. They will have to take one match at a time and see what happens. Nothing is impossible for two of the best players on the circuit.
The #1 seeds (and winners in 2019) can be a real handful for any opponent. CHEN Qing Chen is a valiant, tireless player who screws down the pressure whilst left-handed JIA Yi Fan loves to smash or get a hard flat rally going. They both have plenty of power and use it with venom. If it boils down to a brawl at the end of a game for the last few winning points then probably the Chinese pair will edge through. If they bring their A game to Birmingham, they will be unstoppable.
It’s been a while since Korea won the WD title in Birmingham. In fact, it was 2017 when LEE So-hee won it with CHANG Ye-na. What a record LEE has of competing and winning at the highest levels in badminton over nearly a decade. She is seeded 2 with SHIN Seung-chan and they kick off their campaign with a tricky tie against the Stoevas. KIM So-yeong and KONG Hee-yong are seeded 3 in the top half of the draw – both pairs have all the skills to get to finals weekend and once they are there anything can happen.
2021 was a break-out year for Nami Matsuyama and Chiharu Shida who upped their competitive levels and enjoyed plenty of success at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton. Their creative aggression marks out the evolution of the Japanese house style. I’m excited to see if they continue their development into the last stages of this competition.
I’m not neutral, I’ve followed and admired Greysia Polii for years. That gold medal win at the Olympics was one of my happiest badminton days so I want to watch the 6th seeds go deep into this competition. Although the GreyAp partnership remains in place for Birmingham it’s noteworthy that Apriyani Rahayu planned to be with a different partner at the German Open but unfortunately a minor injury scuppered that idea. PBSI have to plan for the future but I hope the Olympic Champions play well in Birmingham, no injuries and do themselves justice.
The current champions Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara who habitually win big events have been forced to withdraw because of a knee injury sustained during training.
This doubles competition does have the potential for a few upsets from unseeded pairs. PearlyTAN and Thinaah Muralitheran never know when they are beaten and their opponents are always in for a difficult hour or so on court. Likewise Maiken Fruergaard and Sara Thygesen can mix it with the best – in round one they face GreyAp and that’s a tricky challenge for the sixth seeds.
I want to include XD in my women’s preview because I believe that it’s the performance of the woman in the duo that leads to victory . The role of the woman partner has shifted over the last 15 years to a more proactive aggressive stance – I think mainly because of the influence of Liliyana Natsir, one of the true greats of the game. This benefits mobile players who are comfortable in attack and defence.
It’s quite hard to see beyond the first four seeds for the title. Deservedly at the top of the draw are the Thai pair Bass/Popor. They are physically strong, worked hard through 2021 and got plenty of success. They didn’t participate last year because of their focus on Olympic prep but 2022 will see them travelling to the UK with a strong chance of grabbing the trophy for Thailand. I think it’s significant that Sapsiree Taerattanachai is not competing in WD too. Her sole focus at this tournament will be XD. The two shutters who can stop them are the Tokyo Olympic Champions: WANG Yi Lyu & HUANG Dong Ping. I’m a big admirer of HUANG who is a wonderful doubles player with power, touch and plenty of smarts. The destiny of the title is probably in her hands.
Who could challenge the favourites for the title? Japan’s Yuta and Arisa are a formidable pair. I love to watch them switch roles and see Yuta marauding at the net; this is a huge competitive advantage and very difficult to neutralise. The #2 seeds ZHENGSi Wei and HUANG Ya Qiong must also be eyeing the trophy but they have a very unconventional preparation for the tournament as they will be competing with different partners the week before in Germany.
So, a wonderful tournament hosting the best women players in the world lies ahead. The athletes who can stay fit and focused on their goals will be the ones who carry away the trophy on Finals Day. Every shot counts.
From a partnership created in 2015 these 2 athletes have enthralled fans whenever they step on court. Kevin’s showmanship and exquisite racket skills are box office gold; Marcus is the bedrock of the duo. Rivals face unbearable intensity from over the net as the two Indonesian superstars wind up the pressure with split second finesse.
They are two-time champions at the All England, but recent history means that there is a sense of unfinished business at this event. Supporters crave an exhilarating run to the final. Whatever happens in 2022 they have a legacy of dazzling battles in Birmingham: some of their most electrifying games have been played here.
2017 Semi-Final v Conrad-Petersen/Kolding
What a Thriller! From the moment the first shuttle was hit it was obvious that this was going to be a special match. There were traces of nerves, but all four players were driven to brilliance by each other. The European champions had the measure of the Minions in set 1; after some astonishing passages of play they closed it out 21-19. Set 2 – and the destiny of the final – turned on Kevin’s flick serve when the scores were level at 12-12. The Danes were outraged, the Indonesians were inspired then won 10 points in a row, eventually levelling 21-13. Rubber…points were traded but it was deadlock up until 17-17 when Kevin and Marcus seized the lead and then refused to relinquish control. Gideon’s match winner was a delicate disguised drop shot. 21-17.
2017 Final v v LI Junhui & LIU Yuchen
Fast & Furious! How much firepower would they have left after the previous night’s epic SF? The contest fizzed with passion and desire. Set 1 was close – just edged by the Indonesians – but Set 2 saw them hit another gear as Kevin went beyond the range of normal perception. His zest and speed of thought were phenomenal. Gideon’s magnificent play liberated Kevin. It was breathtaking as he executed shots that mere mortals cannot even dream of. It felt like non-stop attack; they both were tireless as they pushed for the title. The Chinese duo tried to resist but in vain as the Minions were unstoppable. Their first All England title was won in a whirlwind 35 minutes 21-19, 21-14
2018 Final v Mathias Boe/Carsten Mogensen
The defending champions came back to Birmingham on a spectacular run of form that continued through to the final. Kevin’s mercurial brilliance blended with Gideon’s tough, focused play meant that they limited the Danes to controllable flurries of resistance. Even though Boe & Mogensen were competing hard and never out of touch on the scoreboard the result seemed inevitable. Kevin’s superhuman anticipation for the winning point – a sharp net kill – epitomized the pair’s dominance of the court. Title retained in straight sets: 21-18, 21-17.
The effervescent genius of Kevin & Marcus has consistently lit up the All England over the years. The tempo of their games, their athleticism and their desire to win this historic tournament always creates high hopes when they arrive in the UK. Once again they are top seeds and should be fighting for a third title by the end of the competition.
Is TAI Tzu Ying the greatest ever Women’s Singles champion at the All England? I think so. In 2020 a landmark third trophy was won, and this triumph proves her consistent dominance of the elite in an era of great players. Five years on from her first title in Birmingham she is still world #1 and seeded #1 for this year’s championship.
It’s enjoyable to curate happy memories so I want to revisit some of her best games in Birmingham. There is no doubt that when an outstanding opponent inspires her, she reaches levels of artistry that confound expectations. When TTY is in the arena all eyes turn to her.
I have chosen three of my must-see matches. It is fascinating to reflect that these games feature exceptional opponents who all favour unique styles & TTY outplayed them all.
Final 2017 v Ratchanok Intanon
El Classico! Two incredible talents who spurred each other on to heights of excellence – a pattern we would see repeated in many other clashes between them down the years. The creative vision of both players, the pace of the game, the precision, and the desire to win were incredible. After losing the first set May played all out to level the match and was consistently in front . At 19-18 Ratchanok executed an outstanding combination of shots to outplay TTY and get to set point 20-18. Regardless of the peril she was in TTY replied with verve and focus; winning four points in a row to seal the Championship 21-16, 22-20. Brilliant badminton.
Final 2018 v Akane Yamaguchi
Epic Battle! The defending champion stepped onto court to face the #2 seed and what followed was one of the best Championship ties ever. Akane was aggressive and pacey, working hard to keep TAI Tzu Ying away from the net and was in position to close out the first set at 20-19. The shuttler from Taiwan answered with supreme racket skills, using wonderful touch to get variations in velocity and power. Again, she competed with no fear despite intense pressure from her Japanese rival. Of course, she used a reverse slice straight drop to gain the initiative and lead 21-20 then secured set one 22-20. The second set was more of the same. Absolute commitment and focus from the pair of players. Akane covered every millimeter of the court as TTY’s cross- court drives, sudden injections of pace and use of deception displayed her genius. Yamaguchi gave everything but could not neutralize Tzu Ying and she collected the All England title for the second year in a row. 22-20, 21-13. Breathtaking badminton.
Final 2020 v CHEN Yufei
Previous meetings with CYF had exposed TAI Tzu Ying’s tendency for self-sabotage. This time she was resilient. This was an encounter that revealed a great deal about her inner strength and ability to evolve. TTY turned one of CYF’s great assets – Patience – against her. It was a trump card. TTY was majestic: she stayed calm and focused her attacks with precision never allowing the Chinese player to escape the relentless pressure. 21-19, 21-15. There was an inevitability to this win; it was a career-defining victory.
Simply the Best!
No one flukes three titles at the All England. TAI Tzu Ying’s record in Birmingham reveals an authentic legend. I can’t wait to see her competing again soon.
TAI Tzu Ying’s sensational reign as World #1 has hit the 200-week milestone this month. She is the sport’s MVP, the athlete who bewitches neutrals and is the embodiment of badminton at its best.
She is unique, spontaneity and deception are deep-rooted in her game’s DNA. Tzu Ying has rewritten the algebra of the shuttle’s flight, and this is core to her resilience at the sport’s heights. Her audacious style has never been squashed by the need to play percentages.
The finest players are always able to find a few beats of extra time when they are under pressure. TTY excels in this part of a game. Her unscripted approach and technical excellence gives her an advantage that most opponents fail to neutralize over the passage of a match – so long as she keeps her patience. An impulsive player’s shots are hard to anticipate, and this gives a crucial edge on court.
Women’s Singles overflows with talented players and it is fascinating to recognize that no single style prevails. But…sometimes I think that some shots have been invented for the use of one particular player. TAI Tzu Ying’s Reverse Slice Straight Drop is a beautiful thing that should live in the Badminton Hall of Fame. It’s a Get out of Jail shot: when she’s in a tight corner with no way out it can offer an escape route.
A reliable measure of greatness in any sport is longevity at #1. The challenge is to keep possession of the top spot once it is secured. It is an extraordinary accomplishment to dominate the top ten since December 2016. This is a similar level to Serena Williams or Roger Federer’s success in tennis. An uptick in pressure on the person at the top always happens because opponents have an extra incentive to triumph. Early rounds of tournaments against unseeded players can suddenly acquire a new tension.
Her kaleidoscopic talent for incredible shots is only part of the story. TTY’s resilience was forged early in her career – perhaps it was something that always existed within her anyway? She is part of an incredibly supportive family unit and she also has a wonderful coaching team around her. An elite athlete’s life is tough so it is impossible to overstate how important these people are to her success.
TAI Tzu Ying is a phenomenon whose imagination and vision have kept her at the peak of Badminton for a long time. I can’t wait to see her on court again soon.
It has been an extraordinary 12 months: alternating between feast and famine as the players enter bubbles for intense periods of competition and then exit to recover. These are my biased, sentimental, affectionate awards for 2021.
Player of the Year: TAI Tzu Ying
In 2021 we have watched this impulsive free spirit confirm her reputation among the greats of the world game. Outstanding technical skills and creative genius often elevate her shots to works of art. A key target this year has been to step up her performance at the Olympics and World Championships so winning Silver at both is a significant improvement. She has stayed fresh and relatively injury free by focusing on only a few tournaments and she has been ever-present in the finals. The good news is that we can expect to see her on court in 2022 as the threat of retirement seems to have been put on hold for the time being.
Runners Up: CHEN Yufei for her error-free capture of Olympic Gold and Akane Yamaguchi who has been indefatigable and a worthy World Champion.
Best Competitor: Greysia Polii
The breathtaking Gold in Tokyo was a sensational, momentous achievement. Of course, Apriyani Rahayu had a significant role in the victory, but I want to highlight Greysia. Although retirement appeared to be on the horizon she was determined not to fade quietly into the background. A last Olympics, a last chance to get on the podium and boy did she grab it. Congratulations Greysia, always one of my favourite players
XD Player of the Year: HUANG Dongping & Sapsiree Taerattanachai
I cannot choose between these two brilliant players. HUANG Dong Ping’s Gold at the Olympics was magnificent; the final was a glorious tie between four gifted athletes. She is brave, has great reflexes and is adept at using the flat game to aggressive advantage. Popor has also enjoyed a stunning 12 months, winning eight titles, and – other than the Olympics – she and Bass have dominated the XD scene. Their physical resilience and mental strength are second to none. Interestingly both stand-out players compete successfully in WD as well.
Best Pair: Nami Matsuyama & Chiharu Shida
It’s been fascinating to watch their improvement recently; the leap from Super 100/300 up to the top levels has been harmonious and their upwards momentum got great rewards at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton. Maybe the Japanese ‘house style’ is evolving because they are more aggressive and more willing to try and seize the initiative than we expect. Both work hard, support each other and obviously enjoy their matches.
Runners Up: Greysia Polii & Apriyani Rahayu – seeing my two favourites get Gold at the Olympics is one of my best badminton moments ever.
Parabadminton player of the Year: Leani Ratri Oktila
Gold, Gold, Silver at the Tokyo Paralympic games – at Parabadminton’s debut the world #1 was totally dominant.
If He Was A Woman I’d Give Him An Award Too: Viktor Axelsen
A year packed full of achievements – bravo Viktor!
These are just some of the people I have loved to watch in 2021: it’s just my subjective opinion, I can’t pretend that I have spent any time evaluating the stats. The Olympics and the tournament bubbles have made this year unique. Some have thrived but injuries and withdrawals from tournaments have been common; let’s hope for less of a treadmill in 2022. There have been so many highlights (which I’ll cover in my Review of the Year) so I would like to thank all the players and everyone from the badminton community for making this such a memorable twelve months.
Akane in a recent article by Dev Sukumar. Courtesy BWF
Watching a revitalized Akane win back-to-back tournaments in Denmark and France has been one of the highlights of the last few weeks.
She has been the standout player on the circuit recently. Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of multiple competitions since Tokyo 2020, she has flourished.
Sudirman & Uber Cup
Akane was at the heart of Japan’s success in the team competitions in Vantaa and Aarhus. Two silver medals do not do justice to her immense contribution. Both times Japan lost in the final to China, but both times she chalked up victories against CHEN Yu Fei in straight sets. There was an all-consuming intensity to these games. She seldom made mistakes and as she upped the tempo of the match CYF struggled to find scoring opportunities because her rival’s court coverage was formidable. Contrast this to their previous meeting in the same competition (Sudirman Cup 2019) and her improvement is clear. The next time these two face each other over a net is going to be awesome.
Victor Denmark Open: October 2021
In the Uber Cup AN Se Young was the only player to unpick Akane’s defence (in two sets) and so this final was an opportunity to see what effect the loss had had upon her Japanese foe. The first set was controlled by ASY; despite a heavily strapped thigh her movement was fluid and dominant. The second set began in much the same way with Yamaguchi struggling to summon up the energy to put any fizz on the shuttle; she was making mistakes too and there seemed to be an inevitability to the Korean’s advance to the top of the podium. By 16-16 Akane was fighting desperately to stay in the match: diving, scrambling, scrapping and just giving everything to stay in contention. 18-18. 19-19. A match point to ASY came and went amidst exhausting rallies. The score reached 23-23 before Akane was able to get the points needed to close it out 25-23. Ominously, in the interval, ASY ripped off her strapping and called for the doctor for the second time.
The third set was a story of triumph and tragedy. As it began, it was obvious that the Korean was less smooth in her movements. With the score against her at 3-7 she was red carded for ‘delay’ but effectively she was trying to work out whether she could continue and at 16-5 down she admitted defeat.
No-one ever wants to win a title in these circumstances, but Akane’s triumph was based on perseverance and her emphatic refusal to concede the game in the second set. AN Se Young missed her opportunity to win when she failed to convert her match point. Akane was very courageous in Set 2 since she committed everything to those long rallies; her grit paid off as ASY wilted under the grueling examination of her stamina. This was a fascinating duel.
Yonex French Open 2021
Yamaguchi’s European success continued with her title win against compatriot Sayaka Takahashi in Paris. A straight sets victory, this was a little more straightforward but there are no easy games at this level. Akane’s top-quality defence and stamina effectively neutralized her opponent’s threat; Takahashi stayed with the momentum at first, but she was forced to cut her margins and go for the line so, as she tired, mistakes crept into her game. The final score was 21-18, 21-12.
Back in July 2019 Akane Yamaguchi was world #1 – albeit briefly – but later suffered training disruption and some shock defeats owing to niggly injuries. In common with many in the Japanese team there were substantial expectations on her shoulders when the Olympics began but she was unable to make a significant impact. Now I think she has revisited her motivation to compete and it has given her a fresh outlook. Her epic battle with AN Se Young for the Denmark title showcased her unending resilience and phenomenal court coverage; I hope we get the chance to see plenty more clashes between these two. As one of the most lovable athletes on the tour plenty of fans will be cheering her on to more podium finishes. The Bali bubble beckons and she can travel to Indonesia with plenty of confidence that she will be making a big impression.
Hot on the heels of Odense the action moved to Paris. It quickly became obvious that some athletes were running on empty; the challenges of a schedule that includes an Olympics, a Sudirman Cup, a Thomas, or Uber Cup and the Denmark Open over the space of 12 weeks following lockdowns, quarantines and illness was a lot to embrace, physically and mentally. Which brings me to Akane, Momota and The Unseeded.
Akane – Winner Women’s Singles
Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of tournaments since the Tokyo Olympics, Akane has thrived. She arrived in Paris as the Denmark Open champion and continued her hot streak right through to victory in the final again. These back-to-back wins suggest she has rediscovered the form that made her world#1 back in July 2019. It was her defensive excellence, swift court coverage and faultless anticipation which neutralised Takahashi’s challenge today. Akane is the standout Women’s Singles player in the world at the moment.
The Unseeded win Men’s Singles and Doubles: Tsuneyama, and KO/SHIN
It’s always magical to watch an unseeded player battle through to a final and win. Both of the men’s titles in this tournament went to players who were expected to lose earlier on. Kanta Tsuneyama triumphed over the more experienced CHOU Tien Chen in three tough sets; his perseverance and precision shots were the foundation of success and his delight in victory was irresistible.
In Men’s Doubles KO Sung Hyun and SHIN Baek Cheol faced Gideon and Sukamuljo. The Koreans are the former world champions who have been enduring a very lean period over the past couple of years. The Minions are working their way though their own existential crisis at the moment so it was hard to know what to expect from this contest. The Korean’s victory was quite brisk, no long rallies but a relentless drive for the title that stopped the Indonesian pair from getting any sort of toehold in the match. It was a long way from a classic, but KO and SHIN deserved the win. I hope Kevin and Marcus can take some encouragement from getting to the final.
“….the body is worn out but the heart is fine so it’s OK”
Kento Momota IG story (rough translation)
Sometimes sport is more than victory. Over the past few weeks Momota has consistently refused easy options. His resilience and character has driven him on to compete. When it seems as though his body is aching for a rest he has stepped back on court to play again. As the beaten finalist in Denmark he could have – maybe should have – withdrawn from this tournament; instead his desire for badminton carried him on to the Semi-Final where he eventually had to concede the match because of injury. It’s clear that he is still getting back to his best form but every time he plays he progresses. I’m looking forward to Bali and I reckon it’s not going to be long to wait before his next title. (WTF?)
Yuta and Arisa
Yuta Watanabe continues to impress on the XD stage. I love his spatial awareness: his ability to find gaps on his opponents side of the court is second to none. His support for Arisa – on and off court – is exemplary and so this is the basis of a partnership that will keep developing and keep winning. After today’s win they can go to Bali feeling confident about their ability to be in the mix at the end of a tournament.
Apart from top seeds LEE/SHIN winning the WD competition, the story of this Yonex Paris Open is of athletes triumphing over low expectations, injuries and fatigue. Kanta Tsuneyama’s, road to the MS title as an unseeded player was tough but it’s always extra special to watch ‘upset’ wins like these. SayakaTakahashi reached the WS final despite a career threatening back injury last year. Kevin and Marcus got to their first final since AE2020 and although they lost out to unseeded KO/SHIN they must find some positives in that to fuel recovery from their slump.