In a breaking news story the Rio 2016 Gold medalist has announced that she will be unable to defend her title in Tokyo.
The devastating news came after she felt some discomfort in her left anterior cruciate ligament during training last week. The medics have confirmed that she will have to undergo surgery to repair both meniscus and the torn ACL. It’s quite hard to speculate what the future holds but there is no doubt that this is a serious injury. She had the drive and self-belief to recover from a similar problem to her right knee so she knows the scale of the work that awaits her.
Marin is a fierce competitior who has shown a fantastic commitment to the sport throughout lockdown. She has been willing to travel far and wide to continue playing in tournaments; her two wins in Thailand in January were out of the top drawer.
The tournament in Tokyo will not be the same without her. Best wishes Caro!
Inspired by the recent BWF series I started thinking…
Vision: TAI Tzu Ying
TTY’s creative genius is Box Office Gold. Everyone wants to see that backhand reverse slice straight drop, especially when they least expect it. Her bedrock is superb technical skills blended with fitness. The cocktail of flair, bravery and total self-belief is irresistable. Because her shots are so unpredictable she stops rivals from anticipating her moves and this give her a tremendous competitive edge. Any player who nurtures aspirations to get to the very top has to be inspired by TAI’s style.
Explosive Power: Carolina Marin
Marin’s superb athleticism blended with her attacking style makes her a formidable opponent. She smashes, lunges and kills with venomous force. She blazes on court; once she seizes the momentum of the game 6 or 7 points are in her pocket in the blink of an eye. She is a rowdy, disruptive, noisy adversary who has harnassed her passion to carry her to the top of the sport.
Win-Ability: Misaki Matsutomo
There’s just something about Misaki Matsutomo – she seems able to force a victory, to break opponent’s will to win even when they are in a commanding position. Of course the best example of this was the WD Rio Olympic final in 2016. On the surface she looks mild but underneath she has an iron will. Her instinctive response to danger is defiance; at 19-16 behind in the Gold medal match something was unleashed from deep inside her. Her clever movement, trust in her partner and dominance at the net saw her at the top of the podium. I’d love her to reach these heights in her XD career.
Accuracy: Ratchanok Intanon
May has a lot in common with TTY in terms of the technical quality of her strokes and she can execute some of the most breathtaking shots one would see on a court. However, sometimes having the ability to land a shuttle on the line is a blessing and a curse. Under pressure, and losing patience Ratchanok will often adopt a ‘death or glory’ approach. Instead of playing percentage badminton and simply keeping the rally going she will push up a level and try for the point. When it works it is majestic and a joy to watch.
Stamina: Nozomi Okuhara
Her style of play has long rallies at its core so her endurance is second-to-none. However, this is a too simplistic view of this brilliant player. She is fleet-footed and agile around the court with excellent flexibility. She is clever and has superb technical skills although sometimes I think she delays finishing off a rally for too long – the opposite of Ratchanok. I really respect her strength of focus in her pursuit of Tokyo Gold at a very tough time for the sport. On a personal level, she is adorable. When BirdJapan play team competitions she can be spotted on the sidelines leading the cheering for compatriots, and her all-round grace under pressure make her a very special person.
Potential: AN Se Young
In a couple of years time ASY could dominate the world scene. For now, shes a tournament random variable: often able to vanquish more illustrious opponents but not yet able to consistently reach finals weekend. I’d like her to work on the ability to shock. For now she has great anticipation and good all-round skill but she is quite reactive – to get to the next level I want to see effective shots that I don’t expect and better stamina over the duration of a competition.
It’s been amusing to try and build my Women’s Gold medal player, but there’s no doubt that some skills will outweigh others in tournament conditions in a drifty stadium. I didn’t include some of my favourite players: Saina’s intelligence and will to win, Sindhu’s power, Yuki’s consistency and Greysia’s defence but in the end this was just for fun. I’m sure you can suggest people I should have included – feel free to use the comments option.
The whole tournament is dominated by the most eagerly awaited comeback in modern badminton history. The return of Momota. The spotlight will be on him from the second he steps back on court.
Kento Momota is like a ravenous lion circling a water hole and preparing to pounce on unsuspecting antelope; here is a lion who hasn’t tasted red meat in a looong time.
It’s impossible to guess his level of fitness after such a lengthy absence but his superior mental strength will have driven him on to train and stay focused. He has all the weapons to regain his title after missing the AE last year and he can often expose highly seeded opponents as one-dimensional. He has an aura of a returning king although he must feel some nerves about the standards he can reach at the beginning of his campaign. Viktor Axelsen has set a high benchmark over the past three months so Momota must be on guard. Prediction: Final
Viktor Axelsen – the defending champion – had a brilliant January in Thailand so he will be arriving in Birmingham with high hopes of keeping his title. He has been awesome at grabbing opportunities to win over the past 3 months: a living embodiment of Carpe Diem. However, that loss at the WTF keeps niggling away at me. His power, fitness and will to win are second to none but he was unsettled by Antonsen’s cunning tactics. Falling prey to a version of the rope-a-dope trick must have been incredibly frustrating and I wonder what the effect of that will be long-term. Axelsen has introduced us to his ‘mental coach’ recently, who is an ex special forces soldier so he clearly wishes to explore how his psychology can give him an edge. In the final of the Swiss Open he was unstoppable as he bulldozed his way to the trophy. It’s worth noting that his opponent – Vitidsarn – did start the encounter well and his tactics reminded me of Momota’s ‘waiting game’ approach, but he made too many errors and ran out of steam. Momota has plenty of stamina and he knows not to give VA power to feed off, so if they meet in the final Viktor should be pushed harder. Prediction Runner up
Anders Antonsen – the WTF Champion – is never a person to fade into the background and the past six months have been full on drama. Starting in October, his epic battle against Gemke in the final of the Denmark Open left both unable to walk unaided from the arena, in November he contracted Covid, January saw patchy performances in the first two tournaments in Bangkok then he roared back to form in the WTF to snatch victory away from Axelsen; this all adds layers of experience to an intelligent player who needs to be on court. Viktor has better fitness and stamina but Antonsen has better strategies. Last year’s YAE saw him retire hurt from his semi-Final against CHOU Tien Chen which was a huge disappointment as he had every chance of making the final at that point. He is seeded 3 so it may be that we see an all-Danish semi final with the liklihood of a fired-up Viktor looking for revenge.
Anthony Ginting spearheads the Indonesia challenge in this sector. When he is consistently at his best, he is unstoppable and we saw flashes of this brilliance in Thailand but he didn’t have enough for a podium finish. On the whole, after such a long break, his performance gave some cause for optimism, or at least no cause for alarm. In the SF of the Yonex Thailand Open he came up against a resolute VA in the third set but overall, he lost that tie 53-55 which puts a revealing slant on his defeat. His levels dropped off in the next two tournaments and this is exasperating as he is such a glorious player. I saw lockdown as a useful opportunity for some players to improve areas of their game and instinctively I would point to his ‘third set’ strategies. There are not really gaps in his technique but something is missing in this area that his coaches need to address. I would love to see him come to Birmingham and gift us fans a MomoGI in the semi final. And then I want a final.
Kunlavut Vitidsarn was the World Junior Champion for three years running (2017/18/19) and is one of badminton’s rising stars. Axelsen demolished him in the second set of the final of the Swiss Open but his fluency around the court and technical skill is exciting. As he builds on his experience and puts more hours in at the gym we will see an improvement in stamina and pace. The fact that he stayed with Viktor in the first set whilst playing patiently should worry Jonatan Christie who plays him in the first round.
Jonatan Christie is seeded 5 and has a brutal draw: possibly meeting Axelsen at the QF stage. If so then he could struggle to progress as their h2h coupled with the Danes form doesn’t indicate any easy points. It would be wonderful to see him get to the weekend but it would be a bit of a jaw-dropper if he can subdue the Dane. Last year LEE Zii Jia who is seeded 6, had a thrilling run to the SF before losing in a closely fought match with VA. He is very mobile, with good technical skills, a great player for a neutral to support. He looked a bit lethargic at the Swiss Open so perhaps he is an athlete who needs to compete consistently to maintain his focus and pace. A possible Quarter Final with Momota is on the horizon and to have any dream of progress he must improve on his recent form.
Owing to Marin’s late withdrawal from the tournament the top half of the draw is suddenly looking less intimidating for the other players. Akane, Pornpawee, and Pursala would have had to beat her to get to the final; now there is one less obstacle on the road.
Akane Yamaguchi is seeded 3 but still, this will be the first time we have seen her in an international tournament for a year and I honestly don’t know what we can expect. She was the beaten finalist (in three sets) against Nozomi at the All-Japan National Championships in December. Before the pandemic her brief period at World #1 was followed by some inconsistency. At her best, she is a contender for the title, so the puzzle is about the level she is at when she hits the courts on the 17th March. She is known as a retriever but there have been occasions when she has used a fiercer style; combining more aggression with her great court coverage will give her more options when she is under pressure. The prospect of a QF against Pornpawee is intriguing. Mew nearly beat Marin in the Semi Final of the Swiss Open; she seemed down and out but hauled herself back into contention. Peppery unpredictability with unlimited stamina could be a good strategy.
Nozomi Okuhara‘s victory in the final of the Denmark Open over Marin came after a dazzling two sets; she would not let the Spaniard get a foothold in the game. The strategy of frustrating and denying her the chance to build a competitive rhythm disrupted her momentum and was a key element in Nozomi’s success. In the context of 2019 where she consistently reached finals only to lose this was a big breakthrough. The court coverage, stamina and sheer stubbornness of Nozomi are hard to break. She last won in 2016 but with the Tokyo Olympics in mind she will be aiming to become a hard player to beat at the end of a tournament so this is the perfect place to set a marker. The hall conditions should suit her but she must get the right balance between attack and defence.
Ratchanok Intanon – the #4 seed – is coming to the All England for another shot at winning the title. She was close in 2017 but was relegated to Silver by TAI Tzu Ying. We often criticise TTY for lack of patience but I think that May suffers with this too – her sublime technical skills sometimes mean that she doesn’t play the percentages. May could potentially be looking at a semi-final against Nozomi which would be a dream for fans. Rather like Anthony in the MS I wish she was more solid in the third set. It’s harder than it looks to behave with restraint in that section of a match but it is within her capabilities; we have all watched epic games where she fights with incredible grit and courage. In her 2020 win at the Indonesia Masters she overcame Marin in three sets so she can be inspired by this.
Pornpawee CHOCHUWONG’s progress since her victory over Carolina Marin at the Spain Masters in 2020 has been dislocated because of the effect of Covid cancellations on the badminton tour. Nevertheless, she had victories over TAI Tzu Ying and Ratchanok in Bangkok which shows that she has the ability to compete with the best. Her recent SF match against Carolina Marin at the Swiss Open was a defeat but she pushed all the way with a gritty and skilful display. Seeded 6 she has every reason to be optimistic if she can cut some of her errors. It would be an upset if she won the title but she has a chance – especially in the absence of Marin – and the mental stamina to push all the way to the end of a third set. Her obstinate outlook is a big advantage and it could be the foundation of tremendous achievements.
I would love to see Pursala V Sindhu rampage through the early rounds of this competition in the sort of form that won her the title at the World Championships in 2019. She’s a great athlete, but it just seems that sometimes she cannot dig herself out of a hole when the game tilts away from her. The final at the Swiss Open showed her difficulties; she struggled on her lunges to the front court to reach wide shots and wasn’t using any creativity to stop Marins anticipatory game. On the positive side she did get to the final and in the first set she seemed to have a bit more speed around the court. I hope that her coaching environment becomes more settled so that she can continue to develop her range.
So we have a men’s competition where we have to measure athletes against Viktor’s tough standards but Momota has returned to complicate things and a women’s competition that is missing TTY and Carolina but still features players with a realistic chance of the Gold medal later on in the year in Tokyo. All England success this year will go to the competitor who can come to the court with intensity and desire after twelve months of disruption and boredom. Can Viktor prove that he is the new King of the courts?
Shock withdrawals, shock exits and shock reinstatements; January’s tournaments were never dull. Unless of course, you happen to be a player quarantined in the Bangkok Novotel for 20 hours a day with chicken for dinner again. Indomie products were suddenly currency and some athletes were incentivised by the prospect of a year’s supply of the world’s best instant snack.
This is my look at the three Thailand tournaments. I’m not pretending that I’m unbiased, or that I can cover everything but I hope my highlights remind you what a cracking few weeks fans have just enjoyed.
HK Vittinghus’ January was epic. Initially on the reserve list he had the ambition to gamble and start the long trip to Thailand from Denmark with no guarantee of a game. Events moved in his favour when the Japanese team turned back at Tokyo airport following Momota’s positive test. His story stuttered at the Yonex Thailand Open when he lost to compatriot Gemke in R1 but the following week saw him excel and become the focus of fierce support from fans in Indonesia who had realised that the further he progressed the more likely Anthony Ginting was to qualify for the World Tour Finals. Some wild incentives involving Indomie noodles were offered. Through very intense games he found a route to to the final and a match against Axelsen. Along the way, his results meant that Anthony Ginting did qualify. Axelsen powered through the encounter but HK can be proud of his month’s work.
Astonishingly there were triple champions in MD and XD and double champions in MS and WS which suggests that finding the winning formula fast in the impact arena offered big rewards. I think that people with good underlying fitness combined with the resilience and drive to make the most of opportunities were at an advantage. Fatigue – mental and physical – was a factor for some as there was little breathing space between each tournament.
The Danish men controlled the courts all month – I’ve already mentioned Vittinghus but the fluctuations in the balance of power between Axelsen and Andersen is fascinating and I’m really looking forward to see who has the upper hand in March. Andersen prevented his fellow Dane from a clean sweep of titles by some tactics at the World Tour Finals that some found controversial. Not me. I felt he was strategically very smart. It’s unfair to reduce his astute strategy to his ‘easy’ concession of the second set. Throughout the match he refused to give Viktor pace from smashes to feed off and this was a key element in his win.
There were times when we saw sublime standards from Anthony Ginting and I was disappointed that he didn’t get to a final. His challenge is to stay with a game at the death. CHOU Tien Chen consistently made the semi-final of all three tournaments but somehow just lacked the resources to finish a match off.
Carolina Marin – like Viktor – completely dominated her sector in the first two tournaments; bulldozing TAI Tzu Ying aside as she triumphed in both of their finals . At the season’s finale she was prevented from making it a hat trick by a tactically astute performance by TTY who finally managed to eliminate errors when it came to the crucial stage of the game. This link will take you to my article that discusses TTY’s win in more detail https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/02/02/tai-tzu-ying-genius/
I’m often dazzled by Ratchanok Intanon to the extent that I don’t give enough attention to the other athletes in the Thai team. Pornpawee Chochuwong can look back over her matches with a lot of satisfaction. We saw her potential twelve months ago when she beat Marin in the final of the Spain Masters and it turns out that that was not a fluke. At the end of a hard month she was a semi-finalist at the World Tour Finals and posed a threat to every player. AN Se Young also caught my eye: she got to three semi finals but couldn’t quite push through to a podium finish.
A deserved hat-trick of titles for the home pair Dechapol Puavaranukroh & Sapsiree Taerattanachai (Bass/Popor). They have been on the brink of good results for a while and this month they competed with gutsy resilience and strong self-belief. They are a wonderful team with excellent mobility, stamina and racket skills.
“This is my reward for nine months of hard work and dedication”
Sapsiree Taerattanachai courtesy BWF Media press office
This success could see them start to dominate their sector.
I’ve always been a big fan of GreyAp and so I was beyond thrilled to watch their emotional win in the YTO. Soon their journey together will end. I’m delighted that they have used these tournaments to showcase their best style: Greysia smiling and Apri roaring on to victory. Well played girls!
The Taiwanese duo – LEE Yang and WANG Chi-Lin – really enhanced their reputations throughout January. Not only did they win all three competitions but their humble self-deprecating comments endeared them to watching fans. Playing to their strengths they used power and muscle non-stop to overcome rivals. They were too fast and furious even for Ahsan and Setiawan to tame and no-one beats the Dads by accident. On the subject of the Dads; once again these two gnarly warriors battled through adversity and showed why they are admired worldwide. Here is my look at Ahsan’s gritty fight to stay in the game when he was struggling with an injury https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/01/20/mohammad-ahsan-player-of-the-day-total-legend/
Finally…Coach Kim, Happiness and Hope
The effervescent Coach Kim popped up in Thailand with the Korean team. Her energetic style radiates confidence and is irresistible. During the interval she seems able to outline any observations to her team in about ten frenetic cheerful seconds then she calmly sits down whilst the opposition coach remains standing.
It was an uplifting few weeks. Back to back tournaments undoubtedly stretched athletes but they still delivered some breathtaking matches full of skill. I think they gave supporters hope that there is a return to regular badminton just around the corner.
“Just to be back competing is the best feeling in the world!”
After seven months away we have been treated to a superb tournament in Odense. The joy of this competition amongst the gloom has been brilliant. There were plenty of performances to savour from new discoveries and old favourites; here is my review of the finals.
Men’s Singles: Anders Antonsen v Rasmus Gemke
Like a fairytale taking shape in front of our eyes: two friends since boyhood in a head to head in their home final. Antonsen was the higher ranking of the two but Gemke has pulled off good results against strong opponents in the past. The stage was set.
Perhaps the first thing you need to know about this match is that neither man was able to walk unaided from the field of play. It was a brutal encounter that drained every bit of stamina from both. Gemke took the first set, he was the more composed and clever shot placement forced his advantage 21-18. Near the end of the second set Antonsen was in serious danger. Gemke’s endless work and pressure was preventing him from getting any sort of rhythmn. It was 19-19 and Gemke was two points from glory but then two errors handed the favourite a lifeline which he clutched and built upon. Antonsen closed out the final set 21-12; Gemke had given everything and could not deal with Antonsen’s variations of pace when he was already running on empty.
Men’s Doubles: Ellis/Langridge v Ivanov/Sozonov
It’s often been said of the Englishmen that they don’t enjoy getting out of bed to compete for anything less than a Gold medal. That is slightly harsh but they are definitely a pair who raise their game as they progress through a competition.
The opening exchanges saw Ellis and Langridge with the upper hand and they led 9-4 until the Russians forced their way back into the game. They fed off power, and Ivanov’s savage smash combined with some great serves allowed them to take the first set 22-20. At the interval we heard the English coach – Anthony Clarke – urge bravery because holding and lifting was playing to their opponents strengths. The second set was won after they used his advice to take the fight to the net; as it neared the end mistake after mistake from both sides disrupted all momentum but Ellis and Langridge were able to battle a way through and triumph 21-17. All square. Decider!
Chris Langridge is a player who wears his heart on his sleeve and there were times in the final set when he appeared quite dismayed by his errors. Ivanov & Sozonov had learnt from their earlier mistakes and were benefitting from a nimble strategic response. Whilst Langridge chuntered on about the state of the shuttle – getting a yellow card in the process – the Russians started running away with the set: rapidly it was 7-2 and there seemed to be no way back. Suddenly though the English duo fought back. (Langridge later said a comment from a spectator had energised him). In a patchy passage of play they managed to snaffle points and got to the interval with a small advantage 11-10. Langridge at the net had the vision and reflexes to dig out points under extreme pressure, Ellis too showed courage and stamina as they eventually seized the last set and the title 21-18.
Women’s Singles: Carolina Marin v Nozomi Okuhara
A breath-taking, intense game from both players. The tempo of the match, the court coverage and the hunger to win was magnificent. Okuhara was simply wonderful; over lockdown she has raised her game. Her speed, tactical dominance and willingness to commit completely resulted in a deserved victory 21-19, 21-17. Carolina played well but it was just not her day. She was frustrated by Nozomi’s brilliance and this time she had to settle for Silver.
The encounter between FukuHiro and NagaMatsu could be a trial run for the Olympic final match at Tokyo 2021. If so then Yuki Fukushima holds the destiny of the Gold. She was the MVP and the driving force behind FukuHiro’s victory. Her accuracy, power, reliable serves and her skill at mixing up the pace was just too much for her rivals to oppose. There were times when Nagahara and Matsumoto were the architects of their own downfall, often too passive, they could not get the initiative and press home their attack. It was a surprise that they were not able to hit top gear but although they won the second set, the final score was 21-10, 16-21, 21-18.
The Mixed Doubles provided the upset of the tournament with the German pair Mark Lamfuss and Isabel Herttrich seeing off the Adcocks over three sets. Chris Adcock commented post match that they could just not keep up their usual attacking pace through the whole game. Lamfuss and Herttrich certainly had a much tougher journey to the final and this may’ve given them a better approach to the encounter.
This was a longed-for tournament that delivered on every front. The Danish badminton authorities offered us hope that the tour can resume safely. It exceeded all our expectations. My personal highlight – amongst many – was the virtuouso performance by Nozomi Okuhara but every athlete, official and member of support staff played their part in making this a memorable few days. Congratulations and thanks to everyone.
Wow – we were treated to a dazzling match for the WS title at the Denmark Open this evening.
“I’m happy! Long time no see for a title! Compared to other opponents, Marin is faster and has a harder attack. I was focussed on defence and footwork, and my feet moved very well today. Overall the match went well for me.” – Nozomi Okuhara via BWF media service
This was set up to be a thriller right from the start: Carolina V Nozomi is Attack v Defence and Noise v Calm. A nail-biting encounter was in prospect, a match to showcase all that is wonderful about this generation of Women players. Both have been World #1, and both were Olympic medallists in Rio. Outstanding quality that has been waiting months to get on a court.
In many ways this tournament has been an opportunity for both players to push the reset button. Carolina successfully returned from her cruciate ligament injury but has suffered some personal tragedy over the past months. Nozomi had a bittersweet 2019 where she gave consistently high-quality performances but was not able to close out championship matches; she ended up with too many silver medals.
Okuhara’s path to the final – consistent straight set wins in every round – suggested she was on a mission. Marin’s progress was no less impressive: Bei Wen ZHANG took a set off her in their Quarter Final but the Spaniard has such high fitness that it would not have dented her energy levels.
Set 1 Carolina Wins The Toss
Right from the start it was clear that these two competitors emphatically did not spend lockdown watching tv from their sofa. Fabulous, high tempo badminton with both players giving everything for every point. Okuhara was in great form. The Japanese player was using her big defensive clears to put Marin under huge pressure. Of course, her game was far more nuanced than this. Her court coverage was superhuman, her snappy reflexes and great technique meant that although she wasn’t hitting outright winners her strategy was getting points on the board. Marin was hitting good shots but was being frustrated over and over again. Although she won the toss, and chose the ‘best’ end Carolina lost the first set 21-19.
Set 2 Silver or Gold?
Both players continued to push each other to play sparkling badminton. The tension was growing. Carolina had to get back into the game and she knew the pattern in 2019 from Nozomi was silver, silver, silver. What could be done? At 4-3 there was an exchange between the two of them which highlighted Okuhara’s hunger and desire. An exchange over the net, superb anticipation and a venomous reply taking the score to 5-3. The BWF commentary team pointed out that Marin was not her usual self between points, she was not hustling the pace along as normal. Did she have a worry about her stamina after so many months away from the tour? Nozomi continued to screw down the pressure and Marin was becoming more exasperated. Whatever she threw at her rival was coming back at her. Her only options seemed to be to try and go for the margins but this high risk strategy gave rise to more lost points. The title was moving out of her grasp until we came to 20-15 to Okuhara. Match points. Danger zone for both players. 16-20 one point saved with a savage smash; 17-20 another point saved after a long rally. Then Nozomi launched an attacked on Carolina’s backhand, moving her forward and back until it culminated in a title winning smash. Game!
A magnificent encounter that highlighted everything to love about women’s singles. Two brilliant players who went all-out for the title. Congratulations to Nozomi and commiserations to Carolina. What a time to follow women’s badminton!
Finally, some good news – after the obliteration of the badminton year I am so eager to see this tournament. The week promises plenty of excitement with old favourites up against some new faces at the Danisa Denmark Open. I especially want to see who has managed their fitness and performance levels successfully during the break so that they can seize games from ring-rusty opponents. This could be the perfect time for some of the lesser known athletes to make an impression.
This is a very strong field and my gaze is drawn to Nozomi, Carolina and Michelle Li. One of the key features of lockdown has been loneliness. Many players seem to have been isolated from their usual support groups but these three are all familiar with a training regime that – for one reason or another – tends towards solitary. Of course, any singles player, once they are standing on court needs to be mentally self-sufficient with a tough temperament.
Michelle Li is the best Canadian in world badminton; she is a top 10 player in the world rankings and has achieved this with an obstinate focus on her goals of getting on the podium at the Olympics and driving the profile of the sport in her home country. This is a tournament where she must dominate her rivals; it seems like a wonderful opportunity to progress to a final of a S750 competition. I hope she arrives in Odense in top form ready to capitalise on the absence of others.
Carolina Marin will be ready to explode onto the court like a human hand grenade. The Olympic Champion is coming to Denmark to capture a title that has always eluded her. It’s hard for challengers to defuse her aggression. She calls up a competitive energy that rivals have to disrupt to get any sort of foothold in the match. The desire to win is her essence.
Nozomi Okuhara will arrive in Denmark with a strong possibility of winning Gold. She has had a frustrating run of silver medals over the past year, so the hiatus from covid could have been a good opportunity to reset her strategies. She is such a brilliant player with a wide range of skills to draw on in any situtation; her snappy reflexes and speed across the court mean she can absorb any pressure from a rival. The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics must have been an acutely painful experience for a player whose focus was to be the champion in front of her home crowd. I think we would all relish the chance to see Nozomi enjoy success in Odense.
The homeplayers were the Gold medalists at the European Team Championships back in February and if they are on form I think either Line Kjaersfeldt or Mia Blichfeldt could have a good run. It wouldn’t be a shock to see one of them still fighting for a medal at the weekend. Beiwen Zhang is another seed who should anticipate at least a SF spot.
This sector is stacked with superb pairs and I am anticipating some epic battles.
The top three seeds are three pairs from Japan: Fukuhiro, Matsumoto/Nagahara, and Matsuyama/Shida so the problem of friendly fire could become a live issue. The key question is who will stop the final being Japan v Japan?
Maiken Fruergaard and Sara Thygesen won a lot of friends in the course of January’s Indonesian Masters. In the end they succumbed in a blockbuster of a final to the home pair, Greyap. They sustained high levels of play and a great attitude; it was probably Greysia Polii’s depth of experience that overcame them finally because during the last few points the four players were operating on muscle memory. Therefore what can we expect of the Danes in Denmark? The bottom half of the draw looks quite tricky. It’s likely they could meet Matsumoto and Nagahara in the Quarter Final so this will be the game that defines their performance.
The Stoeva Sisters‘ threat is quite hard to quantify. For sure they have high fitness levels and can outlast their opposition but there is more to winning a badminton match than this. Long rallies are no surprise in women’s doubles but they need to bring a bit more to the party if they want to be on the podium on Sunday. They can be vulnerable to aggressive attack so I would like to see them bring more of an edge to their own strategy. A quick twitter poll that I conducted in the course of writing this preview very firmly concluded that getting to the Semi Final was the best they could achieve. Boring opponents into submission is not a risk free path to gold!
A WD final that pits Fukuhiro against Matsumoto/Nagahara could be a foretaste of the Tokyo Olympic final. If this happens then despite being seeded 1, Fukuhiro could lose. When we weigh up the styles of play then Mayu and Wakana have more aggression in their makeup but no less stamina. If it all boils down to a brawl for the last few points in a three set match they should get them.
Competitive life at the highest level is limited for any athlete. We have seen players and their national associations cope with this intermission in different ways. It remains to be seen whether training at home alone, frequent holidays or self-quarantine at a training centre are the best ways to approach this unwanted break. I’ve been astonished at the apparent lack of guidance available to people. Nevertheless intuitively I believe that the competitors who have continued their usual training routines with focus and dedication should reap rewards. I am concerned that an abrupt return to competition after only light training risks injury.
This is the time for players to set down a marker. It’s unfortunate that this is one tournament in isolation followed by another long wait until we go to Thailand but the athletes who have the mental strength to cope with this disruption can use Denmark as a real life measure of how effective their lockdown training has been. Any lack of success at the Open can be a catalyst for review and improvement.
What a momentous day the 13th October will be – finally badminton returns.
I’d like to dedicate this piece to the Danish badminton authorities, fans and volunteers. Since the postponement of the original Thomas & Uber Cups there have been months of uncertainty and I can only begin to imagine the hours and money that have been expended getting to this point. Thank you!
Sometimes players burst onto the badminton scene from nations with no obvious tradition in the sport. It’s a fascinating topic to examine, not least because it includes some of our favourites. It’s remarkable that the majority of these athletes are women who play singles. Here are people who have had to break down barriers at every point in their careers and it’s arguable that a resolute focus translates best to the singles game. The loneliness of the court, often with no support staff can be a difficult challenge. To be able to meet the challenge and succeed takes an exceptional person.
Carolina Marin. The current Olympic Champion hails from a country that has never enjoyed headline success in badminton yet she has won the World Championships 3 times and has been on the podium at just about every BWF tournament at some time in her career. Initially she loved flamenco, but after watching a friend play badminton she was hooked. The sport had such a low profile in Spain it’s said that her parents had not even heard of it when she asked for her own racket. It’s important to her story that her coach – Fernando Rivas – has also been a single-minded pioneer. He is a sports scientist who has studied badminton and conducted research in other European countries. He had been a player but not the country’s best. When he arrived at the national training centre in Spain (2005) he encountered signifiicant resistence to his new approach. The prevalent culture had been shaped by an influential coach who had left but there was a reluctance to embrace a different style. The rise of Marin could not have happened without Rivas and his development of a new way of training. Likewise Rivas needed a talent like Marin to prove that his methods worked. Clearly they do; the next step is to see if a badminton legacy is created and Spain becomes a European powerhouse of the sport.
Saina Nehwal. Today Saina is a worldwide superstar whose appeal reaches far beyond sport. It’s not true to say that badminton was unknown in India before she came along because Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand had been high profile men’s shuttlers – both winners of the All England amongst other titles. Nevertheless Saina elevated the game and contributed hugely to the normalisation of women’s participation in it in so many countries. Often in the early days, her career was characterised by the phrase ‘Saina versus China’ because the world scene was dominated by exceptional Chinese players. Her determination and stubborness got her to the point where she could compete with – and beat – the world’s best. She is an inspiration to millions of people who have taken up the sport because of her. A true trailblazer.
Michelle Li is the best Canadian to compete in World badminton. Although she was born in Hong Kong her playing career began after her family settled in Canada. She receives no financial support so has to fund her tournament participation. Despite this she is a top 15 WS, who has come back from serious knee surgery
“…I kind of do everything on my own. When I’m in Canada I don’t have any training because I don’t have anyone to train with…most of my training happens in tournaments…For sure, if I win a medal in Tokyo it will get better. Nobody in Canada expected me to do well. If I can generate better results for Canada, it will change the situation.
Michelle Li in Sportstar.
Kirsty Gilmour is Scotland’s stand-out player. Recently the Scottish women’s team qualified for the Uber Cup and will make their debut in the competition with Gilmour as a key component. Although Britain has a vibrant badminton community, athletes who make it into the world top 30 are not common and it’s a tribute to her dedication that she can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world. She set her sights on Olympic qualification and this has taken her on what can be a lonely road to get enough points. She often has to compete with no coach at her side but should qualify for Tokyo as a member of TeamGB.
It’s not true to claim that these players came out of nowhere. They are athletes who have emerged from a club environment with an extra spark that has driven them to new competitive heights. Most of them are self-funded with a tiny support network compared to Chinese or Indonesian players. There are plenty more that I could have looked at: Beiwen Zhang (USA) and Yvonne Li (Germany) are two obvious examples. They are typically women who have had to work hard and sacrifice things along the way to achieve a dream. I hope we see them all compete successfully at the Olympics and continue to inspire others to enjoy a wonderful sport.
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.”