We have to wait a little longer than expected to see if CHEN Yu Fei will follow in the footsteps of LI Xuerui, ZHANG Ning and GONG Zhichao to win Olympic Gold. It’s indisputable that she would have expected to be on the podium if the tournament had gone ahead in July.
CHEN Yu Fei’s victory at the 2019 Yonex All England kickstarted a year which climaxed in December when she was crowned world #1. She is the first Chinese Women’s Singles player since LI Xuerui to achieve this distinction. Still only 21, CHEN Yu Fei has enjoyed an extraordinary run of success since her triumph over TAI Tzu Ying in Birmingham last March. In the return encounter in March 2020 TTY reversed the previous year’s result but there is no doubt that she ill be a key competitor in the Olympics in 2021.
The talent and quality in this generation of Women’s Singles players is magnificent. Part of the appeal of this sector is that there is no particular style that dominates every tournament. The fitness of the athletes, their technical skills and tactical sense all mean that results can be erratic. Some key players have lacked consistency – for instance Sindhu and Akane have had a tendency to crash out in the early rounds of competition. Others, like Saina and Marin have had their seasons disrupted by injuries. However, CHEN Yu Fei has been a reliable presence most of the time with the stand-out ability to win in a final once she gets to it.
As a 21-year-old, with the backing of the Chinese coaching establishment to support her she can continue to develop and extend herself; the improvement since 2018 has been stellar which reveals her commitment and focus. CHEN has been identified as perhaps the spearhead of a renaissance in Chinese women’s singles. For instance, not so long ago they dominated the All England. Between 2000 and 2014 there were 11 winners and 12 runners-up in this sector but then the talent seemed to dry up. Since then only one podium spot (WANG Shixian in 2016) until CHEN’s title win in 2019.
The foundation of CHEN Yu Fei’s badminton is quite simple. She is a fine player with excellent all- round mastery of the game. Her physical durability is such a positive feature; consistent fitness allows her training to build up to tournaments in a controlled way. She is an extremely intelligent strategist, always alert to opportunities to gain points. Her tendency to rebalance her game as the match progresses is a major asset; this responsiveness to threats means that if she can stay in a game when she is under pressure, she can often grind out a win. Her default strategy is patience. Frequently, against someone who relies more on flair and deception, she will sit back and let them play. She has got endless stamina. She can wait for a storm to blow itself out and then pounce. I love the way she will cleverly conserve energy: she can keep the shuttle in play and then towards the last few points in a set she can accelerate away and inflict defeat. Against players with suspect resilience this is a brutally efficient approach. It’s a method of increasing pressure because her rival will feel the desire to win the game briskly or else risk running out of energy. This is the trap that is set. The need to win provokes mistakes and often the match spirals away. The temptation is to risk more, to aim for the lines, to score a quick point. This makes compelling theatre for spectators but is ineffective most of the time.
Patience is at the core of her strategy and if I had to single out a weakness, I would say that this can stray into an avoidance of risk. In a very close match, the ability to be unpredictable can make the difference between Silver and Gold.
She returned to the Yonex All England a tougher player than ever: as well as her tour triumphs she had a central role in China’s Sudirman Cup victory. She was seeded #1 and got to the final but was out-thought by TAI Tzu Ying. Her main rival had arrived at the party with a new strategy; this time TTY played with patience and picked her moments to attack. CYF just could not get a foothold in the game and lost it in straight sets.
When the BWF tour resumes it will be fascinating to see what she has learned from this loss because acheiving the correct balance between risk and safety, attack and defence is going to be crucial in her progress to the podium in Tokyo.
If you enjoyed this follow the link to my most recent look at TTY https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/23/tai-tzu-ying-the-triple-champion/ and this is an a piece I wrote in 2019 about CYF https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/03/another-sensational-player-from-china-chen-yu-fei/
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