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Thomas Cup 2022 Preview

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.

Image courtesy BWF

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.

Conclusions

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.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my review of Indonesia’s triumph in 2021 here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/10/17/indonesia-win-the-thomas-cup/


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Yonex All England 2022: Women’s Preview

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.

Image courtesy of BWF

Women’s Singles

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.

Women’s Doubles

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. Pearly TAN 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.

Mixed Doubles

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 ZHENG Si 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.

Conclusions

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.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my recent article about TAI Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2022/03/02/tai-tzu-ying-at-the-all-england/


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

Sudirman Cup Review

This edition of the SC was lit up by the brilliance of the women players.  Their spirit and strength were at the heart of the most successful teams. 

Misaki Matsutomo

The return by Misaki to Women’s Doubles for this tournament was a bittersweet gift to her admirers. The scratch pairing with Mayu Matsumoto had a few rough edges yet it was a treat to watch.  Misaki is a genius at the net – her touch and vision are sensational – but the skill that lifts her to Goddess status is her will to win.  At critical moments she can find a new level and seize victory.  In the semi-final against Malaysia, especially in the second set, her drive and aggression were unplayable and they beat TAN/THINAAH to seal the win for Japan. I wish her all the best in her Mixed Double’s journey but I wish she was still playing WD.

Akane Yamaguchi – Most Valuable Player

At a pivotal time in the final Akane gave a stellar performance: she had the self-belief and resources to challenge the best and gave BirdJapan hope.  She is an outstanding defender; in the final there were patches against CHEN Yufei when she was under intense pressure from the Olympic Champion.  Her strategy of keeping her tempo and defending everything however hopeless meant that CYF could never really settle into the sort of rhythm that lets her win 5 or 6 points in a row.  Often functioning on instinct, she was simply brilliant and won the match in two games 21-19, 21-16.

CHEN Yufei

In the run-up to the final, CYF was always the nucleus of Chinese victory.  In the quarter-final against Denmark her match against Mia Blichfeldt was a ‘must win’ because China – already trailing – risked elimination 0-3 if she could not level before the Men’s Singles.  The tie was pulsating with the competitive advantage ebbing and flowing between the two athletes. She held her nerve under intense scrutiny and clung on in the decider to win. In the semi-final against Korea, she lost the first set to AN Seyoung but was resolute and sucked ASY into her patient, error-free style which suffocated resistance.  It was only in the final against Yamaguchi’s faster pace that she lost a match.

Pearly TAN & THINAAH Muralitheran

The young Malaysian pair have been catching my eye for the last year or so and they have really started to challenge some of the more established doubles teams.  They stood out in this competition because of their fighting spirit and unwillingness to concede defeat.  Against GreyAp in the quarter final they battled the Olympic Champions for 90 minutes and saved six match points.  There’s no doubt they are the rising stars of this sector and I can’t wait to watch them again.

Honourable Mentions Also To:

CHEN Qing Chen and JIA Yi Fan for closing out the final and refusing to be intimidated by MatsuMatsu. Gregoria for making a fight of it in Indonesia’s quarter final and ending the competition with a 100% record. Mia Blichfeldt for her epic encounter with CHEN Yufei, and Greysia Polii for ‘surviving’.

Congratulations to China for their twelfth win in the Sudirman Cup – even without some of their best-know stars they arrived as favourites. There were some nail-biting matches and Denmark came close to eliminating them but in the end they deserved their victory.


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved


The Olympics: Women’s Doubles Preview

Who has the edge to get Gold?  The contest for the WD title in Tokyo will suit athletes with deep reserves of stamina and resistance – however to win the battle for supremacy one of these players must be willing to turn defence into attack quickly and seize points at crucial moments.

Pic Credit Sutterstock

The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.

Japan

Recently Japan’s women have built a good record of success at the Olympics.  Silver at London 2012 (Fujii/Kakiiwa) followed by a thrilling Gold from Misaki and Ayaka in Rio: unfortunately their partnership is over but the quality of the Japanese squad means that the two pairs competing in this sector have every chance of winning it.   Yuki Fukushima / Sayaka Hirota are top seeds and should expect to top Group A.   The key to notable results will be Yuki who can drive the team forward with her precision and strength.  At the Denmark Open their victory over compatriots Mayu Matsumoto / Wakana Nagahara stemmed from her power to control the theatre of battle.  She was comfortable varying the tempo and sometimes ignored the percentage shot to go for the line. 

The third seeds – Matsumoto and Nagahara – have every chance of making the final.  Prior to the Denmark Open result I would have characterised them as the more aggressive of the two Japanese pairs so I’m intrigued how they will approach this competition.  Group B rivals shouldn’t be able to prevent them getting into the next round and so as long as they snap up chances they can eye the podium with confidence.  It’s important both pairs win their groups so they avoid potentially knocking each other out before the final.

Indonesia

Greysia Polii/ Apri Rahayu are in Group A so they will have to negotiate an early match with the tournament favourites but more worryingly their recent H2H with Malaysians CHOW/LEE makes me nervous.  That is their first game in the round robin so we will have a clearer picture of what the future may hold following that. It’s Greysia’s third Olympics and I’m confident she has the experience and resilience to get through a close tie.  Both players performed well in the Thailand bubble so they can approach the days ahead with courage.  They are my favourite WD pair and I would be thrilled to see them with a medal. Go Girls!

South Korea

Korea is sending two pairs to this competition and this is probably the discipline where they have the best chance of a medal. LEE So-hee and SHIN Seung-chan were winners of the World Tour Finals and performed consistently in the Thai bubble.  They head Group C as 4th seeds. They both have Olympic experience from Rio although with different partners then. Their height and aggressive style can unbalance opponents so I expect them to approach matches with boldness and noise.  KIM Soyeong and KONG Heeyong are starting out unseeded in Group D but I think it’s important to note their victory in the 2019 Japanese Open against top Japanese players in the Olympic venue.  KONG’s attacking strength is nicely supported by KIM and so if they get into the knockout phase they are going to be tricky to beat. 

China

CHEN Qing Chen / JIA Yi Fan are seeded 2 and in Group D.  When I watched them win the YAE2019 final I was shocked by their power, aggression and intensity.  Many fans mark them as favourites for this event but the group they are in has the potential to sap their energy: they will meet Korea’s KIM/KONG and the Stoeva sisters.  This could weaken them somewhat for the following rounds which have the potential to become wars of attrition.   Despite that, they are an intimidating couple and it would not be a shock to see them medal. The second Chinese Pair DU Yue/LI Yin Hui are unseeded in Group C and may struggle to emerge from it.  The main danger to their ambitions are the Danes Fruergaard/Thygesen who have good reserves of stubbornness to draw on in tough games.  I would never write off any Chinese pair in this competition though.  Up until 2016 they had a stranglehold on Gold and I’m certain they want ‘their’ medal back!

Conclusions

If any of these pairs can defend against the overwhelming firepower of the Chinese duo CHEN/JIA they will probably be the ones at the top of the podium. We haven’t watched any of the players from China in ages but we know that the second seeds are formidable. It’s a competition where gritty self-belief fused with physical resilience will create the gap between medal success and failure. South Korea and Indonesia are providing the dark horses but as far as the Gold goes it’s hard to look further than China or Japan. I expect FukuHiro to be more strategically nimble than the others so if the seeding unfolds predictably they could be the ones celebrating on finals day.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my other Olympic previews here:

Women’s Singles https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/07/17/the-olympics-womens-singles-preview/

and Men’s Doubles https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/07/15/the-olympics-mens-doubles-preview/

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

CHEN Yu Fei

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/

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Yonex All England 2020 pt 2

Doubles: The Bonfire of My Anxieties

Doubles is intense, it is the supreme embodiment of badminton. Fierce battles rage across the court; pace, power and guile form the contours of the match. The finest tournament in the world has an extra pressure this time around because it is Olympic year: many still strive to win enough ranking points to compete in Tokyo. This is great news for fans who love drama and stress but if you need a quiet life…look away now!

“Two people until the end, do not regret” Matsutomo

Indonesia

The magnificent MD athletes from Indonesia simply shine on every stage. Intensity, resilience and desire add up to some wonderful players.

The 2019 title holders – Mohammad Ahsan & Hendra Setiawan – famously won on 3 legs last year after an all-consuming final. I love them. They are outstanding players and incredible ambassadors for the sport. They have every chance of playing in the final so long as they carefully manage their old legs.

Gideon & Sukamuljo are top seeds and have a heavy weight of expectation loaded on their shoulders. At their best, with Marcus as reliable foundation and Kevin riffing around him they are simply unbeatable. Gorgeous shots, dazzling reactions and relentless athleticism raise the sport to heights few others can aspire to.

Fajar Alfian & Muhammad Rian Ardianto are seeded 5 and got to the Semi Final last year. Their high energy explosive game puts them firmly in the ‘fast ‘n’ furious’ camp; they should still be in the competiton by finals weekend.

If we consider WD then Greysia Polii & Apri Rahayu have had a great start to 2020 and if they play in the same way that took them to victory at the Indonesia Masters they will get to the semi-finals. I think they are more successful when Apri is decisive at the forecourt. I’ve mentioned before that their game and competitive strategy is evolving. Her power and confidence means they can really dominate rallies – they shouldn’t resort to defensive clears as a default tactic. I think they were fortunate to win the Spanish Masters because there were times when their gameplan slipped back to the 2019 version of themselves. The other Indonesian pair, Ramadhanti & Sugiarto, are in the same part of the draw as Greyap.

Japan

Park Joo-Bong – the legendary head coach – has overseen Japanese players challenge the traditional Chinese dominance in all sectors. This often means that their biggest rivals are each other.

As far as WD is concerned we are in the heart-rending position of knowing that only 2 out of the 3 top pairs from Japan are going to qualify to play in their home Olympics. The quest for points overshadows tournaments and I think the risk is that the four players who make the cut will be mentally exhausted by the time July arrives. That said, a win at the All England could virtually cement some players positions. Matsumoto & Nagahara are seeded 2 and were runners-up in 2019. Fukushima & Hirota are third seeds and are desperate to progress. And so we come to Matsutomo & Takahashi who are seeded 7 in Birmingham. Can the defending Olympic Champions get a podium finish? They need to focus every atom of experience and desire because they have a hard road to the final which includes a possible CHEN/JIA QF followed by compatriots who need success too. This is another pair who need to look after old legs.

The two main MD pairs Sonoda/Kamura and Endo/Watanabe are consistently excellent players who have to compete in a sector stuffed with Indonesian brilliance. I particularly like the fast and furious style of Sonoda/Kamura but that’s not enough to beat Marcus and Kevin. It’s possible either pair could get to a SF and then anything could happen, particularly if they can be more unpredictable with the pace they attack at.

China

Some say that China is not the dominant force it’s been in the past yet Chinese athletes are defending 3 titles at the All England this year. The strength is in the women’s sector; for now, the men are being eclipsed by the depth of other nation’s squads.

#1 Seeds and WD defending Champions CHEN Qingchen & JIA Yifan are aggressive, tough players. They are great at ratcheting up the pressure on their opponents: they can zero in on a victim with pitiless ferocity by using hard flat drives and fast smashes. Who can stop them winning? DU Yue & LI YinHui are seeded 6th but it’s hard to see them getting as far as the weekend.

There’s only one seeded pair in the MD: LI Junhui & LIU Yuchen – China used to be such a powerhouse but now the talented players in Indonesia and Japan dominate the rankings. Li & Liu are clever athletes; they can play a power game but they are also capable of varying the tempo and this can cause frustration for players like Sukamuljo. It can be a very smart tactic to break up the flow of the game against the Minions. It’s been pointed out that if Li/Liu run out of ideas they resort to a monotonous smashing game; that isn’t going to work in the big arena. Realistically I think they are going to struggle to get beyond QF.

Korea?

Korea’s WD players are experiencing a similar headache to their Japanese counterparts. As things stand there are still 4 pairs who could qualify for Tokyo. In Birmingham Lee So-Hee/Shin Seung-chang and Kim So-yeong/Kong Hee-yong are seeded 5 and 6 and look to be most likely to challenge. The drama over the past few weeks has been around the MD/XD player Seo Seung-jae who was suspended then not suspended by his national association (BKA) following confusion around sponsorship deals he had signed. It seemed disproportionate to punish his partners and destroy their hopes for this year so I’m glad he’s back in the mix.

Realistically I think we can only say that the WD teams have an outside chance of medals owing to the strength of the opposition. However, it’s interesting to observe that Korean badminton coaches enjoy plenty of success working away from home. I’ve already mentioned Park Joo-Bong and Japan, there is also Kang Kyung-jin who works with the Chinese squad plus Coach Kim who worked in India with PV Sindhu in the period she became World Champion.

Conclusions

China, Japan and Indonesia look set to see off opposition from the other nations for the doubles crowns. I adore following doubles; the tactics, tempo and talent mean that for fans the spectacle is second-to-none. The spine-tingling experience of watching the spotlit pairs as they play for glory at the All England is a joy. Ahsan & Setiawan had a fantastic 2019 and it would be wonderful to see them defend their title. As the tournament progresses, the tension will rise, legs will tire and towards the end it’s mental strength and an athletes appetite for the fight that gets them to the podium. May the best team win!


My preview of the WS part of the tournament is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/03/yonex-all-england-2020-pt1/

If you enjoyed this then take a look at my article about Polii and Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/ and this one about Kevin & Marcus https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

CHEN Qing Chen & JIA Yi Fan

Chinese players were the dominant force of the 2019 All England Championships: of the five titles up for grabs they won three.  The current holders of the Women’s Doubles trophy, CHEN Qing Chen and JIA Yi Fan will be in an upbeat mood as they analyse the year they had – altogether six tournament victories – and optimistic about meeting the challenges ahead. 

Women’s Doubles is contested by lots of talented twosomes from all over the badminton playing world but it’s interesting to note that there is no Momota-like presence who rules supreme.  Consider the five Super750 tournaments from last year, remarkably they were each won by different pairs.  However, CHEN & JIA have the competitive edge when we look at the most coveted trophies on the tour, the Super1000.  They are able to inject a bit of extra sparkle under pressure and this enabled them to win two of the 3 – the YAE & the China Open – and bronze in the third.  This trio of elite competitions are the ones that all players want to win, so to bag two in a year is a mark of superiority and it illustrates their enjoyment of performing on the big stage in front of a large crowd.

What is it about this partnership that makes them thrive at the highest level?  They have been playing together for years and so the crucial foundation of rotation and mutual support has become effortless.  The flow of movement is very smooth, this underpins their attacks and lets them pummel opponents into defeat.  Crucially they both have reliable serves (the most important shot in the game in my opinion) so unlike some of their rivals they can expect to gain control of the rally right from the start.  And, of course, they have the expertise of the Chinese coaches to support them at every match.

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CHEN is a pressure player, always busy with energy and focus.  Good technique means she can generate a lot of power despite her lack of height (164cm).  Her superb cross-court smashes are unleashed with ferocity and accuracy to gain a lot of points for the team.  At the start of her senior career she competed in Mixed and Women’s Doubles and has enjoyed success in both.  Nowadays she concentrates more on WD but playing against men has informed her style.  She’s brave, resolute and will face down aggression easily.  She provoked headlines at the YAE last year when she cut short her celebrations, trimmed her lap of honour and avoided the spotlights.  She explained later that she wanted a low profile so as not to distract her friend CHEN Yufei, who was about to enter the arena to play her Women’s Singles final.  This shows a good mark of respect for her teammates and a lack of ego.

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It’s often said – most notably by the great Morten Frost – that JIA Yi Fan is the key to this partnership’s success.  If she is playing to her potential then they tend to win.  She is left-handed and like CHEN can produce a lot of power.  She is a decisive player who will smash, follow-up and then bury the shuttle to clinch a point.  Her flat drives build pressure to force mistakes especially when she puts them together in her attacking sequences. She has a delicate touch at the net too, and can take the sting out of a speeding shuttle to wrongfoot opponents.

As a pair they play at a high tempo and with venom.  I watched their semi-final and final in Birmingham last year and was stunned by their hostile bombardment of their opponents.  The experience of seeing them play live was memorable because the speed and accuracy they can produce is overwhelming.  They can be unceasingly intense and often opponents get pinned down midcourt as flat vicious drives and smashes zero in on them.  I always think that the attacking combination of a lefty with a conventional right-hander is a mix guaranteed to unsettle rivals.  They have to unpick their muscle memory to modify the standard defence routines so a proportion of their automatic responses to pressure are obsolete.

Can they retain their title in Birmingham?  They’ve begun the year in anticlimactic fashion at the Malaysian Masters but I don’t think we should read anything major into that result. As we know, 2020 is Olympic year which is significant to the focus of athletes’ training cycles. The danger from the Japanese WD pairs is huge. There are lots of players who are going to be pushing to the limit because qualification for Tokyo is restricted to two WD pairs per country.  Fukushima and Hirota, Matsumoto and Nagahara, not to mention the current Olympic Champions Matsutomo and Takahashi all need success in England.

So, there are threats to CHEN & JIA’s desire to make it two in a row in Birmingham but not many players who have the firepower that they can bring to a match.  The pace and power they unleash is breath-taking. Momentum in sport is so important and any athlete with ambitions to win in March will need to bring their best game to the All England.  On the big stage, in the important competitions is where this Chinese pair shine and there is no better tournament for them to cement their legend.


This first appeared on the Yonex All England website

If you enjoyed this you may like my article about one of their biggest rivals, Fukuhiro https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/

Or this one about Polii & Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Chinese Men’s Doubles

China is traditionally one of the powerhouses of world badminton. There have been times when their players have been able to totally dominate tournaments and yet now, if we look at the portfolio of athletes there are some vulnerabilities. In Men’s Doubles particularly, there is such a depth of ability in other countries – for example from Indonesia and Japan – that I think they will struggle to make an impact in Tokyo unless changes happen. The coaching setup is second-to-none and when it was announced back in September that for the first time they had signed up non-Chinese coaches (Kang Kyung Jin and Yoo Yong Sung from Korea) there was an implicit admission that improvements were needed.

These are some of the thoughts of Daniel DM who looked at the key pairs in the sector

LIU Yuchen & LI Junhui – Current Status: World #4

The 2018 World Champions have been partners since they were juniors and back in 2017 briefly achieved world #1 status. They are two tall hard-hitters who can find a lot of attacking power. They prefer to play at a fast pace but they have the ability to vary this when they meet highspeed opponents; so for example they will slow the tempo to frustrate Kevin and Marcus when they face them. Yuchen has great net play: his height allows him the advantage of a long reach so passing him is tricky. He can often seize control of a rally right at the start by his flat, forceful serve returns. Junhui’s strength can penetrate walls, so his muscles are a massive asset in any game. Unusually for such tall men they are light on their feet with very smooth movement and good spatial awareness.

There are some weaknesses. They can break super defensive opponents, but sometimes it doesn’t work. For example, at the World Tour Finals in 2019 LI/LIU became very frustrated when facing Endo/Watanabe and it had an impact on their gameplay. Their shots became monotonous and lacked variation. They tried smashing but of course – in that super slow hall – it didn’t work. The Endo/Watanabe counter-attack could destroy them easily. They also can struggle with an effective response to flat, fast shots that come just over the net. Rankireddy & Shetty have used this strategy against them and they can, on occasion, find it hard to escape that trap once momentum has turned against them. However, they are both gritty fighters who can cope with pressure; in the final of the 2018 Thomas Cup we saw them hold steady and defend two match points before converting one of their own to gain victory for the Chinese team.

HAN Chengkai & ZHOU Haodong – Current Status World #11

Winners of the BWF Most Promising Player award in 2018 these two really rose to prominance in that year. They are fierce and love to attack; if an opponent tries to match them they feed off speed and can boss the game. Surprisingly over the past year their defence has become a little fragile, but they have a strong defence in a slow hall, with fast pace. A MD pair like Kevin/Marcus have a hard time beating them. But for pairs that are patient with a strong defence (like Kamura/Sonoda, Astrup/Rasmussen & Boe/Conrad) they can lose; rivals have to control the tempo and then they are more vulnerable.

HE Jiting & TAN Qiang – Current Status World #15

These are a really fascinating duo because they don’t fit the usual pattern of Chinese MD. I have noticed that they play at a different tempo to the others, they are not so quick, more moderate and so this allows them to play a more tactically varied game. They bring more to tournaments than the MD standard of hard smashes and fast movement. They have an effective dropshot and are good allrounders. HE also plays mixed doubles with DU Yue and I believe that this influences his style; he is good at covering his partner defensively from the rear court.

DI Zijiang & WANG Chang – Current Status World #33

The upcoming juniors play at a high tempo with fast reactions and plenty of power. Their style has a lot of agility, they are happy to chase and put pressure on their rivals. It’s going to be fascinating to see them step up into the senior ranks; they need to improve their defence but they have time to work on this.

Conclusions

There are two phrases that keep cropping up: fast and powerful. These are the skills that we traditionally associate with Men’s Doubles but on their own they are not enough. With all the resources available to the elite players in China we should see them challenging more consistently for the top positions on the podium. What does 2020 hold? It’s going to be exciting finding out.


If you enjoyed this take a look at this article about the Minions https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/ or this one about CHEN Yufei https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/03/another-sensational-player-from-china-chen-yu-fei/

Fuzhou China Open: WS Preview

The excitement and unpredictability of WS comes from the brilliance of the athletes involved. So what can we expect from the final Super750 tournament of 2019? R1 will have a shock exit, either Carolina Marin or TAI Tzu Ying will depart early because they have drawn each other in the first game of the competition. Neither of them can risk a sluggish start to that match.

TAI Tzu Ying: Seeded 1

A traumatic first round game awaits Tai Tzu Ying’s fans as she meets Carolina Marin. This clash is the pick of the first day: Zen-like calm meets shouty #1. TTY has no equal when it comes to technique. Her beautiful style belies an intensity below the surface; unusually during the French Open there were glimpses of a player desperate to win. There was less acceptance of error and more ferocity. Her exceptional play in the QF against Sindhu did seem to have a physical cost that she paid in the SF against Marin. This time she wont have been softened up. Prediction: Final.

P V Sindhu: seeded 6

The mark of a great player is never to be satisfied, to look for constant improvement, and it’s clear that Sindhu had been renovating her game under the guidance of coach KIM. The superb World Championship win has been followed by some disappointment in the smaller tournaments on the BWF tour but her QF collision with TAI Tzu Ying in Paris was an immense game: pacy, skilful and aggressive albeit grumpy at times. Coach KIM has had to leave but her gift to PVS was to resurrect her self-confidence as a player. I think Sindhu has recaptured her focus despite all the hullabaloo that seems to accompany her life. She’s World Champ, she has Olympic silver, she has nothing to prove yet she has the inner drive to push herself to new achievements. Prediction: Early exit or Final.

AN Se Young: Unseeded
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The young and hungry ASY will fear no-one in this competition. Her victory against Marin in the French Open final – at 17 the youngest winner ever – leaves no doubt that she is a star on the rise. She is writing the future now. Her ability, drive and intelligence joined with the quality of the Korean coaching set up means she can expect to compete at the highest level for years. Prediction: SF

Nozomi Okuhara: World #1

I’ve mentioned in the past that Nozomi’s over reliance on her (outstanding) retrieval skills can hinder her hunt for points at key moments in a match so recently it’s been refreshing to see her sharpening her sword a little with more aggressive smashes down the lines. Her win against Marin in Denmark was terrific. Now, with Tokyo2020 in her sights, she has to be able to seize the initiative in games that count. Her World #1 status was confirmed at the end of October and is a reflection of her consistent appearances in finals recently. Prediction: Final.

The Home Team? CHEN Yu Fei & HE Bing Jiao

Home advantage can be a double-edged sword: the expectations of a raucous, knowledgable crowd may weigh heavy but I think the benefits balance this out. Less travel time, more cultural harmony, along with the support of family and friends amounts to a small competitive bonus point.

CHEN Yufei goes into this tournament as defending champion and third seed. She rolled her ankle in the SF of the Danish Open which should’ve healed by now, so we can expect her to be sharp and ready for action. CYF is an intelligent strategist, often beating rivals by conserving her energy until the final few points in a game, then accelerating. Prediction: QF

HE Bing Jiao has had less podium success than her compatriot. The Korea Open title was her first for 3 years and it may be that this success will give her confidence a boost; she is a fantastic player who just needs to transform competing well into winning. Often she uses a similar strategy to CYF – wait, wait, wait, pounce. Prediction QF

Ratchanok Intanon: seeded 5

May’s precise, technical style is always a joy to watch but she has been vulnerable to rivals like HE and CHEN. She has beautiful shots in her armoury and rather like TAI Tzu Ying it’s clear she revels in her skill. I like her courage in games although this can occasionally backfire: there are times when she would win the point without having to aim for the lines, playing the percentages does have a place at the elite level – it could be worth only 2 or 3 points but that can be the difference between a podium finish and early exit. She is a brave player who never gives up even when it seems the game is lost. A favourite of mine, her gracious on-court behaviour and her never-say-die attitude are admirable. Prediction Semi-Final.

Saina Nehwal: Seeded 8
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Saina’s fluency has suffered this year because of injuries but at last it seems that she is beginning to regain her fitness. The loss in the QF of the French Open to AN Se Young was an honourable defeat; as we expect from Saina she fought hard (scoreline 22-20, 23-21) and was beaten by the eventual champion. Her fans hopes of watching her compete successfully in Tokyo are growing. Prediction QF

Akane Yamaguchi: Seeded 2

A wonderful July – culminating in the world #1 slot – has been overshadowed somewhat by the following three months. A persistant injury has disrupted training and she has suffered regular R1 exits. Definite signs appeared in the Yonex French Open that she is emerging from this problem; she enjoyed a run of games up until defeat at the semi-final stage. In the context of recent weeks that was a great result and I hope she will take a lot of encouragement from her performance. Prediction SF

Carolina Marin: Unseeded
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Marin’s return to the game has been at full-throttle. Forget about a gentle easing back to competition; her pace and aggression around the court are undiminished. AN Se Young gave her a good working over in the final of the French Open though. She was pushed back frequently – to both sides – only to fall prey to sharp smashes right on the trams. For someone with a good reach it was a surprise that she was vulnerable to this attack. Prediction – not sure!

In Conclusion

This is an exciting competition with clashes of styles and generations to look forward to. Can AN Se Young keep building her momentum? Will TAI Tzu Ying cut out the infuriating errors? The excellence of the players in this tournament means the title will be won by the person who copes best with early round challenges and local conditions. As the athletes advance through the week the pressure will intensify; I hope to be astonished by amazing comebacks, outrageous shots and a winner who seizes her moment of glory.


Follow the link to my recent look at Gregoria Mariska Tunjung https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/09/08/indonesias-gregoria-mariska-tunjung/

And this link takes you to my article about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Yonex French Open: MS Preview

Men’s Singles is dominated by the majestic Momota; as the tour exchanges Denmark for France we can expect him to overshadow his side of the draw, but aside from him there are stacks of other athletes who could triumph at this competition if they can find consistency alongside skill. The men’s tournament will be full of explosive power, dazzling speed and brilliant shots.

Kento Momota: Unbeatable?

Will anyone ask the imperious Momota a question he cannot answer on court in Paris? This phenomenal player has brushed aside all challenges this year; it’s hard to identify any weakness. This puzzle is intriguing. Other players have better smashes, better endurance and more delicate net play but no other athlete can match his mental strength, consistency and his all round game. He is criticised for being too passive at times but it gets results so he doesn’t have to apologise for that! Often I think he plays at a constant pace (albeit fast) so it would be intriguing if a rival took a more stop/start approach to a match with him to see if it would disrupt his concentration. Prediction: Final (of course).

Antony Ginting: Seeded 8

Ginting is such a wonderful and exasperating player to follow. He’s more of an artist than the majority of the men’s players, his touch and technical skill is a joy to watch. I genuinely feel he could challenge Momota if only he could be more consistent. Crashing out in R1 of the Danish Open is simply unacceptable and yet it was unsurprising. He could meet Momota in the QF and so my prediction is QF exit, probably without his opponents sweaty shirt this time.

Viktor
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One of the best loved players on the circuit, Viktor’s year has been disrupted by injury and his susceptibility to summer allergies. However his performance in his home town of Odense at the Denmark Open saw him returning to his best. Although he lost in the SF to CHEN Long he played well: his smashes were fast and steep, his net shots were intelligent and delicate – it was a close match. He is returning to his best form. The road to the final is a tough one at the bottom half of the draw to include CHOU Tien Chen and Anders Antonsen. Prediction Final. Maybe.

CHOU Tien Chen: The OTHER Great Player From Taiwan

Seeded 2 he has a demanding path to the final but he is a fierce and strong competitor with a great smash. When he won the Indonesian Open against Antonsen he was able to control the net and keep the pressure on without being particularly spectacular in his play. The remarkable thing was his endurance and willingness to give everything for the title. To beat the #1 seed he will have to bring a bit more to the party. Prediction SF.

Clip courtesy of the BWF
CHEN Long: The Defending Champion

CHEN Long’s struggles with motivation since winning Olympic Gold in Rio are well-documented. However, I think this is probably his only weakness. He has the might of the Chinese coaching gang behind him, and a great all-round game where he is able to control the net to force points. His victory over Viktor in Odense seemed to be because he stuck with it, kept the shuttle in play, kept body smashing and seemed able to turn the screw at the last few points of every game. It’s a simple enough strategy that proved to be effective. Prediction SF

Anders Antonsen

Antonsen’s results have been on an upward trajectory over the last few months, he’s aggressive, fast and agile around the court. He was the beaten finalist at the Indonesian Open (to CHOU Tien Chen), the World Championship Final (to Momota) and beaten semi-finalist at the Denmark Open (to Axelsen). There’s no doubt he is a rising star of the men’s game but his physical prowess can be matched by the other seeds so he has to ensure he brings something more to his matches; more strategy and deception allied to his brute power. Prediction QF

Jonatan Christie

If Indonesia is going to win titles in the singles sector then Jojo should be a player who steps up alongside Ginting. Just like Ginting his form ebbs and flows to frustrate his millions of supporters. He’s capable of beating any player in the top ten – including Momota – he needs to exploit his emotions and focus the passion to benefit his superb skills. He could face a double Dane onslaught with possible Antonsen QF and then Axelsen SF: it’s a lot to ask for him to reach the final of this one. Prediction SF.

In Conclusion

Often I seen MS in terms of who, if anyone, is going to upset Momota? Realistically it’s hard to see beyond him. Shi Yuqi is expected to be absent owing to his continued recuperation from ankle injury. If only Ginting or Christie could borrow some of the Minions reliable form then the men’s side of singles could be as open and unpredictable as the womens game. As it is, Momota is in magnificent form, no one is able to unsettle his composure. It looks like this is another tournament waiting for him to win.


here is my recent article about The Queen: Tai Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

and this one about Nozomi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved