Today two brave warriors fought through the pain barrier together and probably seized a place at the World Tour Finals.
The iconic Dads are renowned worldwide for their match genius. The rock-ribbed duo will force a win when all hope seems lost. Remember the celebrated victory on three legs at the All England in 2019? This R1 win against Ellis & Langridge was on a par with that. Perhaps it was an even ‘better’ victory because we would all crawl to the arena to participate in a final but this was a game in the first round.
Shockingly the English pair raced to the first mid-game interval with an 11-2 lead. Morten spotted that Ahsan was in trouble with a leg injury. All was lost.
All was not lost. Slowly, slowly they dragged themselves back into the set. At 15-16 down there was a draining 79 shot rally and I feared for Ahsan as it progressed; but he was brave and scored the winning shot to level the score at 16-16. The set progressed to 21-21 and then somehow the Indonesian pair got two points and they were over the line. But could they continue?
As the second set progressd it became clear that the English players had lost focus. They didn’t exploit Ahsan’s lack of mobility enough. On the other side of the net the Dads drew on all their experience and tactical nous. Setiawan covered for his partner: they changed their tactics, kept the scoreboard ticking over and the rallies short. Into the interval leading 11-7. Two fighters refusing to concede. Incredibly they kept going. Calmly dealing with everything the English pair could throw at them they sealed the second set and so the match 21-15.
I named Ahsan as my player of the day but I could easily have said “Setiawan” because together these two become more than mere athletes. They are lionhearts who proved once again why they are legends. Bravo! This was an absolute priviledge to watch!
Doubles highlights everything that’s brilliant about badminton. The tempo, teamwork and tactics all combine to create an electrifying show.
The Yonex Thailand Open will be our first opportunity to watch most of these pairs since March. The impact of local Covid protocols will have caused training disruption and periods when it was impossible for partners to practice together. Some athletes will have spent the last 10 months enriching their skills whilst others will have stagnated. Now there is a fresh start for everyone and I’m impatient to see who has used this time wisely.
We have been used to the domination of the Japanese & Chinese pairs in this discipline recently so their absence is an opportunity for the other seeds – predominantly Korean and Indonesian competitors – to make a mark. Three Korean pairs are seeded: Kim/Kong (4), Lee/Shin (3) plus Chang/Kim (6) . Kim/Kong will bring a bit more to the party in terms of aggression and imaginative badminton. I wonder if the success of the Korean competitors will be determined by the performance of Apriyani Rahayu. If she can dominate the play and build off the rock-solid foundation that Greysia Polii always provides then Greyap could get to the final. The other twosome to catch the eye are the Danes: Sara Thygesen and Maiken Fruergaard. They could go far if they clear the early rounds and get into their competitive rhythm; they were outstanding at this years Indonesia Masters.
This promises to be an exhilarating event. The #1 seeds and home favourites Puavaranukroh and Taerattanachai (that is, Bass/Popor) have a fabulous opportunity for a podium finish. Blistering speed, great technique, accuracy and aggressive style mean that they are a handful for any rival, but they are still ‘work in progress’. They were beaten in this years final of the All England over three sets by #2 seeds, Praveen Jordan and Melati DaevaOktavianti and the prospect of a return match is a tantalising thought. When Jordan is focused and fit his ferocious smashes and cunning play form the bedrock of a formidable team; Melati’s pace and anticipation make them hard to dominate. So who could get in the way of these two pairs? Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith are England’s best chance of a podium spot in the whole tournament. Ellis knows how to win tough games; his mental and physical resilience are superb and Smith is just getting better and better. They lost to PraMel in the All England semi final this year and would relish the chance of revenge.
Kevin’s positive test and subsequent quarantine at home in Indonesia was a disappointment, likewise the no-show Japanese and Chinese pairs. Nevertheless, because standards are so high in this sector it is not a catastrophe for the quality of the tournament.
The brilliance and depth of talent in Indonesian badminton means that there are still 2 seeded pairs with every chance of making the final on Saturday an all-Indonesia affair. The legendary Daddies – Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan – are superb competitors with impecable standards. Setiawan’s technical ability combined with his proactive, intelligent play means that they have the resources to claw their way to victory even when they are under the most severe pressure. Their apparently nonchalent attitude on court disguises an unshakeable winning mentality. I’m a little nervous of the Indian duo Rankireddy/Shetty who they will probably play in R2. They are young, energetic and improving all the time so this is potentially a game where the Dads need to be ready to douse any fireworks that are thrown their way. Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto who are the second Indonesian seeded pair (#5) must be eyeing the podium. The English pair Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge are unseeded but could be battling them for a place in the Semi-final.
The top half of the draw opened up with the withdrawal of the Minions. The Malaysian 8th seeds Aaron Chia and Wooi Yik Soh have emphasized in recent interviews how hard they have been training during the long lay off and that they have focused on strengthening their defensive game. This could be their chance to step up and win a major tournament. The dangermen in their way will be the Russians Ivanov/Sozonov.
After such a long break these competitions will be won by the duos with the most ambition – the trophies are there for the taking. The athletes who have been able to adapt to the covid protocols in Bangkok fast without letting it disrupt focus will enjoy a huge advantage. Thailand is the heart of badminton for January with three tournaments in a row within a safety bubble: finally, after some very hard months we can say ‘Badminton is BACK!’
Indonesia’s badminton achievements at the Olympics has been outstanding. Along with rivals from Korea and China their players are the aristocrats of the sport. Badminton is a recent addition to the games, it was only introduced in 1992 and since then, the nation’s athletes have won at least one Gold at every tournament bar London 2012.
Men’s Doubles: with three pairs in the top 10 the depth of Indonesia’s talent in this sector is extraordinary. Power, speed, net skills and resilience are all key, but the essence of a successful doubles team is balance between the two players. The magnificent World #1s Sukamuljo & Gideon have been at the top for a while. Kevin’s sublime ability paired with Marcus’s more muscular game is almost irresistable, but they are not invincible. Their millions of fans must be anticipating the olympics feeling a mixture of impatience and anxiety because if an opponent manages to disrupt their prefered formation they can be vulnerable (as we saw in the 2020 All England Final). Endo/Watanabe were able to win because their strategy stopped Kevin dominating at the front. Ahsan & Setiawan are ranked #2. Hendra Setiawan is one of the greatest MD players ever; already an Olympic Gold Medalist (2008 Beijing with Markis Kido), he has won everything and then won it it again. I get goosebumps when I think about the Daddies after watching them win on three legs to clinch the 2019 All England: they are inspirational figures who play with great heart. Commentators often point to their age – it’s not irrelevent of course but that it is a small disadvantage that is outweighed by their poise and experience. Lets not forget Alfian/Ardianto: ranked #6 but as things stand these two will miss Tokyo because of the quota. This must be heart-breaking for them but the only attitude they can take is to keep competing. They are hungry and their time will come. Prediction: I’m frightened of Endo/Watanabe but I’ll say Gold for one of these pairs.
Men’s Singles: Anthony Sinisuka Ginting is a sublime player, but he can be simultaneously exciting and infuriating. His inconsistency costs him titles. When he is at his spectacular best the speed of his reactions, his touch at the net, and his courage means that he is a genuine Gold medal prospect. I would love to see a MomoGi final; at the moment Momota has the edge in their encounters but Anthony is still a developing athlete and I’m excited to see how he’ll emerge from the current hiatus. Jonatan Christie should be getting to Tokyo ranked #7. Another fine player, if he can get through the round robin stage unscathed he could have a chance at a medal. Prediction: At least one medal…& I crave a final with Anthony v. Kento.
Women’s Doubles: Two of my favourite players – Polii & Rahayu – should go to Tokyo ranked #8. This will be Greysia Polii’s last Olympics (possibly her last major competition) and she is another inspirational athlete who has served her sport well. The women’s sector is stuffed full of brilliant double’s teams and so these two may struggle to make the podium. The key to success or failure will be how Apri is deployed. We know that they can defend all day but predictable play will not be enough. I loved the way they battled when they won at the Indonesia Masters back in January and at the time I felt that their game was evolving. Apri was much more aggressive at the front and they were able to exert prolonged pressure on their opponents. Prediction: Maybe a Bronze? I hope so.
Mixed Doubles: One of the legacies of Liliyana Natsir is the XD title from the Rio games. Can the Indonesia players defend this successfully? The Mixed tournament is quite open so although on paper the Chinese duos Zheng/Huang and Wang/Huang look to be favourites at lot will depend upon how Jordan/Oktavianti and Faizal/Widjaja progress through the early stages. This competition is all about seizing the moment and if Praveen Jordan can be at his imperious peak at the right time the Gold is possible although it’s too close to call.
Womens Singles: All fans of this sector know that it is overflowing with dazzling players so for Gregoria Mariska Tunjung to survive the cut and get into the knockout stage would be great. She is a wonderful player to watch, with impressive skill and imagination. For her to make headway at the tournament outside factors will need to be in her favour in addition to her playing to her potential. If she can build up some momentum and confidence anything can happen. Tokyo will perhaps be a stage on her journey to more success rather than a defining competition.
So what then can we expect in Tokyo? Owing to the worldwide C-19 crisis everyone has had to endure disruption to training programmes and anxiety and frustration. The athletes who will triumph at the delayed games are those who have been able to maintain focus and keep their competitive hunger without burn-out. It’s a tricky balancing act because no-one can stay at peak performance for ever. Most competitiors training regimes would have been carefully constucted to peak for July 2020; so now they need to keep the pot simmering without it boiling dry. On the other hand, a break from relentless touring and a chance to address chronic injuries could be a key factor. Those who can step back and make adjustments without losing their momentum will have a huge advantage.
As an outsider looking in I see badminton as the Olympic sport where Indonesia dominates – not simply because of talented players but the influence of Indonesian coaches can be seen all over the world in other national teams. Of course we cannot ignore China’s leading position or Japan’s current abundance of world-beaters but this is what makes the tournament in prospect so thrilling. We have had extra time to build our anticipation for this event, when we emerge from quarantine and the BWF tour resumes it will be wonderful to support our favourites back on the road towards Olympic Gold.
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
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.
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.
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’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.
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!
I wanted to share some happy memories of 2019. I think it’s been a tremendous year, bursting with great shots, great games and great athletes. This is a very biased, partial view of the year and I’m sure I’ve probably missed out some of your favourites. Feel free to comment below or via twitter. We are lucky to be fans of such an amazing sport.
The Daddies have been outstanding over the past twelve months. The All England Final was an emotionally draining masterclass by Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan. At first it seemed that the calf injury to Setiawan was going to hamper their chances of the title. Aaron Chia & Soh Wuui Yik took the first set and as a ‘neutral’ embedded deep within a massive group of Malaysian fans I thought they were heading for victory. However, gradually it became apparent that the Indonesians were not going to accept silver medals. Their self-belief and tactical nous gave a vital edge and they took the deciding set 21-12; it was a dramatic, exhausting match to watch.
In isolation I would say this victory was brilliant but in the context of their successes in winning the World Championship in Basle and the BWF World Tour Final we have to acknowledge that these two are titans of the world game. I would LOVE to see them on the podium in Tokyo.
AN Se Young: the 2019 BWF Most Promising Player of the Year. In January she was ranked at 99 but by December she had risen to 9, that probably tells you all you need to know about the thrilling year she has had. As a raw talent she stunned fans with victories over Saina, Akane & Marin to win the French Open Super 750. She has no need to fear any other competitor now. She has a touch of Momota about her; patient with a great defence, she has the fitness to challenge a high tempo style and the endurance to rattle flair players. I hope she stays injury free, there is no limit to what she could achieve in 2020.
MomoGi: the rivalry between the seemingly invincible Kento Momota and Anthony Ginting has illuminated the men’s game this year.
We have witnessed some beautiful, inspiring play from Anthony and amazing stubborn resistence from Kento. As far as 2019 goes, the titles (all eleven of them) have been taken home to Japan. Momota has been immense; Anthony’s skills are fuel for his fire. Their matches never disappoint, whatever the result. 2020 will be a career-defining year for Momota and everyone has their eye on that Tokyo podium.
The English Victory Over The Danes in the Sudirman Cup: England were magnificent in this clash of the Europeans. Lauren Smith & Chloe Birch – over 3 thrilling sets – clinched it in the final match.
BWF World Junior Mixed Team Championships: I was lucky enough to get caught up in the twitter enthusiasm for this otherwise I would’ve missed a treat. Bobby Setiabudi, Daniel Marthin, Leo Rolly Carnando, Putri Kusuma Wardani, Febriana Dwipuji Kusuma, Putri Syaikah & Inda Cahya Sari Jamil – You were SENSATIONAL!
P V Sindhu with Rankireddy/Shetty. It’s been an uneven year for Indian badminton as a whole but there were two bright patches. Sindhu’s brief collaboration with coach KIM landed her the World Championship in unstoppable style. She completely annihilated Nozomi in the final with an impressive display of pressure badminton. However, she has not been able to achieve any sort of consistency to her play and has crashed out in the early rounds of tournaments; I really regret the loss of KIM, I think she could’ve got Sindhu back onto the Olympic podium, now, I’m not so sure. Satwiksairaj Rankireddy & Chirag Shetty, the winners of the Thailand Open Super 500, on the other hand, could be a good outside tip for a medal. I love their high tempo whole-hearted style.
I can’t quite believe I’ve come to the end without mentioning The Queen: Tai TzuYing. Of all the players competing at the moment she will always bring something extraordinary to the court. I want 2020 to be a year of incredible badminton for us to enjoy. Let’s hope that the athletes continue to inspire and excite all of us.