Greysia’s farewell party is at Istora on the last day of the Indonesia Masters – the rumours are true; she is finally hanging up her racket. It is a chance for Indonesian badminton fans to celebrate her successes and for her to put an official full stop to a wonderful career.
“I was born to be a badminton player…I wanted to make history for Indonesia”
GreyAp’s Gold medal match at the Olympics was dazzling; they played their best game at the perfect moment and wrote themselves into Indonesian badminton legend.
2021 was the Golden Year but there have been countless twists and turns in a lifetime of badminton achievements. There have been critical moments along the way when she could have given up the sport and found a conventional job. The thing about Greysia is that she really does live the motto #Comebackstronger: she is brave and resilient. If she gets knocked down, she just gets back up again, greets the hard tests with a smile and continues the fight
It must have been tempting to walk away from the sport following her harsh treatment at London 2012. The black card was a shocking sanction especially with a suspension on top, but she endured this and then rekindled her career with Nitya Krishinda Maheswari.
Between 2013-2016 the duo stepped up a level and proved that Indonesia’s WD had the quality to compete against the best. Their 2014 Asian Games gold was evidence they relished testing themselves against the world’s finest pairs. Over the next 2 years they consistently reached finals and semis; as the Rio Olympics loomed, they were ranked 2 in the world with every hope of a medal. Disappointingly their 100% record in the group stages was shattered in the QF, and they returned home empty handed.
Nitya’s injuries meant her career was at an end so for a second time Greysia contemplated her own exit. It was a pivotal moment; her 30th birthday was on the horizon, and there was no obvious partner for her to continue with. At this point fate took a hand in the form of Eng Hian who persuaded her to defer retirement so that she could help to mentor some of the juniors. In 2017 along came a young, raw Apriyani Rahayu. Success together came quickly (2017 Thailand Open and 2017 French Open) but it was a sector full of high caliber pairs and they were never able to totally dominate , after a couple of years some analysts believed they were reaching the limit of what they could achieve together.
History tells us that the analysts were wrong and they completely underestimated Greysia Polii’s fighting spirit and commitment to her sport. She is an athlete who is strong and smart and will always be remembered as Indonesia’s first WD Olympic Gold medalist. I still cry when I watch the end of that match, don’t you? Thanks for everything Greysia and Happy Retirement.
A sparkling line-up in all the women’s sectors promises some brilliant battles ahead. The stars are back! The German Open has been full of upsets with some seeds struggling to impose themselves on the tournament. Let’s see if this unpredictable picture lingers into England.
Three-time winner TAI Tzu Ying usually has a scintillating presence on court & brings stardust to any tournament; exceptional racket skills and unconventional genius means that she will be challenging for the title. However there are some big challenges ahead. In 2021 Akane Yamaguchi hit a dazzling run of form. Liberation from Olympic expectations unleashed a new focus, her fitness has returned, and she must be eyeing the trophy with confidence. These two are seeded to meet in the final in a repeat of 2018. On that occasion TTY triumphed so Akane will want revenge. Neither of them were on good form in Germany; both crashing out in their R2 matches so they both must step up their play if they want the trophy.
China is consistently producing exceptional women players. It’s astonishing to realise that CHEN Yufei – the current Olympic champion – is only seeded #3. Of course she has not been able to participate fully in the tour owing to China’s Covid restrictions. She is a deadly opponent who can drain the fight from a rival before putting them to the sword. The bottom half of the draw is arguably able to offer her a smooth journey to the SF and a potential game versus Akane or Sindhu. Realistically her consistency and fitness make her favourite for this title. HE Bing Jiao is always a bit of an enigma. During the pandemic she has become leaner, but has she become meaner? I think we will probably find out if she makes it to a QF with her compatriot CHEN Yu Fei. After beating Akane in Germany her confidence should be sky high. The other notable Chinese player bringing form to the UK is ZHANG Yi Man who dispatched Sindhu in three sets in Mulheim. She meets CYF in R1 so it’s a tough ask to expect progress.
As the defending champion Nozomi Okuhara has little to prove but has a harsh draw to negotiate. She has remained quite low profile since Tokyo but in December – for the third year running – was crowned winner at the All Japan Badminton Championships. In the first couple of rounds she’ll have to overcome a double Danish challenge; in R1 round she is meeting Denmark’s Line Christophersen then R2 could offer Mia Blichfeldt. Further in, TAI Tzu Ying, May or AN Se Young await. She will need to be on her game from the moment she steps onto court on day 1.
Is this going to be AN Se Young’s tournament? The top half of this draw offers a lot of banana skins & she would probably have to overcome May, TTY or Nozomi to get to the final. This is my worry. I’m a little unconvinced that her stamina will hold up through a bruising tournament – the cumulative effect of game after game after game does have a cost, so she must be tactically clever and try to conserve energy wherever possible.
Ratchanok Intanon was in good form at the Olympics; the battle with TTY in Tokyo was outstanding and there is a possible repeat of that epic match in prospect in the semi-final. First May has to negotiate early rounds that include ASY. Under pressure she often she executes extraordinary shots, disdains percentage play and can unravel a rival with her extravagant skill. I love to watch her compete like this but I think sometimes it’s the consequence of a desire to speedily finish off a rival; if they manage to hang in the game there can be Trouble.
The renowned Big Game Player – Pursala V Sindhu – is hard to analyse. She has an Olympic bronze from 2021 but often over the past 2 or 3 years she has struggled to build a winning momentum that takes her all the way to the top of the podium. She wasn’t able to progress beyond R1 at the German Open in the run-up to this tournament so I’m not sure what we can expect. She is one of the best of her generation but Akane awaits in the QF.
I see CHEN Yufei as favourite for this title. However Akane enjoyed impressive form at the end of 2021; if anyone can beat her they are serious contenders.
All the badminton community is anticipating the international return of FukuHiro with warmth in their hearts. They are such a likeable pair: their spirit against the odds at the Tokyo Olympics was admired the world over. We have watched Yuki Fukushima joining forces with other players whilst Sayaka Hirota recuperated from knee surgery but now is an opportunity to see them attempt to recapture the title they won together in 2020. It’s hard to estimate where they are in terms of form and fitness. They will have to take one match at a time and see what happens. Nothing is impossible for two of the best players on the circuit.
The #1 seeds (and winners in 2019) can be a real handful for any opponent. CHEN Qing Chen is a valiant, tireless player who screws down the pressure whilst left-handed JIA Yi Fan loves to smash or get a hard flat rally going. They both have plenty of power and use it with venom. If it boils down to a brawl at the end of a game for the last few winning points then probably the Chinese pair will edge through. If they bring their A game to Birmingham, they will be unstoppable.
It’s been a while since Korea won the WD title in Birmingham. In fact, it was 2017 when LEE So-hee won it with CHANG Ye-na. What a record LEE has of competing and winning at the highest levels in badminton over nearly a decade. She is seeded 2 with SHIN Seung-chan and they kick off their campaign with a tricky tie against the Stoevas. KIM So-yeong and KONG Hee-yong are seeded 3 in the top half of the draw – both pairs have all the skills to get to finals weekend and once they are there anything can happen.
2021 was a break-out year for Nami Matsuyama and Chiharu Shida who upped their competitive levels and enjoyed plenty of success at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton. Their creative aggression marks out the evolution of the Japanese house style. I’m excited to see if they continue their development into the last stages of this competition.
I’m not neutral, I’ve followed and admired Greysia Polii for years. That gold medal win at the Olympics was one of my happiest badminton days so I want to watch the 6th seeds go deep into this competition. Although the GreyAp partnership remains in place for Birmingham it’s noteworthy that Apriyani Rahayu planned to be with a different partner at the German Open but unfortunately a minor injury scuppered that idea. PBSI have to plan for the future but I hope the Olympic Champions play well in Birmingham, no injuries and do themselves justice.
The current champions Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara who habitually win big events have been forced to withdraw because of a knee injury sustained during training.
This doubles competition does have the potential for a few upsets from unseeded pairs. PearlyTAN and Thinaah Muralitheran never know when they are beaten and their opponents are always in for a difficult hour or so on court. Likewise Maiken Fruergaard and Sara Thygesen can mix it with the best – in round one they face GreyAp and that’s a tricky challenge for the sixth seeds.
I want to include XD in my women’s preview because I believe that it’s the performance of the woman in the duo that leads to victory . The role of the woman partner has shifted over the last 15 years to a more proactive aggressive stance – I think mainly because of the influence of Liliyana Natsir, one of the true greats of the game. This benefits mobile players who are comfortable in attack and defence.
It’s quite hard to see beyond the first four seeds for the title. Deservedly at the top of the draw are the Thai pair Bass/Popor. They are physically strong, worked hard through 2021 and got plenty of success. They didn’t participate last year because of their focus on Olympic prep but 2022 will see them travelling to the UK with a strong chance of grabbing the trophy for Thailand. I think it’s significant that Sapsiree Taerattanachai is not competing in WD too. Her sole focus at this tournament will be XD. The two shutters who can stop them are the Tokyo Olympic Champions: WANG Yi Lyu & HUANG Dong Ping. I’m a big admirer of HUANG who is a wonderful doubles player with power, touch and plenty of smarts. The destiny of the title is probably in her hands.
Who could challenge the favourites for the title? Japan’s Yuta and Arisa are a formidable pair. I love to watch them switch roles and see Yuta marauding at the net; this is a huge competitive advantage and very difficult to neutralise. The #2 seeds ZHENGSi Wei and HUANG Ya Qiong must also be eyeing the trophy but they have a very unconventional preparation for the tournament as they will be competing with different partners the week before in Germany.
So, a wonderful tournament hosting the best women players in the world lies ahead. The athletes who can stay fit and focused on their goals will be the ones who carry away the trophy on Finals Day. Every shot counts.
It has been an extraordinary 12 months: alternating between feast and famine as the players enter bubbles for intense periods of competition and then exit to recover. These are my biased, sentimental, affectionate awards for 2021.
Player of the Year: TAI Tzu Ying
In 2021 we have watched this impulsive free spirit confirm her reputation among the greats of the world game. Outstanding technical skills and creative genius often elevate her shots to works of art. A key target this year has been to step up her performance at the Olympics and World Championships so winning Silver at both is a significant improvement. She has stayed fresh and relatively injury free by focusing on only a few tournaments and she has been ever-present in the finals. The good news is that we can expect to see her on court in 2022 as the threat of retirement seems to have been put on hold for the time being.
Runners Up: CHEN Yufei for her error-free capture of Olympic Gold and Akane Yamaguchi who has been indefatigable and a worthy World Champion.
Best Competitor: Greysia Polii
The breathtaking Gold in Tokyo was a sensational, momentous achievement. Of course, Apriyani Rahayu had a significant role in the victory, but I want to highlight Greysia. Although retirement appeared to be on the horizon she was determined not to fade quietly into the background. A last Olympics, a last chance to get on the podium and boy did she grab it. Congratulations Greysia, always one of my favourite players
XD Player of the Year: HUANG Dongping & Sapsiree Taerattanachai
I cannot choose between these two brilliant players. HUANG Dong Ping’s Gold at the Olympics was magnificent; the final was a glorious tie between four gifted athletes. She is brave, has great reflexes and is adept at using the flat game to aggressive advantage. Popor has also enjoyed a stunning 12 months, winning eight titles, and – other than the Olympics – she and Bass have dominated the XD scene. Their physical resilience and mental strength are second to none. Interestingly both stand-out players compete successfully in WD as well.
Best Pair: Nami Matsuyama & Chiharu Shida
It’s been fascinating to watch their improvement recently; the leap from Super 100/300 up to the top levels has been harmonious and their upwards momentum got great rewards at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton. Maybe the Japanese ‘house style’ is evolving because they are more aggressive and more willing to try and seize the initiative than we expect. Both work hard, support each other and obviously enjoy their matches.
Runners Up: Greysia Polii & Apriyani Rahayu – seeing my two favourites get Gold at the Olympics is one of my best badminton moments ever.
Parabadminton player of the Year: Leani Ratri Oktila
Gold, Gold, Silver at the Tokyo Paralympic games – at Parabadminton’s debut the world #1 was totally dominant.
If He Was A Woman I’d Give Him An Award Too: Viktor Axelsen
A year packed full of achievements – bravo Viktor!
These are just some of the people I have loved to watch in 2021: it’s just my subjective opinion, I can’t pretend that I have spent any time evaluating the stats. The Olympics and the tournament bubbles have made this year unique. Some have thrived but injuries and withdrawals from tournaments have been common; let’s hope for less of a treadmill in 2022. There have been so many highlights (which I’ll cover in my Review of the Year) so I would like to thank all the players and everyone from the badminton community for making this such a memorable twelve months.
This was the most joyous Gold medal. Athletes can’t buy an Olympic victory; they earn one over years of perseverance and pain. Even then, some don’t reach their dream, so to watch Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu on top of the Tokyo podium was a glorious moment.
The origins of the triumph stretch back to a young Greysia who was focused on becoming a pro:
“I was born to be a badminton player. And I had that faith when I was 13, that I wanted to make history for Indonesia”
Along the way she endured a controversial exit from London 2012 and lost at the QF stage in Rio 2016 with Nitya Krishinda Maheswari. When the news broke that her partner required surgery and was going to retire Polii seriously considered hanging up her racket too.
Looking back this was when Eng Hian – the head of Indonesian Women’s Doubles – had a stroke of genius. He convinced her to delay retirement…to stay a little longer and help guide the progress of some of the younger players. In 2017 along came the talented but raw Apriyani Rahayu: aged 19 with a dislike of being told what to do, but intelligent and ambitious enough to recognise that this was a great opportunity to learn from Greysia. As time passed and the chemistry between them formed it started to occur to Polii that if she could instill a champion’s mindset into her young partner then maybe this could lead to great things. She would need patience, perseverance and to stay injury-free. Perhaps everything that had gone before was preparing her for this.
Fast Forward To Tokyo 2020
The tournament started brightly for GreyAp. Two wins out of two in the group stages and the importance of the final game against FukuHiro escalated. Suddenly here was an opportunity to emerge from the Round Robin as group winners and therefore avoid a seeded pair in the Quarter Final.
Wars of attrition pose little threat to the Indonesian duo. They have the physical resilience to endure a lot and that style of play offers a great platform for the sudden explosions of power from Apri or the creative vision and deft touches from Greysia. The Japanese top seeds could not handle the aggressive tempo of the contest. They were stubborn and resisted over three sets but folded in the last 21-8. So GreyAp entered the knockout rounds and I was feeling optimistic.
It’s been clear over the course of the Olympic badminton tournament that the Chinese athletes’ standards haven’t suffered from their lack of international competition. In the QF against DU/LI Greysia and Apri were asked some hard questions over three sets but they stood firm and refused to let the Chinese win.
The Semi-Final against LEE/SHIN was a daunting prospect but as the match progressed it was always GreyAp who had the upper hand. The competitive momentum that they had been building since the tournamnet began carried them on to the final. Another win, a guaranteed medal, history made.
This was a final waiting to be won. There was little point in waiting to be beaten by the hot favourites: I think Greysia and Apri realised this and it fed their ambitious attitude. Rahayu brought her ‘A game’ – make that her ‘A+ game’. Her energy and bravery constantly screwed down the pressure on CHEN/JIA. Her aggressive high tempo unsettled their rhythm and her noisy, boisterous attitude helped dominate the court space. At 1-1 in the first set there was a moment when Greysia took the shuttle mid-court on her backhand and pinged it crosscourt into empty space. At that moment I realised she knew they could win. The next point was gained by Polii’s delicate drop which emphasized her intent and desire. It was a close set as the four of them traded points but in the end GreyAp won it 21-19. Advantage Indonesia.
Set two opened with them racing to a 7-2 lead. Both players were decisive and self-assured. Unburdened by tension they were playing without inhibition and exuding self-belief. Everything they did worked. The Chinese tried to get back into the flow of the game but they were being swept along by the irresistable pace and vision of the Indonesians. Incredibly at 18-10 Polii’s strings broke but she had time to grab a replacement racket and win the rally.
There was an inevitability to the final moments as they had outclassed CHEN/JIA throughout the game. The (mostly) empty arena didn’t matter – we were all crying and screaming at our screens together as they celebrated victory. Often the difference between a Silver and Gold medal is simultaneously a universe and barely a whisker. The Indonesia duo had dominated in every area of the court and had played their best ever game at exactly the right moment. Congratulations Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu: Gold medallists and history makers!