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The Olympics: Men’s Doubles Preview

When the going gets tough, the tough get going!

I am anticipating badminton extraordinaire.  The quality of this competition is outstanding with huge expectations of some players.  Athletes from the Asian heartlands of the sport – Indonesia, Japan, China & Taiwan – are likely to dominate the matches but who will triumph at the end is not particularly clear cut.

Pic credit Solomon7/Shutterstock

We haven’t watched most of these pairs in competition with each other for over a year and it will be intriguing to see who have been able to add an extra dimension to their game or who has lost a bit of sharpness.  Realistically most of them are going to need a match or two to kick-start their muscles and focus on victory.  The pairs who adapt to the conditions and negotiate their group games to the knock out stages without expending too much energy or getting injured will have a big advantage. The absence of noisy, partisan crowd is also likely to have an impact on some of the players although I’m at a loss to anticipate whether it will help or hinder.

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.

Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo & Marcus Fernaldi Gideon

The Minions arrive in Tokyo as World Number Ones and top seeds but they are going to have to play the best games of their lives if they are going to get Gold.  Group A will not allow any slip ups. Challenges to them will come from every direction as the calibre of their rivals is phenomenal.  The venue is expected to be ‘slow’ and they must not allow themselves to get ensnared in an energy sapping smashing competitions. Opponents work hard to blunt their attacks so they must be prepared to reappraise tactics if the game is not going their way. Kevin has one of the best badminton brains in the sport and I’m in awe of his technical skills, superhuman reflexes and sheer desire, whilst Marcus’s strength and chemistry with his partner means the two of them have the weapons to beat everyone.

First they must negotiate their group and it’s vital they fight on their own terms. Their head to head records against their challengers in the first round gives no cause for concern but the reality of an Olympic stage after relative international inactivity for a while means that everyone is a threat. Kevin has brilliance embedded deep and these two would be worthy winners at the end of the tournament. I’m anxious though about their head-to-head record with Endo/Watanabe (2-6) because it seems inevitable that they will end up playing each other in a high stakes game. Prediction: Final

This article considers their chances in more depth https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/06/06/kevin-marcus-and-tokyo-gold/

Hiroyuki Endo & Yuta Watanabe

Seeded four this pair are a hazard to Indonesian ambitions. They begin their campaign in Group B and should progress without too much fuss, although Sozonov/Ivanov might be able to ask them some tough questions. Over the last few years they just seem to get better and better. Left-handed Yuta is a dazzling player, his vision and speed are at Kevin levels and this is reflected in their superb head to head record against the Minions (6-2). He is relentless but I often wonder if his threat is diluted by competing in two sectors; I’m fascinated to see how he copes with these demands overlaid by the pressure of a home Olympics. Endo has always been a top player but something about this partnership has liberated him to dream big. Perhaps his stubborn, reliable approach just nicely balances Yuta’s pzazz. Prediction: Final

Hendra Setiawan & Mohammad Ahsan

Could these two nurse their old bones to a Golden final. The day I watched them win on three legs at the All England in 2019 was the day I fell in love with Indonesian badminton. No superlative can do this pair justice but they are consistent winners of the best tournaments including Hendra’s Gold at the 2008 Olympics with his then partner, the late Markus Kido. Nevertheless, in Thailand they were beaten twice by Lee/Wang; they just could not contain the exuberant Taiwanese. At the time it was clear that Ahsan was competing with a dodgy leg so I hope that they have arrived in Japan in good shape. Their rivals in Group D are tough but if they can get the results they need with no injuries then they will be into the next round. Prediction Semi-Final

Lee Yang & Wang Chi-Lin

The most likely challengers for the top spot in Group A are the Taiwanese pair: Lee Yang/Wang Chi-Lin. These two were unstoppable in Thailand, winning three out of three tournaments. I think the most rewarding wins for them must have been against Ahsan and Setiawan in the SF of the Toyota Thailand Open and the WTF. Ahsan was not at 100% but it was clear that the Dads could not live with the Taiwanese muscular approach and it must have been a massive confidence boost to beat such sporting icons. Prediction Semi-Final

Li Jun & Liu Yu Chen

These two have a lot of attacking power and can use their aggression in Tokyo to damage everyone’s dreams. They both move well, have good 3D awareness of the court spaces and can use their height for some steep shots. I think Liu’s netplay will often allow him to gain an advantage right at the start of a rally; he is hard to pass with his long reach and steadfast approach. These two have been restricted to domestic competition since YAE20, and had been in a comparative slump prior to Covid. Maybe this break will have rejuvenated their desire or they could have added some refinements to their tactics. The current status of all the Chinese competitors is difficult to analyse because we haven’t been able to watch them for ages. I’m sure that the Chinese coaches will have prepared them well and if they are back to their best then the podium beckons.

Choi Solgyu & Seo Seungjae

Seo Seungjae’s contract issues have been put to one side for the duration of the Olympics. Or should I say that the suspension given him by the BKA will not take effect until after Tokyo. Of course this is great news for his partners in MD and XD and reveals how important he is to Korea’s medal hopes. He and Choi Solgyu are in the same group (D) as Ahsan/Setiawan and Aaron Chia/Soh Wooi Yik so there are some hard battles ahead.

Keigo Sonoda & Takeshi Kamura

Can the ‘second’ Japanese pair force their way into the medal reckoning? Their brawny, boisterous style can overwhelm rivals and enthrall spectators. They are tireless and so noisy in their mutual support between points that they amplify the pressure on court. Kamura’s work around the front; his anticipation and reading of the game allied to his partners relentless energy and enthusiasm means that they can dominate matches. However their head to head stats against the absolute top pairs are weak (Minions 11-5, Dads 5-2, Endo/Watanabe 4-2, Li/Liu 7-3) so they are going to have to bring something fresh to the tournament if they want to get on the podium. They are in an intriguing position – unseeded – in Group C with the Chinese pair; they should be able to get to the knockouts and then let’s see who they play in the latter stages.

Any Dark Horses?

Lots of these pairs have the ability to trouble the favourites but whether they can do it consistently and push on to a medal is hard to say. Lane and Vendy performed superbly in Thailand and Shetty and Rankireddy have plenty of potential but I think this outing will be part of their journey to Paris success in 2024. Battling it out to progress from Group B behind Watanabe/Endo are the Danes Rasmussen/Astrup and Russians Sozonov/Ivanov. This Olympics is being held under unique protocols so athletes who can seize every opportunity, stay fit and adapt to discomfort without being distracted will be the ones who triumph.

Who will win Gold?

Can anyone stop an All-Indonesian final? A lot depends on the draw after the group stage is completed but the pair who bring intensity and fokus right from the start will be at an advantage. This is going to be a strange covid-adjusted Olympics with few fans present but millions watching from a distance. Although many think that the conditions at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza don’t naturally suit the Minions style they are triple winners of the Japan Open so the reults suggest they relish the arena. Kevin and Marcus must solve the Yuta problem but this is a fabulous opportunity to cement their place amongst the games greats. They will have to overcome some tough tests but they have everything within themselves that they need to get Gold.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my other Olympic Badminton previews https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/07/14/the-olympics-mixed-doubles-preview/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Fyi

Group A: Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo/Marcus Fernaldi Gideon, Lee Yang/Wang Chi-Lin, Ben Lane/Sean Vendy, Chirag Shetty/Satwiksairaj Rankireddy

Group B: Hiroyuki Endo/Yuta Watanabe, Anders Skaarup Rasmussen/Kim Astrup, Ivan Sozonov/Vladimir Ivanov, Anuoluwapo Juwon Opeyori/Godwin Olofua

Group C: Li Jun Hui/Liu Yu Chen, Keigo Sonoda/Takeshi Kamura, Mark Lamfuss/ Marvin Seidel, Phillip Chew/Ryan Chew

Group D: Hendra Setiawan/Mohammad Ahsan (2), Aaron Chia/Soh Wooi Yik, Choi Solgyu/Seo Seungjae, Jason Anthony Ho-Shue/Nyl Yakura


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Nozomi Okuhara

Last year’s results were, on the face of it, bittersweet. Six finals and the runner-up spot each time. However, I think that when we analyse them from distance we can see and understand that she is an athlete who always demands the best performance possible from herself. To be a constant presence on the podium is the foundation of success and the margins between first and second spot are slim. Women’s Singles is enjoying the best of times, the dazzling talent in the Top 10 means that there are no effortless matches.

Pic by Hafiz Johari/Shutterstock

Whatever tournament Nozomi Okuhara enters the honours are always within her grasp so she began 2020 with a big chance of an Olympic medal. We have had to postpone the dream of seeing a favourite player on top of the podium in Tokyo; none of us is untouched by C-19 but for an athlete who has devoted a huge proportion of her life to earning the chance to perform at the Olympic tournament it must be incredibly frustrating. She already holds a Bronze medal from Rio and she would love to upgrade it in front of her home crowd.

“The Olympic Games remains the most important target for me, especially as it will be held in Japan this time. It will be difficult but I want to win gold medal for the fans.”

Nozomi is known for her defensive style characterised by long rallies however there is so much more to her game than that. If you rewatch her victory at the All England in 2016 it brilliantly illustrates the depth of her talent. In this match it was very difficult for WANG Shixian to exert any sustained pressure upon her partly because she is so nimble and fast across the court. Her lovely racket skills, snappy reflexes and precision shots are delightful to watch and nearly impossible to oppose.

Over the years it seems as though her emphasis has changed so that the defensive approach is her predominant tactic. The pressure she exerts on a rival – because she is willing to extend a rally – means that she can feed off unforced errors. She has good stamina and this allows her to play with this strategy. The problem with this plan is that her opponents may refuse to be drawn into it. For instance when she and PV Sindhu met in the final of the 2019 World Championships she was annihilated by the Indian’s brisk aggression. Sindhu was smashing, following up, and giving full rein to an onslaught that was unmanageable.

The Quarter Final against Sindhu at this years All England was revealing. The first set was quite brutal and she lost it 12-21; in spite of that, this was not another demolition. She hauled herself back into the game and won the next two sets to progress to the Semi. I had already seen her play in Round 1 against Michelle Li and I was shocked by the power and speed she was using then. There was a point when she turned and smashed straight down the line with such venom that her intent was unmistakable.

I think the best version of Nozomi would be one who has lost patience and sharpened her sword. I love it when she dictates the match and keeps to a pace that suits her. The tempo she can play at plus her tenacious approach make her one of the best athletes on the tour. Being able to play with more bite will enhance her attack within the rally. When competitive badminton restarts it will be fascinating to see if she rebalances elements of her game. She will be one of the favourites to triumph at the Olympics, she has all the talent to succeed in her wish to earn Gold for her country.


If you enjoyed this article take a look at an earlier one about Nozomi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ or this one about Fukuhiro https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Badminton World Championships Basel 2019: WS Preview

The Badminton World Championships start on August 19th so I’m taking a look at some of the main contenders for Women’s Singles gold.

This discipline is full of talent – and unlike the men’s singles it’s not dominated by one person – so it will be an intriguing contest right from the beginning. All tournaments offer a rising intensity as players progress through the rounds: physical endurance can be sapped as well as the emotional drain of competition. The parity of ability amongst the top seeds means that being able to deal with tournament pressure will have a huge part to play. Who will relish the fight?

“…every player has a chance of being crowned champion.” Ratchanok

Nozomi Okuhara: Contender

Nozomi’s been in the waiting room this year – she hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success as Akane and yet she is a fabulous player. Her tactics often mean she gets stuck in a war of attrition so I’d like to see a bit less patience and more drive to finish off a rally. I think her edge is blunted by predictability so it would be great to see her surprise her opponent (& us!) a bit more often. Prediction: Final.

Tai Tzu Ying: The Queen

Shutterstock

Tai Tzu Ying has never won the World Championships and goes into this competition as #2 seed. Because of her hints about retirement and her lack of big tournament form recently, fans have focused on this title with the sense that time is running out. I cannot pretend to be neutral about Tai Tzu Ying – the way she plays is brilliant and gives me so much pleasure – so I wish I felt more confident about this tournament. Her possible path to the final is tough and includes Sindhu who would relish a big battle. Prediction Semi Final.

Akane: World #1

Akane’s triumph at the Indonesian Open quickly followed by success in the Japan Open – her home tournament – means that she enters the World Championships as #1. Since disappointment in the Sudirman Cup her game has become more aggressive with a willingness to push her rivals around. She can’t just win everything from now on though, can she? Prediction Semi Final.

Chen Yufei

Feifei is a very clever player with the might of the Chinese coaches behind her. I think she is good at rebalancing her game to beat whoever she faces. Often she traps ‘flair’ players into thinking they will conquer her by playing their natural game. She waits it out and then finishes them off; her natural strength means she can get through three draining games. It’s been said that her weakness is her inability to cope with her nerves but this seems to be eratic. Prediction: Final

P V Sindhu: fighter

(Xinhua/Zheng Huansong)

Sindhu is renowned as a big match player and this skill is a huge advantage in the top tournaments. By her own standards 2019 has been quite quiet but July saw her spring into life. It was great to see a refreshed player getting her game back. I love her style when she unleashes her inner badminton beast and dominates the court with her aggressive smashes and drives. I think that’s going to be the secret of success for her; when she’s confident and plays like that she can become unstoppable. She is seeded 5 and her path to success looks very tough: Zhang Beiwen in R16 and possibly TTY in the quarters. Prediction: QF owing to hard draw.

Saina Nehwal

2019 has seen Saina endure various injuries and this has obviously disrupted her training programme. Her half of the draw is no picnic & includes players like Chen Yufei and P V Sindhu. She always has the desire to win and heaps of experience but realistically I can’t see her progressing beyond QF. That’s not necessarily a bad performance in the context of her year so far. I see this competition as her opportunity to continue to work on her match fitness and focus on her aim to get to Tokyo 2020. Prediction QF

Ratchanok Intanon

“… women’s singles is so competitive that on any given day whoever can control herself and play her style of game will be the champion.” Ratchanok

May lost out in the Thailand Open Final to Chen Yufei but she played very well in that match. CYF won because she played with patience and endurance – often in rallies she was content to simply keep sending the shuttle back. Towards the end May did slightly alter her approach but by that point it was too late. It’s been noticeable that since then she has been posting plenty of evidence on IG of her hard work in the gym so perhaps this means she’s preparing her body for longer games with less reliance upon a dazzling winner and more focus on turning the screw. Prediction Semi Final

Any Surprises?

Funny things can happen in knock-out tournaments; sometimes athletes really fly through their games and suddenly find themselves in a quarter final. The Indonesian players -Fitriani & Tunjung – are both talented but frustratingly inconsistent. Their homeland can have high hopes of medals from others but it would be a welcome shock if honours came from WS.

Michelle Li from Canada can push anyone on her day and often gets good results but realistically I don’t think she would trouble Chen Yufei (assuming she gets past Saina).

Chochuwong had a great run in the Thailand Open but again her draw is tricky. Lastly He Be Jiao is seeded 6 so has to be taken seriously as a possible semi-finalist.

So, in conclusion…

That gold medal, that title, the culmination of years of work, is realistically within the reach of about eight of the players. It’s going to take an immense effort – physically and emotionally – to clinch the prize. I also think it requires someone to play with inspiration and joy; there is more to winning this than mere sweat and toil.

© 2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi: Hotter Than July

Wow! Akane – what a July!

Akane has always been a formidable player with plenty of successes along the way but suddenly her achievements have become supercharged and she is unstoppable. Women’s Singles is an incredibly competitive discipline at the moment so what is it that is giving her the edge over her rivals?

Pic from Hafiz Johari/Shutterstock.com

Bizarrely I think it was failure that has spurred her on. Looking back to the Sudirman Cup, the crucial tie in the final was the Women’s Singles: Akane Yamaguchi against Chen YuFei. It was a three game battle with neither player consistently dominant. The Chinese crowd was very noisy; it was an intense and passionate atmosphere with huge emotional pressure exerted on both athletes. It’s been noted that at one point in the game Morten Frost described Akane’s play as erratic. That’s quite a brutal assessment, but the point is that in the end she lost.

Both players finished flat out on the floor but CHEN Yufei was the victor.
Video courtesy BWF

We all know it’s a team competition but losing that three game match was pivotal to Japan’s eventual loss in the final. The Japanese team oozed togetherness and exuberance as they supported each other through the tournament so it must have been utterly devastating for them all not to get gold.

Up until recently Akane has always been known as a retriever, which often means that she is a defender. This is a very simplistic reduction of an elite athletes game; it’s quite a reactive style but she is great at covering the court and very quick to regain her base position.

However, things have changed since the Sudirman Cup…everyone had some time off before they got back to training. Time to recover physically and mentally but also an opportunity to take stock. Then came July and one of the principal events in the badminton calendar: The Indonesian Open.

It was a fresh Akane with an evolved style. Suddenly she was applying her explosive power to a more attacking game and the final against P V Sindhu showcased how effective this new aggression was.

Sindhu found her game being squeezed. Yamaguchi, above all, was being ferocious in her follow-ups. There were some ruthless flat drives, and midcourt smashes. There was more pressure applied in rallies. She began each game like a tornado and barely relaxed her focus. No longer content to react, Akane was taking the game and demanding to win.

Akane wins the Indonesia Open – Video by kind permission BWF

It was a great victory. Sindhu played well but just couldn’t equal Akane’s fierceness; without warning Yamaguchi had stepped up her game.

So we come to the Japanese Open – her home tournament. Her progression to the final took in triumphs against Sindhu and Chen Yufei to set up a meeting with her compatriot Nozomi Okuhara. The scoreline of 21-13, 21-15 lets you know it was an emphatic victory. Again, this was the evolved style. Yamaguchi went toe-to-toe with Okuhara and it was her intensity allied to some awesome accuracy that meant she was able to withstand Okuhara’s propensity for lengthy rallies.

“I was worried I wouldn’t be able to win the long rallies, but I was patient, and whenever there was a chance to make a decisive shot, I was able to make the sharp shots,” said Yamaguchi.

I think it’s a good measure of Akane as a woman and an elite player that she took the worst kind of defeat and used it as fuel for progress:

“I wish I could’ve played this well in the Sudirman Cup final. The loss in the final made me learn and helped me improve.”

The road to Tokyo 2020 has a lot of twists and turns yet but momentum and big match experience counts for a lot. I want to end this piece by urging you to watch the film clip below – the happiness on Akane’s face is so infectious it is an utter joy to see.

https://twitter.com/AYamaguchiFans/status/1155455793610629121

If you enjoyed this follow the link to my piece about Nozomi Okuhara https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ and also this one about Tai Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved