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.
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.
This was a competition that favoured players who could keep focus and grab opportunities. There is a joy to badminton that we all recognise and these are the times when we should celebrate happiness and curate our memories of watching the greatest tournament in our sport.
“Before its 21 anything can happen”
Mixed Doubles – Praveen Jordan & Melati Daeva Oktavianti
The XD was an unexpected pleasure this year. Top seeds fell by the wayside and we arrived at Saturday night with the home favourites Lauren Smith/Marcus Ellis facing Praveen Jordan/Melati Daeva Oktavianti for a place in the final. The first set went to form – PraMel were shrewdly pulling Ellis out of position to neutralise his threat – but in the second the Brits held their nerve, saved two match points and roared on by the crowd forced the match to a decider. Praveen is notoriously unpredictable, however the hoohah around ‘time wasting’ and ‘being ready’ which resulted in an undeserved yellow card definitely lit a flame and the last game was a more comfortable 21-11 victory. The Indonesians were quicker and cleverer and deserved to progress.
No Thai player has ever won an All England title so Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai were staring down the barrel of history. They are a strong, fast pair and this was a match for all XD devotees. It ebbed and flowed but the balance of power was decided at the net. Praveen is such an imposing, athletic partner; he reached everything, his smash was vicious so this freed Melati to damage the Thai pair again and again. Even if she couldn’t score she keep the attacking momentum. Bass/Popor grabbed the second set but had given too much and were beaten 21-8 at the last.
Winning an All England title is the mark of a special player and Praveen Jordan has now won two with two separate partners.
Men’s Doubles – Hiroyuki Endo & Yuta Watanabe
This sector was lit up by the brilliance of Yuta Watanabe. He is faster than a flash. His net interceptions, his resilience and strength were irresistable. For his partner, it was a fourth appearance in the MD final, the first with his new partner and another chance to win the title that has eluded him.
This match sparkled. Gideon & Sukamuljo – world #1 – have already won the title twice but in the last year have consistently lost to the Japanese duo. The pace was superhuman. There was little to choose between these two teams as the intensity increased. No one cracked, no one avoided responsibility, here were four athletes trying everything to succeed. In the final set the Minions trailed 0-6, at the break they had pulled it back to 9-11. Marcus and Kevin bombarded Yuta & Hiroyuki in the last points but the Japanese held firm under incredible pressure. In the end the Japanese pair won the title. They deserved to win but Kevin and Marcus did not deserve to lose. It was a priviledge to watch.
Women’s Singles – Tai Tzu Ying
The Queen is the Queen.
All of TTY’s fans must have anticipated this tournament with a mixture of excitement and dread. We knew she had enjoyed success in January with the Begaluru Raptors and it was clear she was focusing on key competition in the run-up to Tokyo 2020. Her committment and strategy were perfect and in a repeat of 2019 she met CHEN Yufei in the final. This time the honours went to the Queen. (a longer appreciation of TTY’s progress through the YAE will be appearing on this blog as a standalone piece).
All week Fukuhiro had been focused with a quiet confidence. This match had them in dominant form with Hirota especially dazzling with her interceptions at the net. Early on they were finding space with long cross-court precise shots. Their movement around court was fluent as they continued to pressurize DU/LI and raced to a 10-4 lead. The Chinese pair were struggling to find space but they gradually slowed the Fukihiro momentum to get to 9-14.
Hirota’s competitive vision and her ability to get to the shuttle at pace meant that DU/LI could not challenge the control the Japanese pair had. Fukushima was equally aggressive and her appetite for smashing – especially XC – was significant in keeping DU/LI ‘s ambitions down. The Japanese pair secured the title in two sets and they were worthy winners.
Men’s Singles – Viktor Axelsen
Axelsen demolished the #1 seed CHOU Tien Chen in two sets. No games at this level are ‘easy’ but Viktor bulldozed his way through it whilst CTC will want to forget his error strewn match. The Dane grabbed his opportunity and after such a tricky 2019 disrupted by injury and allergies it’s fair to say he is getting back to his best.
I feel that this sector was dominated by players who were absent as much as those who competed. We all know the situation Momota is in. I was astonished by the exit of Ginting and Christie in R1. I watched Ginting’s match and he simply had no answers to Gemke, he could not raise his level to get any foothold in the game. Frustratingly, another YAE passes him by.
The unseeded LEE Zii Jia was one of the stars of the tournament and it was Christie’s misfortune to meet him in R1. LEE looks hungry. He is athletic, explosive and speedy around the court – I think he may fancy his chances at the Olympics.
This year’s tournament was buffeted by external forces out of the control of the players and these, of course, will be a huge part of all our lives for the next few months. All of the athletes must, to some extent, have been affected by anxieties. Firstly, would it even go ahead? Secondly would they get home? Despite this it was drenched in quality right from the start and the right people won.
I would like to thank all the people who contributed to the competition. As well as the athletes/coaches/support staff there is a huge group of people behind the scenes including the Badminton England volunteers. I’d particularly like to mention Jan in the media centre – always cheerful, professional and kind.
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!
A new year with old rivalries and the added piquancy of the Olympics in July. We are six months away from the biggest athletic event on the planet, the intensity and desire for success is going to build with each tournament and this all adds up to a scintillating few months in prospect for fans. The anticipation of qualification is offset by the dread of failure. 2020 has started with some thrilling matches; finals day at Istora was a cauldron of raw emotion – who didn’t relish those results with utter joy? What have we learned in January, who is up for the fight? Who has that podium in Tokyo in their sights?
TAI Tzu Ying has been treading a different path to her rivals this year. She is cherry-picking the best tournaments to support her ambition. This feels like an athlete with a plan and along with her coaches she understands that entering every tournament is not the effective way for her to achieve her goal. Getting the balance right between training, competition and fitness is what coaches are paid to do. I think it’s been a stroke of genius to play in the PBL. It has freshened up the daily grind, there are some excellent training partners for her and she gets to play matches that are important but it’s not a catastrophy to lose. For instance, only 16 years old but Gayatri Gopichand took a set off TTY in the PBL whilst playing for Chennai Superstarz – now here is a girl with ambition!
As ever, this is the most dynamic, exciting sector of badminton with the best athletes. Head-to-head battles between the top 20 players are often gloriously unpredictable. In contrast to the men’s game there is no dominant player except that CHEN Yufei won 7 tournaments in 2019 and significantly she does not lose finals. As current World #1 she started 2020 in good form and won the Malaysia Masters by beating TAI Tzu Ying in two sets. Crucially she hasn’t built upon this opportunity to dominate; she was knocked out of the Indonesian Masters on the second day by the unseeded Line Kjaersfeldt.
Carolina Marin has been cultivating her old aura of unbeatability and has been on the podium at all three competitions this year. Reliable results should be a good indicator of future success so we have to acknowledge that she is the person in January who has delivered. Nevertheless, no titles yet and she has been beaten by three different players: CYF, May & Akane, so this tells me that she still has loads of work to do if she wants to defend her 2016 Gold medal.
Akane & Nozomi: no-one can be under greater pressure to do well in Japan than the two home players. January has been a good month for Akane. Her win over AN Se Young in the Thailand Masters final is perhaps a sign that she is emerging from a hard few months of injury disruption. Nozomi has had a quiet start to the year after a successful and frustrating 2019. Five finals, five runners up medals. There were times last year when she was modifying her game to incorporate more aggression, she has to be less predictable to just get that extra 1% that makes the difference between Silver and Gold.
Indian Badminton does seem to be going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment, last year was pretty uneven and not much has improved. Saina Nehwal is a true great of the game but results are not good enough at the moment to ensure her qualification for Tokyo. Only a fool would write off her chances at this point and on a positive note her triumph over AN Se Young in R2 of The Malaysia Masters was a reminder that she can beat anyone. I’m unconvinced that her current coaching setup adds to her competitive edge though; I think that if her fluency improves and strategies to get her qualification points whereever she can are used then we still may see her in Japan. Her withdrawal from the Badminton Asia Team Championships plus her recent political work point to a lack of focus. As an observer I just see chaos.
P V Sindhu has a reputation as a ‘Big Tournament Player’ and is the current world champion. Nevertheless, her tendency to crash out of tournaments too early is frustrating. We often excuse her underperformance because we see her respond well to the biggest challenges. I am sympathetic to this view but surely it’s better to win and get some competitive momentum rather than travel here, there and everywhere only to crash out early? Nevermind, emotions aside, I don’t think her results over the past six months are much worse than Akanes so perhaps it’s better to just enjoy the rollercoaster. Of course she will get to Tokyo, but will she get on the podium? On the strength of January’s performances I am sceptical.
My highlight in January across all sectors has to be Polii & Rahayu’s victory at the Indonesia Masters. Their semi-final and final were emotionally exhausting epics. It’s taken a lot of courage for them to analyse and rebuild their game. Over the next few months I hope we see this revitalised pair win more. No Japanese duo has made a final yet this year and it’s still not decided which of them will be competing in Tokyo. This must be a difficult situation because they need to compete well to get ranking points to increase their chances of qualification however over-training and too much competition could risk injury or burn out. CHEN/JIA are very dangerous players, so strong and such brutal attackers but they are not dominating tournaments yet. It’s a very fluid picture; there is an opportunity in this sector for a pair to really boss the results – who will step up?
Winning an Olympic Gold is never a fluke but rather the result of years and years of dedication. Carolina’s consistency in the routine of competition is the opposite of what we observe from P V Sindhu and yet judging by January’s results both of them risk being denied medals. TTY looks focused and although we know she can be perfectly imperfect, at the moment the logic of her regime seems sound. I’ve barely mentioned May or AN Se Young. Ratchanok had an excellent win over Marin in the final of the Indonesian Masters and no worries about her stamina in that 3 set match. ASY is still work in progress, but she is transtioning from Giant-killer to Giant. I wonder if this will be achieved by July?
There’s still a long way to go, a lot of matches to be played. The first milestone is the end of the qualifying period on the 26th April. Nerves are jangling a little already, once we have the final list of players the anticipation and dread can really begin.
I need to acknowledge the incredibly sad road traffic accident in Malaysia and offer sincere condolences to the family of the deceased driver, Mr N Bavan. I also send sympathy to everyone affected by this. We should appreciate the good things in our lives everyday. As Dato Lee Chong Wei said in his Chinese New Year Message …”time to put down everything, shut down the computer…go back home. There is someone there thinking for you. Always remember to treat it as the last new year you would ever have. Cherish your love one.”
Momota has been the dominant force in Men’s Singles all through 2019, his consistency and strength are second to none. It’s no surprise then, that after such an electrifying twelve months, his position as World #1 is very firmly fixed. King Kento triumphed over Viktor Axelson in the course of 3 dramatic games at the 2019 Yonex All England Championships and in doing so became the first Japanese man to win the title. His outstanding year earned him a total of 11 titles; it’s extraordinary to reflect that he has played in 73 matches and only lost 6. It’s hard to pinpoint who will challenge this relentless excellence anytime soon.
The key to the left-hander’s success is his domination of the net and the forecourt which allows him to control the progress of the duel. He is so fit he dictates the tempo of the contest. He is brilliant at game management because he is strategically quick witted – this allows anticipation to be a significant part of his armoury. If he misjudges his opponent’s tactics, he is electric around the court; his fast feet and lovely balance allow him to reach any area. This translates into further pressure for his opponent as they search for undefended space. As we would expect from an elite player, technically he is very accomplished with powerful and precise shots. The knack of swiftly spinning defence into attack rushes his rivals and means he can gain more time for himself.
His superb all-round game is underpinned by his athleticism. Lean and tall, his muscle to weight ratio gives him the perfect physique for badminton. It’s well known that he completes additional work in the gym long after his hitting partners have showered and returned home. A day off is a distraction from the training regime he is immersed in. He is driving himself to find that extra percentage point of fitness that can make the difference between triumph and defeat at the top level of sport. Winning a singles match over three games can become a war of attrition; perpetual movement is all. We have all seen collapses from cramp as players push themselves into their red zone. Once an opponent starts to falter physically Momota will ruthlessly force the issue and gain an inevitable win.
It’s been said that he can sometimes sit back and be too passive, it’s true that he can be patient but when the time is right, he explodes into action and will seize the match. Choosing shots to keep a rival off balance – even a simple sequence to move them around the corners – means that sooner or later the opportunity will open up to win the rally; it doesn’t seem to matter to the left-hander if the rally lasts 30,40, or 50 shots, inevitably his opponent ends up running further, becoming tired and making a mistake. He knows that opponents’ errors cost will them the match; being patient is – paradoxically – a sharp sword in his strategic make up. He often does not need to use his full repertoire; through a competition he can perform within himself and get a good result.
Playing against Momota is like becoming trapped in a maze; whichever tactics are employed they seem to lead to the dead end of defeat. He is impenetrable. Alone on the court with no partner to protect him he has to be emotionally self-reliant and confident in his own decisions. Defensively he can soak up pressure endlessly without using up too much energy. Victory in men’s singles often rests upon stamina, mental strength, and the sparing use of explosive power to punish mistakes.
Right now, he is getting further and further out of the reach of his rivals. His opponent at the Yonex All England 2019 final – Viktor Axelsen – has subsequently had an injury disrupted year and is only just starting to compete again at a good level. The Dane is famous for his 400 kph smash but this isn’t enough against Momota. In fact, the energy used for a smash can often contribute to defeat. CHOU Tien Chen, the world #2, has endurance and mental fortitude to equal him and will always ask tough questions in a match. The adorable SHI Yuqui – the 2018 YAE champion – has also suffered from injury problems, but if he was fully fit it is arguable that he would be the player to upset the World #1. In their Sudirman Cup match this year it was Momota who succumbed to accuracy, relentless athleticism and an unmatchable will to win.
I think his most interesting rival is Anthony Ginting despite what the world rankings say. Ginting’s sparkling style, his inventiveness, courage and speed push Momota to new heights. They inspire each other but it seems that this inspiration feeds the Japanese’s ambition and leaves Anthony unrewarded.
At the moment he is unstoppable. Over the years his career has taken a lot of twists and turns – including an enforced absence from Rio 2016 – but now it feels as though his time for greatness is approaching. His desire for success, his realisation that the Tokyo Olympics offers the chance of immortality, and possibly a need to make up for his mistakes in the past all give an irresistible vitality to his performances on court. The devastating effect that C-19 has had on the world means that all athletes are enduring a career hiatus. I’m confident that Momota has the mental strength to endure this delay. 2020 was the year his fans regarded with the highest expectations – so now we wait a little longer. Will 2021 be the year that Kento Momota cements his place amongst the legends of the game?
It’s been a year of sensational results in the women’s singles sector; now we are at the much anticipated season’s finale. The round robin format at the start means that the intensity will be focused from the first game so hold on tight for a tournament of dazzling skills and thrilling contests.
TAI Tzu Ying‘s supporters have been eyeing this tournament with a delicious mixture of anticipation and fear. No other mortal can play like her, she is an artist with her racket and consistently plays at a creative level beyond most rivals imagination. Although she has won three tournaments this year (Denmark/Malaysia/Singapore Open), none of them were at Super 1000 level. Recently, coach LAI has resigned his role with the national team to focus on her and there does seem to be a subtle shift in outlook. A victory here would settle the nerves a little as we head towards the Olympics. Prediction: Semi-final (but my heart wants her in the Final).
CHEN YuFei…is NOT the WTF female player of the year, however she has the knack of converting appearances in finals into wins – it’s a great skill – since winning the All England back in March she has added 5 more titles and been a part of the Chinese team who won the Sudirman Cup. She can counter any opponents style of play and has to be favourite for this title, especially as she may feel she has something to prove to the WTF now. It would be a shock if she were not in the final.
Ratchanok Intanon is always a contender. Brilliant technical skills (matched only by TTY) and a gritty never-say-die attitude get her to semi-finals and beyond. From her IG & FB posts it seems to me that she is putting a lot of work in at the gym to improve her endurance in matches. I think if the arena suits her and she gets a good start then she could grab Gold but realistically it’s probably going to be a Semi-final.
Akane Yamaguchi has had a year of contrasts. Her achievements in July were magnificent: triumph over P V Sindhu in the final of the iconic Indonesia Open was followed by the Japan Open title. These results contributed to her World #1 rank. But from August onwards she has endured a miserable few months with numerous injury niggles and shock exits from tournaments from unseeded opponents. Never mind, she is a superb player; it would be wonderful to see her progress beyond the round robin.
Nozomi Okuhara is one of the most consistent and popular players on the circuit – her results this year have been simultaneously good, unsatisfying and heart wrenching. The puzzle is that she has got to 5 finals but lost each time. I think her game is evolving, she seems to be a little more willing to take the initiative and be aggressive. It may be that what we see is ‘work in progress’ with the Olympic podium as the ultimate goal. I hope that she finds that extra couple of percent for her game to help her transform silver to gold this time. Prediction: Final
Busanan Ongbamrungphan is cementing her position as Thailand’s #2 behind Intanon and this should see her competing in the 2020 Olympics. She’s a positive, intelligent and aggressive player has taken some good scalps this year. Can she progress to the semi-final, or further? I hope the different format of the competition will do her a favour: she is usually unseeded on the tour and often has to fight her way through tricky early rounds, this time she is in the thick of it right from the start.
As World Champions are guaranteed their spot in the tournament, P V Sindhu‘s place is already reserved in Guangzhou. She is renowned as a “Big Tournament Player” – put more simply she often seems to find it hard to triumph in smaller competitions. Calamatous R1 exits or finals have characterised the past 12 months. Her recent work with Coach Kim has been very successful but it’s come to an end now. Can she defend the title she won last year? Perhaps, but she cannot afford a slow start.
HE Bing Jiao: A highlight of the year was seeing her keep her nerve to end her 3-year gold drought and win the Korea Open. She has the skills to do well but in the context of a very competitive sector she often fails to land titles.
Only eight players can qualify to attend from each sector (& eight teams from the doubles disciplines). There will be no room for AN Se Young; the new kid on the block has earned some astonishing results in the second half of this year but overall she has not done enough to be eligible to play. Michelle Li is another notable absentee but is a player who is going to have a great 2020.
So this is a clash of the ‘best of the best’ in the singles sector. At the time of writing the groups haven’t been announced for the round robin stage of the competition and it’s possible this will have an impact on the progress of a player. It’s been a long season with lots of shocks, beautiful shots, and plenty to enjoy. It is hard to predict how much tiredness and niggling injuries are going to influence everyone’s performance but all of these athletes deserve our admiration for their commitment to the sport we love. We are privileged to have witnessed the 2019 campaigns of these players & may the best woman win!
Women’s Doubles: A Brief Overview
The women’s doubles sector has been dominated by pairs from Japan over the past year as their training programme peaks in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. Fukuhiro have enjoyed a distinguished year and are many people’s favourites for the end-of-year gold. They are a model doubles pair with a great understanding of each other and magnificent defensive wall; however they are not invincible. The second Japanese duo Matsumoto/Nagahara arrive in Guangzhou as World Champions so it’s not hard to expect them on the podium at the end of the tournament.
Heartbreakingly Matsutomo/Takahashi – who won the title in 2018 -will miss out on the trip to China because only 2 pairs from each country are allowed to compete, regardless of their position in the rankings. As an aside, this will be a live issue in the run up to the Olympics as well. It is a very hard rule to like.
This part of the tournament has terrific athletes with no obvious weak candidates. KIM/KONG are very dangerous: the Koreans have the technical skill at the net to dissect any challenge and it seems irrelevant to point out that they have not played together for very long. The winners of the 2019 All England – CHEN/JIA – seem able to power their way through most encounters; their swift reactions and willingness to attack gives them the advantage in some ‘fast’ arenas. To be honest I haven’t seen much of their compatriots, DU/LI, the second Korean pair LEE/SHIN or the Thais Kititharakul/Prajongjai but the stats speak for themselves – they haven’t reached Guangzhou by accident. Polii/Rahayu have had a lacklustre few months since winning bronze at the World Championships in Basle. We know that Greysia has had an injury that hampered her so this could be a difficult competition for them to progress in.
Like Women’s Singles this is a very competitive line up with no obvious front runners. I think that CHEN/JIA are my favourites for the title; I’m basing that assessment on their performance at the All England Championships this year that I was lucky enough to watch live. Their speed and strength were breathtaking and so this, plus home advantage, I think will propel them in the direction of the podium. I can’t wait for the competition to begin.
The Champions of Fuzhou and new world number 1s are enjoying a great run of form.
It’s Olympic qualification year and the focus of elite badminton players everywhere is turning to Tokyo. Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota are one of the best women’s doubles pairs in the world, have recently reclaimed their #1 ranking, and are expected to be on the podium at the end of the competition.
“Our strength is about being patient…”
Fukuhiro is an alliance built on the classic doubles foundation of a rock solid defence. They will resist any bombardment and they are so skilful at rotating position that they can diffuse the pressure between themselves. Women’s Doubles is characterised by long rallies; tension builds shot on shot, so to win they have to be able to draw on their mental strength and self belief. Take a look at the highlights from the final of the Indonesian Open (below). The speed of their reactions, commitment to each other and toughness see them triumph, and defend their title.
The essence of a great Doubles pair is two people playing with a perfect understanding of each other. It becomes something magical (think Daddies) when the players can sense what their partner is about to do. Exceptional movement is critical; this and effective anticipation is from hours and hours spent together on the practise court along with a sacrifice of the self for something grander. The video clip below from American Vape shows them training – the obvious thing to point out is that they play 2 against 3. This means they improve their endurance, their shot accuracy and their ability to handle unpredictable replies.
It’s clear they like each other in real life, their giggling in interviews, teasing each other and general demeanour shows athletes in tune with their partner. Showing their human side to their fans – their emotional generosity – means they are two of the most loved players in the world.
However there is a paradox at the core of this partnership and I think it may account for the three silver medals at the Badminton World Championships. These two do not seem to have any weaknesses; they are exceptional all-rounders. So when the chips are down what do they emphasize? To be so balanced is a blessing and a curse.
It’s not accurate to simply define them as defensive players. They are comfortable with counter-attack. Fukushima puts a lot of work in at the rear court especially, but her strategy is not only based on clears: she has a very good disguised drop shot in her armoury. Hirota will be aggressive at the net and can snaffle points with her lightening reactions. When they are up against rivals like CHEN/JIA (who tend to be powerful and aggressive) they can endure the storm. Basing a strategy around smashing is high risk against Fukuhiro because it uses up a lot of energy. Eventually their rivals lose their bite and they are dispatched. Its a bit like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope trick in the Rumble in the Jungle.
“It’s all about qualifying for the Olympics for us…we haven’t been and we desperately want to go”
Fukuhiro are a great duo who are real contenders for gold at every competition they enter. Japanese players dominate the world rankings for WD but only two pairs can compete at the Tokyo Olympics. I would be astonished and devastated if they missed out. This is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cement their place in history with Olympic gold.
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.
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’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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
The tour swings by Europe for October: first Denmark then France. In the last few months we’ve seen Akane dispatched in R1 (thrice), Nozomi crumple somewhat after her World Championship final mauling by Sindhu and HE Bing Jiao end her 3 year search for a title; so what does the Danish tournament have in store? In a year of jaw-dropping upsets, giant killings and injuries will we have predictable problems or unexpected catastrophes? One thing is certain, the final in Odense will not be between the top two seeds….or will it?
TAI Tzu Ying: Defending Champion & World Number 1
So what can we expect? Well, the extraordinary is ordinary for TTY. Her stunning technical ability combined with a no-limits approach is an irresistible blend. Her weakness is often her focus, which can drift. Sometimes she snaps back into the match and scores points at will, but occasionally the momentum is handed to her rival and the game is lost. She is defending champion but only seeded 4. To her advantage, Coach Lai will be looking after her full-time now he has stepped down from his Taiwan national team duties. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: World Champion & seeded 5
Following the excitement of Basle, Sindhu has crashed out of two tournaments without touching the podium. In the larger context of her career this isn’t a concern; clearly her normal life has been disrupted by the hoohaa surrounding her fabulous victory. More alarming though is the unfortunate departure of coach Kim; I hope appropriate support is in place to fill the gap. Tunjung is her R1 opponent and she is very capable of beating the Indian. AN Se Young is potentially her next challenge. It’s no exageration to say she has the worst draw of any of the seeds. Prediction either early exit or final!
CHEN YuFei: Ms Consistency & seeded 2
Since the beginning of 2019 Feifei has won four finals (including the All England), lost 5 semi-finals, and had a crucial role in China’s victory in the Sudirman Cup. Her style is patient and clever; often she ‘just’ keeps the shuttle in play and sets traps for her unwary opponents to walk into. Perhaps because of this approach she seems less susceptible to injury. Her first round opponent is the giant-killing YEO Jia Min who could spring a surprise: if CYF is to progress she must be ready as soon as she steps on court. Prediction: Semi
Carolina Marin: She’s Back!
What a thrill to see the irrepressible Marin back on court and winning the China Open! She was playing freely with no loss of speed so it seems that her recovery from her horrible injury has been good. It’s difficult to predict how she will progress here but there is no doubt that she is entering tournaments because she can win them. Don’t underestimate how unnerving it will be for her opponents to play her so soon after damaging her ACL: should they try and put pressure on the wounded side? Prediction: Hmmm, not sure…
HE Bing Jiao: Seeded 7
Winner of the Korea Open – including saving 4 match points against Ratchanok – HE Bing Jiao is often an overlooked player on the tour. This low profile has been caused by a Gold famine (3 years up to Korea) and her compatriot’s success. It’s feasible that her Korea Open win will be the beginning of a medal rush. Seeded 7. Prediction QF.
Ratchanok Intanon: Seeded 6
“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”
The losing finalist at the Korea Open has enjoyed a good year so far. For all her balletic grace on court she is a gritty fighter who never gives up even when the situation seems irretrievable. Her racket shoulder does seem to be quite heavily strapped these days but that isn’t particularly unusual for many players. Recently I think she has been beaten by CYF & HBJ because they sat back and let her try to force the game. She doesn’t need to play like that, it would be good if she sometimes had a bit more patience. Prediction: QF
Nozomi Okuhara: Seeded 3
Things haven’t been easy for Nozomi since her loss in the World Championship final against Sindhu. A couple of bad results haven’t suddenly made her a bad player though. In my opinion she can sometimes rely too heavily on her retrieving abilities. I’d like her to be a bit more ‘Momota’, that is to say, more unpredictable and more explosive. All top players are refining their skills constantly so it will be exciting to see how her game evolves in the run-up to Tokyo2020. Prediction: Final
Can Saina & Akane Escape From The Treatment Room?
Saina’s had a miserable few months with injuries; just as it seems she is back to full fitness she suffers a setback. This must make it impossible to follow a progressive training regime and the risk exists (albeit small) that she will not qualify for Tokyo. Prediction 50/50 whether she is fully fit to play but if she does then QF
Akane – seeded 1 – on the other hand has had a pretty good year culminating in a wonderful July. She became world number 1, won the Indonesian Open and then the Japan Open over a few crazily successful weeks. The euphoria around this has diluted somewhat owing to her premature exits in the World Championships, the China Open and the Korea Open. She has had a back complaint; this disrupted her training and hindered her movement in a match. However, the good news -according to Morten Frost on Badminton Central – is that she has told him the back injury is healed. “No back problems any more”. However, she is having a problem on her right calf muscle. Prediction QF
These two players- if they are fit- could win the tournament, but there’s no evidence either of them have regained full fitness. I’m more hopeful for Akane and a decent run of games is just what she needs now.
Any Fairytales For The Home Contingent?
The WS category has Line Kjaersfeldt and Mia Blichfeldt who are both fine players but the seeding is against them and I can’t see either making much headway against Ratchanok and similar top 10 competitors. Just as an aside I think it’s a different story in MS. Who would bet against Viktor getting to the final? He’s ‘only’ seeded 7 but I think that’s the product of his allergy blighted summer. Anders Antonsen is another live prospect; his improvement over the last months has been terrific and it would be no big shock to see him on the podium too.
Any surprises? The most competitive sector of badminton always throws up something. It wouldn’t be impossible for someone like SUNG Ji Hyun, Tunjung or AN Se Young to overachieve and get to a semi-final. If the seeding plays out then it will be Akane Vs Feifei on October 20th. I love to watch tournaments unfold; it’s not only about the spectacular wins, for true fans its also the pleasure in seeing a favourite improve, a new player burst onto the scene, courage under pressure or simply a beautiful shot. Often the player who gets a feel for the arena early on can build her momentum towards Gold. P V Sindhu has a very harsh draw, but if she can hit the ground running it could be a great final to contest. Aside from podium finishers, I hope Saina can compete well. She’s a legendary player and this year must be terribly frustrating for her. This is going to be a fascinating competition and may the best woman win!