Yonex All England 2022: Women’s Preview

A sparkling line-up in all the women’s sectors promises some brilliant battles ahead. The stars are back! The German Open has been full of upsets with some seeds struggling to impose themselves on the tournament. Let’s see if this unpredictable picture lingers into England.

Image courtesy of BWF

Women’s Singles

Three-time winner TAI Tzu Ying usually has a scintillating presence on court & brings stardust to any tournament; exceptional racket skills and unconventional genius means that she will be challenging for the title. However there are some big challenges ahead.  In 2021 Akane Yamaguchi hit a dazzling run of form.  Liberation from Olympic expectations unleashed a new focus, her fitness has returned, and she must be eyeing the trophy with confidence.  These two are seeded to meet in the final in a repeat of 2018. On that occasion TTY triumphed so Akane will want revenge. Neither of them were on good form in Germany; both crashing out in their R2 matches so they both must step up their play if they want the trophy.

China is consistently producing exceptional women players. It’s astonishing to realise that CHEN Yufei – the current Olympic champion – is only seeded #3. Of course she has not been able to participate fully in the tour owing to China’s Covid restrictions.  She is a deadly opponent who can drain the fight from a rival before putting them to the sword.  The bottom half of the draw is arguably able to offer her a smooth journey to the SF and a potential game versus Akane or Sindhu. Realistically her consistency and fitness make her favourite for this title. HE Bing Jiao is always a bit of an enigma.  During the pandemic she has become leaner, but has she become meaner?  I think we will probably find out if she makes it to a QF with her compatriot CHEN Yu Fei.  After beating Akane in Germany her confidence should be sky high. The other notable Chinese player bringing form to the UK is ZHANG Yi Man who dispatched Sindhu in three sets in Mulheim. She meets CYF in R1 so it’s a tough ask to expect progress.

As the defending champion Nozomi Okuhara has little to prove but has a harsh draw to negotiate.  She has remained quite low profile since Tokyo but in December – for the third year running – was crowned winner at the All Japan Badminton Championships. In the first couple of rounds she’ll have to overcome a double Danish challenge; in R1 round she is meeting Denmark’s Line Christophersen then R2 could offer Mia Blichfeldt. Further in, TAI Tzu Ying, May or AN Se Young await.  She will need to be on her game from the moment she steps onto court on day 1.

Is this going to be AN Se Young’s tournament?  The top half of this draw offers a lot of banana skins & she would probably have to overcome May, TTY or Nozomi to get to the final. This is my worry.  I’m a little unconvinced that her stamina will hold up through a bruising tournament – the cumulative effect of game after game after game does have a cost, so she must be tactically clever and try to conserve energy wherever possible.

Ratchanok Intanon was in good form at the Olympics; the battle with TTY in Tokyo was outstanding and there is a possible repeat of that epic match in prospect in the semi-final.  First May has to negotiate early rounds that include ASY.  Under pressure she often she executes extraordinary shots, disdains percentage play and can unravel a rival with her extravagant skill. I love to watch her compete like this but I think sometimes it’s the consequence of a desire to speedily finish off a rival; if they manage to hang in the game there can be Trouble.

The renowned Big Game Player – Pursala V Sindhu – is hard to analyse. She has an Olympic bronze from 2021 but often over the past 2 or 3 years she has struggled to build a winning momentum that takes her all the way to the top of the podium.  She wasn’t able to progress beyond R1 at the German Open in the run-up to this tournament so I’m not sure what we can expect. She is one of the best of her generation but Akane awaits in the QF.

I see CHEN Yufei as favourite for this title. However Akane enjoyed impressive form at the end of 2021; if anyone can beat her they are serious contenders.

Women’s Doubles

All the badminton community is anticipating the international return of FukuHiro with warmth in their hearts. They are such a likeable pair: their spirit against the odds at the Tokyo Olympics was admired the world over.  We have watched Yuki Fukushima joining forces with other players whilst Sayaka Hirota recuperated from knee surgery but now is an opportunity to see them attempt to recapture the title they won together in 2020. It’s hard to estimate where they are in terms of form and fitness. They will have to take one match at a time and see what happens. Nothing is impossible for two of the best players on the circuit.

The #1 seeds (and winners in 2019) can be a real handful for any opponent.  CHEN Qing Chen is a valiant, tireless player who screws down the pressure whilst left-handed JIA Yi Fan loves to smash or get a hard flat rally going.  They both have plenty of power and use it with venom. If it boils down to a brawl at the end of a game for the last few winning points then probably the Chinese pair will edge through. If they bring their A game to Birmingham, they will be unstoppable. 

It’s been a while since Korea won the WD title in Birmingham.  In fact, it was 2017 when LEE So-hee won it with CHANG Ye-na.  What a record LEE has of competing and winning at the highest levels in badminton over nearly a decade.  She is seeded 2 with SHIN Seung-chan and they kick off their campaign with a tricky tie against the Stoevas. KIM So-yeong and KONG Hee-yong are seeded 3 in the top half of the draw – both pairs have all the skills to get to finals weekend and once they are there anything can happen.

2021 was a break-out year for Nami Matsuyama and Chiharu Shida who upped their competitive levels and enjoyed plenty of success at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton.  Their creative aggression marks out the evolution of the Japanese house style.  I’m excited to see if they continue their development into the last stages of this competition.

I’m not neutral, I’ve followed and admired Greysia Polii for years.  That gold medal win at the Olympics was one of my happiest badminton days so I want to watch the 6th seeds go deep into this competition.  Although the GreyAp partnership remains in place for Birmingham it’s noteworthy that Apriyani Rahayu planned to be with a different partner at the German Open but unfortunately a minor injury scuppered that idea.  PBSI have to plan for the future but I hope the Olympic Champions play well in Birmingham, no injuries and do themselves justice.

The current champions Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara who habitually win big events have been forced to withdraw because of a knee injury sustained during training.

This doubles competition does have the potential for a few upsets from unseeded pairs. Pearly TAN and Thinaah Muralitheran never know when they are beaten and their opponents are always in for a difficult hour or so on court. Likewise Maiken Fruergaard and Sara Thygesen can mix it with the best – in round one they face GreyAp and that’s a tricky challenge for the sixth seeds.

Mixed Doubles

I want to include XD in my women’s preview because I believe that it’s the performance of the woman in the duo that leads to victory .  The role of the woman partner has shifted over the last 15 years to a more proactive aggressive stance – I think mainly because of the influence of Liliyana Natsir, one of the true greats of the game. This benefits mobile players who are comfortable in attack and defence.

It’s quite hard to see beyond the first four seeds for the title. Deservedly at the top of the draw are the Thai pair Bass/Popor. They are physically strong, worked hard through 2021 and got plenty of success. They didn’t participate last year because of their focus on Olympic prep but 2022 will see them travelling to the UK with a strong chance of grabbing the trophy for Thailand. I think it’s significant that Sapsiree Taerattanachai is not competing in WD too. Her sole focus at this tournament will be XD. The two shutters who can stop them are the Tokyo Olympic Champions: WANG Yi Lyu & HUANG Dong Ping. I’m a big admirer of HUANG who is a wonderful doubles player with power, touch and plenty of smarts.  The destiny of the title is probably in her hands.

Who could challenge the favourites for the title?  Japan’s Yuta and Arisa are a formidable pair.  I love to watch them switch roles and see Yuta marauding at the net; this is a huge competitive advantage and very difficult to neutralise. The #2 seeds ZHENG Si Wei and HUANG Ya Qiong must also be eyeing the trophy but they have a very unconventional preparation for the tournament as they will be competing with different partners the week before in Germany.

Conclusions

So, a wonderful tournament hosting the best women players in the world lies ahead. The athletes who can stay fit and focused on their goals will be the ones who carry away the trophy on Finals Day. Every shot counts.


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


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

Sudirman Cup Review

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

Misaki Matsutomo

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

Akane Yamaguchi – Most Valuable Player

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

CHEN Yufei

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

Pearly TAN & THINAAH Muralitheran

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

Honourable Mentions Also To:

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

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


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved


CHEN Qing Chen & JIA Yi Fan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This first appeared on the Yonex All England website

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

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

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved