I miss seeing my favourites on court so, as a response to the gloomy news about the postponement of the Malaysia Open, I have worked out the essence of a perfect player by taking the best bits from some of the finest athletes in the men’s game.
Vivacity: Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo
We delight in Kevin as an unstoppable force of nature. His zesty intelligent play on court is exhilarating for spectators and often overwhelming for opponents. His expertise at reading the game gives him stellar anticipation and fused with his technical ability, it’s not hard to see why he and Marcus Gideon have been World #1 for so long. I love his high-speed reactions, his ambition and his imaginative vision.
Momota’s will to win, his unflappable demeanour and apparently unlimited stamina have all driven him on to the top of many podiums. On court he is economic with his emotions and strategy but his relentless return of the shuttle breaks his rivals resolve and often exposes their lack of ideas. Over the years he has overcome so many hurdles that his invincible aura just becomes brighter and brighter. He is an awesome athlete who plays with speed and accuracy and deserves his World #1 status.
Speed: Anthony or Yuta?
Intuitively I’d always choose Anthony Ginting in this category – his effortless, flowing movement is so classy and quick. His fleet-footed style dovetails nicely with his silky racket skills too…however I ran a Twitter poll a few weeks ago and some fan’s answers made me reconsider a little especially Mia Wenas who suggested Yuta Watanabe. Comparing singles and doubles players is tricky but Yuta’s court coverage and agile movement is hard to equal. I always think he wears a shirt that looks too big and this disguises his movement somewhat. He is one of the few players who can face Kevin over a net as an equal and so because of that he has to be recognised here.
100% Legend: Hendra Setiawan
Nobody wins all the major titles in their sport by chance: Hendra is an icon of the game. His calm demeanour under pressure, his quick-witted strategic assessments on court and his extravagant skills at the net make him a truly wonderful player. His humble response to compliments and victories are the mark of a real gentleman. A badminton role model worldwide.
Street Fighting Man: Anders Antonsen
Antonsen has stepped up a level in the past couple of years; like all elite badminton players his technical skills are superb but what I really like about him is that he is a resourceful scrapper. Many were shocked by his somewhat controversial tactics when winning against Viktor Axelsen at the World Tour Finals back in January. His energy conserving strategy of conceding the second set was daring and ultimately successful; it took a ton of confidence to risk everything for the title but his gamble worked.
Firepower: Praveen Jordan or Viktor Axelsen
Probably the two hardest-hitters in the game but that does not do either man’s game justice. I’m fascinated to see what these two competitors can achieve at the Tokyo Olympics – they have a realistic chance of Gold but power alone does not win badminton matches.
I’ve really enjoyed trying to nail down the charactersitics of a Gold Medal player but this was just for fun. I’m sure that on another day I may’ve found room for Jonathan Christie, CHOU Tien Chen or SHI Yuqi. It’s hardly fair to single out players without mentioning their partners if they are from the doubles sector so don’t take this too seriously. Comments are welcome.
The whole tournament is dominated by the most eagerly awaited comeback in modern badminton history. The return of Momota. The spotlight will be on him from the second he steps back on court.
Kento Momota is like a ravenous lion circling a water hole and preparing to pounce on unsuspecting antelope; here is a lion who hasn’t tasted red meat in a looong time.
It’s impossible to guess his level of fitness after such a lengthy absence but his superior mental strength will have driven him on to train and stay focused. He has all the weapons to regain his title after missing the AE last year and he can often expose highly seeded opponents as one-dimensional. He has an aura of a returning king although he must feel some nerves about the standards he can reach at the beginning of his campaign. Viktor Axelsen has set a high benchmark over the past three months so Momota must be on guard. Prediction: Final
Viktor Axelsen – the defending champion – had a brilliant January in Thailand so he will be arriving in Birmingham with high hopes of keeping his title. He has been awesome at grabbing opportunities to win over the past 3 months: a living embodiment of Carpe Diem. However, that loss at the WTF keeps niggling away at me. His power, fitness and will to win are second to none but he was unsettled by Antonsen’s cunning tactics. Falling prey to a version of the rope-a-dope trick must have been incredibly frustrating and I wonder what the effect of that will be long-term. Axelsen has introduced us to his ‘mental coach’ recently, who is an ex special forces soldier so he clearly wishes to explore how his psychology can give him an edge. In the final of the Swiss Open he was unstoppable as he bulldozed his way to the trophy. It’s worth noting that his opponent – Vitidsarn – did start the encounter well and his tactics reminded me of Momota’s ‘waiting game’ approach, but he made too many errors and ran out of steam. Momota has plenty of stamina and he knows not to give VA power to feed off, so if they meet in the final Viktor should be pushed harder. Prediction Runner up
Anders Antonsen – the WTF Champion – is never a person to fade into the background and the past six months have been full on drama. Starting in October, his epic battle against Gemke in the final of the Denmark Open left both unable to walk unaided from the arena, in November he contracted Covid, January saw patchy performances in the first two tournaments in Bangkok then he roared back to form in the WTF to snatch victory away from Axelsen; this all adds layers of experience to an intelligent player who needs to be on court. Viktor has better fitness and stamina but Antonsen has better strategies. Last year’s YAE saw him retire hurt from his semi-Final against CHOU Tien Chen which was a huge disappointment as he had every chance of making the final at that point. He is seeded 3 so it may be that we see an all-Danish semi final with the liklihood of a fired-up Viktor looking for revenge.
Anthony Ginting spearheads the Indonesia challenge in this sector. When he is consistently at his best, he is unstoppable and we saw flashes of this brilliance in Thailand but he didn’t have enough for a podium finish. On the whole, after such a long break, his performance gave some cause for optimism, or at least no cause for alarm. In the SF of the Yonex Thailand Open he came up against a resolute VA in the third set but overall, he lost that tie 53-55 which puts a revealing slant on his defeat. His levels dropped off in the next two tournaments and this is exasperating as he is such a glorious player. I saw lockdown as a useful opportunity for some players to improve areas of their game and instinctively I would point to his ‘third set’ strategies. There are not really gaps in his technique but something is missing in this area that his coaches need to address. I would love to see him come to Birmingham and gift us fans a MomoGI in the semi final. And then I want a final.
Kunlavut Vitidsarn was the World Junior Champion for three years running (2017/18/19) and is one of badminton’s rising stars. Axelsen demolished him in the second set of the final of the Swiss Open but his fluency around the court and technical skill is exciting. As he builds on his experience and puts more hours in at the gym we will see an improvement in stamina and pace. The fact that he stayed with Viktor in the first set whilst playing patiently should worry Jonatan Christie who plays him in the first round.
Jonatan Christie is seeded 5 and has a brutal draw: possibly meeting Axelsen at the QF stage. If so then he could struggle to progress as their h2h coupled with the Danes form doesn’t indicate any easy points. It would be wonderful to see him get to the weekend but it would be a bit of a jaw-dropper if he can subdue the Dane. Last year LEE Zii Jia who is seeded 6, had a thrilling run to the SF before losing in a closely fought match with VA. He is very mobile, with good technical skills, a great player for a neutral to support. He looked a bit lethargic at the Swiss Open so perhaps he is an athlete who needs to compete consistently to maintain his focus and pace. A possible Quarter Final with Momota is on the horizon and to have any dream of progress he must improve on his recent form.
Owing to Marin’s late withdrawal from the tournament the top half of the draw is suddenly looking less intimidating for the other players. Akane, Pornpawee, and Pursala would have had to beat her to get to the final; now there is one less obstacle on the road.
Akane Yamaguchi is seeded 3 but still, this will be the first time we have seen her in an international tournament for a year and I honestly don’t know what we can expect. She was the beaten finalist (in three sets) against Nozomi at the All-Japan National Championships in December. Before the pandemic her brief period at World #1 was followed by some inconsistency. At her best, she is a contender for the title, so the puzzle is about the level she is at when she hits the courts on the 17th March. She is known as a retriever but there have been occasions when she has used a fiercer style; combining more aggression with her great court coverage will give her more options when she is under pressure. The prospect of a QF against Pornpawee is intriguing. Mew nearly beat Marin in the Semi Final of the Swiss Open; she seemed down and out but hauled herself back into contention. Peppery unpredictability with unlimited stamina could be a good strategy.
Nozomi Okuhara‘s victory in the final of the Denmark Open over Marin came after a dazzling two sets; she would not let the Spaniard get a foothold in the game. The strategy of frustrating and denying her the chance to build a competitive rhythm disrupted her momentum and was a key element in Nozomi’s success. In the context of 2019 where she consistently reached finals only to lose this was a big breakthrough. The court coverage, stamina and sheer stubbornness of Nozomi are hard to break. She last won in 2016 but with the Tokyo Olympics in mind she will be aiming to become a hard player to beat at the end of a tournament so this is the perfect place to set a marker. The hall conditions should suit her but she must get the right balance between attack and defence.
Ratchanok Intanon – the #4 seed – is coming to the All England for another shot at winning the title. She was close in 2017 but was relegated to Silver by TAI Tzu Ying. We often criticise TTY for lack of patience but I think that May suffers with this too – her sublime technical skills sometimes mean that she doesn’t play the percentages. May could potentially be looking at a semi-final against Nozomi which would be a dream for fans. Rather like Anthony in the MS I wish she was more solid in the third set. It’s harder than it looks to behave with restraint in that section of a match but it is within her capabilities; we have all watched epic games where she fights with incredible grit and courage. In her 2020 win at the Indonesia Masters she overcame Marin in three sets so she can be inspired by this.
Pornpawee CHOCHUWONG’s progress since her victory over Carolina Marin at the Spain Masters in 2020 has been dislocated because of the effect of Covid cancellations on the badminton tour. Nevertheless, she had victories over TAI Tzu Ying and Ratchanok in Bangkok which shows that she has the ability to compete with the best. Her recent SF match against Carolina Marin at the Swiss Open was a defeat but she pushed all the way with a gritty and skilful display. Seeded 6 she has every reason to be optimistic if she can cut some of her errors. It would be an upset if she won the title but she has a chance – especially in the absence of Marin – and the mental stamina to push all the way to the end of a third set. Her obstinate outlook is a big advantage and it could be the foundation of tremendous achievements.
I would love to see Pursala V Sindhu rampage through the early rounds of this competition in the sort of form that won her the title at the World Championships in 2019. She’s a great athlete, but it just seems that sometimes she cannot dig herself out of a hole when the game tilts away from her. The final at the Swiss Open showed her difficulties; she struggled on her lunges to the front court to reach wide shots and wasn’t using any creativity to stop Marins anticipatory game. On the positive side she did get to the final and in the first set she seemed to have a bit more speed around the court. I hope that her coaching environment becomes more settled so that she can continue to develop her range.
So we have a men’s competition where we have to measure athletes against Viktor’s tough standards but Momota has returned to complicate things and a women’s competition that is missing TTY and Carolina but still features players with a realistic chance of the Gold medal later on in the year in Tokyo. All England success this year will go to the competitor who can come to the court with intensity and desire after twelve months of disruption and boredom. Can Viktor prove that he is the new King of the courts?
Thanks be to Yonex who have created a series of tournaments under their ‘Legends’ banner.
A team game with different rules. A new “flight” system which allows a team of six to switch players on and off court between points. So, to Japan first and of course hard-core fans are desperate for a glimpse of the two team captains. The players emerge to blasts of dry ice and swirling spotlights; Momoto looks stern then his game face cracks and he waves to the camera. The teams were announced in advance but it is still a shock to see four 15year old players – Nakagawa, Hashimura, Noguchi and Kohara preparing to play.
Kento Momota is the leader of Team Kansha whilst Akane Yamaguchi is boss of team Sixth Sense. So, a tournament where success is based around effective tactics but not traditional badminton game plans: no athlete holds enough flights to remain on court and win a game single handed. It’s up to the captains to decide when to change people about over a total of five matches, 3 doubles and two singles. Potentially the best strategist should win.
A quick photocall, warm up and then to the games. No one can stop smiling. Win a point – celebrate, lose a point – smile. The happiness is irresistible. As the cameras pan round the delight that the athletes feel while playing is clear. It’s been mentioned before that in team tournaments the members of BirdJapan always turn up to support each other and this is another manifestation of that attitude.
Sixth Sense raced into a 2-0 lead. Akane was relishing her court time and playing some great net drops but in game three the Kansha team halted her players momentum. Game 4 was singles and the highlight was the Momoto versus Kamura flat drive rally. Kamura, the doubles specialist coming out on top but the tide had turned and that one was chalked up to Kansha too. Game 5 was the decider. Sixth Sense were being reeled in. The classic pattern that we see in Momota’s matches was enacted here too; Kansha won after being behind.
So, it was badminton…but not as we know it! Who cares? It was a chance to see some great players and some up-and-coming ones too
Akane showed some delicate touches, Momota played sportingly and didn’t just try to muscle his way to victory, and Higashino was on good form. Most of all I watched Kamura exude joy on the court and around his teammates.
It wasn’t really possible to gain any insight about the recovery of the World #1 or how game fit these players are. However, in what was essentially a fun exhibition match everyone acquitted themselves well. It’s hard to say where this fits into the training programme but the nature of the games was very stop-start, so potentially making the players cope in a context where they have lost their rhythm is a worthwhile exercise but that probably wasn’t the point. It fills a gap until the tour reactivates in Thailand in January and it was entertaining from the moment the players appeared on screen.
Writing from the depths of lockdown life – where many of us find it difficult to jettison our pyjamas much before midday – it’s incongruous to imagine the elite athletes who are sticking with their pre-covid routines and dreams. But these are the times when we truly see players mettle. Commitment to reaching the Olympic podium won’t be switched on or off according to whim: it’s a vow made in childhood and it has to be honoured.
Who can maintain an edge?
The genius at the centre of the Japanese badminton world is coach PARK Joo Bong. As a player he described himself as ‘greedy for Gold’. His XD Gold at the Seoul Olympics – when badminton was a demonstration event – plus his MD Gold in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics confirm his place amongst the game’s greats. After retirement and some coaching roles in England, Malaysia and back home in Korea he became head coach of the Japanese team in 2004. In 2012 there was a WD silver for Japan in London then Rio 2016 saw TakaMatsu win WD Gold and Nozomi Okuhara clinch Bronze in WS. His masterplan is designed to reach a crescendo at the Tokyo Olympics.
Badminton stumbled back to life his October. Whilst other sports have reactivated, we have been beset by delays and cancellations. However, the Danish Open – a prestigious Super750 event – offered the chance to gauge which players had maintained their edge. Disappointingly it suffered withdrawals, nevertheless ‘everyone’ from Japan appeared to be ready to travel. Flights and hotels were booked but just before the start of the tournament Denmark experienced a spike in Covid cases and club owners asked their players to remain in Japan. Although this was frustrating for fans waiting to see the re-emergence of Momota the women’s sector still sent most of the top athletes.
Women’s Doubles– The final at the Denmark Open between NagaMatsu & FukuHiro – was seen by many as a possible rehearsal for the Olympic final. The starring role of deciding who may get Gold in Tokyo was taken by Yuki Fukushima. She was a handful all through the match. Her consistency, precision and variations were top quality and so she defused the more attack-minded rivals. The 2020 All England champions Fukushima and Hirota are a team with plenty of experience. Their defence is rock solid and they are all-rounders with no real weakness except that sometimes they become a little predictable. The 2018 and 2019 BWF World Champions – Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara – are a very sparky duo; happy to take chances and be creative when they are hunting points. Matsumoto is a tall hard-hitter who is spatially aware and great at the net. I used to think they have the best chance of Gold but after the DO I’m not sure. It wouldn’t be a shock if the final was an all Japanese duel.
Women’s Singles – Nozomi was in dazzling form at the Denmark Open. Her victory over Carolina Marin in the final meant we didn’t have to suffer with her on the podium as she added to her silver medal collection from 2019. Clearly she has continued to train hard and her play was at a consistently high level. Already an Olympic medallist she has unswervingly said that her target is Gold in front of her home crowd. Akane Yamaguchi did not travel to Europe but is another who has big expectations on her shoulders. Briefly world number 1 last year, the end of 2019 was disrupted by injuries. It’s likely that despite the disadvantages of this hiatus in play she may benefit from the break to address those niggles. The conditions at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza are likely to suit both players so with a good draw they will be challenging for top honours.
Men’s Doubles – in world badminton this sector produces the most insanely exciting games and two of the best pairs are from Japan. The real speed kings reside here, with the emphasis on swift reflexes, shrewd tactics and power. The current All England champions – Yuta Watanabe and Hiroyuki Endo – have all these characteristics along with resilience, determination and courage. There is quite a big age gap between them (Yuta is only 22 and Hiroyuki 33) and so we would have to wonder if the partnership will continue after the Olympiad, but never mind, for now they burn bright. Yuta’s brilliant net play balanced by Hiroyuki’s strength and power from the rear court is hard for rivals to counter. They have a remarkable record against the world Number 1s – Indonesia’s Sukamuljo & Gideon, and a final between these four exceptional athletes, a repeat of the final in Birmingham is one that would delight everyone. The second duo from Japan consists of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda: they live the phrase ‘the fast and the furious’. Sonoda is always bouncing on his toes, his internal dynamo just never seems to rest. These two can dazzle with their speed and athleticism and it’s likely they will be fighting compatriots for a medal at the knockout stages in Tokyo
Men’s Singles – Momota is world number 1 and favourite for the Gold. His net skills, anticipation and reflexes mean that his games have a quality that makes victory seem inexorable. His psychological power over his rivals – the aura that surrounds him on court – gives him an extra weapon to use. His mental strength and emotional self-reliance are key characteristics that will help him survive yet another delay to his date with destiny. Who has the ability to challenge him? The Danish Open showcased the progress of Anders Antonsen who will try to upset him. Viktor Axelsen along with Taiwan’s CHOU Tien Chen are credible challengers too, but, all fans crave a MomoGi final in every competition, and Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting definitely has the potential to earn a medal in Tokyo. The importance of stamina and focus can’t be overstated in the context of beating Momota. I’m confused as to who the other Japanese competitor may be. Kenta Nishimoto made the SF in Denmark or Kanta Tsuneyama – who did not travel – could be the second player.
Mixed Doubles – the leading Japanese pair, Yuta Watanabe & Arisa Higashino, are the All England champions of 2018 and runners up from 2019. Arisa is renowned as an aggressive hard-hitter if she is in the rear court, so when she and Yuta find their traditional positions reversed in a match, they do not suffer too much disadvantage. Her partner has fine technical skills and is always searching for space to score points. They are a formidable pair but there is a risk that Yuta may be spread too thinly.
There’s no doubt that once the XXXII Olympiad starts the Japanese competitors will be challenging for a podium spot in every sector. The standout athlete for me is Yuta Watanabe; he is an extraordinary player who competes in Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles. The big question is whether he can win two events; can he withstand the physical and emotional strain that getting to the knockout stages in both would bring? A home Olympic medal guarantees immortality and to wait an extra year before walking out onto the court at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza must be particularly frustrating for the Japanese team. All of us – players and fans – are eager for the sport we love to restart properly.
We know they inspire each other to brilliance: relentless attack verses unbending defence. But no-one could have predicted the twists and turns in this game, Momota’s life is a magnet for drama so this stage was set for him. Adrenaline overload as the two athletes walked out to the show court. Momota – gameface – seemingly oblivious to everything whilst Anthony, happy and smiling; chatting to the child mascot escorting him. A torrent of noise as the crowd made their support heard. The arena was dominated by Japanese supporters but there was a section full of Indonesian flags behind one end. Those fans, already emotionally exhausted by the achievements of Marcus & Kevin on Super Saturday were determined to bring the spirit of Istora to this match too.
Both of these men had a ‘perfect’ run to the final. Neither dropped a set or experienced any injury worries. In his SF against Anders Andersen, Momota was pushed hard and only won the second set after extra points: 23-21. He was determined to finish the game off and we saw unusual flashes of an impatient player at times. Anthony profited from SHI Yuqi’s obvious fatigue earlier in the tournament but in his SF against Malaysia’s LEE Zii Jia we saw a player fixed on forcing a win. LZJ could not live with his intelligent tactics in difficult playing conditions.
SET 1: 21-19 Momota
It was a fairly bloodless start to the match. Both were nervous and making unforced errors. Neither seemed able to read the drift in the Arena with Momota hitting the shuttle long at least three times. Anthony made 2 ill-judged challenges to line calls; Hawkeye was unmoved. Anthony decided he needed the court mopped but he was moving well. Momota’s usual patient, reactive style saw him win without too much effort. Plenty of analysts had predicted that the environment in the arena would suit him and in the first set at least they were proven right. All-in-all if you are going to watch the game on catch up skip the first set and jump to set 2.
SET 2: 13-21 Ginting. Fireworks.
After the damp squib of set one, set 2 had a rare incandescence. Rallies were contested at lightening pace, all sweat and reflex. Ginting had to win it to stay in the chase for the Gold. What did Coach Hendry say to him? Suddenly Anthony had dashed into a shocking 8-4 lead using beautiful precision shots building sequences to make the Japanese player scramble. Momota requested a doctor and the stadium held it’s breath. The big screen showed a close up of the King’s left foot. Only a small blister. To be honest, he should have been more careful putting his sock on, but after some freeze spray and a dressing he got up and returned to the fight. Abruptly Momota transformed himself. A long-hidden aggressive edge saw his usual game plan tilt away from persistant defence.
There was an urgency to his play that was utterly compelling. He started clawing his way back into the set and went into the interval 7-11. The foot was dressed again, but no shirt change. The 2 minute interval stretched into 2 and a half…3 minutes. Anthony was bouncing along a tramline, staying warm, ignoring the crisis. We watched as the umpire covered his microphone and said something short and sharp. Momota sprang up and took his position to receive serve; rocking forward and back full of contained energy. Anthony was pitiless. His movement was fluid and easy. Forcing Momota to move from corner to corner he dominated the rallies with vicious, irresistable attack; he was able to vary the pace, never allowing the left-hander to get a momentum going. At 13-19 Momota challenged a line call: it was a tactical challenge to allow himself time to regroup and to free up the interval for more treatment. He had obviously decided that it was better to let this set go and then have a ‘death or glory’ final game. 13-21 to Ginting.
Final Set: Blood, Sweat & Tears
Momota sat down and removed his shoe: the blood was obvious. Anxiety rippled through the Arena. Clean bandage, more freeze spray and tape. 1 minute and 50 seconds later he was back on court waiting for Ginting. No drama. Trying to make the psychological point (to who?) that he didn’t need to take the whole 2 minutes.
Immediately Momota seized the initiative with a trademark exchange at the net; the hairpin left Anthony wrong-footed. But as the points ticked by, backwards and forwards neither player could impose their game plan on the match. Momota abandoned all reliance on his ‘sit and wait’ strategy. His smash, follow up, kill routine was exhilarating but Ginting equalled him in power and desire. The fast flat exchanges across the net were shocking to watch. When Anthony could defend the initial smash he was then able to trap Momota far away from the net on the back trams. Mid-game interval 11-10 Momota.
The two players returned to the court for one last effort in this career defining match. Momota had to outlast Ginting. Anthony’s shots were sheer class, fantastic accuracy and control but it was clear that he was starting to tire. Momota had returned to his defensive approach and in the end it was his 1% of extra resilience that got him to the finishing line first: 21-18. Both players completely drained; Anthony hands on knees, looking down, Kento flat on his back on the court – no shout of victory, just exhaustion. Then they shake hands, embrace, smile. Both full of sporting concern for the other; exemplary behaviour from two exceptional players.
World Number 1 – Kento Momota – was crowned Olympic champion today in front of his home crowd after an heroic three set battle with Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting. Momota is confirmed King but that doesn’t tell you the story of a match that will become legendary.
Fans who were at the Musashino Forest Sportsplaza this evening will boast to their grandchildren ‘I was there’. It was magnificent, it was heartbreaking.
It never happened, all events are fictional. If you’d like someone else to win feel free to write your own.
There’s something extra spicy about tournaments this close to the Tokyo Olympics.
Womens Singles Preview
For me, this is the most exhilarating sector in world badminton; the calibre of the athletes outside the top seeds means that shocks and early exits are standard fare.
AN Se Young – Seeded 8
What a breathtaking year 2019 was for this young player: the stand-out result had to be her victory in the final of the French Open against Marin in three sets, but there were plenty of other wins along the way. She’s a great retriever, patient and happy to keep the shuttle in play but there is also a depth of skill to her game at the net which makes it hard for a rival to intimidate her. We shouldn’t think of her as a giantkiller…she is becoming the giant! Prediction: Final
!!UPDATE. AN Se Young crashes out to Saina in R2 to set up a Clash of the Titans with Carolina Marin in the quarter final. What a performance from Saina. The 29 year old beat ASY in straight sets 25-23 21-12. I think this means that her dream of qualifying for Tokyo is still alive. Bravo Saina.
TAI Tzu Ying – Seeded 1
Every badminton fan aches to see TTY in a final. Her sensational skills are a non-stop source of wonder and joy. It’s clear that Coach LAI and her team have the podium in Tokyo as the focus for the year; each of these tournaments form a percentage of her preparation for that. Ultimately beautiful shots – in isolation – will not be enough and I think we are starting to see a realisation that cutting out mistakes and halting the drift of games when she loses momentum are key. Prediction: Final
Akane Yamaguchi – Seeded 4, and Carolina Marin – unseeded
Akane has a nightmarish R1 draw lined up against the unseeded (!) Carolina Marin. She had such a patchy end to 2019 that it’s impossible to say how this encounter will go. Carolina is back and she is hungry.
CHEN Yufei – Seeded 2
Although a lot of attention has been paid to Momota for his supremacy in the men’s singles last year, I think CHEN Yufei’s acheivements have been equal if not better. Arguably she is in a more competitive sector with more variations of style to cope with. She finished the year as World #1, seven titles and she was a member of the triumphant Chinese Sudirman Cup team. She is strategically mature, able to sit and wait or be more agressive depending on her opponent. Prediction: Final
Ratchanok Intanon – Seeded 5
May has won this title for two years in a row and is always a brave player in tight situations. This can be a high risk strategy although I love her for it. A gritty ‘death or glory’ approach means that she is vulnerable to patient players like CHEN Yufei who know that keeping the shuttle in play will eventually lead to an opportunity to score. Prediction: QF
Nozomi Okuhara – Seeded 3
Towards the end of last year I thought Nozomi was introducing more attacking play to her game. She is known as a patient retriever, and that style has been getting her to tournament finals but the issue is that she hasn’t been winning them. She has to alter the balance of her game somehow to give herself a tactical edge. Prediction: Semi Final
Any one of these four could find themselves in the semi-final but they all need to find some extra sparkle from somewhere. The last twelve months have contained frustration, injury, bad-luck and poor form. What to say about Sindhu? The too-brief period with coach KIM brought a new focus and better technique; a pressure game that crushed all her opponents at the World Championships. Where has that player gone? If she rediscovers that badminton beast she can be unstoppable. Saina has also suffered through a very uneven year with a lot of disruption because of injury and, it seems to me, lack of continuity around her coaching support. Of all the top players she is the one who is in serious danger of missing qualification for the Olympics if she doesn’t turn things around soon. She has the prospect of a R2 against AN Se Young which is going to put her fitness and resolve under heavy scrutiny. Tunjung is a delightful player who just seems to find it difficult to build a momentum of good results. Her R1 game is against May which means that progress is going to be tough but not impossible. HE is consistently a top 8 seeded player without many titles to show for it and I don’t really see that changing anytime soon.
Eleven titles for Momota in 2019 and who is going to stop him dominating the Men’s sector this year as well? Technically, strategically and physically he is ahead of his rivals and we know that in the sporting arena athletes are able to remodel their game to give themselves a new edge Recently Yosuke Nakanishi (his coach) has been reported as saying that SHI Yuqi is his biggest rival. I also think that Anthony Ginting – possible quarter final opponent – and Anders Antonsen are dangerous. Within the context of this tournament it is SHI’s recovery from last year’s injury that is crucial; if he is back to full fitness the combined challenge to Momota from the other seeds as he progresses through the competition will give him a good test.
It’s Olympic Year and suddenly every competition seems a little more significant; not only in terms of qualification but also to read the clues as to who could be destined for Gold. Tokyo seems so near and yet there are plenty of tournaments and dramas to enjoy before that. Momota is secure at the top of his sector for now, however the contrast with the woman’s sector couldn’t be clearer. The depth of talent in the woman’s game means that no player is able to dominate. It’ll soon become clear who is starting the new year at a run; sporting momentum is important and the skill of seizing a victory then building on it is crucial. Who has the hunger to succeed?
I wanted to share some happy memories of 2019. I think it’s been a tremendous year, bursting with great shots, great games and great athletes. This is a very biased, partial view of the year and I’m sure I’ve probably missed out some of your favourites. Feel free to comment below or via twitter. We are lucky to be fans of such an amazing sport.
The Daddies have been outstanding over the past twelve months. The All England Final was an emotionally draining masterclass by Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan. At first it seemed that the calf injury to Setiawan was going to hamper their chances of the title. Aaron Chia & Soh Wuui Yik took the first set and as a ‘neutral’ embedded deep within a massive group of Malaysian fans I thought they were heading for victory. However, gradually it became apparent that the Indonesians were not going to accept silver medals. Their self-belief and tactical nous gave a vital edge and they took the deciding set 21-12; it was a dramatic, exhausting match to watch.
In isolation I would say this victory was brilliant but in the context of their successes in winning the World Championship in Basle and the BWF World Tour Final we have to acknowledge that these two are titans of the world game. I would LOVE to see them on the podium in Tokyo.
AN Se Young: the 2019 BWF Most Promising Player of the Year. In January she was ranked at 99 but by December she had risen to 9, that probably tells you all you need to know about the thrilling year she has had. As a raw talent she stunned fans with victories over Saina, Akane & Marin to win the French Open Super 750. She has no need to fear any other competitor now. She has a touch of Momota about her; patient with a great defence, she has the fitness to challenge a high tempo style and the endurance to rattle flair players. I hope she stays injury free, there is no limit to what she could achieve in 2020.
MomoGi: the rivalry between the seemingly invincible Kento Momota and Anthony Ginting has illuminated the men’s game this year.
We have witnessed some beautiful, inspiring play from Anthony and amazing stubborn resistence from Kento. As far as 2019 goes, the titles (all eleven of them) have been taken home to Japan. Momota has been immense; Anthony’s skills are fuel for his fire. Their matches never disappoint, whatever the result. 2020 will be a career-defining year for Momota and everyone has their eye on that Tokyo podium.
The English Victory Over The Danes in the Sudirman Cup: England were magnificent in this clash of the Europeans. Lauren Smith & Chloe Birch – over 3 thrilling sets – clinched it in the final match.
BWF World Junior Mixed Team Championships: I was lucky enough to get caught up in the twitter enthusiasm for this otherwise I would’ve missed a treat. Bobby Setiabudi, Daniel Marthin, Leo Rolly Carnando, Putri Kusuma Wardani, Febriana Dwipuji Kusuma, Putri Syaikah & Inda Cahya Sari Jamil – You were SENSATIONAL!
P V Sindhu with Rankireddy/Shetty. It’s been an uneven year for Indian badminton as a whole but there were two bright patches. Sindhu’s brief collaboration with coach KIM landed her the World Championship in unstoppable style. She completely annihilated Nozomi in the final with an impressive display of pressure badminton. However, she has not been able to achieve any sort of consistency to her play and has crashed out in the early rounds of tournaments; I really regret the loss of KIM, I think she could’ve got Sindhu back onto the Olympic podium, now, I’m not so sure. Satwiksairaj Rankireddy & Chirag Shetty, the winners of the Thailand Open Super 500, on the other hand, could be a good outside tip for a medal. I love their high tempo whole-hearted style.
I can’t quite believe I’ve come to the end without mentioning The Queen: Tai TzuYing. Of all the players competing at the moment she will always bring something extraordinary to the court. I want 2020 to be a year of incredible badminton for us to enjoy. Let’s hope that the athletes continue to inspire and excite all of us.
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?
The season’s climax and a perfect chance to see the best of the best battle it out for glory. All year, the men’s sector has been dominated by Momota in singles and the Minions in doubles but they are not unbeatable. After countless matches in eleven months of tournaments these athletes must be feeling weary; this may be an opportunity for a title-hungry rival to spring a surprise.
Kento Momoto has been the standout player all year. Ominously, for his rivals, he seems to be winning without competing at full stretch; his patience and endurance have been key to his success. The left-hander’s control of the net and pace around the four corners mean that any potential challenger has to be prepared for a long and lonely battle in Guangzhou. However I do not think that gold is inevitable. At the same tournament last year, by his own assessment, he started in an ‘easy’ round robin group but lost in the final to SHI Yu Qi. It’s intriguing to consider how he may cope with being in a tough group; the relentless intensity on top of a hard year could push him.
Anthony Sinisuka Ginting can often be an exasperating player to support because his results are so inconsistent. This is a harsh assessment of a sportsman who I love to watch; his racket skills and speed are exceptional and this is why I consider he has underachieved in terms of gold medals this year. He was the victim of a brutal umpiring decision at the Hong Kong Open but ultimately he must seize chances when they come along. Can he get to the podium? Emphatically yes. Will he get to it? Hmmm…Jonatan Christie has been improving all year and compared to ASG seems able to maintain his concentration so he could be the more suuccessful of the two.
Anders Antonsen’s game has reached a new standard this year. His progress means he is a genuine contender in every tournament. His strength and conditioning, the accuracy of his shots, his net play – all these components of his game have been raised a notch or two. He can beat anyone in this competition. Denmark’s other representative, Viktor Axelsen, has endured an injury/allergy disrupted few months and is only just getting back to full fitness. This could give him an advantage, as he should be fresher after missing a few months of the energy sapping tour.
CHOU Tien Chen‘s standout victories this year in the finals of both the Indonesia & Thailand Open show what a tough man he is to beat. That steel should give him a small advantage in the lonely intensity of a match. His epic encounter with Momota in the final of the Fuzhou China Open (which he eventually lost) showed great strategic fluidity. Initially an attempt to match KM’s game of attrition failed so he switched to a more aggressive stance in the second set; the deciding set went Momota’s way but he was seriously troubled. It would be fantastic to see a similar blockbuster. His compatriot WANG Tzu Wei is not a player I have watched much, however he is coming into the tournament after his triumph in the Syed Modi; that will give him confidence he can ruffle some feathers in the group stage and then anything can happen.
CHEN Long’s motivation often appears a bit wobbly and many people have pointed to his 2016 Olympic Gold success as a reason. We have an athlete whose attention can be elsewhere but who can be a determined, competitive player, it is hard to predict which version will arrive in Guangzhou. Home advantage may carry him through but his focus must be 100% otherwise I don’t think he will be on the podium.
Men’s Doubles – A Brief Overview
Kevin and Marcus have been in sensational form and it would be a brave blogger who would bet against them winning this.
My only doubt is around tiredness and niggly injuries. They have played so many games this year. Kevin loves to perform when the pressure is highest, in part this gives them a small vulnerability at the beginning of tournaments, but here,on the big stage, and straight into the heat of the round robin there should be enough going on to engage his attention. The Daddies, Kamura/Sonoda, Watanabe/Endo, and LI/LIU could all pounce if they falter. Of course there is also LEE/WANG, LU/YANG, & CHIA/SOH to consider; they may make an impact but it’s going to depend on the groups – who plays who – if a pair gets a lucky break this could be a sector with a big upset. No-one is entitled to win this, however brilliant they’ve been all year.
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.