Inspired by the recent BWF series I started thinking…
Vision: TAI Tzu Ying
TTY’s creative genius is Box Office Gold. Everyone wants to see that backhand reverse slice straight drop, especially when they least expect it. Her bedrock is superb technical skills blended with fitness. The cocktail of flair, bravery and total self-belief is irresistable. Because her shots are so unpredictable she stops rivals from anticipating her moves and this give her a tremendous competitive edge. Any player who nurtures aspirations to get to the very top has to be inspired by TAI’s style.
Explosive Power: Carolina Marin
Marin’s superb athleticism blended with her attacking style makes her a formidable opponent. She smashes, lunges and kills with venomous force. She blazes on court; once she seizes the momentum of the game 6 or 7 points are in her pocket in the blink of an eye. She is a rowdy, disruptive, noisy adversary who has harnassed her passion to carry her to the top of the sport.
Win-Ability: Misaki Matsutomo
There’s just something about Misaki Matsutomo – she seems able to force a victory, to break opponent’s will to win even when they are in a commanding position. Of course the best example of this was the WD Rio Olympic final in 2016. On the surface she looks mild but underneath she has an iron will. Her instinctive response to danger is defiance; at 19-16 behind in the Gold medal match something was unleashed from deep inside her. Her clever movement, trust in her partner and dominance at the net saw her at the top of the podium. I’d love her to reach these heights in her XD career.
Accuracy: Ratchanok Intanon
May has a lot in common with TTY in terms of the technical quality of her strokes and she can execute some of the most breathtaking shots one would see on a court. However, sometimes having the ability to land a shuttle on the line is a blessing and a curse. Under pressure, and losing patience Ratchanok will often adopt a ‘death or glory’ approach. Instead of playing percentage badminton and simply keeping the rally going she will push up a level and try for the point. When it works it is majestic and a joy to watch.
Stamina: Nozomi Okuhara
Her style of play has long rallies at its core so her endurance is second-to-none. However, this is a too simplistic view of this brilliant player. She is fleet-footed and agile around the court with excellent flexibility. She is clever and has superb technical skills although sometimes I think she delays finishing off a rally for too long – the opposite of Ratchanok. I really respect her strength of focus in her pursuit of Tokyo Gold at a very tough time for the sport. On a personal level, she is adorable. When BirdJapan play team competitions she can be spotted on the sidelines leading the cheering for compatriots, and her all-round grace under pressure make her a very special person.
Potential: AN Se Young
In a couple of years time ASY could dominate the world scene. For now, shes a tournament random variable: often able to vanquish more illustrious opponents but not yet able to consistently reach finals weekend. I’d like her to work on the ability to shock. For now she has great anticipation and good all-round skill but she is quite reactive – to get to the next level I want to see effective shots that I don’t expect and better stamina over the duration of a competition.
It’s been amusing to try and build my Women’s Gold medal player, but there’s no doubt that some skills will outweigh others in tournament conditions in a drifty stadium. I didn’t include some of my favourite players: Saina’s intelligence and will to win, Sindhu’s power, Yuki’s consistency and Greysia’s defence but in the end this was just for fun. I’m sure you can suggest people I should have included – feel free to use the comments option.
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?
“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”
Anyone who loves badminton must adore watching Ratchanok’s matches. Her racket skills are magnificent and they have been the foundation of a fantastic career. There are countless highlights – too many to list – but becoming World Champion in 2013 at age 18, being ranked world #1 in 2016, a bronze at the World Championships in 2019 and a consistent spot in the Top 10 confirm her status as one of the most outstanding players of her generation.
May’s movement around a court is smooth and graceful; this elegance is wonderful to watch but it is also efficient. A core strategy of Women’s Singles is movement – the urgent pressure on a rival to cover distance and direction at pace. As she skims over the court, she exerts time-pressure on her opponent. The nanoseconds she gains all add up to an advantage. She often seems able to hold a shot for a split second before she pulls the trigger; this means she lures the other player to anticipate the shuttle’s destination, often with unfortunate consequences.
My favourite element of her game is her net play. She can go toe-to-toe with anyone and emerge victorious. Her net spin shot is delicate, precise and it often gets her out of trouble. A typical sequence is net spin, answered with a weak lift then a point winning smash/kill from May. There is so much complexity and technical skill to her game. It’s a misconception that players are born with this talent; May can execute these shots because she has practised for thousands of hours and she has the imagination and tactical ability to use them effectively.
I also regard her as a courageous player – although on occasion this is a blessing and a curse. Her precise shots mean that she has the confidence to place the shuttle on the line. Under pressure from an opponent who ‘just’ keeps it in play – for example a strategy used by CHEN Yufei – she can sometimes be tempted to try and cut a rally short and go for a quicker point rather than play percentages and wait for a clear opportunity to score. Some analysts have questioned her resilience as a result of this.
The COVID crisis has been hugely disruptive to most athletes training programmes and different nations have tried to tackle this dislocation in assorted ways. We’ve seen home tournaments in many places including Indonesia and Taiwan, and more coach-supervised training. The people who can exit the lockdown having added to their game, rested injury niggles and refreshed their outlook are going to enjoy a significant advantage in competitions.
May has been very clear about her goal of winning an Olympic medal. The road to Tokyo2020 has had more twists and turns than we could have ever predicted so with that in mind what are her prospects if it goes ahead as planned in July 2021? She has not been wasting this enforced break from tournaments. If we look at her social media posts, they are full of gym work. It looks like she is addressing questions about her endurance. She is always a gritty competitor who knows how to win and so enhancing her stamina is going to be one of those incremental gains that could be significant in the heat of battle.
Ratchanok Intanon is one of badminton’s most loved players. It’s not simply due to her attractive playing style. She works hard and takes nothing for granted; her gracious sporting attitude, bravery under pressure and obvious enjoyment of life means she is a great role model for aspiring athletes. Over the course of the three tournaments in Thailand in January 2021 she consistently was competing at a good level but couldn’t quite get to a final. This year’s All England could be a golden opportunity for her to grab a S1000 title; I would simply be delighted if she was standing on the podium in March and in Tokyo in July.
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.”
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 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.
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!
The road to Tokyo2020 has been a bumpy one for a lot of the WS competitors so far – I wonder if the China Open is going to be any smoother for them?
I think this tournament will pose some awkward questions for several players. 2019 has produced upsets crafted by rising stars of the new generation and there hasn’t been a dominant athlete. So here is the last Super 1000 of 2019 and my opinions about the top seeds.
P V Sindhu: World Champion
Since witnessing her obliteration of Nozomi in the World Championship final every player should be frightened of what Sindhu can do. It was an imperious campaign powered by Coach Kim and her refocus on skills. In that sort of form Sindhu can beat anyone, but she knows that to keep winning she cannot stand still; improvement must be continuous. It’s possible she might come up against Tai Tzu Ying in the SF and I think this will pose a new sort of problem. Prediction: Semi Final.
TAI Tzu Ying: The Queen
TAI Tzu Ying’s skills are always spinetingling to watch but her form has been a bit lacklustre recently – by her own extraordinary standards she is underachieving. Her focus sometimes wavers in the middle of matches: she needs to control this and be more cunning. In order to get to the final she may have to overcome Saina and vanquish the resurgent Sindhu. Can she do it? Of course! Will she do it? Hmmmm. Prediction: Final
Note to fans: Suffering is optional.
Akane Yamaguchi: World #1
After a fabulous July, Akane was brutally dumped out of the World Championships in R1. It was a gloomy sight for all her supporters who will want her to rediscover the touch that got her to World #1. Prediction QF.
Will She? Wont She? Part 1 – We Need To Talk About Saina.
Saina has been on the comeback trail after a wretched six months of injuries and illness which started back in March. We expected to see her at the Chinese Taipei Open at the beginning of September but she withdrew at the last minute. A month earlier at the World Championships in Basel she had an unlucky – albeit controversial – loss to Mia Blichfeldt early on but seemed to be playing reasonably smoothly. Her fans ache for the ‘old’ Saina to turn up, literally and metaphorically. Saina plays to WIN not for the exercise but on this occasion I don’t think she’s going to progress beyond QF.
Ratchanok Intanon: Seeded #6
May was obviously overjoyed with her Bronze at the World Championships in August – she deserved it – she had to fight for it, save match points, and be patient. May knows how to win. That spirit and drive for success is such an asset in competitions crowded with talent which is why my prediction is: Final
Chen Yufei: Seeded #3
Feifei has home advantage in this tournament…except I’m not sure how much of a help this will be to a player who can blow a bit hot and cold. She is a patient, fit athlete with good stamina whose strategy often seems to keep the shuttle in play. She has the ability to adapt her game as a match progresses so this is a major strength. However, the knowledgable crowd are capable of undermining her occasionally shaky confidence and she could meet AN Se Young in R2 which is an awkward match to call. Prediction: either early shock exit or QF.
Nozomi Okuhara: Seeded #4
Nozomi was brutally destroyed by Sindhu at the World Championships; at times it was hard to watch – can she bounce back so soon after that carnage? According to the draw she will meet Marin in R1, and potentially Tunjung after that. She must bounce back from the disappointment of Silver in Basel quickly, her game was dismantled too easily and she had no way of fighting back. Too tough to call – time will tell!
Will She? Wont She? Part Two – The Return of Carolina Marin
Carolina’s first outing since rupturing her ACL back in January ended with a R1 exit at the Yonex-Sunrise Vietnam Open however, there are reasons to be cheerful. Her mental grit and defiance have to be applauded; treading the hard yards in rehab is no picnic but she has dedicated herself to returning to competition. I think that she will have to see how her body responds to her this outing and then structure her competitive calendar accordingly. Prediction:R1 exit to Nozomi
Gregoria Mariska Tunjung
Gregoria has a great opportunity to progress in this tournament, even though she’s unseeded with a fairly tough draw. Her matches are often tantalisingly poised, and there have been some agonising losses. If she can get off to a good start and find her tournament rhythm quickly her moment will come. Prediction: QF
SUNG collected the Chinese Taipei Open trophy in early September and along with HE is always a respected player in these competitions, despite their seeding though it would be a major upset if they were to win. As for ASY, she is still a raw talent who is very capable of giant-killing but I don’t feel she is able to construct a long campaign on that basis yet.
From a personal viewpoint I would love to see the final contested by Ratchanok May and Tai Tzu Ying in front of the Chinese crowd. It’s always fascinating to watch these tournaments unfold: there are dramas along the way as the intensity builds and we get swept along by the momentum of the games. May can dig out wins when all seems lost, and TTY can dazzle us all. Who desires this title the most?
“I don’t want to just participate at the Olympics. I want to achieve something.”
Gregoria’s thrilling ability makes her games a delight to watch. She has a great touch at the net – soft hands – so the shots from her forecourt are one of her best assets. If there is a scale of styles with artistry & grace at one end (May/TTY) and raw power (Marin/Sindhu) at the other, she is located in the neighbourhood of TTY. That’s a huge simplification of course, because she is also athletic and very precise with her placement of the shuttle. She often replies to a high serve with a vicious smash, hit with pin-point accuracy just out of her rival’s reach. Her clever deception and skill allow her to easily execute cross-court drops to good effect.
A defining theme of her strategy is often her cross-court play. This can be a great way to control a rival because it will disrupt their momentum; the constant direction changes are eventually mentally and physically tiring. When she mixes these shots up with some deeper ones it means the pace is unpredictable too so it is hard for her opponent to settle into any sort of rhythm. In her recent loss against May at the 2019 World Championships in Basel the Thai player was on the ropes, and commented afterwards that she was grateful at times to just keep the shuttle in play and stay alive.
Back in 2017 Gregoria won the Women’s Singles category of the Junior World Championships. Other distinguished players who’ve held this title include: Saina, Ratchanok, and Nozomi.
This was an epic match that ebbed and flowed through three games. In the last one GMT was losing 17-19, then losing 19-20 but she eventually triumphed 24-22. She drew on immense mental strength to claw herself back from match point down in the biggest game of her career. It’s interesting to consider this because often recently her ‘inconsistency’ has been attributed to psychological factors – does she have a ‘mental block’ about beating the top players?
I don’t think so. If we consider any of the senior women players in the top 20 this year there isn’t a single one who we can say consistently wins. Akane was dumped out of the World Championships in the R1, CHEN Yufei blows hot and cold and TTY is in the middle of a dip in form. Firstly badminton is a demanding sport so it is hard to sustain excellence (Momota is exceptional in MS). Secondly – it’s a cliché but it’s true – we are in the middle of a golden generation as far as Women’s Singles is concerned, so the level of play is high. As Gregoria hasn’t been able to break into the world top ten yet, the way the seeding system works means she comes up against big-name players early on in a tournament. This is a difficult bind to escape.
I want to see her acquire the ability to win, once she can close out games she’ll lose her reputation for inconsistency. This is an area that all top sportspeople have to work on once they graduate from junior ranks. Being able to grab victory even if she is not playing well is a skill she needs to have if she is to progress further. We see it in flashes, I’m sure it’s there, her coaches have to discover the key to this part of her badminton brain. Her recent quote about the Olympics continued:
“I feel a bit nervous because of the in-house competition. There are three of us, so at each tournament I feel I have to perform better than the others” [Ruselli Hartawan & Fitriani Fitriani]
She needs to forget about the compatriot competition and get on with her own game. Being the best out of those three will not be good enough to get on the podium in Tokyo 2020. Given the quality of the opposition it is going to take a monumental effort to get to where she aspires to be but ‘if you want it you’ve got to sweat it’. It’s not impossible, tournament play in the emotional heat of the Olympics does weird things to some athletes and she needs to be ready to grasp every opportunity now to seal her right to compete at the top of her sport.
YEO Jia Min has burst onto the elite badminton scene with some outstanding performances at this World Championships. Her memorable win against a below par Akane Yamaguchi means that she is suddenly under a spotlight.
The games against Akane and then Vu have showcased a player who is stepping up to compete against top opposition. She plays with a great attitude; very calm and unhurried, so she allows herself to flourish even under pressure.
Her range of shots and lovely smooth movement around the court let her attack and dominate the rallies. She is able to go toe-to-toe with anyone to trade tumbling net shots and she has been likened to Tai Tzu Ying by Gill Clark. I think this is because of the flair she shows around the front and midcourt. Outrageous angles, confident smashes/kills, and a disguised sliced drop all form part of her armoury.
Her badminton education has been wide ranging. Last year at age 19 she left home in Singapore and went to play in the Danish league. No doubt the high standards expected there helped hone the pitiless killer instinct we saw against Akane.
It’s interesting at this point to consider her coach – Mulyo Handoyo – and acknowledge the influence coaches from Indonesia have in the world of Badminton. He was once the coach of the legendary Taufik Hidayat, and who better to have in one’s corner than someone who has seen it all, who stays calm, & smiles encouragingly when shots don’t quite work out. It’s also noticeable that he often encourages her to an unofficial time-out face wipe after she’s won a tough rally.
“Her fighting spirit was high when she played against the top seed and tried to control the game by making clear decisions during the tie” Mulyo Handoyo
Although she lost in the quarter final to Ratchanok Intanon she can be very proud of what she has achieved during this World Championships. She’s at a crucial point in her career – essentially its ‘win or learn’. Of course she still makes mistakes, but her hard work has got her to a position now where she can play with the elite and be their equal. It’s going to be a very exciting year for YEO Jia Min.