Nineteen years of waiting is over – today Indonesia have won back the Thomas Cup.
This team just got better and better as the competition progressed and to beat China 3-0 in the final was a measure of how far they improved together. This band of brothers will always be renowned as the athletes who won the trophy for Indonesia’s 14th time with the legendary Hendra Setiawan as their captain.
Who could have predicted what this team was capable of? It was packed with talent but some of the athletes had been misfiring in recent games and others were looking lackluster. The first tie was a 5-0 leg-stretcher against Algeria but next came Thailand. This match was equal at 2-2 with both senior MS losing, so it required Rhustavito to step up at the end to keep his team winning. The contest with Taiwan was also finely balanced: this time Ginting and Christie won, only for the MD to lose. Again they had to look to Rhustavito to rescue the result. This victory was crucial to confirm seeding into the knockout stages.
The ‘El Classico’ against Malaysia in the quarter final was a tie I was regarding with a mixture of dread and excitement. It was lose-able. But this is when the team really started to look like they were contenders. LEE Zii Jia is in the form of his life but he was dispatched by Anthony in straight sets; the Minions overcame CHIA/SOH over three and the tie was wrapped up by Christie. No need for any five match dramas.
A semi-final against Denmark on their home turf is always going to be a daunting prospect; especially when the first encounter is against Olympic Champion Viktor Axelsen. It was playing out true to form until the third match when Jonatan Christie walked on court to battle Anders Antonsen. What followed was a truly great performance from a man who has struggled with his form for a while. Over 100 minutes he stayed cool, kept to his plan and exposed Antonsen’s bland attack and his lack of stamina. This blow to Danish ambitions was mortal, and Alfian/Ardianto executed the coup de grace for a 3-1 win.
One of the exceptional features of this team is that there was always a win around the corner from a loss. Their self-belief escalated as the days passed. They knew that history was waiting to be made and when the chances came against China they grabbed them. A 3-0 victory is really something. The last words belong to one of my favourite players ever. Hendra Setiawan is an absolute icon and a wonderful ambassador for badminton; I’m thrilled that it was him who raised the trophy on the podium
Can CHEN Long rediscover his mojo and defend his Rio Gold or are we about to see a new player on top of the podium? Will Denmark break the hold that China has had on this competition since Lin Dan first won it in 2008 or can one of the men from Indonesia seize the medal?
The competition begins with 14 groups of three players: ONLY group winners will progress to the round of 16 on July 29th.
It was clear Momota lacked match fitness at this year’s All England so the group games will help him sharpen up. Domination of the net and forecourt blended with lightening speed is crucial to him. He exerts pressure with his great anticipation and is peerless in his match management. He is so good at judging the tipping point in an encounter; usually staying within a couple of points of his rivals score, then switching on his turbocharger and accelerating away to victory. He always has an energy reserve to draw on in the last few points of the final set. It’s arguable that this characteristic breaks the morale of opponents before they even step on court. He remains hot favourite for Gold.
Viktor was immense in Thailand in January. He created a winning momentum and dispatched rivals at will. His blend of focused power and speed was overwhelming and so the two titles he won had an air of inevitability about them. However he did fall victim to a clever strategy by Antonsen at the WTF so if he wants to upgrade his Bronze from Rio he needs to resist mind games and zero in on the prize. A possible quarter final with Jonatan Christie will be a big test.
Antonsen dreams of Tokyo Gold. His progress over the past couple of years has been impressive – he put down a marker in his victory over Momota at the 2019 Indonesia Masters and has continued to prove his quality in tournaments since. His victory at the Denmark Open 2020 was magnificent but I think his covid-adjusted performance in January’s Thailand bubble was more revealing. A first round exit followed by a SF defeat in two sets suggested he was still suffering from the effects of infection. His victory in the World Tour Finals highlighted his invention and opportunism.
Sun Tzu said “If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him” and AA certainly succeeded in unbalancing Axelsen with his tactics. I’m intrigued to see if he can repeat the feat.
Jojo has a really brutal draw to negotiate if he is to medal in Tokyo but he looked bright and hungry for success at the Simulasi Olimpiade in July so I’m optimistic that he’ll be ready for the battles ahead. His route to the final means that he will probably have to overcome Shi Yu Qi, Viktor Axelsen, and Momota. Anyone who can do that in the space of a few days deserves Gold.
SHI Yu Qi
Shi Yu Qi ‘s form is a bit of a mystery and we are only going to get a clear picture once he steps on court. The last couple of years have been disrupted by injury as well as covid but if he is back to his best then he will be a challenger for a podium place. He has a clash with Jonatan Christie in the Round of 16 and if he progresses then Viktor awaits.
Ginting has so many of the qualities we look for in an Olympic champion. Speed across the court synchronised with breathtaking shots means that he challenges for titles at the highest level. In January in Thailand he dazzled but only in flashes and I was disappointed he didn’t get to a final. There have been times when he has failed to break a rivals impetus; he gets set on a particular strategy and if that starts to fail under pressure he struggles to alter his approach and loses his grip on the game. Commentators have speculated that he would benefit from more stamina but I think it’s more to do with self belief. Anders Antonsen will probably try and block his path to the semi finals; if Anthony can get past the Dane then he has a great chance to impose himself on the competition. Dream Big Anthony!
LEE Zii Jia
About two years ago I remember seeing LEE Chong Wei tip his fellow countryman as a possible prospect for Gold in Tokyo. Since then he triumphed over Viktor Axelsen at the All England 2021 so can take a lot of confidence from beating the world’s best. He has speed, agility, power and a trademark backhand smash, but a tough route to the podium. Feasibly CHEN Long followed by a QF against CHOU Tien Chen. He doesn’t have a good H2H against Chou so this will be a big challenge to negotiate before he can start dreaming of a medal.
Lee Chong Wei recently observed that it’s impossible to know the kind of form Chen Long is in because he has only competed domestically during the pandemic. I’m unconvinced that CHEN long can defend his Gold from Rio as his form has been so inconsistent following that win. Carolina Marin seems to have coped much better with motivating herself after winning sport’s highest honour. This analysis is probably too simplistic and dismissive though. The resources of the Chinese will have been focused on preparing him for this campaign so we may see a revitalised player on court.
CHOU Tien Chen
Assuming CTC wins his group he will have a bye in the following round and a possible QF against either CHEN Long or LEE Zii Jia. His record against CL is terrible (0-9) but they haven’t met for a couple of years; against LZJ he has the upper hand (5-2) but the Malaysian is improving all the time. CTC is a consistent presence in semi finals but often just seems to lack the resources at the death to finish things off. Taiwan has maintained a good focus on the Olympics including simulations and so the second seed will be well prepared for his second Olympiad.
The QF could look at bit like this:
Too close to call
The Semi finals then would probably be Momota against Axelsen/Christie and Antonsen/Ginting clashing with LEE Zii Jia or CHOU Tien Chen. We all know that this tournament has the potential to post some freaky results; the man who adapts quickly to an empty arena and can step away from the shadows of the pandemic will have an advantage. I see Christie and Ginting as dark horses: of course they will have to overcome a substantial Danish challenge first. Always though we circle back to Momota and he must still be the favourite for Gold.
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?
In a crazy year we fans have sustained ourselves on archive footage, home tournaments and hope. We enjoyed the one-off Denmark Open in October but badminton reactivates in Thailand on the 12th January. Everything was looking peachy until the news broke on January 3rd that Momota had tested positive at the airport as he was departing for Bangkok. As a precautionary measure the whole of the Japanese team have stayed home. China had already withdrawn so the competition continues without them.
Let’s see who has kept their training discipline over this enforced break. Who has learnt new strategies and skills, overcome niggling injuries and rediscovered their hunger to win? We had a glimpse of some players at the Denmark Open and again at the SaarLorLux but Bangkok is going to offer a bigger selection of athletes and some tough competition to anyone who thinks they can mix it with the best!
Which athlete has the stamina mental and physical to advance to the red zone of a third set and ask their rival some serious questions? Anders Antonsen probably thinks he can – he gave a great performance at the DO but he couldn’t walk unaided from the court at the end. What do we read into that? Well, here is a player who will plunge beyond the RED…he’s still growing as a competitor but at the death his muscle memory saw him through to seize the Denmark Open trophy. Seeded 3, he is in the bottom half of the draw and may well meet CHOU Tien Chen on the Saturday in a repeat of the All-England semi-final.
CHOU Tien Chen is seeded 2 and competed in Denmark even though Taiwan didn’t officially send players. He is slated to meet LEE Zii Jia at the quarter final stage and this could be a very tough test. LZJ is such an exciting player to watch and he was unlucky to miss out on the final at the Yonex All England back in March. His speed and power are exhilarating for spectators and hard to contain for rivals so CTC has got to be on guard right from set one or the match will run away from him. Antonsen awaits.
Anthony Ginting – seeded 5 – is always a player who excites me. I hope that during lockdown he has had the opportunity to refresh his strategies. He has to stop thinking he can beat Momota or other top players in 2 sets. As Susie Susanti observed, he needs a plan B or C when plan A fails. If he has added more strategies to his repertoire then the sky’s the limit: it could open a new chapter in his career. In R2 he should probably meet the rising star in Thai men’s singles, Kunlavut Vitidsarn. The three times World Junior Championcould block his advance; it’s a potential banana skin that Ginting must approach intelligently in order to win without expending his energy reserves. The Danish challenge is formidable in this sector. Rasmus Gemke is one of those players who has been a bit under the radar but hard work, grit, and good tactics mean that a possible match with Ginting in the quarter finals is going to reveal how far both men have really progressed over the past nine months. Gemke was a valiant loser in the final of the Denmark Open and remember he blocked Anthony’s progress at the 2020 All England. The current All England champion – Viktor Axelsen – didn’t compete in October because he was addressing an injury niggle so it may be quite tough for him to be at full throttle straightaway. He is seeded to meet Indonesian favourite Jonatan Christie in his quarter final: a great match in prospect for neutrals but too tough to call for this preview. Christie can sometimes be infuriatingly inconsistent but this could be a fabulous opportunity for him to set up a semi-final against his compatriot Ginting. HK Vittinghus will also be part of the competition following the withdrawal of Laksyha Sen who has injured his back. Vittinghus scored some great victories in his home tournament back in October and his confidence must have been boosted by this. Sometimes I feel he overthinks, sometimes he runs out of gas but always a hard player to beat.
TAI Tzu Ying is top seed but as Women’s Singles overflows with talent – even without the Chinese and Japanese competitors – she will definitely not have a smooth ride to the final. Her recent Instagram posts seem to reveal a player with mixed feelings about travel away from Taiwan. Of course, social media is hardly the portal to authentic insight so I think we just need to wait for things to unfold in Thailand before making any judgement. I’m intrigued how she will approach the challenges thrown at her in the Impact Arena. The world #1 last competed internationally when she won the YAE and that campaign illustrated a new capacity for patience. We know she has continued to train diligently all through the pandemic so the onus is on her rivals to upset her rhythm and conquer her.
The top half of the draw means that it’s expected TTY will clash with Michelle LI in her quarter final. If LI is 100% fit that could be a very hard match. The winner of which plausibly faces Sindhu in a semi-final.
I wonder how winter training in England has suited P V Sindhu? She has looked so happy and I would speculate that a reasonably quiet life consisting of practice and a small social circle has given her an opportunity to reset. The current World Champion is known as a ‘big match’ player and has all the tools to go a long way in this tournament. Can she win this title? Emphatically ‘yes’ so long as the self-assured, rampaging intense player we saw in the World Championship final is the one who turns up. Her technique and aggression will take her to the podium so long as she keeps her focus.
Can Saina Nehwal face down Sindhu if it becomesan all-India quarter final? Saina is such an intelligent player: mental resilience and the will to win come as standard but I think her stamina may be suspect if it goes to 3 sets. Before that she will have to overcome the Thai player Busanan Ongbamrungphan. She is unseeded but skillful and has what it takes to progress further.
Thai women’s badminton has plenty of brilliant players and at the forefront of course is wonderful Ratchanok Intanon. Seeded 4 she has got a brutal draw to negotiate beginning with YEO Jia Min in R1, Yvonne LI in R2 then moving onto a big QF clash with AN Se Young. The Korean is a frightening talent so I’m curious to see how she has matured over the past months. If she has increased her stamina as we’d expect, then Ratchanok has a fight to get to a SF that in all likelihood will be versus Marin. Carolina Marin has endured a tough year. The Prime documentary about her revealed what a truly extraordinary player and person she is. In my view, her participation at the SaarLorLux – not a tournament that we would necessarily expect someone of her high ranking to attend – illustrates her commitment to the sport she loves and the fact that she needs to play both for emotional and physical reasons. I’ve heard that she has had a slight hamstring worry but I don’t think it’s any cause for concern. There was something missing from her game in October though. Her usual dominance and competitive momentum were off the boil and it reminded me of the sequence in the Vietnam Open that’s shown in the Prime documentary. Her strategy and trust in the process set out by Rivas were slightly off. The clip where she sits on the floor, utterly devastated that the game hasn’t gone her way, is very illuminating.
It’s a new beginning and the year is going to be choc-a-bloc with quality tournaments alongside the Tokyo Olympics. Some old friends are haven’t made it this month and we’re going to miss them. I would have loved to see the new look HE Bing Jiao, Nozomi has been on a great streak of form and Akane lights up any match. We’ll have to be patient for Momota’s return to court and postpone our desire for MomoGi. Even despite this I know for sure we’ll enjoy the games ahead – finally, finally Badminton is BACK!
I’m so thrilled that we all have this tournament in Odense to enjoy. It’s been too long.
I’m relishing this part of the competition. My anticipation levels are rising because of the quality of the players who have travelled to Denmark – and of course the players who are from Denmark. We all know that the Danish badminton community produces world beaters again and again; the talent that is generated from such a small nation is breath-taking.
My pick of the first round matches is the one between Christo Popov and Lakshya Sen. The left-handed Popov has been consistently successful through his junior years and in January 2020 became World Junior #1. His family are all involved in the sport in various roles: notably his father who has coached and played for the Bulgarian team plus his MD partner and brother Toma. Sen has also been catching the eye as he progresses through the worldwide junior ranks. Another player whose family are immersed in badminton, he is part of a new generation of Indian shuttlers. It’s well-known that he benefitted from Morten Frost’s expertise in 2019 when the Danish star coached for a while at the Prakash Padukone academy. This game will showcase two of the brightest stars that are progressing into the senior game. It’s hard to predict how far the winner can advance but I suspect that stamina may become an issue as the week progresses: maintaining a high level of play day after day will be tough, especially after 7 months away.
CHOU Tien Chen is the de facto top seed in the absence of Momota but he is going to have to battle hard if he wants this title. He was comprehensively dismantled by Axelsen in the final of the YAE back in March but he has had plenty of time since to absorb the lessons of that day. I watched that game live and I felt that he seemed unfocused through a lot of the match, his range was off and so he was never really able to get any sort of competitive momentum. He is an impressive athlete, with good powerful smashes and plenty of stamina: I’d like to see him take the initiative and drive the pace of his matches forward more. Prediction: Final. I’ve seen some reports that suggest Srikanth Kidambi has been working well in training in Hyderabad. The former World #1 and previous winner of this tournament has endured a slump in form; if he progresses from the opening rounds he is seeded to meet CTC in the quarter finals so that will be a useful measure as to whether he is back to winning ways.
The last time we saw Anders Antonsen play was in his Semi-Final against CTC at the All England. The last eighteen months have seen him move up the world rankings to the extent that he is challenging Axelsen for the title of Denmark’s top player. His improvements and his ability to attack to get the upper hand will be under scrutiny here. Potentially he will meet CHOU in the semi-final: the h2h figures strongly favour the man from Taiwan. Antonsen’s ankle injury, which prematurely ended their game in Birmingham when he had to retire in the first set was a heartbreaking end to his campaign. There had been a serious possibility of an all-Danish final in that tournament. There is a chance of it happening here if he can overcome CHOU because his friend Rasmus Gemke is seeded 7 in the top half of the draw…arguably the weaker half. Gemke is a bit behind AA in the strength of his game but he still gets sweet results against top players: remember his shock victory against Ginting in March?
Aside from these there are a couple of unseeded players I’d like to mention. Hans-Kristian Vittinghus – another home player – should be eyeing the draw with a certain amount of relish. Again he is in the top half and will play the winner of Popov v Sen. In an innocence versus experience scenario I would see him getting on top. I am also a fan of Brice Leverdez after watching him play in the Indian PBL this year: lovely racket skills and nerves of steel. Moreover he too is in the top half of the draw.
This tournament offers a huge opportunity for the English duo Lauren Smith & Marcus Ellis to bag a Super 750 title. The last time we saw them play was in their Semi Final at the All England against the eventual winners Jordan/Oktavianti. Ellis is a great competitor, an excellent partner to have on court, he never gives in and fights right to the end. The partnership with Smith is getting better and better – she’s fast, aggressive and brave. Throughout lockdown we have seen them practising at home and trying to stay focused until they could get back on court. They should be able to take to the court with a lot of confidence.
So who can put a stop to their ambition? The Adcocks are in the top half of the draw so if they can find some form they may be able to engineer an all English final. The German pair of Lamsfuss/Herttrich, or the home pair Christiansen/Boje are seeded to do well. The competition does not look likely to be controlled by any team so the athletes who can grasp every opportunity that passes could finish the week as champions.
Unfortunately this is the sector of the competition that has been hit the hardest by the lack of Asian participation. In spite of this I think this could still be a lively contest. Olympic Bronze medalists Marcus Ellis & Chris Langridge head up a large contingent of English players in this category. The Danes Kim Astrup & Anders Rasmussen must be eyeing the title. With Astrup describing himself as a ‘caged lion’ I think there will be a load of pent-up emotion that he needs to turn to his advantage.
This has been described as a milestone week for badminton. It certainly is about time the sport returned at the highest level. I wish everyone involved a safe and successful few days. Bring it on!
There’s a saying that there are only two stories in the world. The first is about a person who goes on a journey and the second is when a stranger rides into town. Well, I’ve got the third story, it’s cool because it combines the original two plots. It’s about a duo who go on a journey, arrive in a strange town, AND WIN A GOLD MEDAL.
Super Saturday in Tokyo and the hugely anticipated Men’s Doubles final was contested by the World #1 Kevin Sukamuljo/Marcus Gideon and LIU Yuchen/LI Junhui. These pairs have met before at the Musashino Forest Sportsplaza, the dilemma for both was how to use the slow conditions to their best advantage. Throughout the tournament opinion had differed regarding tactics, and in fact no particular strategy seemed consistently successful other than perhaps the need for stamina.
Each pair had very different routes to the ultimate match. The Minions had to dive deep into their mental reserves during the SF against Endo/Watanabe. A three set thriller beset by nerves, unforced errors and inspired net play by Kevin. Watanabe was Superman but he just could not find a way past the Indonesian players; he’ll have another attempt at Gold later in XD. Although Chinese athletes have struggled to make an impression on the badminton tournament here, LI/LIU enjoyed a quite serene progress to the final. The two set SF against Rankireddy/Shetty was a clinical dissection of a duo whose time will come.
Set 1: 21-14 LI/LIU
It was a brutal first set. The Chinese duo seemed determined to play their own game; the barrage of steep smashes that rained down onto Sukamuljo and Gideon was awesome. The twin towers disasterous tactics from the 2018 Japan Open were firmly forgotten and they stayed on the attack permanently. At the interval the score was 11-8 but they pulled away and sealed the game quite emphatically.
Set 2: 19-21 Gideon & Sukamuljo Fightback
The cameras were focused on the Indonesians at the interval. Their demeanour was relaxed and calm, Gideon rolling his neck just listening to the coach. The Indonesian fans behind the back tramlines were uncharacteristically quiet, maybe not worried yet but definitely thoughtful – some of those spectators I recognised from earlier matches of the Olympic tournament and it was clear they were hardcore badminton lovers. Gill Clark and Morten started to speculate about a two set final.
Liu to serve and instantly he was put under pressure by a flat aggressive return. The rally was more than 60 shots old when Gideon executed a delicate drop that died at LI’s feet. The points rolled by, & into the interval at 10-11 the Chinese pair just with their noses in front but we all sensed that the balance of power was shifting. The second half of the second set was Kevin Sukamuljo’s stage. He seized the initiative at the net, and despite LIU’s long reach he was passed repeatedly. The Chinese men were desperately trying to vary the tempo of shots to jolt the Minions off momentum but they failed again and again. Kevin was liberated by to be King of the Forecourt by Marcus’s pugnacity and energy. The key to the swing in the balance of power was the inability of the Chinese players to score points from the long rallies; Marcus and Kevin had figured it out that if they were able to stay in their favoured positions and keep the shuttle in play then the chances would come. Its a simple strategy but exhausting. Their counter-attacking expertise with their solid defending got the Minions back in the fight – one set each.
Set 3: Gold!
LI/LIU resumed their positions on court but there was a pause while Sukamuljo fiddled with his shoelace. Years of training, planning and sweat were focused on the next twenty minutes. LIU taps his partners hand and smiles. Kevin to serve, a flick, not good enough and so it’s smashed right back at him. Typical outrageous Sukamuljo returns it with a behind the back shot that tips the net cord, and expires as LI dives forward despairingly. Lucky. Then a run of 3 more points in a row until disaster. Gideon smashes, breaks a string and cannot defend effectively enough. The momentum swings back to the Chinese and they go into the interval 11-8 ahead. Ten points from Gold.
However ten points from Gold is a lot of shots with a lot of running, jumping and stretching. The Chinese players are in constant movement but Kevin is picking up points with precision and verve. He is a man who adores the big stage and where better to showcase his sublime ability than the last moments of an Olympic final? The speed of the rallies was supersonic, the four athletes perfectly focused on the shuttle whilst the crowd screamed.
Point by point the Indonesians got in front. Their play was brave and exhilerating. Exchanges of hard flat drives keep the Chinese at a slight disadvantage. Kevin constantly taunting the twin towers with shots just slightly out of reach or just in reach but forcing a weak response for Gideon to kill. 20-19 match point.
20-19 match point. Kevin to serve, nothing is certain.
This never happened, it’s all fiction. Feel free to write your own so that your favourites win.
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.
India’s badminton players have a good record at the Olympics recently but what can we hope for when the Tokyo tournament gets under way? This will be the first time that badminton appears at the Paralympics so the athletes from this sector will also be aiming for a place on the podium.
Before the postponement it’s true to say that many in the Indian Olympic team were drifting. Form has been affected by injuries and lack of focus; there’s also been disruption amongst the coaching staff with some contracts cut short. It could be that the delay to the games will benefit some players who have been struggling for form.
Saina Nehwal – London 2012 Bronze Medal: Saina’s Olympic dreams are on a knife-edge. The first hurdle for her is to qualify. She has been particularly badly affected by the confusion regarding the qualifying period. Before the C-19 crisis arose she was struggling with niggling injuries which affected her ranking place. Now she seems fitter and it’s clear that she would have been one of the athletes who made up ground at the end of the period. It’s an unfortunate sequence of events but this is a player will fierce mental strength. This break could be an opportunity for a review and analysis of training needs; if she works to a clear strategy once the tour resumes it is still possible she can be in Japan.
Pursala V Sindhu – Rio 2016 Silver Medal: Sindhu doesn’t need to worry whether or not she’ll be in Tokyo; the concern is around her form and the tactics she uses in matches. When she’s on form she is a formidable, daunting opponent but there are times when she crashes out of tournaments too early. Her best result in 2019 was the World Championship when she briskly overwhelmed Okuhara in the final. Coach Kim was at her side that day but has now left the Indian setup; Gopichand has recruited the legendary Agus Dwi Santoso to work with the elite players. With the hiatus in competition there is plenty of scope for introducing a new regime and helping the players progress towards Japan.
Lakshya Sen has been training under the guidance of the legendary Morten Frost and is starting to make an impact. Realistically these Olympics will still come around too soon on his badminton journey although it’s fair to say that many analysts and fans see him as a player with enormous potential.
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy & Chirag Shetty: Men’s Doubles is dominated by stellar Indonesian and Japanese pairs and so the task for these two – assuming they qualify – is to make sure their results in the round-robin part of the tournament are good enough so they can progress. If they can get to the knock-outs they will still have a stern task to get on the podium but given the quality of their rivals this would be a good achievement.
What About India’s Paralympic Hopes?
India has some of the best Parabadminton players in the world. The coaching setup always seems committed, well-organised and supportive of their players. I think there will be a good chance of more than one medal here, if things go well then possibly more than one Gold. It’s frustrating that some of the disciplines where the nation’s athletes excel are not included at these games, specifically Women’s Singles SL3 and Men’s Doubles SL/SU. There are also some people who will miss out, not because of lack of ability but because there is a set quota.
Pramod Bhagat – Arjuna Award Holder & World Champion: Bhagat is one of the superstars of parabadminton and should qualify as the #1 seed for SL3 Men’s Singles. Of all Indian athletes this man is the most consistent acheiver. Indian shuttlers dominate SL3. Manoj Sarkar, Umesh Vikram Kumar and Kumar Nitesh are top 10 players – as we know, it’s not possible for all of them to compete in Tokyo – nevertheless this strength in depth means that excellence is chased with focus and committment. It’s unfortunate that there is no Men’s Doubles competition, if there was then Bhagat with his partner Manoj Sarkar would stand every chance of being on the podium together.
Manasi Joshi – World Champion SL3: Like Sindhu she trains at the Gopichand Academy, also like Sindhu she won Gold in her category in Basle. It’s regrettable that unlike Sindhu she will not get the chance to compete in this category in Tokyo because it is not part of the tournament. It is a measure of her drive and personality that she has decided to try and qualify to play in the XD with Rakesh Pandey and she could compete in the WD too with Arati Patil. Parul Parmar is another SL3 athlete who is trying the doubles route to qualify.
In addition to these household names Tarun Tarun, Suhus Lalinakere Yathhiraj & Sukant Kadam in MS SL4 and Nagar Krishna in MS SH6 all have a good prospects.
India’s badminton contingent can really turn this delay to their advantage, despite the frustrations and disruption to their training programmes, it could be that the extra time will help them. It’s still not certain what adjustments may be made to the qualifying criteria by the BWF but I think we can be sure that there will be some who will feel the unfairness of an unwieldy system. Never mind, the best thing to do is knuckle down, try and keep training, and be ready to come out fighting when the tour resumes. P V Sindhu is the most likely to get a medal; she’s a renowned ‘big tournament player’ and she should be expecting to do well. She could even upgrade her Silver from Rio.
The Parabadminton athletes have got this. They are amongst the best in the world; they can approach the Olympics with the highest hopes. None of these games are easy but they have proved over and over again that when big questions are asked, they know the answers.
This was a competition that favoured players who could keep focus and grab opportunities. There is a joy to badminton that we all recognise and these are the times when we should celebrate happiness and curate our memories of watching the greatest tournament in our sport.
“Before its 21 anything can happen”
Mixed Doubles – Praveen Jordan & Melati Daeva Oktavianti
The XD was an unexpected pleasure this year. Top seeds fell by the wayside and we arrived at Saturday night with the home favourites Lauren Smith/Marcus Ellis facing Praveen Jordan/Melati Daeva Oktavianti for a place in the final. The first set went to form – PraMel were shrewdly pulling Ellis out of position to neutralise his threat – but in the second the Brits held their nerve, saved two match points and roared on by the crowd forced the match to a decider. Praveen is notoriously unpredictable, however the hoohah around ‘time wasting’ and ‘being ready’ which resulted in an undeserved yellow card definitely lit a flame and the last game was a more comfortable 21-11 victory. The Indonesians were quicker and cleverer and deserved to progress.
No Thai player has ever won an All England title so Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai were staring down the barrel of history. They are a strong, fast pair and this was a match for all XD devotees. It ebbed and flowed but the balance of power was decided at the net. Praveen is such an imposing, athletic partner; he reached everything, his smash was vicious so this freed Melati to damage the Thai pair again and again. Even if she couldn’t score she keep the attacking momentum. Bass/Popor grabbed the second set but had given too much and were beaten 21-8 at the last.
Winning an All England title is the mark of a special player and Praveen Jordan has now won two with two separate partners.
Men’s Doubles – Hiroyuki Endo & Yuta Watanabe
This sector was lit up by the brilliance of Yuta Watanabe. He is faster than a flash. His net interceptions, his resilience and strength were irresistable. For his partner, it was a fourth appearance in the MD final, the first with his new partner and another chance to win the title that has eluded him.
This match sparkled. Gideon & Sukamuljo – world #1 – have already won the title twice but in the last year have consistently lost to the Japanese duo. The pace was superhuman. There was little to choose between these two teams as the intensity increased. No one cracked, no one avoided responsibility, here were four athletes trying everything to succeed. In the final set the Minions trailed 0-6, at the break they had pulled it back to 9-11. Marcus and Kevin bombarded Yuta & Hiroyuki in the last points but the Japanese held firm under incredible pressure. In the end the Japanese pair won the title. They deserved to win but Kevin and Marcus did not deserve to lose. It was a priviledge to watch.
Women’s Singles – Tai Tzu Ying
The Queen is the Queen.
All of TTY’s fans must have anticipated this tournament with a mixture of excitement and dread. We knew she had enjoyed success in January with the Begaluru Raptors and it was clear she was focusing on key competition in the run-up to Tokyo 2020. Her committment and strategy were perfect and in a repeat of 2019 she met CHEN Yufei in the final. This time the honours went to the Queen. (a longer appreciation of TTY’s progress through the YAE will be appearing on this blog as a standalone piece).
All week Fukuhiro had been focused with a quiet confidence. This match had them in dominant form with Hirota especially dazzling with her interceptions at the net. Early on they were finding space with long cross-court precise shots. Their movement around court was fluent as they continued to pressurize DU/LI and raced to a 10-4 lead. The Chinese pair were struggling to find space but they gradually slowed the Fukihiro momentum to get to 9-14.
Hirota’s competitive vision and her ability to get to the shuttle at pace meant that DU/LI could not challenge the control the Japanese pair had. Fukushima was equally aggressive and her appetite for smashing – especially XC – was significant in keeping DU/LI ‘s ambitions down. The Japanese pair secured the title in two sets and they were worthy winners.
Men’s Singles – Viktor Axelsen
Axelsen demolished the #1 seed CHOU Tien Chen in two sets. No games at this level are ‘easy’ but Viktor bulldozed his way through it whilst CTC will want to forget his error strewn match. The Dane grabbed his opportunity and after such a tricky 2019 disrupted by injury and allergies it’s fair to say he is getting back to his best.
I feel that this sector was dominated by players who were absent as much as those who competed. We all know the situation Momota is in. I was astonished by the exit of Ginting and Christie in R1. I watched Ginting’s match and he simply had no answers to Gemke, he could not raise his level to get any foothold in the game. Frustratingly, another YAE passes him by.
The unseeded LEE Zii Jia was one of the stars of the tournament and it was Christie’s misfortune to meet him in R1. LEE looks hungry. He is athletic, explosive and speedy around the court – I think he may fancy his chances at the Olympics.
This year’s tournament was buffeted by external forces out of the control of the players and these, of course, will be a huge part of all our lives for the next few months. All of the athletes must, to some extent, have been affected by anxieties. Firstly, would it even go ahead? Secondly would they get home? Despite this it was drenched in quality right from the start and the right people won.
I would like to thank all the people who contributed to the competition. As well as the athletes/coaches/support staff there is a huge group of people behind the scenes including the Badminton England volunteers. I’d particularly like to mention Jan in the media centre – always cheerful, professional and kind.
Datuk Lee Chong Wei, for anyone in the Badminton world, this man needs no introduction. For nearly two decades Lee Chong Wei flew the flag for Malaysia in mens singles. Hailed by many as a hero for Malaysia his perseverance and willingness to never give up has inspired all.
Dazzling footwork, blinding speed and aggressive power
We can’t talk about Lee Chong Wei without discussing his two most defining aspects, his speed and power. He’s easily one of the fastest players there has ever been. He makes even the most difficult footwork look easy. He glides around the court, never missing a beat. Leading the rallies by setting the pace, other players are just playing catchup most of the time.
His speed is beautifully coupled by his raw physical power. Capable of hitting smashes way over the 380kmph consistently and even seeing smashes reaching 400kmph and above keeps his opponents in check. His straight smash from round the head on his backhand side is one of the most lethal shots I’ve ever seen if the opponent can somehow get it back he’s ready to follow up and kill the reply.
All of this combined gave the Malaysian a distinct playing style that very few could ever combat and even fewer have been able to emulate. There’s something mesmerising watching him covering the court with ease and then suddenly explode and start piling pressure onto his opponent. It’s exciting, to say the least.
Olympic glory, accolades and knighthood
3 Olympic silver medals, 3 World Championship medals, 46 Super Series title and more than 700 career wins! Lee Chong Wei’s trophy cabinet makes him one of the most decorated in not just in Badminton but in sport in general.
Sadly he never attained the two most coveted titles in Badminton, gold in the Olympics and the World Championships. How massive even these silver medals are for Malaysia that he was granted the title of Datuk, akin to a knighthood for Malaysians.
None could amount to his sheer dominance at his home event, the Malaysia Open! He won it a total 12 times with eight of them year on year. A record unprecedented by any other. He was untouchable on home soil, fueled by the roaring fans he lacked no confidence in any encounter.
One of the Four Kings in Badminton mens singles and a part of the Yonex Legends Vision team he’s cemented himself as one of the greats of the sport. His Badminton academy aims to deliver world-class coaching, mentoring and opportunities to the next generation of players who look up to and idolise him.
Badminton’s greatest rivalry
We can’t talk about Lee Chong Wei without talking about his biggest rival, Lin Dan. Their rivalry is one of Badminton’s greatest if not the greatest. In their prime, nobody came close to either of them. Titles were decided by the two of them and the two of them alone.
They met each other 40 times throughout their careers. Their matches were titanic clashes of speed, power and finesse. They met in the Olympic final twice in a row and Lee Chong Wei lost out in both of their meetings in 2008 and 2012. Finally, he managed to break the cycle by defeating Lin Dan in the semi-final of Rio 2016 in one of the most nail-biting matches ever.
They battled at the All England, the World Championships and countless other events throughout the years. Badminton was lucky enough to see these two greats bring out the best in each other. Lee Chong Wei was on the wrong side of a 28-12 head-to-head with Lin Dan but without those loses he wouldn’t be the incredible champion he is. Each loss inspired the next ascent to even higher greatness.
Hero of the Badminton world
Despite his setbacks, despite his loses, despite everything he had gone through he continued to fight on. His ability to keep on getting up and to press forward gave everyone else hope. They hoped they could be like him, to come back stronger and better than before.
Sadly, June 2019 saw his career come to end. Despite fighting back against nose cancer he was unable to return to competitive play. The world of Badminton wept for a man who could have gone even further even at the age of 36 he was still one of the best in the world.
A Badminton legend but also a wonderful person. Players and fans always met by his welcoming and friendly smile he was loved as a person as much as a player. Respected not just for what he achieved but how it never changed him, how showed everyone how to win and how to lose, with pride, decency and respect.
He taught us how to keep on fighting. How to get back up after a fall. His story inspired millions. He inspired the world, he definitely inspired me.
This article was written by Liam Walsh of BadmintonsBest. A Badminton blog inspiring more people to pick up Badminton and reach their full potential.