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Japan’s Fukuhiro: Can They Win Tokyo Gold?

The Champions of Fuzhou and new world number 1s are enjoying a great run of form.

It’s Olympic qualification year and the focus of elite badminton players everywhere is turning to Tokyo. Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota are one of the best women’s doubles pairs in the world, have recently reclaimed their #1 ranking, and are expected to be on the podium at the end of the competition.

At the Yonex All England Final 2018. Credit: Tang Shi/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

“Our strength is about being patient…”

Fukuhiro is an alliance built on the classic doubles foundation of a rock solid defence. They will resist any bombardment and they are so skilful at rotating position that they can diffuse the pressure between themselves. Women’s Doubles is characterised by long rallies; tension builds shot on shot, so to win they have to be able to draw on their mental strength and self belief. Take a look at the highlights from the final of the Indonesian Open (below). The speed of their reactions, commitment to each other and toughness see them triumph, and defend their title.

Video by kind permission of BWF

The essence of a great Doubles pair is two people playing with a perfect understanding of each other. It becomes something magical (think Daddies) when the players can sense what their partner is about to do. Exceptional movement is critical; this and effective anticipation is from hours and hours spent together on the practise court along with a sacrifice of the self for something grander. The video clip below from American Vape shows them training – the obvious thing to point out is that they play 2 against 3. This means they improve their endurance, their shot accuracy and their ability to handle unpredictable replies.

Training video from American Vape.

It’s clear they like each other in real life, their giggling in interviews, teasing each other and general demeanour shows athletes in tune with their partner. Showing their human side to their fans – their emotional generosity – means they are two of the most loved players in the world.

Film from Badminton Denmark.

However there is a paradox at the core of this partnership and I think it may account for the three silver medals at the Badminton World Championships. These two do not seem to have any weaknesses; they are exceptional all-rounders. So when the chips are down what do they emphasize? To be so balanced is a blessing and a curse.

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It’s not accurate to simply define them as defensive players. They are comfortable with counter-attack. Fukushima puts a lot of work in at the rear court especially, but her strategy is not only based on clears: she has a very good disguised drop shot in her armoury. Hirota will be aggressive at the net and can snaffle points with her lightening reactions. When they are up against rivals like CHEN/JIA (who tend to be powerful and aggressive) they can endure the storm. Basing a strategy around smashing is high risk against Fukuhiro because it uses up a lot of energy. Eventually their rivals lose their bite and they are dispatched. Its a bit like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope trick in the Rumble in the Jungle.

“It’s all about qualifying for the Olympics for us…we haven’t been and we desperately want to go”

Fukuhiro are a great duo who are real contenders for gold at every competition they enter. Japanese players dominate the world rankings for WD but only two pairs can compete at the Tokyo Olympics. I would be astonished and devastated if they missed out. This is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cement their place in history with Olympic gold.

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Here is a link to my look at Nozomi Okuhara https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/

You may also enjoy this piece about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Fuzhou China Open: WS Preview

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.

Screenshot from BWF TV. Note TTY’s idiosyncratic stringing pattern done by her father.
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.

AN Se Young: Unseeded
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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 Nehwal: Seeded 8
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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

Carolina Marin: Unseeded
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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!

In Conclusion

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.


Follow the link to my recent look at Gregoria Mariska Tunjung https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/09/08/indonesias-gregoria-mariska-tunjung/

And this link takes you to my article about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

India’s Saina Nehwal: Trailblazer & Legend

Saina Nehwal is the superstar who has leapt over mere sporting boundaries to make history all through her career.

Screenshot from BWF TV

Millions of fans have followed her since the early days of succcess when she was the torchbearer for women’s badminton in Indian. Before her famous victories its profile was modest but she sent a jolt through the sporting community and now the sport is enjoyed and supported by millions.

“when I was a match point down it was like a shock. It was a big match and winning it means a lot to me. Even many years from now those present here will remember how Saina won the Gold. It is a proud feeling” Saina after her CG Gold.

What she says is true. Speak to any devotee and they will remember where they were on the day of the Delhi Commonwealth Games WS Badminton final. Some were at the office watching on a shared TV, some at a club, others were at home with family but everyone recalls the happiness and relief of that moment when she seized her destiny.

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She is a dangerous, complex player to face. Her foundations are rugged, she possesses the full array of shots and takes a somewhat orthodox approach: a standard singles strategy of pulling and pushing her opponent around the court, shifting focus from side to side, waiting for a weak return to seize upon and punish. This is hardly the full story though. The characteristics that have elevated her are psychological strength combined with tactical dexterity.

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While she doesn’t have the pace of three or four years ago she can compensate for this with her resilience. She is a good defender and although too much reliance on retrieving can be a weakness I don’t recognise this as a fault in her game. She is an intelligent reader of other players and can out-maneouvre opponents during the match. Of course, this mental strength really draws the sting of a rival. She is lethal once the momentum starts to go in her direction. As soon as this happens she turns the screw and can make sure the other player suffers a drought of opportunities. Her emotional muscle often overpowers because the other player just runs out of ideas.

Since the All England Championships she has had to cope with a sequence of injuries which will have affected her training and so her fluency on court. As she recovers her fitness she will have an eye on the Olympic qualifying date of 30th April 2020; she must be ranked in the top 16 then to book her place in Tokyo. So long as her regime is well-managed I don’t see any reason for her to miss this milestone. Could she win another medal?

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Saina: The First

  • Saina was the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championships (2008)
  • She was the first Indian woman to win a Super Series Tournament (Indonesian Open 2009)
  • First Indian to win an Olympic medal at badminton (London 2012)
  • First Indian Woman to be ranked World Number 1 (2015)

Saina would have been a success whatever profession she chose; she could have been a scientist, engineer or architect, it wouldn’t matter. She is a person who brings 100% commitment and integrity to whatever she undertakes. She has inspired millions of people all around the world and given so much to the badminton community. The loyalty and passion of her fans is second-to-none and the sport is by far the richer for her influence.


If you enjoyed this take a look at an earlier article I wrote about Saina by following this link https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/05/14/saina-nehwal-indias-beloved-champion/

Here is a link to my piece about the current World Champion P V Sindhu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/25/p-v-sindhu-world-champion/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

HE Bing Jiao

HBJ’s win at the Korea Open was an immense result. In the context of her failure to win a title since 2016 (French & Japan Open) this should be the victory that her self-belief has craved.

“Now that I have won my first title in three years, I can’t say anything because my brain is empty”

Happiness in victory for HE Bing Jao. Screenshot from BWF TV

The gulf between being a good player and being a winner is huge. We can see this a lot in the world top 20s. If we look at players like Tunjung and HE their ability is not in question but they don’t seem able to convert a good position into a win. Part of the reason is experience: success in junior ranks does not always translate into senior successes. HE has been around the elite players for quite a while; her world ranking is 7 so evidence is here of a competitor who has the skills to achieve much more. Morten Frost remarked during the game that HE needed more variety in her shots to convert play into points. She was using lovely cross-court drops through the match and her smash/followup combinations were good. She seemed very comfortable with her hitting from the rear court.

She has been edging towards a tournament win all year: she’s been to two finals (but lost both) including one to Ratchanok in India. This match was different. At first against May, she was second best; particularly when she was drawn into any net duel. May dictated the play and suddenly HE was a game down with four match points to save. Incredibly she fought her way back into the contest. HE soaked up Ratchanok’s pressure and in a similar strategy to one we have seen CHEN YuFei use she just kept returning the shuttle therefore allowing May to make crucial mistakes.

Winning this tournament and putting an end to the gold famine may be the event that liberates her confidence in herself. As she said:

“From this tournament, I’ve learned some ways to win, particularly when I fall behind and I think that will be useful in my coming tournaments”

Well, time will tell. Her joy after the win was obvious, as she threw not one but two rackets into the crowd. She has the skills, the fitness and the expertise of the Chinese coaching set-up behind her and this is a great time for her to discover the habit of winning. Tokyo2020 is getting closer!

If you enjoyed this follow the link to my article about Ratchanok https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Carolina is Back! Spain’s Marin Triumphs at the China Open.

Carolina Marin’s astonishing victory over TAI Tzu Ying – only 8 months after her ACL rupture – confirms her place in badminton legend.

The final started slowly for Marin, she lost the first game 14-21. TAI was ruthless in her approach to the Spaniard; her strategy was to keep the rallies short, force Marin to change direction in split seconds, make her use her right knee and attack whenever possible. It worked. But then we came to the second game…

Marin shouting in her semi final. Pic courtesy BWF TV

The paradox of rehab is that weakness becomes strength; fear becomes courage. It’s an alchemy that anyone who has been through recovery from a serious sports injury has experienced. At the end of that first game Carolina’s inner voice was whispering:

“You worked that hard to come second? You crawled to the gym everyday for 9 months to accept defeat like this? Did you come to China for a holiday?”

and of course Carolina answered “No, No, NO!” I think we all heard that shout.

The balance of the game started to change. Marin was putting together great sequences that TTY failed to counter. TAI drifted and unforced errors started to appear. Marin has not lost any speed; she kept pressuring her opponent and this was the significant factor in her victory. She won the second game and we all contemplated the decider.

The third game, and Marin did not attempt to protect her injury at all, her bravery was immense. She dominated the court with her noise and physical presence. She continued to pile on the pressure by her use of pace and willingness to go toe-to-toe with TTY at the net. There was a moment at 19-13 when I thought she had run out of energy. TAI clawed her way back into the match by winning four points in a row but Carolina seized back the serve and then it was over.

The moment of victory – Marin overcome with emotion. Pic courtesy BWF TV

No-one gets to be Olympic Champion by luck, it’s by hard work, dedication and self belief. Marin has used all of these to haul herself back up to compete amongst the elite again. It’s been a seismic shock to see her back at this level and it’s proof that she is hungry for more. Tokyo 2020 is not far away now: she couldn’t defend her title there, could she?

Welcome back Carolina, we’ve all missed you.

Carolina and Tzu Ying after the game. Kudos to TTY for her gracefulness in defeat. Pic BWF TV

Here’s my most recent article about TTY https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

This is about the current World Champion P V Sindhu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/25/p-v-sindhu-world-champion/

If you enjoyed this article here’s a link to one I wrote a few months ago whilst Carolina was out injured https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/11/marin-is-sorely-missed/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Indonesia’s Gregoria Mariska Tunjung

“I don’t want to just participate at the Olympics. I want to achieve something.”

On the podium at the 2017 World Junior Championships

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.


If you enjoyed this you may like the guest blog by Shubhi Rofiddinsa aka Podcast Tepak Bulu about Indonesian badminton https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/14/has-indonesian-badminton-stagnated/

Also my recently updated article about the Bronze medalists at the 2019 World Championships Polii & Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/12/a-thriving-partnership-indonesias-polii-and-rahayu/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Yonex Chinese Taipei Open: WS Preview

XXXX STOP PRESS – SAINA WITHDRAWS XXXX

The news has broken this morning that Saina has withdrawn. What a pity, because her participation has been so eagerly anticipated by her millions of supporters all around the world. So, nevertheless we are left with the possibility of some great games – the opportunity is still there now for a player to grasp the chance for glory in front of some of the most knowledgable and committed fans in the world.

Saina was on the comeback trail after a year disrupted by injury, so her fans were eager to see the ‘old Saina’ collect this trophy. If she had played she would have stood every chance of winning and this would surely kick-start her campaign for Tokyo qualification. We know that she’s got unparalleled mental toughness; she doesn’t play for fun, she plays to WIN. I guess we will just have to wait a little longer before she shows us what she’s got.

Gregoria Mariska Tunjung

Gregoria is a thrilling talent with brilliant net skills; a lovely player to watch. She hasn’t been able to break into the top 10 in the world rankings so this often means she comes up against the big players early on in a tournament. She needs to acquire the ability to win; once she can do this she’ll lose her reputation for inconsistency. Gregoria had an exceptional game against Ratchanok in the recent World Championships – including 2 match points – but in the end was conquered by May over three games. Prediction: Semi Final

Michelle Li: Contender

At the start of August LI won her third Pan Am Games Gold medal and is a worthy #2 seed. It’s well-known that she has had an injury disrupted career – taking a chunk of time off in 2017 to recover from surgery – but she’s back now. Remember her victory over Tai Tzu Ying at the Japan Open 2019? That’s what makes me say: Finalist.

Beiwen ZHANG: Seeded 3

After a stop-start career spread over a few countries it looks like ZHANG is settled in the USA with a firm chance of Olympic qualification. Obviously the coaching resources and support available to her are nowhere near what she could’ve had in Singapore or China hence it’s a tribute to her talent and robustness that she is so successful. She’s a punchy attacker who loves to get hold of a game; once momentum is on her side she is difficult to stop. On her day she can overcome anyone and must fancy her chances in this tournament. Prediction: Semi Final.

AN Se Young: Young Gun

AN Se Young is such a raw exciting prospect – one of the new generation of women’s singles players. Her victory over Tai Tzu Ying in the Sudirman Cup this year was a huge shock. It’s apparent that she has learnt to win matches rather than merely playing well. As she no longer has to deal with Saina my prediction is finalist.

YEO Jia Min: Giant Killer

YEO’s confidence must be sky high at the moment but she’s drawn Michelle LI (seeded 2) in the first round and it’s a very tricky match for both players. She sensationally beat Akane Yamaguchi in the first round of the World Championships in August, this followed her triumph over AN Se Young in the final of the Hyderabad Open. No prediction!

Saina Nehwal: #1 Seed XXX WITHDRAWN XXX

She had a very unlucky – not to say controversial- loss at the recent World Championships to Mia Blichfeldt. I am very, very uneasy about her chances against AN Se Young in the first round. Saina is going to need all her experience and cunning. However if she conquers the Korean I reckon she is going to be a finalist.

Any Surprises?

Once a tournament begins it quickly becomes apparent who is on form & who is slightly off-colour. It’s not good enough to be a talented player; as one match quickly follows another the ability to grow into a competition and grasp victories is a key asset. The Korean player SUNG Ji Hyun is seeded 4 and must be in with a great chance. there is a large Korean contingent and KIM (Ga Eun) has got to be respected too. Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour, the Thai player Jindapol and of course Indonesia’s Fitriani are all in with a shout but I think the opposition will be just too tough this time.

Can I Quickly Mention Polii & Rahayu?

Bronze Medalists at the World Champs

They come into this tournament as top seeds in the Women’s Doubles sector and I cannot see who will beat them. They played with courage and heart at the World Championships and deserved their place on the podium. WD is completely dominated by the exceptional Japanese pairs at but I really think these two are world class and who knows what surprises could be instore in the next few months

Conclusion

The first match can be a nerve wracking encounter for players as they have to get used to the arena’s conditions: drift, humidity & its effect upon the flight of the shuttle. Whoever adapts first and rides the momentum of the game gets a great advantage. Tunjung could be one to watch; there’s less fuss around her at the moment – the noise is for AN & YEO – so this is an opportunity for her to get a podium finish and try and climb the rankings. LI and ZHANG must have their eye on this title – it’s a cliché but who wants it most? All in all, a great week in prospect.


If you enjoyed this follow the link to my article about Saina

https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/05/14/saina-nehwal-indias-beloved-champion/

Or this one about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/


©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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P V Sindhu: World Champion

Sindhu has always been regarded as a player for the big occasion and in Basel she unleashed her inner badminton beast to grab Gold. In the final she completely annihilated Nozomi Okuhara; it’s no exaggeration to describe her play as majestic.

A wonderful moment for Sindhu and all her fans.
Pic from BWF TV

All through the World Championships it has been a joy to watch this revitalised athlete demolish her rivals. Her style can be summed up in three words: pressure, pressure, PRESSURE. There was precision and panache to her shots. It was evident she was thinking clearly and following her plan to great effect. Momentum is so important in sport; her rivals were simply incapable of stopping her.

Sindhu in control.
Pic from BWF TV

Earlier this year the situation was very different. We were watching a player who had lost her mojo. The spark was missing; she was lacking in confidence and often was quite deflated. Her millions of fans around the world have high expectations so there was huge disappointment at a dreary performance at the Yonex All England, & then ‘only’ bronze at the Yonex-Sunrise India Open – her home tournament.

Recently performances have improved. July saw definite progress. The Blibli Indonesia Open – one of the best quality competitions on the tour – saw her clinch silver. She was beaten in the final but we saw a glimpse of the player on show at this World Championships. She was more assertive on court, and just seemed easier in herself.

Pic from BWF TV

I think we can point to the increasing influence of coach Kim Ji Hyun as one of the main reasons for her change. In a revealing interview with Dev Sukumar on the BWF website she said

“The way she plays, I feel it is not smart enough, I mean, at the top level, you have to be smart. It has to be a combination…your technique, and hitting and mentality. There are so many skills she has to work on, especially net skills and deception. Step by step. We’re working on skills and changing tactics.” Coach Kim

It’s clear now that we have been watching a player working hard to evolve her game. She has the reputation of a big smash – and of course that is true – but she has demonstrated a new level of skill in the World Championships. Against Nozomi the strategy was to try and push her back with some strong clears, this was supported by powerful smashing and, most importantly, great follow ups. There was such a positivity to her game, she was completely in control.

The players handshake at the end emphasizes their height difference.
Pic from BWF TV

Sindhu becomes the first player from India ever to win Gold at the World Championships. It was a brilliant achievement from a woman who has not been content to rest on the laurels of her Olympic success in Rio. We are, of course, in the qualifying year for Tokyo 2020. There’s no doubt that she is a very serious contender for the title there too; it’s going to be a very exciting year ahead.

“It was a very important win for me and I’m really very happy!” P V Sindhu

P V Sindhu – World Champion

Here is the link to my piece about YEO Jia Min who sensationally beat Akane Yamaguchi at the start of the tournament https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/23/yeo-jia-min-giant-killer-from-singapore/

If you would like to read Dev Sukumar’s article in full please click this link https://bwfworldchampionships.bwfbadminton.com/news-single/2019/08/14/life-lessons-from-coach-kim-ji-hyun

And here’s a link to my blog about Akane Yamaguchi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/09/japans-akane-yamaguchi-hotter-than-july/

© 2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi: Hotter Than July

Wow! Akane – what a July!

As we enter the second half of 2019 Akane Yamaguchi is at the top of the world rankings. First she won the Indonesian Open – arguably the best tournament in the world – and then followed it up a week later by triumphing in her home tournament: The Japan Open.

Akane has always been a formidable player with plenty of successes along the way but suddenly her achievements have become supercharged and she is unstoppable. Women’s Singles is an incredibly competitive discipline at the moment so what is it that is giving her the edge over her rivals?

Bizarrely I think it was failure that has spurred her on. Looking back to the Sudirman Cup, the crucial tie in the final was the Women’s Singles: Akane Yamaguchi against Chen YuFei. It was a three game battle with neither player consistently dominant. The Chinese crowd was very noisy; it was an intense and passionate atmosphere with huge emotional pressure exerted on both athletes. It’s been noted that at one point in the game Morten Frost described Akane’s play as erratic. That’s quite a brutal assessment, but the point is that in the end she lost.

Both players finished flat out on the floor but CHEN Yufei was the victor.
Video courtesy BWF

We all know it’s a team competition but losing that three game match was pivotal to Japan’s eventual loss in the final. The Japanese team oozed togetherness and exuberance as they supported each other through the tournament so it must have been utterly devastating for them all not to get gold.

Up until recently Akane has always been known as a retriever, which often means that she is a defender. This is a very simplistic reduction of an elite athletes game; it’s quite a reactive style but she is great at covering the court and very quick to regain her base position.

However, things have changed since the Sudirman Cup…everyone had some time off before they got back to training. Time to recover physically and mentally but also an opportunity to take stock. Then came July and one of the principal events in the badminton calendar: The Indonesian Open.

It was a fresh Akane with an evolved style. Suddenly she was applying her explosive power to a more attacking game and the final against P V Sindhu showcased how effective this new aggression was.

Sindhu found her game being squeezed. Yamaguchi, above all, was being ferocious in her follow-ups. There were some ruthless flat drives, and midcourt smashes. There was more pressure applied in rallies. She began each game like a tornado and barely relaxed her focus. No longer content to react, Akane was taking the game and demanding to win.

Akane wins the Indonesia Open – Video by kind permission BWF

It was a great victory. Sindhu played well but just couldn’t equal Akane’s fierceness; without warning Yamaguchi had stepped up her game.

So we come to the Japanese Open – her home tournament. Her progression to the final took in triumphs against Sindhu and Chen Yufei to set up a meeting with her compatriot Nozomi Okuhara. The scoreline of 21-13, 21-15 lets you know it was an emphatic victory. Again, this was the evolved style. Yamaguchi went toe-to-toe with Okuhara and it was her intensity allied to some awesome accuracy that meant she was able to withstand Okuhara’s propensity for lengthy rallies.

“I was worried I wouldn’t be able to win the long rallies, but I was patient, and whenever there was a chance to make a decisive shot, I was able to make the sharp shots,” said Yamaguchi.

I think it’s a good measure of Akane as a woman and an elite player that she took the worst kind of defeat and used it as fuel for progress:

“I wish I could’ve played this well in the Sudirman Cup final. The loss in the final made me learn and helped me improve.”

The road to Tokyo 2020 has a lot of twists and turns yet but momentum and big match experience counts for a lot. I want to end this piece by urging you to watch the film clip below – the happiness on Akane’s face is so infectious it is an utter joy to see.

Akane and VERY BIG SMILES. This tweet was from the Akane Yamaguchi Fanbase (@AYamaguchiFans).

If you enjoyed this follow the link to my piece about Nozomi Okuhara https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ and also this one about Tai Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Marin is sorely missed

Since her devastating ACL injury back in January there has been something missing in badminton.

Some of Marins best points – video courtesy of BWF

In a WS world that has a lot of ‘retrievers’ here is an unashamed attacker. Marin rampages around the court – so fit and powerful – and demands victory. After winning a point, she shouts, she wheels away, a brisk walk with her back to her opponent, then onto the next serve. Constantly trying to build that unstoppable momentum that carries her forward.

The Spaniard is missed for a lot of reasons but I am highlighting her big on-court personality because I think it’s crucial to her psychological make-up and her future. Marin takes up a lot of space: she’s physically big of course – she can reach anything – but all the shouting and stomping around means her opponent has to work hard to zone her out. The noise can disrupt concentration and her rivals need to stay emotionally tranquil to get the upper hand.

That horrendous day when she injured her knee; we have all seen the slo-mo replay of the point in the game where she leapt, reached, hit, then crumpled. (I don’t want to post film of it here because it makes me feel so uncomfortable). It was evident it was bad. Over the following days things became clearer: serious damage, an operation, heavy duty rehab. Here is her reaction:

“It’s time to prepare for the most difficult battle, but I have no doubt that I will come back stronger”

She has come through tough tests before and has a record of facing up to challenges successfully. Let’s rewind a few years. In 2014 and 2015 she won the World Championship and then came Gold in Rio 2016. Spain has Rafa: he is the ace racketeer, but suddenly there was Carolina. Winning the Olympic title inevitably brought her to the attention of the non-badminton community and it is the pinnacle for most sports. After this she suffered a common problem for Gold medallists, to find a motivation to continue and to do this she had to look into herself.

Her big challenge was to regain her enthusiasm for the game that she had devoted her life to. What else was there to win? There followed a period of reflection and it almost was like she was treading water, trying to get herself back to the player she was. She obviously has a great team around her and this includes a psychologist. Whatever it was they added, it worked: August 2018 she became World Champion for the third time and back to her best.

Highlights of the World Championship WS Final courtesy BWF

So what does the future hold? She seems to be targeting the World Championships in August in Basle. It would be amazing if she were back to her highest level so soon after an ACL rupture however, don’t bet against it. After being denied the pleasure of playing since January she must be hungry to get back on court to mix it with the top players. No need to worry about motivation, nevertheless an anxiety is going to be around rerupture and returning too early. We all want her back on court, raising noise levels and charging around so lets wait and see if she can reappear soon and return to her strutting best.

August 2019 UPDATE: Marin withdraws from BWF World Championships. Carolina posted a message withdrawing from these on 4.8.19. Although she must be personally disappointed not to make this milestone in her rehab, when we look at the bigger picture it must be the right decision. Bodies take time to heal: it doesn’t matter if you are an elite athlete or someone who gets on court for a hit once a week. By giving herself this bit of extra time it removes the pressure to perform when things are not quite 100%. I know all of her fans only want her to be fit and happy and so will welcome her back once her body is right. Best of luck, Carolina, for the year ahead!

If you enjoyed reading this follow the link to my piece about the wonderful Ratchanok https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/ and the new sensation AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved