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

Featured

Tai Tzu Ying: Goddess or Mortal?

Tai Tzu Ying is one of the most adored athletes in the world whose appeal cuts across national boundaries. A once in a generation player who dazzles and inspires whenever she plays.

She became World #1 in 2016 after a magnificent run of results and has stayed there ever since.

Is she the best ever women’s singles player? If we measure solely on medals at the moment the answer is ‘no’. So why is she so loved and why does it feel that she has no equal?

“She is the personification of joy” – from MinPlus

“She is the most delightful player to watch on court, she makes badminton fun” from September

“She’s our seratonin” – from GEL

As a regular user of Instagram she often posts charming pictures of herself eating ice cream, playing with Lego or training in the gym with her team and this all helps to blur the boundaries between the elite athlete and her worshipping fans. She has commented that in matches, when she has been losing, it is the thought of letting down her supporters that has spurred her on to eventual victory. She does care about the fans who back her.

At the 2019 WC. Pic from BWF TV

Tai Tzu Ying has a zen-like presence on court; when I first started watching her I was confused by her calm, smiling approach to victory or loss. Now I believe it’s very important to her to win – why else would she devote herself to the sport? But I also see someone who appreciates her life with her family and who has nothing to prove in her field. I think that she enjoys playing and is as thrilled as her spectators when she executes a great shot.

Video courtesy of Shuttle Flash

Her skill is breath-taking; take a look at the compilation video by Shuttle Flash. The quality of her trickery is amazing and so wonderful to watch in this era dominated by attritional players. The root of her genius is from her teens:

“…it’s said that her father took her to play on badminton courts at small clubs run by badminton lovers everywhere in Taiwan when she was a child. Wanting to win over these skilled (but informal) players she practised her deception skills and gained lots of success…” by eeye24

There is also the fact that she suffered a hand injury when she as 13. Because her metacarpal damage restricted her forehand play she had to rely more heavily on her backhand which gave her better wrist strength. As her father pointed out, the injury was a blessing in disguise. Her capacity for deception is extraordinary and she is a true artist with her racket. The variation in her game – the range of shots and angles -is staggering.

Picture from shutterstock

The flip side of such an adventurous player is that there is a trace of inconsistency which runs through her career. Sometimes in the middle of a game her focus just seems to drift and suddenly her opponent will put together a run of points. Often at this moment she manages to retune herself into the game, get her concentration back and finish off the contest but it doesn’t always happen. Watch the video below where she talks about this and the role of her deceptive moves.

Video courtesy BWF

She also mentions her stubbornness. In my earlier blog https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/03/18/tai-tzu-ying-taiwans-sporting-icon/ I talked about her courage and the fact that she is relentless in the pursuit of victory. She dares her foe to match her dazzling talent and I still consider the psychological warfare that she wages against her opponents a key factor in her success. The genius that she brings to her games is a delight for her audience (& her) but it saps her rival’s emotional energy. In my opinion the only other current player who approaches this level of skill is Ratchanok May.

So now we are in Olympic qualifying year and Tai Tzu Ying has hinted that she could retire after Tokyo2020. I think everyone wants her to win Gold; to cement her place in history and to bring her sublime skills to the attention of the non-badminton world. We are lucky to be able to watch such a wonderful player who lights up the court with her brilliance. Who knows what the future holds for her – it’s going to be fantastic to watch the next year of badminton unfold – and I hope that legends are made in the process.


If you enjoyed this post follow the link to my piece about Ratchanok – another of my favourite players https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/ and also this article about AN Se Young: one of the most exciting players to emerge from Korea in recent years https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved