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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The excitement and unpredictability of WS comes from the brilliance of the athletes involved. So what can we expect from the final Super750 tournament of 2019? R1 will have a shock exit, either Carolina Marin or TAI Tzu Ying will depart early because they have drawn each other in the first game of the competition. Neither of them can risk a sluggish start to that match.
TAI Tzu Ying: Seeded 1
A traumatic first round game awaits Tai Tzu Ying’s fans as she meets Carolina Marin. This clash is the pick of the first day: Zen-like calm meets shouty #1. TTY has no equal when it comes to technique. Her beautiful style belies an intensity below the surface; unusually during the French Open there were glimpses of a player desperate to win. There was less acceptance of error and more ferocity. Her exceptional play in the QF against Sindhu did seem to have a physical cost that she paid in the SF against Marin. This time she wont have been softened up. Prediction: Final.
P V Sindhu: seeded 6
The mark of a great player is never to be satisfied, to look for constant improvement, and it’s clear that Sindhu had been renovating her game under the guidance of coach KIM. The superb World Championship win has been followed by some disappointment in the smaller tournaments on the BWF tour but her QF collision with TAI Tzu Ying in Paris was an immense game: pacy, skilful and aggressive albeit grumpy at times. Coach KIM has had to leave but her gift to PVS was to resurrect her self-confidence as a player. I think Sindhu has recaptured her focus despite all the hullabaloo that seems to accompany her life. She’s World Champ, she has Olympic silver, she has nothing to prove yet she has the inner drive to push herself to new achievements. Prediction: Early exit or Final.
The young and hungry ASY will fear no-one in this competition. Her victory against Marin in the French Open final – at 17 the youngest winner ever – leaves no doubt that she is a star on the rise. She is writing the future now. Her ability, drive and intelligence joined with the quality of the Korean coaching set up means she can expect to compete at the highest level for years. Prediction: SF
Nozomi Okuhara: World #1
I’ve mentioned in the past that Nozomi’s over reliance on her (outstanding) retrieval skills can hinder her hunt for points at key moments in a match so recently it’s been refreshing to see her sharpening her sword a little with more aggressive smashes down the lines. Her win against Marin in Denmark was terrific. Now, with Tokyo2020 in her sights, she has to be able to seize the initiative in games that count. Her World #1 status was confirmed at the end of October and is a reflection of her consistent appearances in finals recently. Prediction: Final.
The Home Team? CHEN Yu Fei & HE Bing Jiao
Home advantage can be a double-edged sword: the expectations of a raucous, knowledgable crowd may weigh heavy but I think the benefits balance this out. Less travel time, more cultural harmony, along with the support of family and friends amounts to a small competitive bonus point.
CHEN Yufei goes into this tournament as defending champion and third seed. She rolled her ankle in the SF of the Danish Open which should’ve healed by now, so we can expect her to be sharp and ready for action. CYF is an intelligent strategist, often beating rivals by conserving her energy until the final few points in a game, then accelerating. Prediction: QF
HE Bing Jiao has had less podium success than her compatriot. The Korea Open title was her first for 3 years and it may be that this success will give her confidence a boost; she is a fantastic player who just needs to transform competing well into winning. Often she uses a similar strategy to CYF – wait, wait, wait, pounce. Prediction QF
Ratchanok Intanon: seeded 5
May’s precise, technical style is always a joy to watch but she has been vulnerable to rivals like HE and CHEN. She has beautiful shots in her armoury and rather like TAI Tzu Ying it’s clear she revels in her skill. I like her courage in games although this can occasionally backfire: there are times when she would win the point without having to aim for the lines, playing the percentages does have a place at the elite level – it could be worth only 2 or 3 points but that can be the difference between a podium finish and early exit. She is a brave player who never gives up even when it seems the game is lost. A favourite of mine, her gracious on-court behaviour and her never-say-die attitude are admirable. Prediction Semi-Final.
Saina’s fluency has suffered this year because of injuries but at last it seems that she is beginning to regain her fitness. The loss in the QF of the French Open to AN Se Young was an honourable defeat; as we expect from Saina she fought hard (scoreline 22-20, 23-21) and was beaten by the eventual champion. Her fans hopes of watching her compete successfully in Tokyo are growing. Prediction QF
Akane Yamaguchi: Seeded 2
A wonderful July – culminating in the world #1 slot – has been overshadowed somewhat by the following three months. A persistant injury has disrupted training and she has suffered regular R1 exits. Definite signs appeared in the Yonex French Open that she is emerging from this problem; she enjoyed a run of games up until defeat at the semi-final stage. In the context of recent weeks that was a great result and I hope she will take a lot of encouragement from her performance. Prediction SF
Marin’s return to the game has been at full-throttle. Forget about a gentle easing back to competition; her pace and aggression around the court are undiminished. AN Se Young gave her a good working over in the final of the French Open though. She was pushed back frequently – to both sides – only to fall prey to sharp smashes right on the trams. For someone with a good reach it was a surprise that she was vulnerable to this attack. Prediction – not sure!
This is an exciting competition with clashes of styles and generations to look forward to. Can AN Se Young keep building her momentum? Will TAI Tzu Ying cut out the infuriating errors? The excellence of the players in this tournament means the title will be won by the person who copes best with early round challenges and local conditions. As the athletes advance through the week the pressure will intensify; I hope to be astonished by amazing comebacks, outrageous shots and a winner who seizes her moment of glory.
Men’s Singles is dominated by the majestic Momota; as the tour exchanges Denmark for France we can expect him to overshadow his side of the draw, but aside from him there are stacks of other athletes who could triumph at this competition if they can find consistency alongside skill. The men’s tournament will be full of explosive power, dazzling speed and brilliant shots.
Kento Momota: Unbeatable?
Will anyone ask the imperious Momota a question he cannot answer on court in Paris? This phenomenal player has brushed aside all challenges this year; it’s hard to identify any weakness. This puzzle is intriguing. Other players have better smashes, better endurance and more delicate net play but no other athlete can match his mental strength, consistency and his all round game. He is criticised for being too passive at times but it gets results so he doesn’t have to apologise for that! Often I think he plays at a constant pace (albeit fast) so it would be intriguing if a rival took a more stop/start approach to a match with him to see if it would disrupt his concentration. Prediction: Final (of course).
Antony Ginting: Seeded 8
Ginting is such a wonderful and exasperating player to follow. He’s more of an artist than the majority of the men’s players, his touch and technical skill is a joy to watch. I genuinely feel he could challenge Momota if only he could be more consistent. Crashing out in R1 of the Danish Open is simply unacceptable and yet it was unsurprising. He could meet Momota in the QF and so my prediction is QF exit, probably without his opponents sweaty shirt this time.
One of the best loved players on the circuit, Viktor’s year has been disrupted by injury and his susceptibility to summer allergies. However his performance in his home town of Odense at the Denmark Open saw him returning to his best. Although he lost in the SF to CHEN Long he played well: his smashes were fast and steep, his net shots were intelligent and delicate – it was a close match. He is returning to his best form. The road to the final is a tough one at the bottom half of the draw to include CHOU Tien Chen and Anders Antonsen. Prediction Final. Maybe.
CHOU Tien Chen: The OTHER Great Player From Taiwan
Seeded 2 he has a demanding path to the final but he is a fierce and strong competitor with a great smash. When he won the Indonesian Open against Antonsen he was able to control the net and keep the pressure on without being particularly spectacular in his play. The remarkable thing was his endurance and willingness to give everything for the title. To beat the #1 seed he will have to bring a bit more to the party. Prediction SF.
CHEN Long: The Defending Champion
CHEN Long’s struggles with motivation since winning Olympic Gold in Rio are well-documented. However, I think this is probably his only weakness. He has the might of the Chinese coaching gang behind him, and a great all-round game where he is able to control the net to force points. His victory over Viktor in Odense seemed to be because he stuck with it, kept the shuttle in play, kept body smashing and seemed able to turn the screw at the last few points of every game. It’s a simple enough strategy that proved to be effective. Prediction SF
Antonsen’s results have been on an upward trajectory over the last few months, he’s aggressive, fast and agile around the court. He was the beaten finalist at the Indonesian Open (to CHOU Tien Chen), the World Championship Final (to Momota) and beaten semi-finalist at the Denmark Open (to Axelsen). There’s no doubt he is a rising star of the men’s game but his physical prowess can be matched by the other seeds so he has to ensure he brings something more to his matches; more strategy and deception allied to his brute power. Prediction QF
If Indonesia is going to win titles in the singles sector then Jojo should be a player who steps up alongside Ginting. Just like Ginting his form ebbs and flows to frustrate his millions of supporters. He’s capable of beating any player in the top ten – including Momota – he needs to exploit his emotions and focus the passion to benefit his superb skills. He could face a double Dane onslaught with possible Antonsen QF and then Axelsen SF: it’s a lot to ask for him to reach the final of this one. Prediction SF.
Often I seen MS in terms of who, if anyone, is going to upset Momota? Realistically it’s hard to see beyond him. Shi Yuqi is expected to be absent owing to his continued recuperation from ankle injury. If only Ginting or Christie could borrow some of the Minions reliable form then the men’s side of singles could be as open and unpredictable as the womens game. As it is, Momota is in magnificent form, no one is able to unsettle his composure. It looks like this is another tournament waiting for him to win.
The tour swings by Europe for October: first Denmark then France. In the last few months we’ve seen Akane dispatched in R1 (thrice), Nozomi crumple somewhat after her World Championship final mauling by Sindhu and HE Bing Jiao end her 3 year search for a title; so what does the Danish tournament have in store? In a year of jaw-dropping upsets, giant killings and injuries will we have predictable problems or unexpected catastrophes? One thing is certain, the final in Odense will not be between the top two seeds….or will it?
TAI Tzu Ying: Defending Champion & World Number 1
So what can we expect? Well, the extraordinary is ordinary for TTY. Her stunning technical ability combined with a no-limits approach is an irresistible blend. Her weakness is often her focus, which can drift. Sometimes she snaps back into the match and scores points at will, but occasionally the momentum is handed to her rival and the game is lost. She is defending champion but only seeded 4. To her advantage, Coach Lai will be looking after her full-time now he has stepped down from his Taiwan national team duties. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: World Champion & seeded 5
Following the excitement of Basle, Sindhu has crashed out of two tournaments without touching the podium. In the larger context of her career this isn’t a concern; clearly her normal life has been disrupted by the hoohaa surrounding her fabulous victory. More alarming though is the unfortunate departure of coach Kim; I hope appropriate support is in place to fill the gap. Tunjung is her R1 opponent and she is very capable of beating the Indian. AN Se Young is potentially her next challenge. It’s no exageration to say she has the worst draw of any of the seeds. Prediction either early exit or final!
CHEN YuFei: Ms Consistency & seeded 2
Since the beginning of 2019 Feifei has won four finals (including the All England), lost 5 semi-finals, and had a crucial role in China’s victory in the Sudirman Cup. Her style is patient and clever; often she ‘just’ keeps the shuttle in play and sets traps for her unwary opponents to walk into. Perhaps because of this approach she seems less susceptible to injury. Her first round opponent is the giant-killing YEO Jia Min who could spring a surprise: if CYF is to progress she must be ready as soon as she steps on court. Prediction: Semi
Carolina Marin: She’s Back!
What a thrill to see the irrepressible Marin back on court and winning the China Open! She was playing freely with no loss of speed so it seems that her recovery from her horrible injury has been good. It’s difficult to predict how she will progress here but there is no doubt that she is entering tournaments because she can win them. Don’t underestimate how unnerving it will be for her opponents to play her so soon after damaging her ACL: should they try and put pressure on the wounded side? Prediction: Hmmm, not sure…
HE Bing Jiao: Seeded 7
Winner of the Korea Open – including saving 4 match points against Ratchanok – HE Bing Jiao is often an overlooked player on the tour. This low profile has been caused by a Gold famine (3 years up to Korea) and her compatriot’s success. It’s feasible that her Korea Open win will be the beginning of a medal rush. Seeded 7. Prediction QF.
Ratchanok Intanon: Seeded 6
“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”
The losing finalist at the Korea Open has enjoyed a good year so far. For all her balletic grace on court she is a gritty fighter who never gives up even when the situation seems irretrievable. Her racket shoulder does seem to be quite heavily strapped these days but that isn’t particularly unusual for many players. Recently I think she has been beaten by CYF & HBJ because they sat back and let her try to force the game. She doesn’t need to play like that, it would be good if she sometimes had a bit more patience. Prediction: QF
Nozomi Okuhara: Seeded 3
Things haven’t been easy for Nozomi since her loss in the World Championship final against Sindhu. A couple of bad results haven’t suddenly made her a bad player though. In my opinion she can sometimes rely too heavily on her retrieving abilities. I’d like her to be a bit more ‘Momota’, that is to say, more unpredictable and more explosive. All top players are refining their skills constantly so it will be exciting to see how her game evolves in the run-up to Tokyo2020. Prediction: Final
Can Saina & Akane Escape From The Treatment Room?
Saina’s had a miserable few months with injuries; just as it seems she is back to full fitness she suffers a setback. This must make it impossible to follow a progressive training regime and the risk exists (albeit small) that she will not qualify for Tokyo. Prediction 50/50 whether she is fully fit to play but if she does then QF
Akane – seeded 1 – on the other hand has had a pretty good year culminating in a wonderful July. She became world number 1, won the Indonesian Open and then the Japan Open over a few crazily successful weeks. The euphoria around this has diluted somewhat owing to her premature exits in the World Championships, the China Open and the Korea Open. She has had a back complaint; this disrupted her training and hindered her movement in a match. However, the good news -according to Morten Frost on Badminton Central – is that she has told him the back injury is healed. “No back problems any more”. However, she is having a problem on her right calf muscle. Prediction QF
These two players- if they are fit- could win the tournament, but there’s no evidence either of them have regained full fitness. I’m more hopeful for Akane and a decent run of games is just what she needs now.
Any Fairytales For The Home Contingent?
The WS category has Line Kjaersfeldt and Mia Blichfeldt who are both fine players but the seeding is against them and I can’t see either making much headway against Ratchanok and similar top 10 competitors. Just as an aside I think it’s a different story in MS. Who would bet against Viktor getting to the final? He’s ‘only’ seeded 7 but I think that’s the product of his allergy blighted summer. Anders Antonsen is another live prospect; his improvement over the last months has been terrific and it would be no big shock to see him on the podium too.
Any surprises? The most competitive sector of badminton always throws up something. It wouldn’t be impossible for someone like SUNG Ji Hyun, Tunjung or AN Se Young to overachieve and get to a semi-final. If the seeding plays out then it will be Akane Vs Feifei on October 20th. I love to watch tournaments unfold; it’s not only about the spectacular wins, for true fans its also the pleasure in seeing a favourite improve, a new player burst onto the scene, courage under pressure or simply a beautiful shot. Often the player who gets a feel for the arena early on can build her momentum towards Gold. P V Sindhu has a very harsh draw, but if she can hit the ground running it could be a great final to contest. Aside from podium finishers, I hope Saina can compete well. She’s a legendary player and this year must be terribly frustrating for her. This is going to be a fascinating competition and may the best woman win!
The Badminton World Championships start on August 19th so I’m taking a look at some of the main contenders for Women’s Singles gold.
This discipline is full of talent – and unlike the men’s singles it’s not dominated by one person – so it will be an intriguing contest right from the beginning. All tournaments offer a rising intensity as players progress through the rounds: physical endurance can be sapped as well as the emotional drain of competition. The parity of ability amongst the top seeds means that being able to deal with tournament pressure will have a huge part to play. Who will relish the fight?
“…every player has a chance of being crowned champion.” Ratchanok
Nozomi Okuhara: Contender
Nozomi’s been in the waiting room this year – she hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success as Akane and yet she is a fabulous player. Her tactics often mean she gets stuck in a war of attrition so I’d like to see a bit less patience and more drive to finish off a rally. I think her edge is blunted by predictability so it would be great to see her surprise her opponent (& us!) a bit more often. Prediction: Final.
Tai Tzu Ying: The Queen
Tai Tzu Ying has never won the World Championships and goes into this competition as #2 seed. Because of her hints about retirement and her lack of big tournament form recently, fans have focused on this title with the sense that time is running out. I cannot pretend to be neutral about Tai Tzu Ying – the way she plays is brilliant and gives me so much pleasure – so I wish I felt more confident about this tournament. Her possible path to the final is tough and includes Sindhu who would relish a big battle. Prediction Semi Final.
Akane: World #1
Akane’s triumph at the Indonesian Open quickly followed by success in the Japan Open – her home tournament – means that she enters the World Championships as #1. Since disappointment in the Sudirman Cup her game has become more aggressive with a willingness to push her rivals around. She can’t just win everything from now on though, can she? Prediction Semi Final.
Feifei is a very clever player with the might of the Chinese coaches behind her. I think she is good at rebalancing her game to beat whoever she faces. Often she traps ‘flair’ players into thinking they will conquer her by playing their natural game. She waits it out and then finishes them off; her natural strength means she can get through three draining games. It’s been said that her weakness is her inability to cope with her nerves but this seems to be eratic. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: fighter
Sindhu is renowned as a big match player and this skill is a huge advantage in the top tournaments. By her own standards 2019 has been quite quiet but July saw her spring into life. It was great to see a refreshed player getting her game back. I love her style when she unleashes her inner badminton beast and dominates the court with her aggressive smashes and drives. I think that’s going to be the secret of success for her; when she’s confident and plays like that she can become unstoppable. She is seeded 5 and her path to success looks very tough: Zhang Beiwen in R16 and possibly TTY in the quarters. Prediction: QF owing to hard draw.
2019 has seen Saina endure various injuries and this has obviously disrupted her training programme. Her half of the draw is no picnic & includes players like Chen Yufei and P V Sindhu. She always has the desire to win and heaps of experience but realistically I can’t see her progressing beyond QF. That’s not necessarily a bad performance in the context of her year so far. I see this competition as her opportunity to continue to work on her match fitness and focus on her aim to get to Tokyo 2020. Prediction QF
“… women’s singles is so competitive that on any given day whoever can control herself and play her style of game will be the champion.” Ratchanok
May lost out in the Thailand Open Final to Chen Yufei but she played very well in that match. CYF won because she played with patience and endurance – often in rallies she was content to simply keep sending the shuttle back. Towards the end May did slightly alter her approach but by that point it was too late. It’s been noticeable that since then she has been posting plenty of evidence on IG of her hard work in the gym so perhaps this means she’s preparing her body for longer games with less reliance upon a dazzling winner and more focus on turning the screw. Prediction Semi Final
Funny things can happen in knock-out tournaments; sometimes athletes really fly through their games and suddenly find themselves in a quarter final. The Indonesian players -Fitriani & Tunjung – are both talented but frustratingly inconsistent. Their homeland can have high hopes of medals from others but it would be a welcome shock if honours came from WS.
Michelle Li from Canada can push anyone on her day and often gets good results but realistically I don’t think she would trouble Chen Yufei (assuming she gets past Saina).
Chochuwong had a great run in the Thailand Open but again her draw is tricky. Lastly He Be Jiao is seeded 6 so has to be taken seriously as a possible semi-finalist.
So, in conclusion…
That gold medal, that title, the culmination of years of work, is realistically within the reach of about eight of the players. It’s going to take an immense effort – physically and emotionally – to clinch the prize. I also think it requires someone to play with inspiration and joy; there is more to winning this than mere sweat and toil.
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.
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.
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.
Since her devastating ACL injury back in January there has been something missing in badminton.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Nozomi Okuhara is part of an exceptional generation of Japanese shuttlers who have been challenging the Chinese domination of the game. She is one of the best Women’s Singles players in the world and a genuine hope for a medal at the Olympics in Tokyo 2020.
“…everyone loves badminton…”
Who is this extraordinary woman who bows respectfully as she enters and leaves the court and who tweets humbly after a game that next time she will “try harder”?
The badminton competition at the Tokyo Olympics is already being hotly anticipated all over Asia. Japan’s problem – or strength – is that they just have so many remarkable women players. Okuhara is part of an ambitious national team; there are lots of tournaments between now and the Olympic finals but the big prize, without doubt, will be the gold medal.
She is a defensive player known for her speed, agility and endurance, so this means her games are characterised by long rallies. One of her main rivals – Tai Tzu Ying – said of her
“Okuhara is a good opponent, she’s very durable”
She loves to draw her opponents into these extended exchanges and ironically, although she is tough enough to see them through to the end I think that against top opponents it can often be a weakness. During games against Tai Tzu Ying she can be unsettled by TTY’s spontaneity. At times Tai just refuses to get into the groove of a long probing rally – she just finishes the points off and moves on – eventually winning the game. So, paradoxically her cautious approach is very dangerous; if her accuracy ever fails she hands over control to her adversary. There are times when it’s frustrating to watch because with the opposition court at her mercy she often eschews a swift kill and opts to send back another clear.
Is she waiting for the perfect chance to punish her opponent? Morten Frost said of her that ” she needs to find ways to score points”. To her credit I believe that she has started taking courageous steps to add some brutality to her game. She has recently left her team – Nihon Unisys – and is now working with a personal coach, Shoji Sato. She has realised that her vision of being on that Tokyo podium needs a new approach if it’s going to come to pass. She has commented before that she needs to stay fit to succeed so this has to mean she will dismantle part of her game. Her defensive style must be harsh on her injury prone knees.
There are so many other outstanding women’s singles players who want that medal, any of the people in the top 10 could grab gold. Tai Tzu Ying and Akane Yamaguchi must be favourites but what about Carolina Marin? Could she engineer a sensational comeback from injury to defend her Rio 2016 title? Well, it’s all speculation at this point. In interviews Okuhara inevitably talks of the joy and happiness that badminton brings her. She was Japan’s first women’s singles world champion but she recently said:
“The Olympic Games remains the most important target for me, especially as it will be held in Japan this time. It will be difficult but I want to win gold medal for the fans.”