Thanks be to Yonex who have created a series of tournaments under their ‘Legends’ banner.
A team game with different rules. A new “flight” system which allows a team of six to switch players on and off court between points. So, to Japan first and of course hard-core fans are desperate for a glimpse of the two team captains. The players emerge to blasts of dry ice and swirling spotlights; Momoto looks stern then his game face cracks and he waves to the camera. The teams were announced in advance but it is still a shock to see four 15year old players – Nakagawa, Hashimura, Noguchi and Kohara preparing to play.
Kento Momota is the leader of Team Kansha whilst Akane Yamaguchi is boss of team Sixth Sense. So, a tournament where success is based around effective tactics but not traditional badminton game plans: no athlete holds enough flights to remain on court and win a game single handed. It’s up to the captains to decide when to change people about over a total of five matches, 3 doubles and two singles. Potentially the best strategist should win.
A quick photocall, warm up and then to the games. No one can stop smiling. Win a point – celebrate, lose a point – smile. The happiness is irresistible. As the cameras pan round the delight that the athletes feel while playing is clear. It’s been mentioned before that in team tournaments the members of BirdJapan always turn up to support each other and this is another manifestation of that attitude.
Sixth Sense raced into a 2-0 lead. Akane was relishing her court time and playing some great net drops but in game three the Kansha team halted her players momentum. Game 4 was singles and the highlight was the Momoto versus Kamura flat drive rally. Kamura, the doubles specialist coming out on top but the tide had turned and that one was chalked up to Kansha too. Game 5 was the decider. Sixth Sense were being reeled in. The classic pattern that we see in Momota’s matches was enacted here too; Kansha won after being behind.
So, it was badminton…but not as we know it! Who cares? It was a chance to see some great players and some up-and-coming ones too
Akane showed some delicate touches, Momota played sportingly and didn’t just try to muscle his way to victory, and Higashino was on good form. Most of all I watched Kamura exude joy on the court and around his teammates.
It wasn’t really possible to gain any insight about the recovery of the World #1 or how game fit these players are. However, in what was essentially a fun exhibition match everyone acquitted themselves well. It’s hard to say where this fits into the training programme but the nature of the games was very stop-start, so potentially making the players cope in a context where they have lost their rhythm is a worthwhile exercise but that probably wasn’t the point. It fills a gap until the tour reactivates in Thailand in January and it was entertaining from the moment the players appeared on screen.
The quest for badminton glory has come to an end for one of the greatest Japanese WD pairs ever. When Ayaka Takahashi announced her retirement earlier this year she ended a partnership of 13 years. The glittering bond between her and Misaki Matsutomo has been forged during a wonderful journey to the pinnacles of sporting success.
The Golden pair of Japanese badminton are loved by millions of fans worldwide. Their story begins before the London Olympics. They played together in High School; but as far as 2012 was concerned whilst their compatriots prepared for those Games they continued with their routine. After 2012 they started moving up the rankings but as players, they were incomplete and still learning their trade. After a sequence of defeats, it was suggested that they could not withstand pressure but Matsutomo later reflected that it was the experience of losing that made her the competitor she turned into.
One of the characteristics I admire is their ability to evolve over the years: it is at the core of their success. In this article I’ve tried to illustrate this whilst celebrating some of the highlights of their glorious career.
Uber Cup Final 2014
This was the beginning of the TakaMatsu legend. It was obvious that they had made significant alterations to their patterns of play. The underpinning of any WD pair is reliable defence – naturally this was still in place – but they had transformed themselves into shuttle-hunters and their rivals could not equal their aggression and determination. With Takahashi patrolling behind her partner, Matsutomo was released to create chances from the net that they both snapped up eagerly. Incredibly, after winning the first 21-18 the Japanese pair were towelling down in the interval of the second 11-1 up. Even as they dominated the second half the commentary team started to speculate whether a Chinese comeback was on the cards. It wasn’t. Match won 21-18, 21-9.
2016: Annus Mirabilis
Seven titles were collected in 2016 including the Yonex All England. It is difficult to pick just one game but the Rio Olympics was where they took their place amongst the immortals. The final against Pedersen and Juhl was terrific: set one was scrappy but the Danes took their chances and closed it out 21-18. In Set 2 the momentum began to shift because Takamatsu improved their attack strategy. Matsutomo’s work at the net and mid-court was crucial: she exploited the weaknesses of the Danish left/right combination and started getting traction by executing some punchy, flat drives. In combination with Takahashi’s hard work at the back they were able to create space in the opposition’s court where they could score points. All square 21-9.
The start of final set gave us some long draining rallies alongside the ‘shuttlecock incident’ at 10-9. Juhl’s frustration and annoyance at being denied a fresh shuttle boiled over when she brushed away Matsutomo’s racket. I often wonder what went through Misaki’s mind at that point – I like to think that an imaginary switch was tipped in her brain – but on the surface she remained calm. The points stayed balanced: 12-12, 14-14, 16-16 because neither pair could impose themselves. Then suddenly the Danes were 19-16 up, 2 points from Gold.
In an extreme situation defiance is a better strategy than submission. This was Matsumoto’s moment. Born of utter confidence in her partner and her own ability she was decisive and swift. Like all true greats she discovered another level within herself. With brilliant vision and movement, she refused to lose; together they created five opportunities to score and she executed the chances. GOLD.
WTF 2018Final against LEE & SHIN
This is another milestone match. It’s fascinating because it shows that their style is still progressing. They have embraced the philosophy of creating attack from defence and this is what enables them to generate pressure from all over the court.
In this match Ayaka is still putting in huge amounts of physical work and it’s striking that her defensive lifts/clears are crucial but she has refined them since 2012. Now they are mostly aimed for the corners, making space and opening the opponent’s court up so that they can implement attacking combinations. This is synchronised with Misaki’s beautiful precise net play so they can both get chances to block and push the opponent’s shuttle back to the mid-court when they are under attack. This resilience is hard to break.
In the second game LEE & SHIN have levelled at 20-20 and we’re starting to look at a third and deciding set. It’s a classic Matsutomo moment. Her resolve and focus drive the pair to resist Korean momentum, two points and job done, another title won.
TakaMatsu won Japan’s first badminton Gold at the Rio Olympics and Japanese women’s badminton has achieved staggering success in the years since. With their endless achievements it’s impossible to do them justice in a short article. We’ll miss them but they will not be disappearing from view. I’m excited at the idea of Matsutomo in mixed doubles and Takahashi was in the commentary box at the Danish Open…imagine Ayaka commentating on her old partner’s games next year. They have been inspirational athletes with a golden legacy.
Lots of people gave me ideas and contributed suggestions whilst I was writing this. I’d like to mention the badminton Twitter community including: Stefany Monica, Ulfa, Mongnoona2, MarieLgvl, Rakisdianrd, Kantaphon Wangcharoen, Lavern, Aakash Joshi and a big shoutout to @birdjapansuki, a great resource for anyone interested in Japanese Badminton. Sorry if I missed anyone – DM me and I’ll add you!
Writing from the depths of lockdown life – where many of us find it difficult to jettison our pyjamas much before midday – it’s incongruous to imagine the elite athletes who are sticking with their pre-covid routines and dreams. But these are the times when we truly see players mettle. Commitment to reaching the Olympic podium won’t be switched on or off according to whim: it’s a vow made in childhood and it has to be honoured.
Who can maintain an edge?
The genius at the centre of the Japanese badminton world is coach PARK Joo Bong. As a player he described himself as ‘greedy for Gold’. His XD Gold at the Seoul Olympics – when badminton was a demonstration event – plus his MD Gold in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics confirm his place amongst the game’s greats. After retirement and some coaching roles in England, Malaysia and back home in Korea he became head coach of the Japanese team in 2004. In 2012 there was a WD silver for Japan in London then Rio 2016 saw TakaMatsu win WD Gold and Nozomi Okuhara clinch Bronze in WS. His masterplan is designed to reach a crescendo at the Tokyo Olympics.
Badminton stumbled back to life his October. Whilst other sports have reactivated, we have been beset by delays and cancellations. However, the Danish Open – a prestigious Super750 event – offered the chance to gauge which players had maintained their edge. Disappointingly it suffered withdrawals, nevertheless ‘everyone’ from Japan appeared to be ready to travel. Flights and hotels were booked but just before the start of the tournament Denmark experienced a spike in Covid cases and club owners asked their players to remain in Japan. Although this was frustrating for fans waiting to see the re-emergence of Momota the women’s sector still sent most of the top athletes.
Women’s Doubles– The final at the Denmark Open between NagaMatsu & FukuHiro – was seen by many as a possible rehearsal for the Olympic final. The starring role of deciding who may get Gold in Tokyo was taken by Yuki Fukushima. She was a handful all through the match. Her consistency, precision and variations were top quality and so she defused the more attack-minded rivals. The 2020 All England champions Fukushima and Hirota are a team with plenty of experience. Their defence is rock solid and they are all-rounders with no real weakness except that sometimes they become a little predictable. The 2018 and 2019 BWF World Champions – Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara – are a very sparky duo; happy to take chances and be creative when they are hunting points. Matsumoto is a tall hard-hitter who is spatially aware and great at the net. I used to think they have the best chance of Gold but after the DO I’m not sure. It wouldn’t be a shock if the final was an all Japanese duel.
Women’s Singles – Nozomi was in dazzling form at the Denmark Open. Her victory over Carolina Marin in the final meant we didn’t have to suffer with her on the podium as she added to her silver medal collection from 2019. Clearly she has continued to train hard and her play was at a consistently high level. Already an Olympic medallist she has unswervingly said that her target is Gold in front of her home crowd. Akane Yamaguchi did not travel to Europe but is another who has big expectations on her shoulders. Briefly world number 1 last year, the end of 2019 was disrupted by injuries. It’s likely that despite the disadvantages of this hiatus in play she may benefit from the break to address those niggles. The conditions at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza are likely to suit both players so with a good draw they will be challenging for top honours.
Men’s Doubles – in world badminton this sector produces the most insanely exciting games and two of the best pairs are from Japan. The real speed kings reside here, with the emphasis on swift reflexes, shrewd tactics and power. The current All England champions – Yuta Watanabe and Hiroyuki Endo – have all these characteristics along with resilience, determination and courage. There is quite a big age gap between them (Yuta is only 22 and Hiroyuki 33) and so we would have to wonder if the partnership will continue after the Olympiad, but never mind, for now they burn bright. Yuta’s brilliant net play balanced by Hiroyuki’s strength and power from the rear court is hard for rivals to counter. They have a remarkable record against the world Number 1s – Indonesia’s Sukamuljo & Gideon, and a final between these four exceptional athletes, a repeat of the final in Birmingham is one that would delight everyone. The second duo from Japan consists of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda: they live the phrase ‘the fast and the furious’. Sonoda is always bouncing on his toes, his internal dynamo just never seems to rest. These two can dazzle with their speed and athleticism and it’s likely they will be fighting compatriots for a medal at the knockout stages in Tokyo
Men’s Singles – Momota is world number 1 and favourite for the Gold. His net skills, anticipation and reflexes mean that his games have a quality that makes victory seem inexorable. His psychological power over his rivals – the aura that surrounds him on court – gives him an extra weapon to use. His mental strength and emotional self-reliance are key characteristics that will help him survive yet another delay to his date with destiny. Who has the ability to challenge him? The Danish Open showcased the progress of Anders Antonsen who will try to upset him. Viktor Axelsen along with Taiwan’s CHOU Tien Chen are credible challengers too, but, all fans crave a MomoGi final in every competition, and Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting definitely has the potential to earn a medal in Tokyo. The importance of stamina and focus can’t be overstated in the context of beating Momota. I’m confused as to who the other Japanese competitor may be. Kenta Nishimoto made the SF in Denmark or Kanta Tsuneyama – who did not travel – could be the second player.
Mixed Doubles – the leading Japanese pair, Yuta Watanabe & Arisa Higashino, are the All England champions of 2018 and runners up from 2019. Arisa is renowned as an aggressive hard-hitter if she is in the rear court, so when she and Yuta find their traditional positions reversed in a match, they do not suffer too much disadvantage. Her partner has fine technical skills and is always searching for space to score points. They are a formidable pair but there is a risk that Yuta may be spread too thinly.
There’s no doubt that once the XXXII Olympiad starts the Japanese competitors will be challenging for a podium spot in every sector. The standout athlete for me is Yuta Watanabe; he is an extraordinary player who competes in Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles. The big question is whether he can win two events; can he withstand the physical and emotional strain that getting to the knockout stages in both would bring? A home Olympic medal guarantees immortality and to wait an extra year before walking out onto the court at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza must be particularly frustrating for the Japanese team. All of us – players and fans – are eager for the sport we love to restart properly.
Wow – we were treated to a dazzling match for the WS title at the Denmark Open this evening.
“I’m happy! Long time no see for a title! Compared to other opponents, Marin is faster and has a harder attack. I was focussed on defence and footwork, and my feet moved very well today. Overall the match went well for me.” – Nozomi Okuhara via BWF media service
This was set up to be a thriller right from the start: Carolina V Nozomi is Attack v Defence and Noise v Calm. A nail-biting encounter was in prospect, a match to showcase all that is wonderful about this generation of Women players. Both have been World #1, and both were Olympic medallists in Rio. Outstanding quality that has been waiting months to get on a court.
In many ways this tournament has been an opportunity for both players to push the reset button. Carolina successfully returned from her cruciate ligament injury but has suffered some personal tragedy over the past months. Nozomi had a bittersweet 2019 where she gave consistently high-quality performances but was not able to close out championship matches; she ended up with too many silver medals.
Okuhara’s path to the final – consistent straight set wins in every round – suggested she was on a mission. Marin’s progress was no less impressive: Bei Wen ZHANG took a set off her in their Quarter Final but the Spaniard has such high fitness that it would not have dented her energy levels.
Set 1 Carolina Wins The Toss
Right from the start it was clear that these two competitors emphatically did not spend lockdown watching tv from their sofa. Fabulous, high tempo badminton with both players giving everything for every point. Okuhara was in great form. The Japanese player was using her big defensive clears to put Marin under huge pressure. Of course, her game was far more nuanced than this. Her court coverage was superhuman, her snappy reflexes and great technique meant that although she wasn’t hitting outright winners her strategy was getting points on the board. Marin was hitting good shots but was being frustrated over and over again. Although she won the toss, and chose the ‘best’ end Carolina lost the first set 21-19.
Set 2 Silver or Gold?
Both players continued to push each other to play sparkling badminton. The tension was growing. Carolina had to get back into the game and she knew the pattern in 2019 from Nozomi was silver, silver, silver. What could be done? At 4-3 there was an exchange between the two of them which highlighted Okuhara’s hunger and desire. An exchange over the next, superb anticipation and a venomous reply taking the score to 5-3. The BWF commentary team pointed out that Marin was not her usual self between points, she was not hustling the pace along as normal. Did she have a worry about her stamina after so many months away from the tour? Nozomi continued to screw down the pressure and Marin was becoming more exasperated. Whatever she threw at her rival was coming back at her. Her only options seemed to be to try and go for the margins but this high risk strategy gave rise to more lost points. The title was moving out of her grasp until we came to 20-15 to Okuhara. Match points. Danger zone for both players. 16-20 one point saved with a savage smash; 17-20 another point saved after a long rally. Then Nozomi launched an attacked on Carolina’s backhand, moving her forward and back until it culminated in a title winning smash. Game!
A magnificent encounter that highlighted everything to love about women’s singles. Two brilliant players who went all-out for the title. Congratulations to Nozomi and commiserations to Carolina. What a time to follow women’s badminton!
“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”
Anyone who loves badminton must adore watching Ratchanok’s matches. Her racket skills are magnificent and they have been the foundation of a fantastic career. There are countless highlights – too many to list – but becoming World Champion in 2013 at age 18, being ranked world #1 in 2016, a bronze at the World Championships in 2019 and a consistent spot in the Top 10 confirm her status as one of the most outstanding players of her generation.
May’s movement around a court is smooth and graceful; this elegance is wonderful to watch but it is also efficient. A core strategy of Women’s Singles is movement – the urgent pressure on a rival to cover distance and direction at pace. As she skims over the court, she exerts time-pressure on her opponent. The nanoseconds she gains all add up to an advantage. She often seems able to hold a shot for a split second before she pulls the trigger; this means she lures the other player to anticipate the shuttle’s destination, often with unfortunate consequences.
My favourite element of her game is her net play. She can go toe-to-toe with anyone and emerge victorious. Her net spin shot is delicate, precise and it often gets her out of trouble. A typical sequence is net spin, answered with a weak lift then a point winning smash/kill from May. There is so much complexity and technical skill to her game. It’s a misconception that players are born with this talent; May can execute these shots because she has practised for thousands of hours and she has the imagination and tactical ability to use them effectively.
I also regard her as a courageous player – although on occasion this is a blessing and a curse. Her precise shots mean that she has the confidence to place the shuttle on the line. Under pressure from an opponent who ‘just’ keeps it in play – for example a strategy used by CHEN Yufei – she can sometimes be tempted to try and cut a rally short and go for a quicker point rather than play percentages and wait for a clear opportunity to score. Some analysts have questioned her resilience as a result of this.
The COVID crisis has been hugely disruptive to most athletes training programmes and different nations have tried to tackle this dislocation in assorted ways. We’ve seen home tournaments in many places including Indonesia and Taiwan, and more coach-supervised training. The people who can exit the lockdown having added to their game, rested injury niggles and refreshed their outlook are going to enjoy a significant advantage in competitions.
May has been very clear about her goal of winning an Olympic medal. The road to Tokyo2020 has had more twists and turns than we could have ever predicted back in January so with that in mind what are her prospects if it goes ahead as planned next year? She has not been wasting this enforced break from tournaments. If we look at her social media posts, they are full of gym work. It looks like she is addressing questions about her endurance. She is always a gritty competitor who knows how to win and so enhancing her stamina is going to be one of those incremental gains that could be significant in the heat of battle.
Ratchanok Intanon is one of badminton’s most loved players. It’s not simply due to her attractive playing style. She works hard and takes nothing for granted; her gracious sporting attitude, bravery under pressure and obvious enjoyment of life means she is a great role model for aspiring athletes. I would simply be delighted if she was standing on the podium in Tokyo next year.
TAI Tzu Ying is a brilliant player; her style on court is spine-tingling. Peerless racket skills have elevated her to superstar status and she is an athlete loved around the world as the best of her generation. Coach LAI, who was head coach of the Taiwan national team, resigned after the Korean Open to focus solely on TTY. It is the coach’s responsibity to enable their player fulfil their potential. Beautiful shots side by side with errors in a game do not equal medals and will ultimately be unsatisfactory. We don’t know much of what happens in TTY’s training sessions but mistakes and concentration drift have cost her titles this year. This is the time to be single-minded about ambition.
2019 has seen three major tournament wins: the Danish, Malaysian and Singapore Opens. The quality of the athletes who contest Women’s Singles competitions is reflected in this; it’s the most finely balanced and competitive of the five sectors. Matches with people like Akane, Marin, AN Se Young, and Sindhu mean there are no easy victories. As the winner of the Yonex All England in the two previous years, 2019 saw her arrive in Birmingham as the favourite, but she failed in her bid to make it a hattrick of victories when she lost in the final to the Chinese player CHEN Yufei. History repeated itself at the BWF World Tour Finals when she lost in three sets to a determined and patient Yufei. Badminton immortality beckons but can she cement her status as one of the all-time greats?
There is no other player on earth who can execute the shots she has; her technical skill is unmatched in the women’s game. What is it that makes her stand apart from her peers? She is the Queen of deception. The creative imagination she brings to her play is exquisite. As spectators it is futile to predict where she will place the shuttle so she constantly surprises and delights us. The variety of angles and control of pace she can achieve is quite unbelievable. Her backhand, on the turn, on the run and taken late is wonderful to see.
Of course, this style of play creates huge problems for her rivals. The psychological pressure that she exerts is immense. Most top players build an element of anticipation into their movement on court because the earlier they reach the shuttle the more time they will have to play the shot they want. TTY takes time away from her opponents as they can never quite predict what she will do. Angles which may seem impossible to mere mortals pose no problems for her to create. She likes to be on the attack and can cover the court’s four corners easily.
Interestingly, against players like Ratchanok Intanon (who is probably closest to her in terms of style) the match often turns into a series of “anything you can do I can do better”. The duels between these two feature jaw-dropping precision, mutual admiration and good humour. They are both courageous players who routinely ignore the percentages and dare themselves to aim for the edge. This leads me to suspect that TTY plays mainly for the love of the game. She revels in her skills and enjoys perfecting a shot; she will often try the same one 3 or 4 times in a match until she can get it right.
She would be invincible if not for a tendency to lose focus at times. Often, she will win the first game but then lose her grip on the second. Sometimes this has catastrophic consequences. Momentum is a key feature of success in many sports; if an adversary like Carolina Marin or AN Se Young is given the opportunity to get into their rhythm it can be tough to get the initiative back. This has been the feature of some of her losses in the past. In this year’s final of the Yonex All England CHEN Yu Fei just would not allow TTY to get into the game; she kept the pressure and pace high and won in straight games. At the World Tour Finals it went to three games and there was the suggestion that the coin toss and the drift in the hall were key players. However, that is a disservice to CHEN Yufei who had to battle back into the match after being annihilated in the first set. CYF wrestled the direction of the game from her, then refused to return it, however hard Tzu Ying tried.
She is the centre of a close-knit group of people who support her on and off court. Her father still strings her rackets in a slightly idiosyncratic pattern, she’ll post images of herself and her team off-duty, obviously enjoying each other’s company climbing a mountain in Taiwan or out dining together. She also shares pictures of her team working with her in the gym, preparing her body for the demands of this explosive athletic sport. She is famous for her six-pack, which she seems to maintain alongside a taste for ice-cream and French fries.
Her spontaneous genius means she is an icon of modern worldwide badminton. Is she the greatest ever Women’s Singles player? Her brilliance is a joyful expression of the best of the game but I think she needs some key titles to secure her iconic status. To land her third All England title in March would be a sign of intent, but we are all gazing at the Gold medal on offer in Tokyo.
I’ll give the last word to GEL, one of her biggest fans:
With a sparkling and inventive style, Anthony Ginting is one of the most exciting players to watch on the men’s singles circuit. His creativity magnifies his aggression to give him an irresistable approach to competition.
I often wonder if he ever had gymnastic training in early life. He is very well balanced – great poise, springy feet, so swift around the court – he can reach the furthest corner. Possibly he could do with a little more height (he is 171cm), but he compensates for this lack of reach with his supersonic speed. His rapid reactions let him play at the net one moment, the next, he is smashing from the back trams.
The essence of his style is that he wants to win. All players profit from their rival’s mistakes in a match but I think that his primary strategy is to play to seize the initiative. He has a very courageous approach to his shot selection. The percentage game is not for him. He will go toe-to-toe at the net or aim for the lines. I love his sequence of shots when he traps his opponent into a weak lift from the net and then smashes cross court for the point. He has a very strong ‘flat game’: his drives across the net are so hostile no-one can resist them. They remind me of the approach of the Minions when they start to bombard their foes at the other side of the court. The reverse-slice backhand straight drop that he plays is a jaw dropping thing of beauty that should be commemorated in the Badminton Hall of Fame.
Technically he is a very accomplished player, no surprise given his background in the badminton hotspot of Indonesia. The coaches and other players he works with are among the best in the world. He has the most sublime net skills to enhance his aggressive style: a really lovely touch that can snare his opponent into responding to him with a lift. He can vary the pace of the shuttle at will and this can be shattering to play against. Anticipation is a key part of the game for all elite players. Anthony’s deception skills lead to confusion and delay in response and at this level a split second of lag can mean the difference between winning and losing.
His expert racket skills and instantaneous reactions make him a stellar defender. He will reach the shot and retaliate. This can make for some spectacular high-speed exchanges in his matches. Psychologically it is the antidote to an opponent’s venom because it is difficult to intimidate him.
Gill Clarke wondered aloud on air once whether he ‘needs’ to get a good start in a match to get the win. His offensive style certainly benefits from momentum but I think this would be true of most players.
It’s impossible to think about Ginting in isolation; his rivalry with Kento Momota has the potential to motivate both of them to glittering heights. There is an frisson of adversarial creativity to their meetings. At the moment Momota has the upper hand but it is only a slight advantage and over the next three or four years I think they could inspire each other to legendary status. The bottom line at the moment is that Anthony makes too many mistakes; Momota realises this and will prolong rallies until the inevitable happens. Of course there are far more subtle elements at play than only this, but here is where the balance of power lies at present. It can change.
His dignified and sporting reaction to his shock loss in the HK Open final – in part due to a shocking umpire decision at match point – shows what a great asset he is to the badminton community. I don’t think he is anywhere near his full potential yet; there’s a lot of sweat and toil on the training courts to come. I’m a huge fan of his and would love to see him become one of the superstars of the game. If he could cut out some of his mistakes without losing his willingness to be brave he will be a major force in the men’s sector in the years ahead.
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.