CHEN Yu Fei

We have to wait a little longer than expected to see if CHEN Yu Fei will follow in the footsteps of LI Xuerui, ZHANG Ning and GONG Zhichao to win Olympic Gold. It’s indisputable that she would have expected to be on the podium if the tournament had gone ahead in July.

CHEN Yu Fei at the YAE 2020. Screenshot from BWF TV

CHEN Yu Fei’s victory at the 2019 Yonex All England kickstarted a year which climaxed in December when she was crowned world #1. She is the first Chinese Women’s Singles player since LI Xuerui to achieve this distinction.  Still only 21, CHEN Yu Fei has enjoyed an extraordinary run of success since her triumph over TAI Tzu Ying in Birmingham last March.   In the return encounter in March 2020 TTY reversed the previous year’s result but there is no doubt that she ill be a key competitor in the Olympics in 2021.

 The talent and quality in this generation of Women’s Singles players is magnificent. Part of the appeal of this sector is that there is no particular style that dominates every tournament.  The fitness of the athletes, their technical skills and tactical sense all mean that results can be erratic. Some key players have lacked consistency – for instance Sindhu and Akane have had a tendency to crash out in the early rounds of competition.  Others, like Saina and Marin have had their seasons disrupted by injuries.  However, CHEN Yu Fei has been a reliable presence most of the time with the stand-out ability to win in a final once she gets to it. 

As a 21-year-old, with the backing of the Chinese coaching establishment to support her she can continue to develop and extend herself; the improvement since 2018 has been stellar which reveals her commitment and focus.  CHEN has been identified as perhaps the spearhead of a renaissance in Chinese women’s singles.  For instance, not so long ago they dominated the All England.  Between 2000 and 2014 there were 11 winners and 12 runners-up in this sector but then the talent seemed to dry up. Since then only one podium spot (WANG Shixian in 2016) until CHEN’s title win in 2019.

The foundation of CHEN Yu Fei’s badminton is quite simple.  She is a fine player with excellent all- round mastery of the game.  Her physical durability is such a positive feature; consistent fitness allows her training to build up to tournaments in a controlled way. She is an extremely intelligent strategist, always alert to opportunities to gain points.  Her tendency to rebalance her game as the match progresses is a major asset; this responsiveness to threats means that if she can stay in a game when she is under pressure, she can often grind out a win. Her default strategy is patience.  Frequently, against someone who relies more on flair and deception, she will sit back and let them play.  She has got endless stamina.  She can wait for a storm to blow itself out and then pounce.  I love the way she will cleverly conserve energy: she can keep the shuttle in play and then towards the last few points in a set she can accelerate away and inflict defeat.  Against players with suspect resilience this is a brutally efficient approach.  It’s a method of increasing pressure because her rival will feel the desire to win the game briskly or else risk running out of energy.  This is the trap that is set.  The need to win provokes mistakes and often the match spirals away.  The temptation is to risk more, to aim for the lines, to score a quick point.  This makes compelling theatre for spectators but is ineffective most of the time.

Patience is at the core of her strategy and if I had to single out a weakness, I would say that this can stray into an avoidance of risk.  In a very close match, the ability to be unpredictable can make the difference between Silver and Gold.

She returned to the Yonex All England a tougher player than ever: as well as her tour triumphs she had a central role in China’s Sudirman Cup victory. She was seeded #1 and got to the final but was out-thought by TAI Tzu Ying. Her main rival had arrived at the party with a new strategy; this time TTY played with patience and picked her moments to attack. CYF just could not get a foothold in the game and lost it in straight sets.

When the BWF tour resumes it will be fascinating to see what she has learned from this loss because acheiving the correct balance between risk and safety, attack and defence is going to be crucial in her progress to the podium in Tokyo.


If you enjoyed this follow the link to my most recent look at TTY https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/23/tai-tzu-ying-the-triple-champion/ and this is an a piece I wrote in 2019 about CYF https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/03/another-sensational-player-from-china-chen-yu-fei/

©2020 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