Sometimes a player is more than just a player because they inhabit a unique style that captures the essence of their sport. TAI Tzu Ying is one of these people. Like Serena Williams or Lionel Messi she has that star quality whenever she competes. She is a free spirit who brings a creative exhilaration to any match.
When the kid from Taiwan first bust onto the international scene it was her magnificent racket skills that drew fans to her. She has the gift of being able to control time – it slows and expands to contain her talent. It is still that sensational expressive style that makes people fall in love with her but over the past decade she has added extra layers to her game. Her mesmerizing skill continues to glitter however 2020 has seen her game continue to evolve.
Tournaments at the beginning of this year have shown her address the tension between artistry and scoring points. Regular analysts had identified a tendency to lose focus midway through a match often allowing a rival to regain a foothold in the set. At the core of TTY is the power to sparkle rather than to merely play but during her campaign at the All England this year we witnessed a new element in her game – the ability to wait. The vitue of patience is a sharp weapon in badminton. The beauty of this strategy is that, in the past, it has been used against her.
I think this willingness to include new facets in her play is the sign of a great player. Developing her mental stamina alongside her prodigious gym work adds extra options when she approaches a match. There was a tangible sense in Birmingham that the time for mistakes was past; errors were reduced. Of course she is still the Queen of Deception, her magical misdirection when she is in full flow is wonderful.
In 2019 TTY sent a chill through supporters hearts when she uttered the alarming word ‘retirement’. The demands of elite sport are incredibly restrictive. The physical and emotional cost of training, competing, and international travel does not leave much time for normal life. One more Olympics, one more season and then she would finish; she talked longingly of cycling holidays around Taiwan, and of perhaps opening a school. Her instagram posts often feature her hiking in the mountains or paddling a canoe; she is obviously a person who delights in the natural world around her
None of us could have foreseen the disruption to normal life this year. With the Olympics postponed the players who keep their motivation and stay in shape will gain an advantage. There is a national competition that has been organised for elite Taiwanese athletes in August to help them review progress and sharpen their focus after this gap. TAI Tzu Ying is due to play some male rivals in order to measure herself against a tough challenge: it was decided that the available women players would not push her enough. Her victory at the All England in March was a warning to her rivals and a reassurance to her fans; the dream of seeing TTY on the podium at the Olympics is still real. This feels like a date with destiny. What a time to love women’s badminton.
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’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.
“After the announcement a few days ago about the cancellation of competitions, I told myself to cherish every moment on court and to play my very best”
TAI Tzu Ying to Badminton Unlimited 15.3.20
TAI Tzu Ying is adored all over the world because her are fans captivated by her genius on court and her personality off it. Is she the greatest ever? With her 2020 victory at the Yonex All England – her third title in four years – we have to salute a dazzling talent, a player who is the best of her generation, a legend.
She is the one who will light up any game with her bewitching skills. In her heart there is the need to enjoy the spontaneous pleasure of a great shot however this has co-existed with errors which have cost her titles. This tension – between artistry and efficiency – needed to be tackled. Tzu Ying arrived in Birmingham threatening retirement after the Olympics; immortality beckoned, could she focus, cut the mistakes and cement her iconic status?
Semi-Final against Carolina Marin
Marin began like a runaway train. She was loud, powerful and effective. At 10-6 she sent TTY sprawling and went into the interval five points up. Tzu Ying was mainly serving high and pulling/pushing Marin all over the court but making errors. Serve alternated between then but Marin kept her edge until it the scores got to 18-12. TTY served, Marin didn’t attempt to play the shuttle and it was called out: Tzu Ying challenged. Hawkeye called IN. This was a turning point, the shuttle had caught the line by a whisker. Marin went on to win the first set 21-19 but something had changed, the balance of power had shifted.
TTY started the second set in imperious form. She moved Marin everywhere keeping her under constant pressure and forcing errors. Tzu Ying was pitiless. Marin lost her concentration and lost the set 21-13. Third set, TTY continued with her exceptionally beautiful play. Marin’s pace and power were being dismantled by the majestic skills of TAI. Marin’s focus and game were demolished, and she lost 21-11. Marin was a gallant opponent, she said struggled with the drift but she just could not contain TTY’s brilliance.
Final against CHEN YuFei
Her fourth consecutive final at the Yonex All England and a rematch of 2019 when CHEN YuFei was victorious in straight sets. We know that when Yufei gets to a final she does not lose. Last year one of CYF’s main weapons in defeating The Queen was patience, this year the tables were turned.
“Today I kept reminding myself that I had to be very patient in order to win, because CHEN is a very consistent player and good mover. So with my style of play, there’s actually more pressure on me.”
TAI Tzu Ying to Badminton Unlimited 15.3.20
Over the week, as the intensity of the competition surged, we watched as TAI Tzu Ying simply got better and better. There was a focus and cool determination. Interestingly I think she has modified her game. Patience is a sharp weapon to add to her armoury. There were less errors because she was more precise about when she chose to launch her attacks. She was relentless in the way she attacked CYF. As against Marin she used her high serve to push her opponent back and limit her options and like Marin CHEN could not get control of the rallies. The first set went to Tzu Ying 21-19, the second 21-15; towards the end TTY was simply sensational. Her courage and mental strength made her an unassailable opponent.
She had a wonderful week in Birmingham which ended in a tremendous victory. She is a giant of the game, a sporting icon of the same calibre as Messi or Federer. What a time to be a fan of women’s badminton!
This was a competition that favoured players who could keep focus and grab opportunities. There is a joy to badminton that we all recognise and these are the times when we should celebrate happiness and curate our memories of watching the greatest tournament in our sport.
“Before its 21 anything can happen”
Mixed Doubles – Praveen Jordan & Melati Daeva Oktavianti
The XD was an unexpected pleasure this year. Top seeds fell by the wayside and we arrived at Saturday night with the home favourites Lauren Smith/Marcus Ellis facing Praveen Jordan/Melati Daeva Oktavianti for a place in the final. The first set went to form – PraMel were shrewdly pulling Ellis out of position to neutralise his threat – but in the second the Brits held their nerve, saved two match points and roared on by the crowd forced the match to a decider. Praveen is notoriously unpredictable, however the hoohah around ‘time wasting’ and ‘being ready’ which resulted in an undeserved yellow card definitely lit a flame and the last game was a more comfortable 21-11 victory. The Indonesians were quicker and cleverer and deserved to progress.
No Thai player has ever won an All England title so Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai were staring down the barrel of history. They are a strong, fast pair and this was a match for all XD devotees. It ebbed and flowed but the balance of power was decided at the net. Praveen is such an imposing, athletic partner; he reached everything, his smash was vicious so this freed Melati to damage the Thai pair again and again. Even if she couldn’t score she keep the attacking momentum. Bass/Popor grabbed the second set but had given too much and were beaten 21-8 at the last.
Winning an All England title is the mark of a special player and Praveen Jordan has now won two with two separate partners.
Men’s Doubles – Hiroyuki Endo & Yuta Watanabe
This sector was lit up by the brilliance of Yuta Watanabe. He is faster than a flash. His net interceptions, his resilience and strength were irresistable. For his partner, it was a fourth appearance in the MD final, the first with his new partner and another chance to win the title that has eluded him.
This match sparkled. Gideon & Sukamuljo – world #1 – have already won the title twice but in the last year have consistently lost to the Japanese duo. The pace was superhuman. There was little to choose between these two teams as the intensity increased. No one cracked, no one avoided responsibility, here were four athletes trying everything to succeed. In the final set the Minions trailed 0-6, at the break they had pulled it back to 9-11. Marcus and Kevin bombarded Yuta & Hiroyuki in the last points but the Japanese held firm under incredible pressure. In the end the Japanese pair won the title. They deserved to win but Kevin and Marcus did not deserve to lose. It was a priviledge to watch.
Women’s Singles – Tai Tzu Ying
The Queen is the Queen.
All of TTY’s fans must have anticipated this tournament with a mixture of excitement and dread. We knew she had enjoyed success in January with the Begaluru Raptors and it was clear she was focusing on key competition in the run-up to Tokyo 2020. Her committment and strategy were perfect and in a repeat of 2019 she met CHEN Yufei in the final. This time the honours went to the Queen. (a longer appreciation of TTY’s progress through the YAE will be appearing on this blog as a standalone piece).
All week Fukuhiro had been focused with a quiet confidence. This match had them in dominant form with Hirota especially dazzling with her interceptions at the net. Early on they were finding space with long cross-court precise shots. Their movement around court was fluent as they continued to pressurize DU/LI and raced to a 10-4 lead. The Chinese pair were struggling to find space but they gradually slowed the Fukihiro momentum to get to 9-14.
Hirota’s competitive vision and her ability to get to the shuttle at pace meant that DU/LI could not challenge the control the Japanese pair had. Fukushima was equally aggressive and her appetite for smashing – especially XC – was significant in keeping DU/LI ‘s ambitions down. The Japanese pair secured the title in two sets and they were worthy winners.
Men’s Singles – Viktor Axelsen
Axelsen demolished the #1 seed CHOU Tien Chen in two sets. No games at this level are ‘easy’ but Viktor bulldozed his way through it whilst CTC will want to forget his error strewn match. The Dane grabbed his opportunity and after such a tricky 2019 disrupted by injury and allergies it’s fair to say he is getting back to his best.
I feel that this sector was dominated by players who were absent as much as those who competed. We all know the situation Momota is in. I was astonished by the exit of Ginting and Christie in R1. I watched Ginting’s match and he simply had no answers to Gemke, he could not raise his level to get any foothold in the game. Frustratingly, another YAE passes him by.
The unseeded LEE Zii Jia was one of the stars of the tournament and it was Christie’s misfortune to meet him in R1. LEE looks hungry. He is athletic, explosive and speedy around the court – I think he may fancy his chances at the Olympics.
This year’s tournament was buffeted by external forces out of the control of the players and these, of course, will be a huge part of all our lives for the next few months. All of the athletes must, to some extent, have been affected by anxieties. Firstly, would it even go ahead? Secondly would they get home? Despite this it was drenched in quality right from the start and the right people won.
I would like to thank all the people who contributed to the competition. As well as the athletes/coaches/support staff there is a huge group of people behind the scenes including the Badminton England volunteers. I’d particularly like to mention Jan in the media centre – always cheerful, professional and kind.
Welcome to the greatest badminton tournament in the world. This is the one that all elite players want to win and the one that fans from around the world long to attend. A dislocated build-up to this tournament will undoubtedly have tested players focus. All of us have fretted about the coronavirus and the postponement of the German Open will have disrupted the training plans of some.
Winning this tournament is never a fluke; years have been spent training for these games. All those drills, the weights, the sweat have all been leading to the moment when the competitors walk onto the court in Birmingham and begin.
We are in the Golden Age of women’s badminton. This is the zesty sector, full of talent and excitement, the top 20 players is a corps of excellence drawn from around the world. CHEN Yufei is the current holder of the title and there are 3 other ex-champions TAI Tzu Ying, Carolina Marin and Nozomi Okuhara taking part as well.
Badminton immortality beckons – who will answer the call?
TAI Tzu Ying – Seeded 2 – Champion in 2017 & 2018
At the core of TTY is the desire to sparkle not to merely play. No-one has the technical mastery she brings to the court; the breathtaking shots she executes are simply magnificent. Her vision and creative energy elevates her game to a level of brilliance that we expect of a genuine great of the game. Her achilles heel is her lack of consistency: sometimetime her focus can wander, I think she can sometimes be bored into losing a game. Her participation in the PBL in January was a clever way to undertake a segment of training; it allowed her to hit with new partners, get match practice and enjoy herself. It’s been pointed out that perhaps playing games only up to 15 points may help her concentration – well, we’ll see! Rumours that she plans to retire after the Tokyo Olympics are adding an extra sense of desire from fans who just want to see the QUEEN win everything. Prediction Final
Nozomi Okuhara – Seeded 4 – Champion in 2016
Nozomi’s 2019 synchronised hope and despair – her fans watched so many finals that ended with Silver. She knows what it takes to win in Birmingham and possibly the hall conditions will help but she has to be the boss a bit more frequently. I want to see her snap up points. Patience is such a cornerstone of her tactics but to be effective it must be used alongside impatience, unpredictability and aggression. Sometimes we see flashes of a more attacking player and if she could get this part of her strategy right it would make the difference between winning and coming second. There are no easy games at Super 1000 level but she has the ability to get right to the final.
CHEN Yufei – Seeded 1 – Champion 2019
The defending champion has enjoyed an excellent win streak since her victory last March. After the All England she appeared in six finals and was unbeaten. Despite her status as top seed she has a very difficult route to finals weekend. In R1 she faces Korean Wonderkid AN Se Young, R2 will be Busanan or Blichfeldt and QF could be Ratchanok. She is an even more resilient player than last year; she has high fitness levels, great patience and solid technique. It’s her patience in games that proves to be such a key weapon. Opponents have to be very sure of their own stamina to equal her, she will often soak up pressure throughout the match before ambushing her rival in the last few points. Prediction Quarter Final.
Ratchanok Intanon – Seeded 5 – Runner Up 2017
Ratchanok often employs a ‘do or die’ approach and I adore her for that. A wonderful win at Istora in the Indonesia Masters final against Marin over 3 sets settled my nerves about her resilience so I think she has an outside chance here. A possible QF against CHEN Yufei awaits; she must not let CYF bore her into losing the match! Prediction Semi Final, Go May!
Saina Nehwal – Unseeded – Runner Up 2015
Desperately seeking points to secure her fourth (yes, fourth) Olympic spot Saina has a dangerous R1 clash with Akane to begin. To have any chance of progressing she must start well; to her credit since her QF exit at the Spanish Masters she has been training in Denmark. She identified her movement on court as one of the reasons for underperformance last year and it’s true she has often lacked fluency. If she has addressed this weakness then her shrewd gameplay will have a solid foundation. She is a tenacious fighter and even if Akane dispatches her I still don’t think her Olympic hopes are finished. Prediction: it’s not over
AN Se Young – Unseeded
The dynamic, dangerous prospect from Korea could pose some serious questions to CHEN Yufei in R1. This tie could go either way; CYF should have enough resilience and experience to get over the line but I’m not certain of this result. In the past ASY seems to falter as the cumulative efect of hard games pile up. I think this is only because she is young, soon it will not be a problem. She could beat CYF but I don’t think she’ll win the title.
P V Sindhu – Seeded 6 – Rio Olympics 2016 Silver Medal
Sindhu’s underwhelming performances since her magnificent triumph at the World Championships in Basle have often been explained by the phrase ‘big tournament player’. Her motivation – if that is the problem – should not be an issue here. Like TTY she also particiated in the PBL so it will be interesting to see if the different vibes around playing for the franchise team had a positive effect. At her best she will annihilate her opponent with a savage exhibition of pressure badminton, at her worst she can crash out in R1. Beiwen Zhang is her first challenger and that is a match that could go either way.
Akane Yamaguchi – Seeded 3 – Runner Up 2018
I hope that Akane’s triumph at the Thailand Masters means that the fitness issues that have been dragging her down since last August are conquered. That final was against AN Se Young who just seemed to run out of ideas. More importantly though, Akane did not run out of legs. BirdJapan has such a colossal few months coming up it’s vital that she regains the form she had back in July 2019. I think her performance in this competition will be the first indication of what we can expect at the Uber Cup and then at the Olympics. Prediction: Semi
After a ghastly 2019 dominated by her ACL rupture and rehab Caro has returned to competition and is back on court. Noisiness is part of the strategy, she likes to dominate the space physically and aurally, it contributes to unsettling her opponents. She has not won a title this year yet and I was shocked that she lost the Spain Masters to Pornpawee Chochuwong. This was a well-worked victory, Marin’s ability to deal with a gruelling three set match was questioned and Chochuwong exploited cross-court opportunities really effectively. Prediction QF.
Women’s Singles is choc-a-bloc with talent; the quality of the unseeded players competing here means that upsets and shocks are inevitable. The Yonex All England is a critical showcase for athletes in Olympic year and success here could mean participation in Tokyo is guaranteed. I’m not neutral, I hope the Women’s Singles title is won by the player who is adored around the world and whose style sums up the joy that is fundamental to her game. If this is TAI Tzu Ying’s last championship then I would love to see her on the podium. There have been distractions and anxieties but now is the time to focus on sport.
A new year with old rivalries and the added piquancy of the Olympics in July. We are six months away from the biggest athletic event on the planet, the intensity and desire for success is going to build with each tournament and this all adds up to a scintillating few months in prospect for fans. The anticipation of qualification is offset by the dread of failure. 2020 has started with some thrilling matches; finals day at Istora was a cauldron of raw emotion – who didn’t relish those results with utter joy? What have we learned in January, who is up for the fight? Who has that podium in Tokyo in their sights?
TAI Tzu Ying has been treading a different path to her rivals this year. She is cherry-picking the best tournaments to support her ambition. This feels like an athlete with a plan and along with her coaches she understands that entering every tournament is not the effective way for her to achieve her goal. Getting the balance right between training, competition and fitness is what coaches are paid to do. I think it’s been a stroke of genius to play in the PBL. It has freshened up the daily grind, there are some excellent training partners for her and she gets to play matches that are important but it’s not a catastrophy to lose. For instance, only 16 years old but Gayatri Gopichand took a set off TTY in the PBL whilst playing for Chennai Superstarz – now here is a girl with ambition!
As ever, this is the most dynamic, exciting sector of badminton with the best athletes. Head-to-head battles between the top 20 players are often gloriously unpredictable. In contrast to the men’s game there is no dominant player except that CHEN Yufei won 7 tournaments in 2019 and significantly she does not lose finals. As current World #1 she started 2020 in good form and won the Malaysia Masters by beating TAI Tzu Ying in two sets. Crucially she hasn’t built upon this opportunity to dominate; she was knocked out of the Indonesian Masters on the second day by the unseeded Line Kjaersfeldt.
Carolina Marin has been cultivating her old aura of unbeatability and has been on the podium at all three competitions this year. Reliable results should be a good indicator of future success so we have to acknowledge that she is the person in January who has delivered. Nevertheless, no titles yet and she has been beaten by three different players: CYF, May & Akane, so this tells me that she still has loads of work to do if she wants to defend her 2016 Gold medal.
Akane & Nozomi: no-one can be under greater pressure to do well in Japan than the two home players. January has been a good month for Akane. Her win over AN Se Young in the Thailand Masters final is perhaps a sign that she is emerging from a hard few months of injury disruption. Nozomi has had a quiet start to the year after a successful and frustrating 2019. Five finals, five runners up medals. There were times last year when she was modifying her game to incorporate more aggression, she has to be less predictable to just get that extra 1% that makes the difference between Silver and Gold.
Indian Badminton does seem to be going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment, last year was pretty uneven and not much has improved. Saina Nehwal is a true great of the game but results are not good enough at the moment to ensure her qualification for Tokyo. Only a fool would write off her chances at this point and on a positive note her triumph over AN Se Young in R2 of The Malaysia Masters was a reminder that she can beat anyone. I’m unconvinced that her current coaching setup adds to her competitive edge though; I think that if her fluency improves and strategies to get her qualification points whereever she can are used then we still may see her in Japan. Her withdrawal from the Badminton Asia Team Championships plus her recent political work point to a lack of focus. As an observer I just see chaos.
P V Sindhu has a reputation as a ‘Big Tournament Player’ and is the current world champion. Nevertheless, her tendency to crash out of tournaments too early is frustrating. We often excuse her underperformance because we see her respond well to the biggest challenges. I am sympathetic to this view but surely it’s better to win and get some competitive momentum rather than travel here, there and everywhere only to crash out early? Nevermind, emotions aside, I don’t think her results over the past six months are much worse than Akanes so perhaps it’s better to just enjoy the rollercoaster. Of course she will get to Tokyo, but will she get on the podium? On the strength of January’s performances I am sceptical.
My highlight in January across all sectors has to be Polii & Rahayu’s victory at the Indonesia Masters. Their semi-final and final were emotionally exhausting epics. It’s taken a lot of courage for them to analyse and rebuild their game. Over the next few months I hope we see this revitalised pair win more. No Japanese duo has made a final yet this year and it’s still not decided which of them will be competing in Tokyo. This must be a difficult situation because they need to compete well to get ranking points to increase their chances of qualification however over-training and too much competition could risk injury or burn out. CHEN/JIA are very dangerous players, so strong and such brutal attackers but they are not dominating tournaments yet. It’s a very fluid picture; there is an opportunity in this sector for a pair to really boss the results – who will step up?
Winning an Olympic Gold is never a fluke but rather the result of years and years of dedication. Carolina’s consistency in the routine of competition is the opposite of what we observe from P V Sindhu and yet judging by January’s results both of them risk being denied medals. TTY looks focused and although we know she can be perfectly imperfect, at the moment the logic of her regime seems sound. I’ve barely mentioned May or AN Se Young. Ratchanok had an excellent win over Marin in the final of the Indonesian Masters and no worries about her stamina in that 3 set match. ASY is still work in progress, but she is transtioning from Giant-killer to Giant. I wonder if this will be achieved by July?
There’s still a long way to go, a lot of matches to be played. The first milestone is the end of the qualifying period on the 26th April. Nerves are jangling a little already, once we have the final list of players the anticipation and dread can really begin.
I need to acknowledge the incredibly sad road traffic accident in Malaysia and offer sincere condolences to the family of the deceased driver, Mr N Bavan. I also send sympathy to everyone affected by this. We should appreciate the good things in our lives everyday. As Dato Lee Chong Wei said in his Chinese New Year Message …”time to put down everything, shut down the computer…go back home. There is someone there thinking for you. Always remember to treat it as the last new year you would ever have. Cherish your love one.”
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:
It’s been a year of sensational results in the women’s singles sector; now we are at the much anticipated season’s finale. The round robin format at the start means that the intensity will be focused from the first game so hold on tight for a tournament of dazzling skills and thrilling contests.
TAI Tzu Ying‘s supporters have been eyeing this tournament with a delicious mixture of anticipation and fear. No other mortal can play like her, she is an artist with her racket and consistently plays at a creative level beyond most rivals imagination. Although she has won three tournaments this year (Denmark/Malaysia/Singapore Open), none of them were at Super 1000 level. Recently, coach LAI has resigned his role with the national team to focus on her and there does seem to be a subtle shift in outlook. A victory here would settle the nerves a little as we head towards the Olympics. Prediction: Semi-final (but my heart wants her in the Final).
CHEN YuFei…is NOT the WTF female player of the year, however she has the knack of converting appearances in finals into wins – it’s a great skill – since winning the All England back in March she has added 5 more titles and been a part of the Chinese team who won the Sudirman Cup. She can counter any opponents style of play and has to be favourite for this title, especially as she may feel she has something to prove to the WTF now. It would be a shock if she were not in the final.
Ratchanok Intanon is always a contender. Brilliant technical skills (matched only by TTY) and a gritty never-say-die attitude get her to semi-finals and beyond. From her IG & FB posts it seems to me that she is putting a lot of work in at the gym to improve her endurance in matches. I think if the arena suits her and she gets a good start then she could grab Gold but realistically it’s probably going to be a Semi-final.
Akane Yamaguchi has had a year of contrasts. Her achievements in July were magnificent: triumph over P V Sindhu in the final of the iconic Indonesia Open was followed by the Japan Open title. These results contributed to her World #1 rank. But from August onwards she has endured a miserable few months with numerous injury niggles and shock exits from tournaments from unseeded opponents. Never mind, she is a superb player; it would be wonderful to see her progress beyond the round robin.
Nozomi Okuhara is one of the most consistent and popular players on the circuit – her results this year have been simultaneously good, unsatisfying and heart wrenching. The puzzle is that she has got to 5 finals but lost each time. I think her game is evolving, she seems to be a little more willing to take the initiative and be aggressive. It may be that what we see is ‘work in progress’ with the Olympic podium as the ultimate goal. I hope that she finds that extra couple of percent for her game to help her transform silver to gold this time. Prediction: Final
Busanan Ongbamrungphan is cementing her position as Thailand’s #2 behind Intanon and this should see her competing in the 2020 Olympics. She’s a positive, intelligent and aggressive player has taken some good scalps this year. Can she progress to the semi-final, or further? I hope the different format of the competition will do her a favour: she is usually unseeded on the tour and often has to fight her way through tricky early rounds, this time she is in the thick of it right from the start.
As World Champions are guaranteed their spot in the tournament, P V Sindhu‘s place is already reserved in Guangzhou. She is renowned as a “Big Tournament Player” – put more simply she often seems to find it hard to triumph in smaller competitions. Calamatous R1 exits or finals have characterised the past 12 months. Her recent work with Coach Kim has been very successful but it’s come to an end now. Can she defend the title she won last year? Perhaps, but she cannot afford a slow start.
HE Bing Jiao: A highlight of the year was seeing her keep her nerve to end her 3-year gold drought and win the Korea Open. She has the skills to do well but in the context of a very competitive sector she often fails to land titles.
Only eight players can qualify to attend from each sector (& eight teams from the doubles disciplines). There will be no room for AN Se Young; the new kid on the block has earned some astonishing results in the second half of this year but overall she has not done enough to be eligible to play. Michelle Li is another notable absentee but is a player who is going to have a great 2020.
So this is a clash of the ‘best of the best’ in the singles sector. At the time of writing the groups haven’t been announced for the round robin stage of the competition and it’s possible this will have an impact on the progress of a player. It’s been a long season with lots of shocks, beautiful shots, and plenty to enjoy. It is hard to predict how much tiredness and niggling injuries are going to influence everyone’s performance but all of these athletes deserve our admiration for their commitment to the sport we love. We are privileged to have witnessed the 2019 campaigns of these players & may the best woman win!
Women’s Doubles: A Brief Overview
The women’s doubles sector has been dominated by pairs from Japan over the past year as their training programme peaks in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. Fukuhiro have enjoyed a distinguished year and are many people’s favourites for the end-of-year gold. They are a model doubles pair with a great understanding of each other and magnificent defensive wall; however they are not invincible. The second Japanese duo Matsumoto/Nagahara arrive in Guangzhou as World Champions so it’s not hard to expect them on the podium at the end of the tournament.
Heartbreakingly Matsutomo/Takahashi – who won the title in 2018 -will miss out on the trip to China because only 2 pairs from each country are allowed to compete, regardless of their position in the rankings. As an aside, this will be a live issue in the run up to the Olympics as well. It is a very hard rule to like.
This part of the tournament has terrific athletes with no obvious weak candidates. KIM/KONG are very dangerous: the Koreans have the technical skill at the net to dissect any challenge and it seems irrelevant to point out that they have not played together for very long. The winners of the 2019 All England – CHEN/JIA – seem able to power their way through most encounters; their swift reactions and willingness to attack gives them the advantage in some ‘fast’ arenas. To be honest I haven’t seen much of their compatriots, DU/LI, the second Korean pair LEE/SHIN or the Thais Kititharakul/Prajongjai but the stats speak for themselves – they haven’t reached Guangzhou by accident. Polii/Rahayu have had a lacklustre few months since winning bronze at the World Championships in Basle. We know that Greysia has had an injury that hampered her so this could be a difficult competition for them to progress in.
Like Women’s Singles this is a very competitive line up with no obvious front runners. I think that CHEN/JIA are my favourites for the title; I’m basing that assessment on their performance at the All England Championships this year that I was lucky enough to watch live. Their speed and strength were breathtaking and so this, plus home advantage, I think will propel them in the direction of the podium. I can’t wait for the competition to begin.
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.
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!