First, a confession – I didn’t watch the match today between Saina and Selvaduray Kisona. However, I want to award my ‘Player of the Day’ accolade to the Indian player because the last 24 hours must really have tested her resolve to get out on court and compete, let alone win.
The shocking news yesterday that two Indian players had tested positive for Covid made headlines worldwide. Her millions of fans were dismayed at the news that one of them was Saina and that her opponent had been awarded a walkover.
What a difference 24 hours has made. Gossip started leaking out that she had been retested and was now confirmed ‘negative’. Would she be allowed to reenter the competition? Was she OK?
She is a player who has a steely core; we’ve seen this throughout her career. Late yesterday when we got the news that she’d been reinstated it was also revealed that she had been stuck at the hospital for 10 hours. Today, in the last game of the session, having been shifted onto Ct 3 at short notice she won in two sets 21-15, 21-15.
I can’t report that her fitness is back to its best, or that niggling injuries are healed. But I’m thrilled to tell you that there can be no questions about the mental resilience and grit of this athlete. Congratulations Saina!
Honourable mentions today go to Daren LIEW who shocked Anders Antonsen by dumping him out of the tournament in two sets and Ratchanok Intanon who looked sharp and fit in her victory over YEO.
Doubles highlights everything that’s brilliant about badminton. The tempo, teamwork and tactics all combine to create an electrifying show.
The Yonex Thailand Open will be our first opportunity to watch most of these pairs since March. The impact of local Covid protocols will have caused training disruption and periods when it was impossible for partners to practice together. Some athletes will have spent the last 10 months enriching their skills whilst others will have stagnated. Now there is a fresh start for everyone and I’m impatient to see who has used this time wisely.
We have been used to the domination of the Japanese & Chinese pairs in this discipline recently so their absence is an opportunity for the other seeds – predominantly Korean and Indonesian competitors – to make a mark. Three Korean pairs are seeded: Kim/Kong (4), Lee/Shin (3) plus Chang/Kim (6) . Kim/Kong will bring a bit more to the party in terms of aggression and imaginative badminton. I wonder if the success of the Korean competitors will be determined by the performance of Apriyani Rahayu. If she can dominate the play and build off the rock-solid foundation that Greysia Polii always provides then Greyap could get to the final. The other twosome to catch the eye are the Danes: Sara Thygesen and Maiken Fruergaard. They could go far if they clear the early rounds and get into their competitive rhythm; they were outstanding at this years Indonesia Masters.
This promises to be an exhilarating event. The #1 seeds and home favourites Puavaranukroh and Taerattanachai (that is, Bass/Popor) have a fabulous opportunity for a podium finish. Blistering speed, great technique, accuracy and aggressive style mean that they are a handful for any rival, but they are still ‘work in progress’. They were beaten in this years final of the All England over three sets by #2 seeds, Praveen Jordan and Melati DaevaOktavianti and the prospect of a return match is a tantalising thought. When Jordan is focused and fit his ferocious smashes and cunning play form the bedrock of a formidable team; Melati’s pace and anticipation make them hard to dominate. So who could get in the way of these two pairs? Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith are England’s best chance of a podium spot in the whole tournament. Ellis knows how to win tough games; his mental and physical resilience are superb and Smith is just getting better and better. They lost to PraMel in the All England semi final this year and would relish the chance of revenge.
Kevin’s positive test and subsequent quarantine at home in Indonesia was a disappointment, likewise the no-show Japanese and Chinese pairs. Nevertheless, because standards are so high in this sector it is not a catastrophe for the quality of the tournament.
The brilliance and depth of talent in Indonesian badminton means that there are still 2 seeded pairs with every chance of making the final on Saturday an all-Indonesia affair. The legendary Daddies – Mohammad Ahsan and Hendra Setiawan – are superb competitors with impecable standards. Setiawan’s technical ability combined with his proactive, intelligent play means that they have the resources to claw their way to victory even when they are under the most severe pressure. Their apparently nonchalent attitude on court disguises an unshakeable winning mentality. I’m a little nervous of the Indian duo Rankireddy/Shetty who they will probably play in R2. They are young, energetic and improving all the time so this is potentially a game where the Dads need to be ready to douse any fireworks that are thrown their way. Fajar Alfian and Muhammad Rian Ardianto who are the second Indonesian seeded pair (#5) must be eyeing the podium. The English pair Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge are unseeded but could be battling them for a place in the Semi-final.
The top half of the draw opened up with the withdrawal of the Minions. The Malaysian 8th seeds Aaron Chia and Wooi Yik Soh have emphasized in recent interviews how hard they have been training during the long lay off and that they have focused on strengthening their defensive game. This could be their chance to step up and win a major tournament. The dangermen in their way will be the Russians Ivanov/Sozonov.
After such a long break these competitions will be won by the duos with the most ambition – the trophies are there for the taking. The athletes who have been able to adapt to the covid protocols in Bangkok fast without letting it disrupt focus will enjoy a huge advantage. Thailand is the heart of badminton for January with three tournaments in a row within a safety bubble: finally, after some very hard months we can say ‘Badminton is BACK!’
In a crazy year we fans have sustained ourselves on archive footage, home tournaments and hope. We enjoyed the one-off Denmark Open in October but badminton reactivates in Thailand on the 12th January. Everything was looking peachy until the news broke on January 3rd that Momota had tested positive at the airport as he was departing for Bangkok. As a precautionary measure the whole of the Japanese team have stayed home. China had already withdrawn so the competition continues without them.
Let’s see who has kept their training discipline over this enforced break. Who has learnt new strategies and skills, overcome niggling injuries and rediscovered their hunger to win? We had a glimpse of some players at the Denmark Open and again at the SaarLorLux but Bangkok is going to offer a bigger selection of athletes and some tough competition to anyone who thinks they can mix it with the best!
Which athlete has the stamina mental and physical to advance to the red zone of a third set and ask their rival some serious questions? Anders Antonsen probably thinks he can – he gave a great performance at the DO but he couldn’t walk unaided from the court at the end. What do we read into that? Well, here is a player who will plunge beyond the RED…he’s still growing as a competitor but at the death his muscle memory saw him through to seize the Denmark Open trophy. Seeded 3, he is in the bottom half of the draw and may well meet CHOU Tien Chen on the Saturday in a repeat of the All-England semi-final.
CHOU Tien Chen is seeded 2 and competed in Denmark even though Taiwan didn’t officially send players. He is slated to meet LEE Zii Jia at the quarter final stage and this could be a very tough test. LZJ is such an exciting player to watch and he was unlucky to miss out on the final at the Yonex All England back in March. His speed and power are exhilarating for spectators and hard to contain for rivals so CTC has got to be on guard right from set one or the match will run away from him. Antonsen awaits.
Anthony Ginting – seeded 5 – is always a player who excites me. I hope that during lockdown he has had the opportunity to refresh his strategies. He has to stop thinking he can beat Momota or other top players in 2 sets. As Susie Susanti observed, he needs a plan B or C when plan A fails. If he has added more strategies to his repertoire then the sky’s the limit: it could open a new chapter in his career. In R2 he should probably meet the rising star in Thai men’s singles, Kunlavut Vitidsarn. The three times World Junior Championcould block his advance; it’s a potential banana skin that Ginting must approach intelligently in order to win without expending his energy reserves. The Danish challenge is formidable in this sector. Rasmus Gemke is one of those players who has been a bit under the radar but hard work, grit, and good tactics mean that a possible match with Ginting in the quarter finals is going to reveal how far both men have really progressed over the past nine months. Gemke was a valiant loser in the final of the Denmark Open and remember he blocked Anthony’s progress at the 2020 All England. The current All England champion – Viktor Axelsen – didn’t compete in October because he was addressing an injury niggle so it may be quite tough for him to be at full throttle straightaway. He is seeded to meet Indonesian favourite Jonatan Christie in his quarter final: a great match in prospect for neutrals but too tough to call for this preview. Christie can sometimes be infuriatingly inconsistent but this could be a fabulous opportunity for him to set up a semi-final against his compatriot Ginting. HK Vittinghus will also be part of the competition following the withdrawal of Laksyha Sen who has injured his back. Vittinghus scored some great victories in his home tournament back in October and his confidence must have been boosted by this. Sometimes I feel he overthinks, sometimes he runs out of gas but always a hard player to beat.
TAI Tzu Ying is top seed but as Women’s Singles overflows with talent – even without the Chinese and Japanese competitors – she will definitely not have a smooth ride to the final. Her recent Instagram posts seem to reveal a player with mixed feelings about travel away from Taiwan. Of course, social media is hardly the portal to authentic insight so I think we just need to wait for things to unfold in Thailand before making any judgement. I’m intrigued how she will approach the challenges thrown at her in the Impact Arena. The world #1 last competed internationally when she won the YAE and that campaign illustrated a new capacity for patience. We know she has continued to train diligently all through the pandemic so the onus is on her rivals to upset her rhythm and conquer her.
The top half of the draw means that it’s expected TTY will clash with Michelle LI in her quarter final. If LI is 100% fit that could be a very hard match. The winner of which plausibly faces Sindhu in a semi-final.
I wonder how winter training in England has suited P V Sindhu? She has looked so happy and I would speculate that a reasonably quiet life consisting of practice and a small social circle has given her an opportunity to reset. The current World Champion is known as a ‘big match’ player and has all the tools to go a long way in this tournament. Can she win this title? Emphatically ‘yes’ so long as the self-assured, rampaging intense player we saw in the World Championship final is the one who turns up. Her technique and aggression will take her to the podium so long as she keeps her focus.
Can Saina Nehwal face down Sindhu if it becomesan all-India quarter final? Saina is such an intelligent player: mental resilience and the will to win come as standard but I think her stamina may be suspect if it goes to 3 sets. Before that she will have to overcome the Thai player Busanan Ongbamrungphan. She is unseeded but skillful and has what it takes to progress further.
Thai women’s badminton has plenty of brilliant players and at the forefront of course is wonderful Ratchanok Intanon. Seeded 4 she has got a brutal draw to negotiate beginning with YEO Jia Min in R1, Yvonne LI in R2 then moving onto a big QF clash with AN Se Young. The Korean is a frightening talent so I’m curious to see how she has matured over the past months. If she has increased her stamina as we’d expect, then Ratchanok has a fight to get to a SF that in all likelihood will be versus Marin. Carolina Marin has endured a tough year. The Prime documentary about her revealed what a truly extraordinary player and person she is. In my view, her participation at the SaarLorLux – not a tournament that we would necessarily expect someone of her high ranking to attend – illustrates her commitment to the sport she loves and the fact that she needs to play both for emotional and physical reasons. I’ve heard that she has had a slight hamstring worry but I don’t think it’s any cause for concern. There was something missing from her game in October though. Her usual dominance and competitive momentum were off the boil and it reminded me of the sequence in the Vietnam Open that’s shown in the Prime documentary. Her strategy and trust in the process set out by Rivas were slightly off. The clip where she sits on the floor, utterly devastated that the game hasn’t gone her way, is very illuminating.
It’s a new beginning and the year is going to be choc-a-bloc with quality tournaments alongside the Tokyo Olympics. Some old friends are haven’t made it this month and we’re going to miss them. I would have loved to see the new look HE Bing Jiao, Nozomi has been on a great streak of form and Akane lights up any match. We’ll have to be patient for Momota’s return to court and postpone our desire for MomoGi. Even despite this I know for sure we’ll enjoy the games ahead – finally, finally Badminton is BACK!
“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.
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 Badminton World Championships start on August 19th so I’m taking a look at some of the main contenders for Women’s Singles gold.
This discipline is full of talent – and unlike the men’s singles it’s not dominated by one person – so it will be an intriguing contest right from the beginning. All tournaments offer a rising intensity as players progress through the rounds: physical endurance can be sapped as well as the emotional drain of competition. The parity of ability amongst the top seeds means that being able to deal with tournament pressure will have a huge part to play. Who will relish the fight?
“…every player has a chance of being crowned champion.” Ratchanok
Nozomi Okuhara: Contender
Nozomi’s been in the waiting room this year – she hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success as Akane and yet she is a fabulous player. Her tactics often mean she gets stuck in a war of attrition so I’d like to see a bit less patience and more drive to finish off a rally. I think her edge is blunted by predictability so it would be great to see her surprise her opponent (& us!) a bit more often. Prediction: Final.
Tai Tzu Ying: The Queen
Tai Tzu Ying has never won the World Championships and goes into this competition as #2 seed. Because of her hints about retirement and her lack of big tournament form recently, fans have focused on this title with the sense that time is running out. I cannot pretend to be neutral about Tai Tzu Ying – the way she plays is brilliant and gives me so much pleasure – so I wish I felt more confident about this tournament. Her possible path to the final is tough and includes Sindhu who would relish a big battle. Prediction Semi Final.
Akane: World #1
Akane’s triumph at the Indonesian Open quickly followed by success in the Japan Open – her home tournament – means that she enters the World Championships as #1. Since disappointment in the Sudirman Cup her game has become more aggressive with a willingness to push her rivals around. She can’t just win everything from now on though, can she? Prediction Semi Final.
Feifei is a very clever player with the might of the Chinese coaches behind her. I think she is good at rebalancing her game to beat whoever she faces. Often she traps ‘flair’ players into thinking they will conquer her by playing their natural game. She waits it out and then finishes them off; her natural strength means she can get through three draining games. It’s been said that her weakness is her inability to cope with her nerves but this seems to be eratic. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: fighter
Sindhu is renowned as a big match player and this skill is a huge advantage in the top tournaments. By her own standards 2019 has been quite quiet but July saw her spring into life. It was great to see a refreshed player getting her game back. I love her style when she unleashes her inner badminton beast and dominates the court with her aggressive smashes and drives. I think that’s going to be the secret of success for her; when she’s confident and plays like that she can become unstoppable. She is seeded 5 and her path to success looks very tough: Zhang Beiwen in R16 and possibly TTY in the quarters. Prediction: QF owing to hard draw.
2019 has seen Saina endure various injuries and this has obviously disrupted her training programme. Her half of the draw is no picnic & includes players like Chen Yufei and P V Sindhu. She always has the desire to win and heaps of experience but realistically I can’t see her progressing beyond QF. That’s not necessarily a bad performance in the context of her year so far. I see this competition as her opportunity to continue to work on her match fitness and focus on her aim to get to Tokyo 2020. Prediction QF
“… women’s singles is so competitive that on any given day whoever can control herself and play her style of game will be the champion.” Ratchanok
May lost out in the Thailand Open Final to Chen Yufei but she played very well in that match. CYF won because she played with patience and endurance – often in rallies she was content to simply keep sending the shuttle back. Towards the end May did slightly alter her approach but by that point it was too late. It’s been noticeable that since then she has been posting plenty of evidence on IG of her hard work in the gym so perhaps this means she’s preparing her body for longer games with less reliance upon a dazzling winner and more focus on turning the screw. Prediction Semi Final
Funny things can happen in knock-out tournaments; sometimes athletes really fly through their games and suddenly find themselves in a quarter final. The Indonesian players -Fitriani & Tunjung – are both talented but frustratingly inconsistent. Their homeland can have high hopes of medals from others but it would be a welcome shock if honours came from WS.
Michelle Li from Canada can push anyone on her day and often gets good results but realistically I don’t think she would trouble Chen Yufei (assuming she gets past Saina).
Chochuwong had a great run in the Thailand Open but again her draw is tricky. Lastly He Be Jiao is seeded 6 so has to be taken seriously as a possible semi-finalist.
So, in conclusion…
That gold medal, that title, the culmination of years of work, is realistically within the reach of about eight of the players. It’s going to take an immense effort – physically and emotionally – to clinch the prize. I also think it requires someone to play with inspiration and joy; there is more to winning this than mere sweat and toil.