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/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Yonex All England 2020 pt 2

Doubles: The Bonfire of My Anxieties

Doubles is intense, it is the supreme embodiment of badminton. Fierce battles rage across the court; pace, power and guile form the contours of the match. The finest tournament in the world has an extra pressure this time around because it is Olympic year: many still strive to win enough ranking points to compete in Tokyo. This is great news for fans who love drama and stress but if you need a quiet life…look away now!

“Two people until the end, do not regret” Matsutomo

Indonesia

The magnificent MD athletes from Indonesia simply shine on every stage. Intensity, resilience and desire add up to some wonderful players.

The 2019 title holders – Mohammad Ahsan & Hendra Setiawan – famously won on 3 legs last year after an all-consuming final. I love them. They are outstanding players and incredible ambassadors for the sport. They have every chance of playing in the final so long as they carefully manage their old legs.

Gideon & Sukamuljo are top seeds and have a heavy weight of expectation loaded on their shoulders. At their best, with Marcus as reliable foundation and Kevin riffing around him they are simply unbeatable. Gorgeous shots, dazzling reactions and relentless athleticism raise the sport to heights few others can aspire to.

Fajar Alfian & Muhammad Rian Ardianto are seeded 5 and got to the Semi Final last year. Their high energy explosive game puts them firmly in the ‘fast ‘n’ furious’ camp; they should still be in the competiton by finals weekend.

If we consider WD then Greysia Polii & Apri Rahayu have had a great start to 2020 and if they play in the same way that took them to victory at the Indonesia Masters they will get to the semi-finals. I think they are more successful when Apri is decisive at the forecourt. I’ve mentioned before that their game and competitive strategy is evolving. Her power and confidence means they can really dominate rallies – they shouldn’t resort to defensive clears as a default tactic. I think they were fortunate to win the Spanish Masters because there were times when their gameplan slipped back to the 2019 version of themselves. The other Indonesian pair, Ramadhanti & Sugiarto, are in the same part of the draw as Greyap.

Greysap on their way to victory at the Indonesian Masters. Screenshot BWF

Japan

Park Joo-Bong – the legendary head coach – has overseen Japanese players challenge the traditional Chinese dominance in all sectors. This often means that their biggest rivals are each other.

As far as WD is concerned we are in the heart-rending position of knowing that only 2 out of the 3 top pairs from Japan are going to qualify to play in their home Olympics. The quest for points overshadows tournaments and I think the risk is that the four players who make the cut will be mentally exhausted by the time July arrives. That said, a win at the All England could virtually cement some players positions. Matsumoto & Nagahara are seeded 2 and were runners-up in 2019. Fukushima & Hirota are third seeds and are desperate to progress. And so we come to Matsutomo & Takahashi who are seeded 7 in Birmingham. Can the defending Olympic Champions get a podium finish? They need to focus every atom of experience and desire because they have a hard road to the final which includes a possible CHEN/JIA QF followed by compatriots who need success too. This is another pair who need to look after old legs.

The two main MD pairs Sonoda/Kamura and Endo/Watanabe are consistently excellent players who have to compete in a sector stuffed with Indonesian brilliance. I particularly like the fast and furious style of Sonoda/Kamura but that’s not enough to beat Marcus and Kevin. It’s possible either pair could get to a SF and then anything could happen, particularly if they can be more unpredictable with the pace they attack at.

Keigo Sonoda from BWF TV

China

Some say that China is not the dominant force it’s been in the past yet Chinese athletes are defending 3 titles at the All England this year. The strength is in the women’s sector; for now, the men are being eclipsed by the depth of other nation’s squads.

#1 Seeds and WD defending Champions CHEN Qingchen & JIA Yifan are aggressive, tough players. They are great at ratcheting up the pressure on their opponents: they can zero in on a victim with pitiless ferocity by using hard flat drives and fast smashes. Who can stop them winning? DU Yue & LI YinHui are seeded 6th but it’s hard to see them getting as far as the weekend.

There’s only one seeded pair in the MD: LI Junhui & LIU Yuchen – China used to be such a powerhouse but now the talented players in Indonesia and Japan dominate the rankings. Li & Liu are clever athletes; they can play a power game but they are also capable of varying the tempo and this can cause frustration for players like Sukamuljo. It can be a very smart tactic to break up the flow of the game against the Minions. It’s been pointed out that if Li/Liu run out of ideas they resort to a monotonous smashing game; that isn’t going to work in the big arena. Realistically I think they are going to struggle to get beyond QF.

Korea?

Korea’s WD players are experiencing a similar headache to their Japanese counterparts. As things stand there are still 4 pairs who could qualify for Tokyo. In Birmingham Lee So-Hee/Shin Seung-chang and Kim So-yeong/Kong Hee-yong are seeded 5 and 6 and look to be most likely to challenge. The drama over the past few weeks has been around the MD/XD player Seo Seung-jae who was suspended then not suspended by his national association (BKA) following confusion around sponsorship deals he had signed. It seemed disproportionate to punish his partners and destroy their hopes for this year so I’m glad he’s back in the mix.

Realistically I think we can only say that the WD teams have an outside chance of medals owing to the strength of the opposition. However, it’s interesting to observe that Korean badminton coaches enjoy plenty of success working away from home. I’ve already mentioned Park Joo-Bong and Japan, there is also Kang Kyung-jin who works with the Chinese squad plus Coach Kim who worked in India with PV Sindhu in the period she became World Champion.

Conclusions

China, Japan and Indonesia look set to see off opposition from the other nations for the doubles crowns. I adore following doubles; the tactics, tempo and talent mean that for fans the spectacle is second-to-none. The spine-tingling experience of watching the spotlit pairs as they play for glory at the All England is a joy. Ahsan & Setiawan had a fantastic 2019 and it would be wonderful to see them defend their title. As the tournament progresses, the tension will rise, legs will tire and towards the end it’s mental strength and an athletes appetite for the fight that gets them to the podium. May the best team win!


My preview of the WS part of the tournament is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/03/yonex-all-england-2020-pt1/

If you enjoyed this then take a look at my article about Polii and Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/ and this one about Kevin & Marcus https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

January – Top Takeaways for Women’s Badminton.

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?

Women’s Singles

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!

From BWF TV

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

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.

Women’s Doubles

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?

Any Conclusions?

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.”


If you enjoyed this article follow the link for my recent piece about Polii & Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/ or this one about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

TAI Tzu Ying: The QUEEN

screen shot of tty from bwf tv

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.

screen shot from bwf tv

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.

Look at the racket strings towards the bottom of the head.
Screenshot from BWF TV

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:

“She’s the QUEEN – That’s all you need to know!”


An earlier version of this was published on the Yonex All England website in November 2019 https://www.allenglandbadminton.com/

Here is a link to an earlier piece I wrote about her https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/ and this one about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Anthony Sinisuka Ginting

With a sparkling and inventive style, Anthony Ginting is one of the most exciting players to watch on the men’s singles circuit. His creativity magnifies his aggression to give him an irresistable approach to competition.

Screenshot from BWF tv

I often wonder if he ever had gymnastic training in early life. He is very well balanced – great poise, springy feet, so swift around the court – he can reach the furthest corner. Possibly he could do with a little more height (he is 171cm), but he compensates for this lack of reach with his supersonic speed. His rapid reactions let him play at the net one moment, the next, he is smashing from the back trams.

The essence of his style is that he wants to win. All players profit from their rival’s mistakes in a match but I think that his primary strategy is to play to seize the initiative. He has a very courageous approach to his shot selection. The percentage game is not for him. He will go toe-to-toe at the net or aim for the lines. I love his sequence of shots when he traps his opponent into a weak lift from the net and then smashes cross court for the point. He has a very strong ‘flat game’: his drives across the net are so hostile no-one can resist them. They remind me of the approach of the Minions when they start to bombard their foes at the other side of the court. The reverse-slice backhand straight drop that he plays is a jaw dropping thing of beauty that should be commemorated in the Badminton Hall of Fame.

Embed from Getty Images

Technically he is a very accomplished player, no surprise given his background in the badminton hotspot of Indonesia. The coaches and other players he works with are among the best in the world. He has the most sublime net skills to enhance his aggressive style: a really lovely touch that can snare his opponent into responding to him with a lift. He can vary the pace of the shuttle at will and this can be shattering to play against. Anticipation is a key part of the game for all elite players. Anthony’s deception skills lead to confusion and delay in response and at this level a split second of lag can mean the difference between winning and losing.

His expert racket skills and instantaneous reactions make him a stellar defender. He will reach the shot and retaliate. This can make for some spectacular high-speed exchanges in his matches. Psychologically it is the antidote to an opponent’s venom because it is difficult to intimidate him.

Embed from Getty Images

Gill Clarke wondered aloud on air once whether he ‘needs’ to get a good start in a match to get the win. His offensive style certainly benefits from momentum but I think this would be true of most players.

This terrific match beween Ginting and Momota showed two great players inspiring each other to great play.
Video courtesy BWF

It’s impossible to think about Ginting in isolation; his rivalry with Kento Momota has the potential to motivate both of them to glittering heights. There is an frisson of adversarial creativity to their meetings. At the moment Momota has the upper hand but it is only a slight advantage and over the next three or four years I think they could inspire each other to legendary status. The bottom line at the moment is that Anthony makes too many mistakes; Momota realises this and will prolong rallies until the inevitable happens. Of course there are far more subtle elements at play than only this, but here is where the balance of power lies at present. It can change.

His dignified and sporting reaction to his shock loss in the HK Open final – in part due to a shocking umpire decision at match point – shows what a great asset he is to the badminton community. I don’t think he is anywhere near his full potential yet; there’s a lot of sweat and toil on the training courts to come. I’m a huge fan of his and would love to see him become one of the superstars of the game. If he could cut out some of his mistakes without losing his willingness to be brave he will be a major force in the men’s sector in the years ahead.


If you enjoyed this take a look at my piece about Gregoria Mariska Tungung by following the link https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/09/08/indonesias-gregoria-mariska-tunjung/ or this one from Podcast Tepak Bulu about Indonesian badminton generally https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/14/has-indonesian-badminton-stagnated/

I have also written about Greysap, just follow this link https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/12/a-thriving-partnership-indonesias-polii-and-rahayu/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Japan’s Fukuhiro: Can They Win Tokyo Gold?

The Champions of Fuzhou and new world number 1s are enjoying a great run of form.

It’s Olympic qualification year and the focus of elite badminton players everywhere is turning to Tokyo. Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota are one of the best women’s doubles pairs in the world, have recently reclaimed their #1 ranking, and are expected to be on the podium at the end of the competition.

At the Yonex All England Final 2018. Credit: Tang Shi/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

“Our strength is about being patient…”

Fukuhiro is an alliance built on the classic doubles foundation of a rock solid defence. They will resist any bombardment and they are so skilful at rotating position that they can diffuse the pressure between themselves. Women’s Doubles is characterised by long rallies; tension builds shot on shot, so to win they have to be able to draw on their mental strength and self belief. Take a look at the highlights from the final of the Indonesian Open (below). The speed of their reactions, commitment to each other and toughness see them triumph, and defend their title.

Video by kind permission of BWF

The essence of a great Doubles pair is two people playing with a perfect understanding of each other. It becomes something magical (think Daddies) when the players can sense what their partner is about to do. Exceptional movement is critical; this and effective anticipation is from hours and hours spent together on the practise court along with a sacrifice of the self for something grander. The video clip below from American Vape shows them training – the obvious thing to point out is that they play 2 against 3. This means they improve their endurance, their shot accuracy and their ability to handle unpredictable replies.

Training video from American Vape.

It’s clear they like each other in real life, their giggling in interviews, teasing each other and general demeanour shows athletes in tune with their partner. Showing their human side to their fans – their emotional generosity – means they are two of the most loved players in the world.

Film from Badminton Denmark.

However there is a paradox at the core of this partnership and I think it may account for the three silver medals at the Badminton World Championships. These two do not seem to have any weaknesses; they are exceptional all-rounders. So when the chips are down what do they emphasize? To be so balanced is a blessing and a curse.

Embed from Getty Images

It’s not accurate to simply define them as defensive players. They are comfortable with counter-attack. Fukushima puts a lot of work in at the rear court especially, but her strategy is not only based on clears: she has a very good disguised drop shot in her armoury. Hirota will be aggressive at the net and can snaffle points with her lightening reactions. When they are up against rivals like CHEN/JIA (who tend to be powerful and aggressive) they can endure the storm. Basing a strategy around smashing is high risk against Fukuhiro because it uses up a lot of energy. Eventually their rivals lose their bite and they are dispatched. Its a bit like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope trick in the Rumble in the Jungle.

“It’s all about qualifying for the Olympics for us…we haven’t been and we desperately want to go”

Fukuhiro are a great duo who are real contenders for gold at every competition they enter. Japanese players dominate the world rankings for WD but only two pairs can compete at the Tokyo Olympics. I would be astonished and devastated if they missed out. This is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cement their place in history with Olympic gold.

Embed from Getty Images

Here is a link to my look at Nozomi Okuhara https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/

You may also enjoy this piece about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

Or this one about the World #1 Kento Momota https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/27/kento-momota/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Fuzhou China Open: WS Preview

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.

Screenshot from BWF TV. Note TTY’s idiosyncratic stringing pattern done by her father.
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.

AN Se Young: Unseeded
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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 Nehwal: Seeded 8
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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

Carolina Marin: Unseeded
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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!

In Conclusion

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.


Follow the link to my recent look at Gregoria Mariska Tunjung https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/09/08/indonesias-gregoria-mariska-tunjung/

And this link takes you to my article about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

HE Bing Jiao

HBJ’s win at the Korea Open was an immense result. In the context of her failure to win a title since 2016 (French & Japan Open) this should be the victory that her self-belief has craved.

“Now that I have won my first title in three years, I can’t say anything because my brain is empty”

Happiness in victory for HE Bing Jao. Screenshot from BWF TV

The gulf between being a good player and being a winner is huge. We can see this a lot in the world top 20s. If we look at players like Tunjung and HE their ability is not in question but they don’t seem able to convert a good position into a win. Part of the reason is experience: success in junior ranks does not always translate into senior successes. HE has been around the elite players for quite a while; her world ranking is 7 so evidence is here of a competitor who has the skills to achieve much more. Morten Frost remarked during the game that HE needed more variety in her shots to convert play into points. She was using lovely cross-court drops through the match and her smash/followup combinations were good. She seemed very comfortable with her hitting from the rear court.

She has been edging towards a tournament win all year: she’s been to two finals (but lost both) including one to Ratchanok in India. This match was different. At first against May, she was second best; particularly when she was drawn into any net duel. May dictated the play and suddenly HE was a game down with four match points to save. Incredibly she fought her way back into the contest. HE soaked up Ratchanok’s pressure and in a similar strategy to one we have seen CHEN YuFei use she just kept returning the shuttle therefore allowing May to make crucial mistakes.

Winning this tournament and putting an end to the gold famine may be the event that liberates her confidence in herself. As she said:

“From this tournament, I’ve learned some ways to win, particularly when I fall behind and I think that will be useful in my coming tournaments”

Well, time will tell. Her joy after the win was obvious, as she threw not one but two rackets into the crowd. She has the skills, the fitness and the expertise of the Chinese coaching set-up behind her and this is a great time for her to discover the habit of winning. Tokyo2020 is getting closer!

If you enjoyed this follow the link to my article about Ratchanok https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Danisa Denmark Open: WS Preview.

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
Screenshot from BWF TV

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
Screenshot from BWF TV

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.

In Conclusion

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!

“Simply Outrageous”
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If you enjoyed this, here’s the link to my recent look at Saina https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/10/08/indias-saina-nehwal-trailblazer-legend/

And this one about Gregoria Mariska Tunjung https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/09/08/indonesias-gregoria-mariska-tunjung/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

P V Sindhu: World Champion

Sindhu has always been regarded as a player for the big occasion and in Basel she unleashed her inner badminton beast to grab Gold. In the final she completely annihilated Nozomi Okuhara; it’s no exaggeration to describe her play as majestic.

A wonderful moment for Sindhu and all her fans.
Pic from BWF TV

All through the World Championships it has been a joy to watch this revitalised athlete demolish her rivals. Her style can be summed up in three words: pressure, pressure, PRESSURE. There was precision and panache to her shots. It was evident she was thinking clearly and following her plan to great effect. Momentum is so important in sport; her rivals were simply incapable of stopping her.

Sindhu in control.
Pic from BWF TV

Earlier this year the situation was very different. We were watching a player who had lost her mojo. The spark was missing; she was lacking in confidence and often was quite deflated. Her millions of fans around the world have high expectations so there was huge disappointment at a dreary performance at the Yonex All England, & then ‘only’ bronze at the Yonex-Sunrise India Open – her home tournament.

Recently performances have improved. July saw definite progress. The Blibli Indonesia Open – one of the best quality competitions on the tour – saw her clinch silver. She was beaten in the final but we saw a glimpse of the player on show at this World Championships. She was more assertive on court, and just seemed easier in herself.

Pic from BWF TV

I think we can point to the increasing influence of coach Kim Ji Hyun as one of the main reasons for her change. In a revealing interview with Dev Sukumar on the BWF website she said

“The way she plays, I feel it is not smart enough, I mean, at the top level, you have to be smart. It has to be a combination…your technique, and hitting and mentality. There are so many skills she has to work on, especially net skills and deception. Step by step. We’re working on skills and changing tactics.” Coach Kim

It’s clear now that we have been watching a player working hard to evolve her game. She has the reputation of a big smash – and of course that is true – but she has demonstrated a new level of skill in the World Championships. Against Nozomi the strategy was to try and push her back with some strong clears, this was supported by powerful smashing and, most importantly, great follow ups. There was such a positivity to her game, she was completely in control.

The players handshake at the end emphasizes their height difference.
Pic from BWF TV

Sindhu becomes the first player from India ever to win Gold at the World Championships. It was a brilliant achievement from a woman who has not been content to rest on the laurels of her Olympic success in Rio. We are, of course, in the qualifying year for Tokyo 2020. There’s no doubt that she is a very serious contender for the title there too; it’s going to be a very exciting year ahead.

“It was a very important win for me and I’m really very happy!” P V Sindhu

P V Sindhu – World Champion

Here is the link to my piece about YEO Jia Min who sensationally beat Akane Yamaguchi at the start of the tournament https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/23/yeo-jia-min-giant-killer-from-singapore/

If you would like to read Dev Sukumar’s article in full please click this link https://bwfworldchampionships.bwfbadminton.com/news-single/2019/08/14/life-lessons-from-coach-kim-ji-hyun

And here’s a link to my blog about Akane Yamaguchi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/09/japans-akane-yamaguchi-hotter-than-july/

© 2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved