AN Se Young: Korea’s Sensational 17 Year Old.

This young player has been under the spotlight since her Sudirman Cup triumph over world #1 Tai Tzu Ying.

Video courtesy BWF

She’s the spearhead of the new generation of players from Korea: other country’s fans look on jealously as her reputation grows after every tournament she competes in. Analysts and coaches have been enthusing about her potential for a while but it’s only recently that she has come to the attention of the wider badminton community. 2019 has been her breakout year.

First came the win against LI Xue Rui in the New Zealand Open Final. It was a ruthless operation that set down a marker to the rest of the players on the tour. Here was someone ranked at 89 in the world who could dispatch a far more experienced opponent in two games. Watch the highlights of the game below and you see a player who has speed, vision and touch.

Video courtesy BWF

Next came Korea’s Sudirman Cup campaign and that match against Tai Tzu Ying. Everyone knew that on paper TTY was going to win – except that is the Korean coaches – who planned the tactics for AN to implement

“My strategy was to defend in the beginning of each rally and then to take my opportunity…my coach advised me to pay attention to the front and keep the rally going”

Clearly part of the plan was to use AN’s youth and energy to keep the pressure on against Tai in the style that was so successful for CHEN Yufei in the All England Championships this year. It’s too simplistic to reduce the tactics to this though; especially as we all know how much time Tai spends in the gym. If you watch the BWF video at the start of this article you can spot how powerfully AN plays. Lightening reactions allied to some brutal mid-court kills show that merciless streak that every top player needs to win. In the post match interview Tai said

“She is tall, powerful and has very good footwork on the court”

Well, frankly, that isn’t telling us anything we didn’t know already, but in an oblique way it’s telling us a lot. Here is the player who no-one has quite worked out yet, someone with star quality and plenty of shots. Remember the following day? Ratchanok came along, she put up a great fight but the Thai player was just too much. There was mental strength and physical bravery but there was also a suggestion of a weakness on her deep backhand side that May didn’t hesitate to exploit.

And so we come to the recent Canadian Open: another opportunity to gain experience and Olympic qualification points. Again AN Se Young had a fairly low profile, again she progressed without much fuss, and again she won against decent opposition. She’s steadily climbing the rankings whilst getting to know how the superstars operate. We all have our views as to who will get Olympic Gold. Here is a player who has burst onto the scene, a tough rival but someone who isn’t quite the finished article. I think Tokyo2020 is going to arrive a little too early on her path to greatness but there are going to be plenty of other medals along the way.

If you like AN Se Young follow the link to my article about Ratchanok May https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/ and also one about CHEN Yufei https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/03/another-sensational-player-from-china-chen-yu-fei/

I recently read an excellent article about AN Se Young on Everything Badminton – follow the link here https://everything-badminton.com/an-se-young-the-young-and-dangerous/

Badminton & TeamGB: 2019 European Games

England were magnificent in their Sudirman Cup games against Denmark this year. The matches were full of courage, a refusal to give in and the desire to beat their main rivals for European supremacy. England eventually won the tie 3-2 by triumphing in all the doubles disciplines and this included Chloe Birch, Lauren Smith and Marcus Ellis playing in two 3 game matches each

From Instagram

England upgrades to become TeamGB for the European Games starting in Minsk on June 21st and the key difference for the badminton contingent is that the Scot, Kirsty Gilmour is a potent addition to the Women’s Singles. She is a powerful athlete: the third seed with a great chance of getting to the medal stages of the tournament. She is very energetic – not bothered about grazing her knees as she dives around – and never hesitates to give everything to defend a point. Chloe Birch is seeded 8 and will get through her group; as in the Sudirman Cup she is playing in two disciplines – unusually in modern times she competes in both singles and doubles.

video by kind permission BWF

Lauren Smith and Chloe Birch were the two players who brought it home for England against Denmark. It was a glorious game; on a knife edge throughout. If you take a look at the BWF highlights above you can see they showed immense bravery and character to clinch it – watching their relief and elation at the end was very exciting. They defeated Sara Thygesen and Maiken Fruergaard and coincidently they have drawn each other again in the group stages. It’s bound to be a spicy encounter with the Danes out for revenge but even though they are the top seeds they are the ones who should be nervous. Smith and Birch are in a winning habit this year; they have already triumphed in the Orleans Masters and the Azerbaijan International Open. The Stoeva sisters are absent because of a dispute with their national body so I see the British duo as the best Women’s Doubles pair in Europe at the moment. They are genuine contenders for gold.

From Instagram

Toby Penty performed well against Viktor and took him to 3 games in his Sudirman Cup tie. His autoimmune condition has been in the news recently but as he has said, on court is where he can feel like himself and concentrate on the game. He’ll get through his group but after that it’s hard to predict how far he can progress. Axelsen has withdrawn owing to allergies so arguably he and Antonsen are the two top players in Minsk. Penty’s form is coming good at the right time too following his recent silver medal at the Spanish International. Men’s Doubles sees Marcus Ellis partnering Chris Langridge. These two are battle hardened campaigners: I always feel eager to watch them because I know they will give everything – remember the ‘cramp collapse’ at the end of the SC tie? They play to win and are a great partnership – a good example of two players who support each other to success.

From the Adcock’s Instagram

TeamGB has the top two seeds in Mixed Doubles. Britain’s best-known shuttlers – the Adcocks – are competing as top seeds and should progress through Group A without too much fuss. the start of 2019 was a bit lukewarm, mainly due to niggly injuries but they had a pretty good tournament at the Australian Open in June, reaching the quarter finals. Always ambitious, they have the drive and courage to take this title and I assume this is part of their pathway to realise their desire for Olympic Gold in 2020.

From Instagram

Lauren Smith and Marcus Ellis are also competing in the XD in Group B and may be asked some tough questions before they get to the knock out stages. In the Sudirman Cup they held their nerve in a tricky match. Smith is physically strong and bold so I don’t think it is easy to intimidate her at the net. The dream is for them to meet the Adcocks in the final and at that point anything could happen!

It’s always a thrill to follow tournaments like this and I think TeamGB have got the talent and character to dominate in the badminton. The Sudirman Cup showed that the British players have the mental strength to step up and challenge the Danes; at this level results often turn on a refusal to give in, to chase, and just sheer hard work and we’ve proved we’ve got that. It would be a shock if significant medals went to anyone other than Denmark or GB and in this year leading up to Tokyo 2020 being in the winning habit is going to pay dividends.

Yes, we all felt like this after the Denmark games!
Picture from Instagram

Saina Nehwal: India’s Beloved Champion

Badminton in India changed forever in August 2012 when Saina Nehwal won an Olympic bronze medal and reached beyond the sporting community into superstardom.

Credit: Veri Sanovri/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

“Saina honestly did something amazing for Indian badminton…I literally had never watched badminton until she started winning. She actually carved out a space for a sport not very popular in India – especially for women – and now it’s so much better.” By September

Like many others I first noticed her at London 2012, however, by that point she was already Commonwealth Champion so she had already achieved significant success.  Losing that semi final in the Olympics must have been  utterly gut wrenching both for her and the nation watching back home.  The bitter disappointment was transformed when she won the bronze and elevated badminton’s popularity to new heights.

Timesofindia.com

On the surface she has quite a ‘classic’ approach to her matches.  By that I mean – as in all singles – she likes to move her opponent to the four corners, tries to get them off balance, makes space, then pounces.  But that description is too simple and doesn’t take into account her brilliance as a tactician or her psychological power.  It’s this mix of skills – all shots form part of her armoury – that make her such a potent player and a fascinating shuttler to watch.

I’ve heard it said that her game relies on retrieving.  Clearly, the disadvantage of this style can be that it is reactive.  There is either going to be a hint of hesitation or a bit of anticipation.  Both of which are weaknesses to be exploited by an opponent.  Someone like Tai Tzu Ying – who has spontaneous unpredictable creativity – can really punish this.   Against most rivals though it is not a flaw; it showcases her incredible mental strength and strategic dexterity. There is no doubt that she needs to draw rivals into rallies. She has a potent smash – her best shot in my opinion – she has to lure the other player into a weak lift to let her unleash.

She has a genius for defence – always a couple of steps ahead and carefully applying pressure upon her opponent.  How must it feel to play against her when nothing you try will break her resistance?  This is the remarkable emotional force she has.  She will fight until her last breath, she never gives up, she doesn’t recognise when she is beaten. She is the sort of person you want by your side in a war.

“Winning is the only option. I am someone who does not like losing in tournaments.”

2015 was arguably the highlight of her career so far because she achieved World No. 1 status .In the years before that, she triumphed in lots of BWF Superseries events such as the Indonesian Open (2009/2010/2012/2019), Singapore Open (2010), Hong Kong Open (2011) and too many others to list here. But then, just as her Rio Olympics campaign was starting, we all know about that knee injury.

Saina talks about injury and her role as an ambassador for Clean, Fair and Honourable Badminton.
Video by kind permission of BWF

It’s a tribute to her hard work and commitment that she came back to the top of the sport after her operation. Her smash needs to be perfect now because as she follows it in to the net there is the threat that she will be caught out. Her shot selection can be a bit risk averse; her pleasure is clearly in doing whatever it takes to win rather than revelling in pin point accuracy.  That attacking clear to a corner is an incredibly useful shot; likewise the cross court net shot to wrong foot her opponent.

I still think there is a lot to come from Saina providing her workload is managed properly. By that I mean that as she gets older it would be ridiculous to play in too many tournaments – badminton is such a physically demanding sport – wear and tear would just be inevitable. But with the right team behind her: coaches, physios, nutritionalists and of course her fans she can still be a beacon for Indian and world badminton.

Saina Nehwal must be the most beloved Indian player. She has been an inspirational game changer in her sport and has touched people far beyond the badminton community. I’ve been inundated with requests to write about her; it’s been hugely enjoyable watching some of her past games and talking to fans about her style. The affection felt for her and the admiration of her is incredible. I’ll give the last word to one of her millions of fans:

“She made an entire nation believe that with hard work and passion Indians can reach the very top in world badminton and consistently win titles. Making a big space for badminton in a cricket mad nation is not easy, now badminton is the second most popular sport in India” Arun – Saina Fan

If you enjoyed this follow the link for more Saina quotes https://womensbadminton.co.uk/saina/

Follow the link below for my article about the other Indian Superstar, P V Sindhu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/03/25/p-v-sindhu-indias-superstar/

Nozomi Okuhara: Racket Ready For Tokyo Glory?

Nozomi Okuhara is part of an exceptional generation of Japanese shuttlers who have been challenging the Chinese domination of the game. She is one of the best Women’s Singles players in the world and a genuine hope for a medal at the Olympics in Tokyo 2020.

“…everyone loves badminton…”

Who is this extraordinary woman who bows respectfully as she enters and leaves the court and who tweets humbly after a game that next time she will “try harder”?

Nozomi comes over as a very thoughtful, intelligent and focused person in this interview. Video courtesy BWF

The badminton competition at the Tokyo Olympics is already being hotly anticipated all over Asia. Japan’s problem – or strength – is that they just have so many remarkable women players. Okuhara is part of an ambitious national team; there are lots of tournaments between now and the Olympic finals but the big prize, without doubt, will be the gold medal.

Okuhara from above by Shutterstock.com

She is a defensive player known for her speed, agility and endurance, so this means her games are characterised by long rallies. One of her main rivals – Tai Tzu Ying – said of her

“Okuhara is a good opponent, she’s very durable”

She loves to draw her opponents into these extended exchanges and ironically, although she is tough enough to see them through to the end I think that against top opponents it can often be a weakness. During games against Tai Tzu Ying she can be unsettled by TTY’s spontaneity. At times Tai just refuses to get into the groove of a long probing rally – she just finishes the points off and moves on – eventually winning the game. So, paradoxically her cautious approach is very dangerous; if her accuracy ever fails she hands over control to her adversary. There are times when it’s frustrating to watch because with the opposition court at her mercy she often eschews a swift kill and opts to send back another clear.

Is she waiting for the perfect chance to punish her opponent? Morten Frost said of her that ” she needs to find ways to score points”. To her credit I believe that she has started taking courageous steps to add some brutality to her game. She has recently left her team – Nihon Unisys – and is now working with a personal coach, Shoji Sato. She has realised that her vision of being on that Tokyo podium needs a new approach if it’s going to come to pass. She has commented before that she needs to stay fit to succeed so this has to mean she will dismantle part of her game. Her defensive style must be harsh on her injury prone knees.

Cheering for BirdJapan at the 2019 Sudirman Cup. Pic from IG

There are so many other outstanding women’s singles players who want that medal, any of the people in the top 10 could grab gold. Tai Tzu Ying must be favourite but what about Carolina Marin? Could she engineer a sensational comeback from injury to defend her Rio 2016 title? Well, it’s all speculation at this point. In interviews Okuhara inevitably talks of the joy and happiness that badminton brings her. She was Japan’s first women’s singles world champion but she recently said:

“The Olympic Games remains the most important target for me, especially as it will be held in Japan this time. It will be difficult but I want to win gold medal for the fans.”

Despite rivalry on tour Nozomi is pictured here after playing doubles with May

If you enjoyed this article follow the link to read about Tai Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/ and if you want to find out more about Carolina Marin click this link https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/11/marin-is-sorely-missed/

Another Sensational Player From China: CHEN Yu Fei

Women’s singles in badminton is crammed with talent, we watch a game blessed with a golden generation of athletes from around the world. But there is one player recently who is always catching the eye and I think she may be on the brink of dominating the game for a while to come: Chen Yu Fei.

Since her success at the 2018 Fuzhou Chinese Open Chen has been on an upward trajectory. 2019 has been an amazing year for her: so far she has won the All England Open, the Swiss Open and the Australian Open. These finals saw her beat opponents over two straight games.

Video courtesy of Badminton England

I watched her play in the final at the All England Open this year and went to the game fully expecting Tai Tzu Ying to play at her imperious best and be crowned Queen of the court. Things turned out a lot differently to that…

Photo credit: Hafiz Johari/Shutterstock.com

Shivani Naik from the Indian Express says that Chen neutralised Tai in that match and I think that analysis is spot on. We all watch Tai and expect her to conquer opponents through a mix of fabulous deception and Zen-like calm. Chen refused to stand admiringly on the other side of the net and rejected the opportunity to be beaten. Tai was made to run around and there were too many times when she was scrambling for the shuttle. She just could not dominate in her usual way.

Her performances in the Sudirman Cup this year were excellent. The highlights video below illustrates her athletic, full-on approach.

Both players finish the match flat out on the court. Video courtesy BWF

Chen looks very fit – she is simultaneously springy and unyielding – and there is a grit to her make up. She is obstinate, she hustles, she doesn’t give up, she declines defeat. Every shot her opponent tries is retrieved. Not just that, she defends relentlessly and then switches to attack, pushing back on her rival. She doesn’t make many mistakes, and although it sounds obvious, it is a huge advantage in any match. This must be exhausting to play against.

I think she is great at the net. Although not the tallest at 171cm she has a great reach and lunges well to get to the shuttle. Unlike P V Sindhu she doesn’t have particularly steep smashes in her armour, nor does she have a long-legged stride to cover the court. What she does have is fast reactions and confidence in her ability so she often seems to bulldoze to victory.

So, what does the future hold for the kid who took up badminton because she was naughty? Well, Chen has a formidable team behind her and arguably the best coaching resources in the world are in China; after she won at the All England this year she was quick to acknowledge the people whose know-how helped her. She has mentioned before that her ambition is to “see the Chinese flag rising” so I’m certain that she is eyeing Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 as well as the top titles on the BWF tour. There’s lots of competition in the women’s game these days so it won’t be easy but who is going to beat her?

If you enjoyed reading this follow the link to my article about Tai Tzu Ying, Chen Yu Fei’s main rival for the World Number 1 spot https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

You may also like to find out about An Se Young – the Korean has burst onto the badminton scene recently https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

P V Sindhu – India’s Superstar

She is a badminton VIP in a cricket obsessed nation and is listed by Forbes as the highest earning non-tennis athlete in the world. How did she get to these heights?

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/Xinhua

I think it was written in the stars that her path led to sporting greatness – but why badminton?

Picture from IG

The story goes that as a 6-year-old she was inspired to pick up a racket by Pullela Gopichand’s victory in the Men’s Singles at the All England Championships in 2001. After he wound down his playing career, he opened his academy in Hyderabad and before long she was training there. We all know that excellence is not an accident so what has driven her from an idealistic child to the sporting celebrity she is today

Gopichand has been crucial to her development. His 4am starts are the stuff of legend but there is more to this than simply being an early riser. Famously, three months prior to the Rio Olympics, he banned her from eating sugar or using her mobile. What a shrewd coach he is; by stressing the sacrifices she was making he was training her mind to focus on the target of a medal. It wasn’t a time for trivial things. The competition was a pivotal point when her game advanced to another level. She matched and despatched Tai Tzu Ying, Wand Yihan and Nozomi Okuhara, some of the best players in the sport.

She lost the Olympic final to Carolina Marin but returned home a superstar. Her life has never been the same.

That medal moment

Her powerful smashing game is thrilling to watch, her height – 179cm – allows her to dominate her opponents. She is happy to smash cross court and can exploit steep angles. I’ve heard it said that sometimes her defence is a bit suspect and that her height handicaps her ability to reach low shots. I don’t agree. She has a great reach, but sometimes she appears to be a bit methodical as she builds up a rally to the point where she can overwhelm her opponent. I consider patience to be the mark of a great player. Physically she is very strong and has the endurance to outlast anyone. She is very different to someone like Tai Tzu Ying who often relies on trickery; Sindhu is aggressive and goes out to seize her prizes.

QF WS against Nozomi – a great example of PV’s fight, technique and skill.

When we look at the players in the woman’s game there isn’t a huge difference in ability amongst the top 15; WS at the moment is overflowing with talent. What sets Sindhu apart is her gritty determination. Gopichand has celebrated this publicly and this famous quote from her sums up her attitude

“I am once again ready to roar for my next fight, to finish and win. No loss is ever enough…to stop me believing in myself.”

In December 2018 She won the BWF World Tour Finals tournament in Guangzhou – the first Indian to do so – beating Nozomi Okuhara in 2 games in the final. This was after failing to win a single tournament that year. After that great achievement 2019 has not started easily. She was beaten in the semi final of the Yonex-Sunrise India Open and the Sudirman Cup was not a successful outing for the Indian team. She often seems to be a player who raises herself up for big matches and perhaps finds the relentless grind of the tour a bit tiresome.

There is something missing at the moment. It may be that she and her coaches are rethinking her game in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics and we are in the middle of the remodelling phase; or is she bored and needs a completely new approach? Whatever it is, this is a big game player who still has a lot to win. I hope she is given the support and access to the expertise she’s going to need to keep progressing.

If you enjoyed this then follow the link to my page about Saina Nehwal https://womensbadminton.co.uk/saina/ and here’s the link to my article about Saina https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/05/14/saina-nehwal-indias-beloved-champion/