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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
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!
The tour swings by Europe for October: first Denmark then France. In the last few months we’ve seen Akane dispatched in R1 (thrice), Nozomi crumple somewhat after her World Championship final mauling by Sindhu and HE Bing Jiao end her 3 year search for a title; so what does the Danish tournament have in store? In a year of jaw-dropping upsets, giant killings and injuries will we have predictable problems or unexpected catastrophes? One thing is certain, the final in Odense will not be between the top two seeds….or will it?
TAI Tzu Ying: Defending Champion & World Number 1
So what can we expect? Well, the extraordinary is ordinary for TTY. Her stunning technical ability combined with a no-limits approach is an irresistible blend. Her weakness is often her focus, which can drift. Sometimes she snaps back into the match and scores points at will, but occasionally the momentum is handed to her rival and the game is lost. She is defending champion but only seeded 4. To her advantage, Coach Lai will be looking after her full-time now he has stepped down from his Taiwan national team duties. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: World Champion & seeded 5
Following the excitement of Basle, Sindhu has crashed out of two tournaments without touching the podium. In the larger context of her career this isn’t a concern; clearly her normal life has been disrupted by the hoohaa surrounding her fabulous victory. More alarming though is the unfortunate departure of coach Kim; I hope appropriate support is in place to fill the gap. Tunjung is her R1 opponent and she is very capable of beating the Indian. AN Se Young is potentially her next challenge. It’s no exageration to say she has the worst draw of any of the seeds. Prediction either early exit or final!
CHEN YuFei: Ms Consistency & seeded 2
Since the beginning of 2019 Feifei has won four finals (including the All England), lost 5 semi-finals, and had a crucial role in China’s victory in the Sudirman Cup. Her style is patient and clever; often she ‘just’ keeps the shuttle in play and sets traps for her unwary opponents to walk into. Perhaps because of this approach she seems less susceptible to injury. Her first round opponent is the giant-killing YEO Jia Min who could spring a surprise: if CYF is to progress she must be ready as soon as she steps on court. Prediction: Semi
Carolina Marin: She’s Back!
What a thrill to see the irrepressible Marin back on court and winning the China Open! She was playing freely with no loss of speed so it seems that her recovery from her horrible injury has been good. It’s difficult to predict how she will progress here but there is no doubt that she is entering tournaments because she can win them. Don’t underestimate how unnerving it will be for her opponents to play her so soon after damaging her ACL: should they try and put pressure on the wounded side? Prediction: Hmmm, not sure…
HE Bing Jiao: Seeded 7
Winner of the Korea Open – including saving 4 match points against Ratchanok – HE Bing Jiao is often an overlooked player on the tour. This low profile has been caused by a Gold famine (3 years up to Korea) and her compatriot’s success. It’s feasible that her Korea Open win will be the beginning of a medal rush. Seeded 7. Prediction QF.
Ratchanok Intanon: Seeded 6
“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”
The losing finalist at the Korea Open has enjoyed a good year so far. For all her balletic grace on court she is a gritty fighter who never gives up even when the situation seems irretrievable. Her racket shoulder does seem to be quite heavily strapped these days but that isn’t particularly unusual for many players. Recently I think she has been beaten by CYF & HBJ because they sat back and let her try to force the game. She doesn’t need to play like that, it would be good if she sometimes had a bit more patience. Prediction: QF
Nozomi Okuhara: Seeded 3
Things haven’t been easy for Nozomi since her loss in the World Championship final against Sindhu. A couple of bad results haven’t suddenly made her a bad player though. In my opinion she can sometimes rely too heavily on her retrieving abilities. I’d like her to be a bit more ‘Momota’, that is to say, more unpredictable and more explosive. All top players are refining their skills constantly so it will be exciting to see how her game evolves in the run-up to Tokyo2020. Prediction: Final
Can Saina & Akane Escape From The Treatment Room?
Saina’s had a miserable few months with injuries; just as it seems she is back to full fitness she suffers a setback. This must make it impossible to follow a progressive training regime and the risk exists (albeit small) that she will not qualify for Tokyo. Prediction 50/50 whether she is fully fit to play but if she does then QF
Akane – seeded 1 – on the other hand has had a pretty good year culminating in a wonderful July. She became world number 1, won the Indonesian Open and then the Japan Open over a few crazily successful weeks. The euphoria around this has diluted somewhat owing to her premature exits in the World Championships, the China Open and the Korea Open. She has had a back complaint; this disrupted her training and hindered her movement in a match. However, the good news -according to Morten Frost on Badminton Central – is that she has told him the back injury is healed. “No back problems any more”. However, she is having a problem on her right calf muscle. Prediction QF
These two players- if they are fit- could win the tournament, but there’s no evidence either of them have regained full fitness. I’m more hopeful for Akane and a decent run of games is just what she needs now.
Any Fairytales For The Home Contingent?
The WS category has Line Kjaersfeldt and Mia Blichfeldt who are both fine players but the seeding is against them and I can’t see either making much headway against Ratchanok and similar top 10 competitors. Just as an aside I think it’s a different story in MS. Who would bet against Viktor getting to the final? He’s ‘only’ seeded 7 but I think that’s the product of his allergy blighted summer. Anders Antonsen is another live prospect; his improvement over the last months has been terrific and it would be no big shock to see him on the podium too.
Any surprises? The most competitive sector of badminton always throws up something. It wouldn’t be impossible for someone like SUNG Ji Hyun, Tunjung or AN Se Young to overachieve and get to a semi-final. If the seeding plays out then it will be Akane Vs Feifei on October 20th. I love to watch tournaments unfold; it’s not only about the spectacular wins, for true fans its also the pleasure in seeing a favourite improve, a new player burst onto the scene, courage under pressure or simply a beautiful shot. Often the player who gets a feel for the arena early on can build her momentum towards Gold. P V Sindhu has a very harsh draw, but if she can hit the ground running it could be a great final to contest. Aside from podium finishers, I hope Saina can compete well. She’s a legendary player and this year must be terribly frustrating for her. This is going to be a fascinating competition and may the best woman win!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
As we enter the second half of 2019 Akane Yamaguchi is at the top of the world rankings. First she won the Indonesian Open – arguably the best tournament in the world – and then followed it up a week later by triumphing in her home tournament: The Japan Open.
Akane has always been a formidable player with plenty of successes along the way but suddenly her achievements have become supercharged and she is unstoppable. Women’s Singles is an incredibly competitive discipline at the moment so what is it that is giving her the edge over her rivals?
Bizarrely I think it was failure that has spurred her on. Looking back to the Sudirman Cup, the crucial tie in the final was the Women’s Singles: Akane Yamaguchi against Chen YuFei. It was a three game battle with neither player consistently dominant. The Chinese crowd was very noisy; it was an intense and passionate atmosphere with huge emotional pressure exerted on both athletes. It’s been noted that at one point in the game Morten Frost described Akane’s play as erratic. That’s quite a brutal assessment, but the point is that in the end she lost.
We all know it’s a team competition but losing that three game match was pivotal to Japan’s eventual loss in the final. The Japanese team oozed togetherness and exuberance as they supported each other through the tournament so it must have been utterly devastating for them all not to get gold.
Up until recently Akane has always been known as a retriever, which often means that she is a defender. This is a very simplistic reduction of an elite athletes game; it’s quite a reactive style but she is great at covering the court and very quick to regain her base position.
However, things have changed since the Sudirman Cup…everyone had some time off before they got back to training. Time to recover physically and mentally but also an opportunity to take stock. Then came July and one of the principal events in the badminton calendar: The Indonesian Open.
It was a fresh Akane with an evolved style. Suddenly she was applying her explosive power to a more attacking game and the final against P V Sindhu showcased how effective this new aggression was.
Sindhu found her game being squeezed. Yamaguchi, above all, was being ferocious in her follow-ups. There were some ruthless flat drives, and midcourt smashes. There was more pressure applied in rallies. She began each game like a tornado and barely relaxed her focus. No longer content to react, Akane was taking the game and demanding to win.
It was a great victory. Sindhu played well but just couldn’t equal Akane’s fierceness; without warning Yamaguchi had stepped up her game.
So we come to the Japanese Open – her home tournament. Her progression to the final took in triumphs against Sindhu and Chen Yufei to set up a meeting with her compatriot Nozomi Okuhara. The scoreline of 21-13, 21-15 lets you know it was an emphatic victory. Again, this was the evolved style. Yamaguchi went toe-to-toe with Okuhara and it was her intensity allied to some awesome accuracy that meant she was able to withstand Okuhara’s propensity for lengthy rallies.
“I was worried I wouldn’t be able to win the long rallies, but I was patient, and whenever there was a chance to make a decisive shot, I was able to make the sharp shots,” said Yamaguchi.
I think it’s a good measure of Akane as a woman and an elite player that she took the worst kind of defeat and used it as fuel for progress:
“I wish I could’ve played this well in the Sudirman Cup final. The loss in the final made me learn and helped me improve.”
The road to Tokyo 2020 has a lot of twists and turns yet but momentum and big match experience counts for a lot. I want to end this piece by urging you to watch the film clip below – the happiness on Akane’s face is so infectious it is an utter joy to see.
AN Se Young’s victory in this years Yonex French Open – at 17 the youngest winner ever of any Superseries 750 event – confirms her status as one of the new stars of Women’s Singles. Her ability, skill and intelligence mark her out as a player who will shape the future of the game.
This young player has been under the spotlight since her Sudirman Cup triumph over world #1 Tai Tzu Ying.
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.
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. Is Tokyo2020 going to arrive a little too early on her path to greatness? There are going to be plenty of other medals along the way but I’m starting to wonder if she has her sights set on an OG medal since her triumph at the Yonex French Open. She need fear no-one; it’s for her to write the script. I can’t wait to watch her more and enjoy her achievements. Bravo AN Se Young.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Badminton in India changed forever in August 2012 when Saina Nehwal won an Olympic bronze medal and reached beyond the sporting community into superstardom.
“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.
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.
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
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”?
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.
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.
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 and Akane Yamaguchi must be favourites 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.”