Sometimes a player is more than just a player because they inhabit a unique style that captures the essence of their sport. TAI Tzu Ying is one of these people. Like Serena Williams or Lionel Messi she has that star quality whenever she competes. She is a free spirit who brings a creative exhilaration to any match.
When the kid from Taiwan first bust onto the international scene it was her magnificent racket skills that drew fans to her. She has the gift of being able to control time – it slows and expands to contain her talent. It is still that sensational expressive style that makes people fall in love with her but over the past decade she has added extra layers to her game. Her mesmerizing skill continues to glitter however 2020 has seen her game continue to evolve.
Tournaments at the beginning of this year have shown her address the tension between artistry and scoring points. Regular analysts had identified a tendency to lose focus midway through a match often allowing a rival to regain a foothold in the set. At the core of TTY is the power to sparkle rather than to merely play but during her campaign at the All England this year we witnessed a new element in her game – the ability to wait. The vitue of patience is a sharp weapon in badminton. The beauty of this strategy is that, in the past, it has been used against her.
I think this willingness to include new facets in her play is the sign of a great player. Developing her mental stamina alongside her prodigious gym work adds extra options when she approaches a match. There was a tangible sense in Birmingham that the time for mistakes was past; errors were reduced. Of course she is still the Queen of Deception, her magical misdirection when she is in full flow is wonderful.
In 2019 TTY sent a chill through supporters hearts when she uttered the alarming word ‘retirement’. The demands of elite sport are incredibly restrictive. The physical and emotional cost of training, competing, and international travel does not leave much time for normal life. One more Olympics, one more season and then she would finish; she talked longingly of cycling holidays around Taiwan, and of perhaps opening a school. Her instagram posts often feature her hiking in the mountains or paddling a canoe; she is obviously a person who delights in the natural world around her
None of us could have foreseen the disruption to normal life this year. With the Olympics postponed the players who keep their motivation and stay in shape will gain an advantage. There is a national competition that has been organised for elite Taiwanese athletes in August to help them review progress and sharpen their focus after this gap. TAI Tzu Ying is due to play some male rivals in order to measure herself against a tough challenge: it was decided that the available women players would not push her enough. Her victory at the All England in March was a warning to her rivals and a reassurance to her fans; the dream of seeing TTY on the podium at the Olympics is still real. This feels like a date with destiny. What a time to love women’s badminton.
“I’m both happy and really emotional – it’s just crazy”
Viktor Axelsen after victory at the All England 2020
Viktor’s win over CHOU Tien Chen at the All England was roared on by thousands of fans watching in the arena and all over the world. He became the first Danish man this century to win the Men’s Singles title and there is no doubt that he is the most successful European player in world badminton at the moment.
Axelsen had come through a tough twelve months before taking his place at the top of the podium in Birmingham in 2020. Back in March 2019 he was the beaten finalist; conquered in three sets by Kento Momota. The Japanese #1 played beautifully controlled badminton and Viktor just could not impose his strategy upon the match. He fought hard but failed. Later that month he won the India Open, in April he was knocked out at the semi-final stage of the Singapore Open – again by Momota – and in May, he represented Denmark at the Sudirman Cup.
Then, for a while, it seemed as though he had done something to anger the badminton Gods. Firstly, allergies struck. According to some reports he was suffering quite severe hayfever and his breathing was affected. He had to pull out of the European Games. Then he stunned his supporters with the news in July that he had to withdraw indefinitely from competition owing to chronic pain in his leg. It was a persistent injury with no obvious end in sight; it meant he was absent from Istora and we all wondered when or even if, we would see him back on court.
Any elite player who can compete without pain is an exception. We have all spotted our favourites playing with strapping; often the tape is flesh coloured. so it isn’t too obvious but it is still there. Similarly, a post-match press conference without applied ice is unusual. Badminton is such a physically demanding sport. Men’s Singles strategy requires the competitors to exert maximum movement pressure upon each other. Speed and instantaneous changes of direction are foundations of success. Although niggles can be endured, an injury like Viktor’s had to be healed before he could return.
Summer passed and September saw him re-emerge into the game. It was with relief that we saw him playing with no obvious problems. Not only that, he was still a top 10 player who could equal pretty much anyone apart from Momota on court. He started putting together some momentum and appeared in 2 Semi Finals in Oct, the new year saw this improvement continue and he arrived at the YAE with no obvious injury worries.
His tournament began very smoothly and VA reached his SF without dropping a set. This game against the up and coming LEE Zii Jia was a ferocious battle. The Malaysian has been tipped by LEE Chong Wei as a live hope for a medal at the next Olympics but he was playing at his first All England. Axelsen struggled to contain his lightening speed and aggression. It got to 19-19 in the final set and ‘that’ point. Victor had to really sweat for his place in the final but he pushed home and secured it.
The final was set up. CTC awaited.
From the moment Viktor stepped onto the Minoru Yoneyama court he dominated the match. His aggression and pressure were irresistible and there were times when CTC just could not get into the rallies. As points flew by CHOU Tien Chen was powerless to stop Axelsen’s impetus. The Danes drive and desire, his determination to seize this opportunity was formidable.
Viktor is a competitor who wears his heart on his sleeve, and what is more, the last year has been an emotional rollercoaster. His career has had plenty of high points; he was World Champion in 2017, plus he won Bronze at the Rio Olympics but the All England is a special tournament. He becomes the first Danish man since Peter Gade to hold the title so it was no surprise to see his overwhelming elation when he won. It is his first Super 1000 title and when badminton restarts it’s going to be fascinating to see where his ambition can take him; for sure he must be hungry to get back onto a court and take his place amongst the best in the world.
Indonesia’s badminton achievements at the Olympics has been outstanding. Along with rivals from Korea and China their players are the aristocrats of the sport. Badminton is a recent addition to the games, it was only introduced in 1992 and since then, the nation’s athletes have won at least one Gold at every tournament bar London 2012.
Men’s Doubles: with three pairs in the top 10 the depth of Indonesia’s talent in this sector is extraordinary. Power, speed, net skills and resilience are all key, but the essence of a successful doubles team is balance between the two players. The magnificent World #1s Sukamuljo & Gideon have been at the top for a while. Kevin’s sublime ability paired with Marcus’s more muscular game is almost irresistable, but they are not invincible. Their millions of fans must be anticipating the olympics feeling a mixture of impatience and anxiety because if an opponent manages to disrupt their prefered formation they can be vulnerable (as we saw in the 2020 All England Final). Endo/Watanabe were able to win because their strategy stopped Kevin dominating at the front. Ahsan & Setiawan are ranked #2. Hendra Setiawan is one of the greatest MD players ever; already an Olympic Gold Medalist (2008 Beijing with Markis Kido), he has won everything and then won it it again. I get goosebumps when I think about the Daddies after watching them win on three legs to clinch the 2019 All England: they are inspirational figures who play with great heart. Commentators often point to their age – it’s not irrelevent of course but that it is a small disadvantage that is outweighed by their poise and experience. Lets not forget Alfian/Ardianto: ranked #6 but as things stand these two will miss Tokyo because of the quota. This must be heart-breaking for them but the only attitude they can take is to keep competing. They are hungry and their time will come. Prediction: I’m frightened of Endo/Watanabe but I’ll say Gold for one of these pairs.
Men’s Singles: Anthony Sinisuka Ginting is a sublime player, but he can be simultaneously exciting and infuriating. His inconsistency costs him titles. When he is at his spectacular best the speed of his reactions, his touch at the net, and his courage means that he is a genuine Gold medal prospect. I would love to see a MomoGi final; at the moment Momota has the edge in their encounters but Anthony is still a developing athlete and I’m excited to see how he’ll emerge from the current hiatus. Jonatan Christie should be getting to Tokyo ranked #7. Another fine player, if he can get through the round robin stage unscathed he could have a chance at a medal. Prediction: At least one medal…& I crave a final with Anthony v. Kento.
Women’s Doubles: Two of my favourite players – Polii & Rahayu – should go to Tokyo ranked #8. This will be Greysia Polii’s last Olympics (possibly her last major competition) and she is another inspirational athlete who has served her sport well. The women’s sector is stuffed full of brilliant double’s teams and so these two may struggle to make the podium. The key to success or failure will be how Apri is deployed. We know that they can defend all day but predictable play will not be enough. I loved the way they battled when they won at the Indonesia Masters back in January and at the time I felt that their game was evolving. Apri was much more aggressive at the front and they were able to exert prolonged pressure on their opponents. Prediction: Maybe a Bronze? I hope so.
Mixed Doubles: One of the legacies of Liliyana Natsir is the XD title from the Rio games. Can the Indonesia players defend this successfully? The Mixed tournament is quite open so although on paper the Chinese duos Zheng/Huang and Wang/Huang look to be favourites at lot will depend upon how Jordan/Oktavianti and Faizal/Widjaja progress through the early stages. This competition is all about seizing the moment and if Praveen Jordan can be at his imperious peak at the right time the Gold is possible although it’s too close to call.
Womens Singles: All fans of this sector know that it is overflowing with dazzling players so for Gregoria Mariska Tunjung to survive the cut and get into the knockout stage would be great. She is a wonderful player to watch, with impressive skill and imagination. For her to make headway at the tournament outside factors will need to be in her favour in addition to her playing to her potential. If she can build up some momentum and confidence anything can happen. Tokyo will perhaps be a stage on her journey to more success rather than a defining competition.
So what then can we expect in Tokyo? Owing to the worldwide C-19 crisis everyone has had to endure disruption to training programmes and anxiety and frustration. The athletes who will triumph at the delayed games are those who have been able to maintain focus and keep their competitive hunger without burn-out. It’s a tricky balancing act because no-one can stay at peak performance for ever. Most competitiors training regimes would have been carefully constucted to peak for July 2020; so now they need to keep the pot simmering without it boiling dry. On the other hand, a break from relentless touring and a chance to address chronic injuries could be a key factor. Those who can step back and make adjustments without losing their momentum will have a huge advantage.
As an outsider looking in I see badminton as the Olympic sport where Indonesia dominates – not simply because of talented players but the influence of Indonesian coaches can be seen all over the world in other national teams. Of course we cannot ignore China’s leading position or Japan’s current abundance of world-beaters but this is what makes the tournament in prospect so thrilling. We have had extra time to build our anticipation for this event, when we emerge from quarantine and the BWF tour resumes it will be wonderful to support our favourites back on the road towards Olympic Gold.
At 17 she burst onto the BWF world tour with a tremendous victory in the New Zealand Open final against Chinese legend LI Xue Rui. This was her breakthrough moment. As she despatched the Olympic Gold medalist there was a palpable feeling of a generational shift. Better was to follow, as she became the youngest ever winner of a Superseries 750 title – the Yonex French Open – she came out on top in three sensational sets against Marin. Along the way she also collected two Super 100 trophies: the Canada Open and the Akita Masters.
AN Se Young is not the finished article but she has the skills and power to ask serious questions of any women’s singles player in the Top 10. Other badminton nations are looking on with envy because her potential is unlimited.
Analysts and fans would put her firmly in the ‘retriever’ category of players. Retrievers force their opponents to work, and work hard. She is physically robust with a puppyish energy around the court. She isn’t one of the big beasts – like Marin – but her style is a sustained, nagging pressure. She will stifle her rival by defusing attacks and then feed off mistakes when they abandon percentage play and go for winners to force the issue. It is a very tricky style to counter.
At the start of 2019 she was ranked just inside to world top 100. At the moment, while positions are frozen owing to the C-19 crisis she is #9. Here is her view about what catapulted her to the top 10.
“I changed my play style this season. Last Year  my playing style was more attacking, but it used to make me more tired and burnt out easily. I decided to evolve my playing style to defend more and make it more all round. I think that has helped me this year. Now I prefer playing defence rather than attack”
This is such an interesting self-analysis because it contains at it’s heart a paradox. AN Se Young changed her style and the result was some good successes. However, if she continues to pursue these tactics she risks stagnation. There are retrievers galore in the Women’s Singles sector and some of them are better at these strategies than she is.
A good example to illustrate this is her recent R1 match at the All England against the top seed CHEN Yufei. Both of these players have excellent all-round skills, both like to sit and wait, but only one of them could triumph and it was CYF. The problem was that AN Se Young lacked a cutting edge. She was covering the court but not hitting enough winners. She could not/would not vary her pace and most of the time she seemed unable to force Yufei into errors. The Chinese star consistently found space cross-court to AN Se Young’s forehand and gained a lot of points down this route.
She is still at the stage in her development where she is learning to win. It could be that the postponement of the Olympics will allow her to explore the areas she should use when the match is not going her way. There are glimpses of her attacking ability in every game and more experience will mean her ability to analyse and neutralise her opponents’ threat will improve. At the moment she relies too heavily on the covert menace in her style; once she includes more attacking bravado – without running out of stamina – she will have the badminton world at her mercy.
We have to wait a little longer than expected to see if CHEN Yu Fei will follow in the footsteps of LI Xuerui, ZHANG Ning and GONG Zhichao to win Olympic Gold. It’s indisputable that she would have expected to be on the podium if the tournament had gone ahead in July.
CHEN Yu Fei’s victory at the 2019 Yonex All England kickstarted a year which climaxed in December when she was crowned world #1. She is the first Chinese Women’s Singles player since LI Xuerui to achieve this distinction. Still only 21, CHEN Yu Fei has enjoyed an extraordinary run of success since her triumph over TAI Tzu Ying in Birmingham last March. In the return encounter in March 2020 TTY reversed the previous year’s result but there is no doubt that she ill be a key competitor in the Olympics in 2021.
The talent and quality in this generation of Women’s Singles players is magnificent. Part of the appeal of this sector is that there is no particular style that dominates every tournament. The fitness of the athletes, their technical skills and tactical sense all mean that results can be erratic. Some key players have lacked consistency – for instance Sindhu and Akane have had a tendency to crash out in the early rounds of competition. Others, like Saina and Marin have had their seasons disrupted by injuries. However, CHEN Yu Fei has been a reliable presence most of the time with the stand-out ability to win in a final once she gets to it.
As a 21-year-old, with the backing of the Chinese coaching establishment to support her she can continue to develop and extend herself; the improvement since 2018 has been stellar which reveals her commitment and focus. CHEN has been identified as perhaps the spearhead of a renaissance in Chinese women’s singles. For instance, not so long ago they dominated the All England. Between 2000 and 2014 there were 11 winners and 12 runners-up in this sector but then the talent seemed to dry up. Since then only one podium spot (WANG Shixian in 2016) until CHEN’s title win in 2019.
The foundation of CHEN Yu Fei’s badminton is quite simple. She is a fine player with excellent all- round mastery of the game. Her physical durability is such a positive feature; consistent fitness allows her training to build up to tournaments in a controlled way. She is an extremely intelligent strategist, always alert to opportunities to gain points. Her tendency to rebalance her game as the match progresses is a major asset; this responsiveness to threats means that if she can stay in a game when she is under pressure, she can often grind out a win. Her default strategy is patience. Frequently, against someone who relies more on flair and deception, she will sit back and let them play. She has got endless stamina. She can wait for a storm to blow itself out and then pounce. I love the way she will cleverly conserve energy: she can keep the shuttle in play and then towards the last few points in a set she can accelerate away and inflict defeat. Against players with suspect resilience this is a brutally efficient approach. It’s a method of increasing pressure because her rival will feel the desire to win the game briskly or else risk running out of energy. This is the trap that is set. The need to win provokes mistakes and often the match spirals away. The temptation is to risk more, to aim for the lines, to score a quick point. This makes compelling theatre for spectators but is ineffective most of the time.
Patience is at the core of her strategy and if I had to single out a weakness, I would say that this can stray into an avoidance of risk. In a very close match, the ability to be unpredictable can make the difference between Silver and Gold.
She returned to the Yonex All England a tougher player than ever: as well as her tour triumphs she had a central role in China’s Sudirman Cup victory. She was seeded #1 and got to the final but was out-thought by TAI Tzu Ying. Her main rival had arrived at the party with a new strategy; this time TTY played with patience and picked her moments to attack. CYF just could not get a foothold in the game and lost it in straight sets.
When the BWF tour resumes it will be fascinating to see what she has learned from this loss because acheiving the correct balance between risk and safety, attack and defence is going to be crucial in her progress to the podium in Tokyo.
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
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.
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.
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’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.
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!
A new year with old rivalries and the added piquancy of the Olympics in July. We are six months away from the biggest athletic event on the planet, the intensity and desire for success is going to build with each tournament and this all adds up to a scintillating few months in prospect for fans. The anticipation of qualification is offset by the dread of failure. 2020 has started with some thrilling matches; finals day at Istora was a cauldron of raw emotion – who didn’t relish those results with utter joy? What have we learned in January, who is up for the fight? Who has that podium in Tokyo in their sights?
TAI Tzu Ying has been treading a different path to her rivals this year. She is cherry-picking the best tournaments to support her ambition. This feels like an athlete with a plan and along with her coaches she understands that entering every tournament is not the effective way for her to achieve her goal. Getting the balance right between training, competition and fitness is what coaches are paid to do. I think it’s been a stroke of genius to play in the PBL. It has freshened up the daily grind, there are some excellent training partners for her and she gets to play matches that are important but it’s not a catastrophy to lose. For instance, only 16 years old but Gayatri Gopichand took a set off TTY in the PBL whilst playing for Chennai Superstarz – now here is a girl with ambition!
As ever, this is the most dynamic, exciting sector of badminton with the best athletes. Head-to-head battles between the top 20 players are often gloriously unpredictable. In contrast to the men’s game there is no dominant player except that CHEN Yufei won 7 tournaments in 2019 and significantly she does not lose finals. As current World #1 she started 2020 in good form and won the Malaysia Masters by beating TAI Tzu Ying in two sets. Crucially she hasn’t built upon this opportunity to dominate; she was knocked out of the Indonesian Masters on the second day by the unseeded Line Kjaersfeldt.
Carolina Marin has been cultivating her old aura of unbeatability and has been on the podium at all three competitions this year. Reliable results should be a good indicator of future success so we have to acknowledge that she is the person in January who has delivered. Nevertheless, no titles yet and she has been beaten by three different players: CYF, May & Akane, so this tells me that she still has loads of work to do if she wants to defend her 2016 Gold medal.
Akane & Nozomi: no-one can be under greater pressure to do well in Japan than the two home players. January has been a good month for Akane. Her win over AN Se Young in the Thailand Masters final is perhaps a sign that she is emerging from a hard few months of injury disruption. Nozomi has had a quiet start to the year after a successful and frustrating 2019. Five finals, five runners up medals. There were times last year when she was modifying her game to incorporate more aggression, she has to be less predictable to just get that extra 1% that makes the difference between Silver and Gold.
Indian Badminton does seem to be going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment, last year was pretty uneven and not much has improved. Saina Nehwal is a true great of the game but results are not good enough at the moment to ensure her qualification for Tokyo. Only a fool would write off her chances at this point and on a positive note her triumph over AN Se Young in R2 of The Malaysia Masters was a reminder that she can beat anyone. I’m unconvinced that her current coaching setup adds to her competitive edge though; I think that if her fluency improves and strategies to get her qualification points whereever she can are used then we still may see her in Japan. Her withdrawal from the Badminton Asia Team Championships plus her recent political work point to a lack of focus. As an observer I just see chaos.
P V Sindhu has a reputation as a ‘Big Tournament Player’ and is the current world champion. Nevertheless, her tendency to crash out of tournaments too early is frustrating. We often excuse her underperformance because we see her respond well to the biggest challenges. I am sympathetic to this view but surely it’s better to win and get some competitive momentum rather than travel here, there and everywhere only to crash out early? Nevermind, emotions aside, I don’t think her results over the past six months are much worse than Akanes so perhaps it’s better to just enjoy the rollercoaster. Of course she will get to Tokyo, but will she get on the podium? On the strength of January’s performances I am sceptical.
My highlight in January across all sectors has to be Polii & Rahayu’s victory at the Indonesia Masters. Their semi-final and final were emotionally exhausting epics. It’s taken a lot of courage for them to analyse and rebuild their game. Over the next few months I hope we see this revitalised pair win more. No Japanese duo has made a final yet this year and it’s still not decided which of them will be competing in Tokyo. This must be a difficult situation because they need to compete well to get ranking points to increase their chances of qualification however over-training and too much competition could risk injury or burn out. CHEN/JIA are very dangerous players, so strong and such brutal attackers but they are not dominating tournaments yet. It’s a very fluid picture; there is an opportunity in this sector for a pair to really boss the results – who will step up?
Winning an Olympic Gold is never a fluke but rather the result of years and years of dedication. Carolina’s consistency in the routine of competition is the opposite of what we observe from P V Sindhu and yet judging by January’s results both of them risk being denied medals. TTY looks focused and although we know she can be perfectly imperfect, at the moment the logic of her regime seems sound. I’ve barely mentioned May or AN Se Young. Ratchanok had an excellent win over Marin in the final of the Indonesian Masters and no worries about her stamina in that 3 set match. ASY is still work in progress, but she is transtioning from Giant-killer to Giant. I wonder if this will be achieved by July?
There’s still a long way to go, a lot of matches to be played. The first milestone is the end of the qualifying period on the 26th April. Nerves are jangling a little already, once we have the final list of players the anticipation and dread can really begin.
I need to acknowledge the incredibly sad road traffic accident in Malaysia and offer sincere condolences to the family of the deceased driver, Mr N Bavan. I also send sympathy to everyone affected by this. We should appreciate the good things in our lives everyday. As Dato Lee Chong Wei said in his Chinese New Year Message …”time to put down everything, shut down the computer…go back home. There is someone there thinking for you. Always remember to treat it as the last new year you would ever have. Cherish your love one.”
TAI Tzu Ying is a brilliant player; her style on court is spine-tingling. Peerless racket skills have elevated her to superstar status and she is an athlete loved around the world as the best of her generation. Coach LAI, who was head coach of the Taiwan national team, resigned after the Korean Open to focus solely on TTY. It is the coach’s responsibity to enable their player fulfil their potential. Beautiful shots side by side with errors in a game do not equal medals and will ultimately be unsatisfactory. We don’t know much of what happens in TTY’s training sessions but mistakes and concentration drift have cost her titles this year. This is the time to be single-minded about ambition.
2019 has seen three major tournament wins: the Danish, Malaysian and Singapore Opens. The quality of the athletes who contest Women’s Singles competitions is reflected in this; it’s the most finely balanced and competitive of the five sectors. Matches with people like Akane, Marin, AN Se Young, and Sindhu mean there are no easy victories. As the winner of the Yonex All England in the two previous years, 2019 saw her arrive in Birmingham as the favourite, but she failed in her bid to make it a hattrick of victories when she lost in the final to the Chinese player CHEN Yufei. History repeated itself at the BWF World Tour Finals when she lost in three sets to a determined and patient Yufei. Badminton immortality beckons but can she cement her status as one of the all-time greats?
There is no other player on earth who can execute the shots she has; her technical skill is unmatched in the women’s game. What is it that makes her stand apart from her peers? She is the Queen of deception. The creative imagination she brings to her play is exquisite. As spectators it is futile to predict where she will place the shuttle so she constantly surprises and delights us. The variety of angles and control of pace she can achieve is quite unbelievable. Her backhand, on the turn, on the run and taken late is wonderful to see.
Of course, this style of play creates huge problems for her rivals. The psychological pressure that she exerts is immense. Most top players build an element of anticipation into their movement on court because the earlier they reach the shuttle the more time they will have to play the shot they want. TTY takes time away from her opponents as they can never quite predict what she will do. Angles which may seem impossible to mere mortals pose no problems for her to create. She likes to be on the attack and can cover the court’s four corners easily.
Interestingly, against players like Ratchanok Intanon (who is probably closest to her in terms of style) the match often turns into a series of “anything you can do I can do better”. The duels between these two feature jaw-dropping precision, mutual admiration and good humour. They are both courageous players who routinely ignore the percentages and dare themselves to aim for the edge. This leads me to suspect that TTY plays mainly for the love of the game. She revels in her skills and enjoys perfecting a shot; she will often try the same one 3 or 4 times in a match until she can get it right.
She would be invincible if not for a tendency to lose focus at times. Often, she will win the first game but then lose her grip on the second. Sometimes this has catastrophic consequences. Momentum is a key feature of success in many sports; if an adversary like Carolina Marin or AN Se Young is given the opportunity to get into their rhythm it can be tough to get the initiative back. This has been the feature of some of her losses in the past. In this year’s final of the Yonex All England CHEN Yu Fei just would not allow TTY to get into the game; she kept the pressure and pace high and won in straight games. At the World Tour Finals it went to three games and there was the suggestion that the coin toss and the drift in the hall were key players. However, that is a disservice to CHEN Yufei who had to battle back into the match after being annihilated in the first set. CYF wrestled the direction of the game from her, then refused to return it, however hard Tzu Ying tried.
She is the centre of a close-knit group of people who support her on and off court. Her father still strings her rackets in a slightly idiosyncratic pattern, she’ll post images of herself and her team off-duty, obviously enjoying each other’s company climbing a mountain in Taiwan or out dining together. She also shares pictures of her team working with her in the gym, preparing her body for the demands of this explosive athletic sport. She is famous for her six-pack, which she seems to maintain alongside a taste for ice-cream and French fries.
Her spontaneous genius means she is an icon of modern worldwide badminton. Is she the greatest ever Women’s Singles player? Her brilliance is a joyful expression of the best of the game but I think she needs some key titles to secure her iconic status. To land her third All England title in March would be a sign of intent, but we are all gazing at the Gold medal on offer in Tokyo.
I’ll give the last word to GEL, one of her biggest fans:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.