2021 has been a breakout year for this young and exciting Malaysian pair. Their dynamism and tenacity have won them plenty of new fans over the past twelve months because they have been seriously challenging players ahead of them in the rankings
When they were at junior level, they were not WD partners unlike many of their current rivals. They have competitive familiarity across the sectors but the main factor significant to their current style of play is the influence of XD as the pair have both got experience in this discipline. Their bold approach to matches is refreshing and I sense that there is a shift happening away from the more traditional, old fashioned neutral play towards tactics that allow players to take the initiative in a match.
Their performance in the first round at the Toyota Thailand Open was an “aha moment” for fans and analysts. It was an exhilarating contest packed full of drama. After losing the first set they levelled then refused to concede the third. It was simply gripping. They were down 18-20, saved four match points and eventually won 27-25. It was an 87 minute white knuckle ride where they kept their focus and eventually earned victory.
As a pair they are keen to disrupt their rivals rhythms with intelligent use of angled shots. Thinaah has a strong front court game and both can unleash some power. Naturally they are good defenders but it’s the intensity and pace of their attack that enables them to seize command with flat drives and effectively screw down on their opponents.
Their first world tour title win at the 2021 Swiss Open was confirmation that they are on the right track. A straight set victory over the quintessence of defensive WD – the Stoeva sisters – felt like a shot of adrenaline to the heart of the discipline. It was proof that the partnership has raised their game over the past couple of years.
These two athletes are possible stars of the future and are part of the generational shift following Tokyo 2020. They still have a lot of hard work to do if they want to move up to the consistent standards set in Women’s Doubles by the Japanese pairs. It was revealing that in their recent Indonesian Master’s game against Matsuyama/Shida they were carried along by the momentum of the Japanese attack without really being able to derail it and they were beaten in two sets. They must have more tactical options if Plan A is not successful.
“You’ll see us fail, I guarantee it. But you will never see us quit”
Thinaah Muralitharan on her Instagram
It’s exciting to watch a pair with a fresh approach. They are ‘work in progress’ but they have the potential to keep moving up the rankings and can aim to be top 10 players. Their spirit and gritty resolve mean that they can frighten any opponent so they can regard the future with hope and optimism. I can’t wait to see how they meet the challenges of the next couple of years.
Akane in a recent article by Dev Sukumar. Courtesy BWF
Watching a revitalized Akane win back-to-back tournaments in Denmark and France has been one of the highlights of the last few weeks.
She has been the standout player on the circuit recently. Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of multiple competitions since Tokyo 2020, she has flourished.
Sudirman & Uber Cup
Akane was at the heart of Japan’s success in the team competitions in Vantaa and Aarhus. Two silver medals do not do justice to her immense contribution. Both times Japan lost in the final to China, but both times she chalked up victories against CHEN Yu Fei in straight sets. There was an all-consuming intensity to these games. She seldom made mistakes and as she upped the tempo of the match CYF struggled to find scoring opportunities because her rival’s court coverage was formidable. Contrast this to their previous meeting in the same competition (Sudirman Cup 2019) and her improvement is clear. The next time these two face each other over a net is going to be awesome.
Victor Denmark Open: October 2021
In the Uber Cup AN Se Young was the only player to unpick Akane’s defence (in two sets) and so this final was an opportunity to see what effect the loss had had upon her Japanese foe. The first set was controlled by ASY; despite a heavily strapped thigh her movement was fluid and dominant. The second set began in much the same way with Yamaguchi struggling to summon up the energy to put any fizz on the shuttle; she was making mistakes too and there seemed to be an inevitability to the Korean’s advance to the top of the podium. By 16-16 Akane was fighting desperately to stay in the match: diving, scrambling, scrapping and just giving everything to stay in contention. 18-18. 19-19. A match point to ASY came and went amidst exhausting rallies. The score reached 23-23 before Akane was able to get the points needed to close it out 25-23. Ominously, in the interval, ASY ripped off her strapping and called for the doctor for the second time.
The third set was a story of triumph and tragedy. As it began, it was obvious that the Korean was less smooth in her movements. With the score against her at 3-7 she was red carded for ‘delay’ but effectively she was trying to work out whether she could continue and at 16-5 down she admitted defeat.
No-one ever wants to win a title in these circumstances, but Akane’s triumph was based on perseverance and her emphatic refusal to concede the game in the second set. AN Se Young missed her opportunity to win when she failed to convert her match point. Akane was very courageous in Set 2 since she committed everything to those long rallies; her grit paid off as ASY wilted under the grueling examination of her stamina. This was a fascinating duel.
Yonex French Open 2021
Yamaguchi’s European success continued with her title win against compatriot Sayaka Takahashi in Paris. A straight sets victory, this was a little more straightforward but there are no easy games at this level. Akane’s top-quality defence and stamina effectively neutralized her opponent’s threat; Takahashi stayed with the momentum at first, but she was forced to cut her margins and go for the line so, as she tired, mistakes crept into her game. The final score was 21-18, 21-12.
Back in July 2019 Akane Yamaguchi was world #1 – albeit briefly – but later suffered training disruption and some shock defeats owing to niggly injuries. In common with many in the Japanese team there were substantial expectations on her shoulders when the Olympics began but she was unable to make a significant impact. Now I think she has revisited her motivation to compete and it has given her a fresh outlook. Her epic battle with AN Se Young for the Denmark title showcased her unending resilience and phenomenal court coverage; I hope we get the chance to see plenty more clashes between these two. As one of the most lovable athletes on the tour plenty of fans will be cheering her on to more podium finishes. The Bali bubble beckons and she can travel to Indonesia with plenty of confidence that she will be making a big impression.
The battles in Finland will prove which nation has the best squad and who can hold their nerve when the pressure soars. Bragging rights and national prestige are at stake: this is the trophy that everyone wants to take home.
It’s the 17th time that the World Team Championships have been held and invariably the Asian badminton powerhouses monopolize the finals. Pick one from China, Indonesia or South Korea and history guarantees that their players will be walking onto the court on the last day. No other country has ever won. Could we see a surprise this time?
The Sudirman Cup starts with sixteen teams in four groups on September 26th; during this stage, all five matches across the sectors are played. After this phase is complete, there is a draw to determine the Quarter-Finals and subsequently Semi-Finals. Crucially this is a knockout stage and every tie is “best of five”. This is when players who can force results and drive teammates on to glory will shine.
Group A: China, Thailand, Finland, and India
China dominate this competition and their twenty-strong team is an intimidating prospect for any rival. Over the last few months CHEN Yufei’s patient, error-free game has seen her crowned Olympic and China National Games Champion; in XD WANG/HUANG hold the same twofold honour whilst in Women’s Doubles CHEN/JIA will be in the vanguard of the Chinese defence of the title. This is a magnificent team but they look susceptible in the Men’s sectors. A revitalised SHI Yu Qui is a great asset but there is no CHEN Long with him in the Singles. I’m curious about the Men’s Doubles line up as this is definitely a sector in transition. Are they beatable? Yes! But probably not until the Final….and possibly not even then.
The battle for second place is likely to be won by Thailand considering they have more firepower than an Indian team weakened by the absence of Saina and Sindhu. Thailand have an exciting fusion of experienced winners like Bass/Popor in XD, alongside Chochuwong and Ongbamrungphan in WS, balancing out the relative inexperience of triple junior world champion Kunlavut Vitidsarn in Men’s Singles. India won’t be a pushover though, especially in the doubles categories so clearly the tie between them will decide group position. I think Finland will have plenty of home support but to escape this group will require impossibly dramatic results.
Group B: Taiwan, Korea, Tahiti, Germany
Korea has a fine tradition in this tournament; and in Thailand this year we saw good-to-great performances from it’s doubles pairs and AN Se Young. I think they will top the group and leave Taiwan and Germany to fight it out for second spot. Taiwan’s team is disadvantaged because they are not bringing their Olympic medalists: LEE/WANG or TTY so this could be a tight fight for qualification. Germany’s squad includes Lamsfuss, Herttrich and Yvonne LI and they must realise they have a good chance of winning a couple of their ties if they can get results in key areas. Tahiti can compete unburdened by expectation but results against them may turn out to be important.
Group C: Indonesia, Denmark, ROC, Canada
Indonesia’s team of all the talents can travel to Finland confident that they have the quality and experience to get to the final. The squad is exceptional with Olympic Gold medalists and title holders to match China. Two influential players are at the core of it: Hendra Setiawan and Greysia Polii have the mental strength to inspire their fellow Indonesians to aim high. I think two key personnel are Praveen Jordan and Anthony Ginting because they will inevitably be participating in crucial matches; they must keep focused and crush their opponents.
The cup has never been won by a European nation but Denmark has been in the final twice, most recently in 2011. They are by far the best team in Europe and in Viktor Axelsen they have the Olympic Champion. The squad is capable of challenging hard. I don’t think they quite have the depth across all the sectors to win but they should progress to the knockout stages and could get to the Semi-Final.
Group D: Japan, Malaysia, England, Egypt
After their subdued performance at the Olympics and some high profile retirements I’m curious to see how BirdJapan approach the competition they came so close to winning in Nanning 2019. They may be short of a bit of Men’s Doubles experience but this is still a wonderful team who are well-known for mutual support from the sidelines. I think we should disregard the Tokyo results and look to Momota, Nozomi and the rest to play without pressure, build early confidence and do well. Prediction: Semi Final
Malaysia and England will be scrapping for second place; both are teams in transition who have brought a selection of youngsters. I remember the scintillating Sudirman Cup tie between England and Denmark back in 2019 especially the courageous performance of Birch/Smith in the WD and I hope they can rekindle that spirit here and escape the group. It’s going to be tough to equal Malaysia’s quality but this is the tie they must win to progress.
Who Will Bring It Home?
Can anyone stop China winning again? It will be a big task to equal their ambition and dedication to possession of the Sudirman Cup. This is a unique tournament which rewards special athletes. The only other team with the all-round depth of talent that can sustain a long campaign is Indonesia. The beauty of this tournament is that no player can triumph on their own; so the squad with the spirit and resilience to compete without flinching will be bringing the trophy home.
This was the most joyous Gold medal. Athletes can’t buy an Olympic victory; they earn one over years of perseverance and pain. Even then, some don’t reach their dream, so to watch Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu on top of the Tokyo podium was a glorious moment.
The origins of the triumph stretch back to a young Greysia who was focused on becoming a pro:
“I was born to be a badminton player. And I had that faith when I was 13, that I wanted to make history for Indonesia”
Along the way she endured a controversial exit from London 2012 and lost at the QF stage in Rio 2016 with Nitya Krishinda Maheswari. When the news broke that her partner required surgery and was going to retire Polii seriously considered hanging up her racket too.
Looking back this was when Eng Hian – the head of Indonesian Women’s Doubles – had a stroke of genius. He convinced her to delay retirement…to stay a little longer and help guide the progress of some of the younger players. In 2017 along came the talented but raw Apriyani Rahayu: aged 19 with a dislike of being told what to do, but intelligent and ambitious enough to recognise that this was a great opportunity to learn from Greysia. As time passed and the chemistry between them formed it started to occur to Polii that if she could instill a champion’s mindset into her young partner then maybe this could lead to great things. She would need patience, perseverance and to stay injury-free. Perhaps everything that had gone before was preparing her for this.
Fast Forward To Tokyo 2020
The tournament started brightly for GreyAp. Two wins out of two in the group stages and the importance of the final game against FukuHiro escalated. Suddenly here was an opportunity to emerge from the Round Robin as group winners and therefore avoid a seeded pair in the Quarter Final.
Wars of attrition pose little threat to the Indonesian duo. They have the physical resilience to endure a lot and that style of play offers a great platform for the sudden explosions of power from Apri or the creative vision and deft touches from Greysia. The Japanese top seeds could not handle the aggressive tempo of the contest. They were stubborn and resisted over three sets but folded in the last 21-8. So GreyAp entered the knockout rounds and I was feeling optimistic.
It’s been clear over the course of the Olympic badminton tournament that the Chinese athletes’ standards haven’t suffered from their lack of international competition. In the QF against DU/LI Greysia and Apri were asked some hard questions over three sets but they stood firm and refused to let the Chinese win.
The Semi-Final against LEE/SHIN was a daunting prospect but as the match progressed it was always GreyAp who had the upper hand. The competitive momentum that they had been building since the tournamnet began carried them on to the final. Another win, a guaranteed medal, history made.
This was a final waiting to be won. There was little point in waiting to be beaten by the hot favourites: I think Greysia and Apri realised this and it fed their ambitious attitude. Rahayu brought her ‘A game’ – make that her ‘A+ game’. Her energy and bravery constantly screwed down the pressure on CHEN/JIA. Her aggressive high tempo unsettled their rhythm and her noisy, boisterous attitude helped dominate the court space. At 1-1 in the first set there was a moment when Greysia took the shuttle mid-court on her backhand and pinged it crosscourt into empty space. At that moment I realised she knew they could win. The next point was gained by Polii’s delicate drop which emphasized her intent and desire. It was a close set as the four of them traded points but in the end GreyAp won it 21-19. Advantage Indonesia.
Set two opened with them racing to a 7-2 lead. Both players were decisive and self-assured. Unburdened by tension they were playing without inhibition and exuding self-belief. Everything they did worked. The Chinese tried to get back into the flow of the game but they were being swept along by the irresistable pace and vision of the Indonesians. Incredibly at 18-10 Polii’s strings broke but she had time to grab a replacement racket and win the rally.
There was an inevitability to the final moments as they had outclassed CHEN/JIA throughout the game. The (mostly) empty arena didn’t matter – we were all crying and screaming at our screens together as they celebrated victory. Often the difference between a Silver and Gold medal is simultaneously a universe and barely a whisker. The Indonesia duo had dominated in every area of the court and had played their best ever game at exactly the right moment. Congratulations Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu: Gold medallists and history makers!
Can CHEN Long rediscover his mojo and defend his Rio Gold or are we about to see a new player on top of the podium? Will Denmark break the hold that China has had on this competition since Lin Dan first won it in 2008 or can one of the men from Indonesia seize the medal?
The competition begins with 14 groups of three players: ONLY group winners will progress to the round of 16 on July 29th.
It was clear Momota lacked match fitness at this year’s All England so the group games will help him sharpen up. Domination of the net and forecourt blended with lightening speed is crucial to him. He exerts pressure with his great anticipation and is peerless in his match management. He is so good at judging the tipping point in an encounter; usually staying within a couple of points of his rivals score, then switching on his turbocharger and accelerating away to victory. He always has an energy reserve to draw on in the last few points of the final set. It’s arguable that this characteristic breaks the morale of opponents before they even step on court. He remains hot favourite for Gold.
Viktor was immense in Thailand in January. He created a winning momentum and dispatched rivals at will. His blend of focused power and speed was overwhelming and so the two titles he won had an air of inevitability about them. However he did fall victim to a clever strategy by Antonsen at the WTF so if he wants to upgrade his Bronze from Rio he needs to resist mind games and zero in on the prize. A possible quarter final with Jonatan Christie will be a big test.
Antonsen dreams of Tokyo Gold. His progress over the past couple of years has been impressive – he put down a marker in his victory over Momota at the 2019 Indonesia Masters and has continued to prove his quality in tournaments since. His victory at the Denmark Open 2020 was magnificent but I think his covid-adjusted performance in January’s Thailand bubble was more revealing. A first round exit followed by a SF defeat in two sets suggested he was still suffering from the effects of infection. His victory in the World Tour Finals highlighted his invention and opportunism.
Sun Tzu said “If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him” and AA certainly succeeded in unbalancing Axelsen with his tactics. I’m intrigued to see if he can repeat the feat.
Jojo has a really brutal draw to negotiate if he is to medal in Tokyo but he looked bright and hungry for success at the Simulasi Olimpiade in July so I’m optimistic that he’ll be ready for the battles ahead. His route to the final means that he will probably have to overcome Shi Yu Qi, Viktor Axelsen, and Momota. Anyone who can do that in the space of a few days deserves Gold.
SHI Yu Qi
Shi Yu Qi ‘s form is a bit of a mystery and we are only going to get a clear picture once he steps on court. The last couple of years have been disrupted by injury as well as covid but if he is back to his best then he will be a challenger for a podium place. He has a clash with Jonatan Christie in the Round of 16 and if he progresses then Viktor awaits.
Ginting has so many of the qualities we look for in an Olympic champion. Speed across the court synchronised with breathtaking shots means that he challenges for titles at the highest level. In January in Thailand he dazzled but only in flashes and I was disappointed he didn’t get to a final. There have been times when he has failed to break a rivals impetus; he gets set on a particular strategy and if that starts to fail under pressure he struggles to alter his approach and loses his grip on the game. Commentators have speculated that he would benefit from more stamina but I think it’s more to do with self belief. Anders Antonsen will probably try and block his path to the semi finals; if Anthony can get past the Dane then he has a great chance to impose himself on the competition. Dream Big Anthony!
LEE Zii Jia
About two years ago I remember seeing LEE Chong Wei tip his fellow countryman as a possible prospect for Gold in Tokyo. Since then he triumphed over Viktor Axelsen at the All England 2021 so can take a lot of confidence from beating the world’s best. He has speed, agility, power and a trademark backhand smash, but a tough route to the podium. Feasibly CHEN Long followed by a QF against CHOU Tien Chen. He doesn’t have a good H2H against Chou so this will be a big challenge to negotiate before he can start dreaming of a medal.
Lee Chong Wei recently observed that it’s impossible to know the kind of form Chen Long is in because he has only competed domestically during the pandemic. I’m unconvinced that CHEN long can defend his Gold from Rio as his form has been so inconsistent following that win. Carolina Marin seems to have coped much better with motivating herself after winning sport’s highest honour. This analysis is probably too simplistic and dismissive though. The resources of the Chinese will have been focused on preparing him for this campaign so we may see a revitalised player on court.
CHOU Tien Chen
Assuming CTC wins his group he will have a bye in the following round and a possible QF against either CHEN Long or LEE Zii Jia. His record against CL is terrible (0-9) but they haven’t met for a couple of years; against LZJ he has the upper hand (5-2) but the Malaysian is improving all the time. CTC is a consistent presence in semi finals but often just seems to lack the resources at the death to finish things off. Taiwan has maintained a good focus on the Olympics including simulations and so the second seed will be well prepared for his second Olympiad.
The QF could look at bit like this:
Too close to call
The Semi finals then would probably be Momota against Axelsen/Christie and Antonsen/Ginting clashing with LEE Zii Jia or CHOU Tien Chen. We all know that this tournament has the potential to post some freaky results; the man who adapts quickly to an empty arena and can step away from the shadows of the pandemic will have an advantage. I see Christie and Ginting as dark horses: of course they will have to overcome a substantial Danish challenge first. Always though we circle back to Momota and he must still be the favourite for Gold.
Who has the edge to get Gold? The contest for the WD title in Tokyo will suit athletes with deep reserves of stamina and resistance – however to win the battle for supremacy one of these players must be willing to turn defence into attack quickly and seize points at crucial moments.
The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.
Recently Japan’s women have built a good record of success at the Olympics. Silver at London 2012 (Fujii/Kakiiwa) followed by a thrilling Gold from Misaki and Ayaka in Rio: unfortunately their partnership is over but the quality of the Japanese squad means that the two pairs competing in this sector have every chance of winning it. Yuki Fukushima / Sayaka Hirota are top seeds and should expect to top Group A. The key to notable results will be Yuki who can drive the team forward with her precision and strength. At the Denmark Open their victory over compatriots Mayu Matsumoto / Wakana Nagahara stemmed from her power to control the theatre of battle. She was comfortable varying the tempo and sometimes ignored the percentage shot to go for the line.
The third seeds – Matsumoto and Nagahara – have every chance of making the final. Prior to the Denmark Open result I would have characterised them as the more aggressive of the two Japanese pairs so I’m intrigued how they will approach this competition. Group B rivals shouldn’t be able to prevent them getting into the next round and so as long as they snap up chances they can eye the podium with confidence. It’s important both pairs win their groups so they avoid potentially knocking each other out before the final.
Greysia Polii/ Apri Rahayu are in Group A so they will have to negotiate an early match with the tournament favourites but more worryingly their recent H2H with Malaysians CHOW/LEE makes me nervous. That is their first game in the round robin so we will have a clearer picture of what the future may hold following that. It’s Greysia’s third Olympics and I’m confident she has the experience and resilience to get through a close tie. Both players performed well in the Thailand bubble so they can approach the days ahead with courage. They are my favourite WD pair and I would be thrilled to see them with a medal. Go Girls!
Korea is sending two pairs to this competition and this is probably the discipline where they have the best chance of a medal. LEE So-hee and SHIN Seung-chan were winners of the World Tour Finals and performed consistently in the Thai bubble. They head Group C as 4th seeds. They both have Olympic experience from Rio although with different partners then. Their height and aggressive style can unbalance opponents so I expect them to approach matches with boldness and noise. KIM Soyeong and KONG Heeyong are starting out unseeded in Group D but I think it’s important to note their victory in the 2019 Japanese Open against top Japanese players in the Olympic venue. KONG’s attacking strength is nicely supported by KIM and so if they get into the knockout phase they are going to be tricky to beat.
CHEN Qing Chen / JIA Yi Fan are seeded 2 and in Group D. When I watched them win the YAE2019 final I was shocked by their power, aggression and intensity. Many fans mark them as favourites for this event but the group they are in has the potential to sap their energy: they will meet Korea’s KIM/KONG and the Stoeva sisters. This could weaken them somewhat for the following rounds which have the potential to become wars of attrition. Despite that, they are an intimidating couple and it would not be a shock to see them medal. The second Chinese Pair DU Yue/LI Yin Hui are unseeded in Group C and may struggle to emerge from it. The main danger to their ambitions are the Danes Fruergaard/Thygesen who have good reserves of stubbornness to draw on in tough games. I would never write off any Chinese pair in this competition though. Up until 2016 they had a stranglehold on Gold and I’m certain they want ‘their’ medal back!
If any of these pairs can defend against the overwhelming firepower of the Chinese duo CHEN/JIA they will probably be the ones at the top of the podium. We haven’t watched any of the players from China in ages but we know that the second seeds are formidable. It’s a competition where gritty self-belief fused with physical resilience will create the gap between medal success and failure. South Korea and Indonesia are providing the dark horses but as far as the Gold goes it’s hard to look further than China or Japan. I expect FukuHiro to be more strategically nimble than the others so if the seeding unfolds predictably they could be the ones celebrating on finals day.
If you enjoyed this then take a look at my other Olympic previews here:
Inevitably this competition will be an emotional roller coaster. Nothing is decided except that there will be a new Olympic champion.
There will be 43 competitors on day 1; in this sector there are 14 seeds and so the preliminary stages will break down into 13 groups of 3 and one group of 4. The group of four includes the #2 seed (TTY) who then gets a bye in the R16; although CHEN Yufei is in a group of three, as #1 seed she also has a bye at that stage.
Nozomi Okuhara (3)
The winner of a Bronze medal in Rio will be one of the standout players in Tokyo. She knows what it takes to get on the podium and has every chance of upgrading to Gold in her home Olympics. Her progress as a competitor since those 6 defeats in finals in 2019 has been outstanding and her victory over Marin at the 2020 Denmark Open was important with a strong redemptive quality. The only other tournament she has played in this year – Yonex All England 2021 – also ended with a win so it would seem that Nozomi has spent lockdown learning how to turn silver into Gold.
TAI Tzu Ying (2)
The exhilaration of watching TTY in full flow belongs on the world stage of the Olympics yet she has never shone in this tournament. The opportunity to win a medal here is something her many fans (myself included) crave for her. Chances like this are fleeting and she has been frank about her intention to retire ‘soon’. I would love to see this sublime player become part of Olympic badminton legend. Prediction: Gold.
CHEN Yu Fei (1)
The top seed has not competed internationally since YAE20 so I’m intrigued to discover whether she has altered much about her game. She is resilient and is adept at staying in a match. Her composure and stubborn persistence against players who have more flair means she often waits for them to run out of ideas and then attacks. Her strength may also be a weakness: I have wondered in the past how risk-averse she is because sometimes she just seems too patient. This was part of the reason for her defeat against TTY in the final in Birmingham in 2020. If she makes the final – her route may involve beating AN Se Young and Nozomi – it could prove to be the difference between silver and Gold.
Pursala V Sindhu (6)
At her best Sindhu is uncontainable and although she seems to suffer inconsistent form there’s no doubt she can raise her game at the top tournaments. Nozomi must still get nightmares about her annihilation by PVS at the 2019 World Championship final. Her part of the draw is tough, but at her best she has the beating of Blichfeldt and Akane. Indian women’s singles has a great tradition of success at the Olympics – including Sindhu’s Silver in Rio – so she has the experience to force her way into the reckoning.
Ratchanok Intanon (5)
May’s sparkling skills on court could mean a medal chance in her third Olympics but her route to the podium is scary. Probably she will meet Gregoria in the R16 and assuming she progresses past the Indonesian it’s likely that her QF will be against TAI Tzu Ying. This is a neutral’s nightmare. These two breathtaking players light up every tournament so I’m sorry that one of them will lose their chance of glory. The head-to-head stats are pretty even (15-14 in TTY’s favour) so it will be a fascinating and excruciating game to spectate.
Akane Yamaguchi (4)
Akane has been under the radar more than her compatriot during lockdown so we’ll have to wait to see what sort of form she’s in. Her counter-punching style could work effectively at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza so although she doesn’t have a particulary convincing record against some of the others in her part of the draw I see her as a firm contender.
AN Se Young (7)
ASY has been regarded as a dark horse chance for the Gold here since she flew up the rankings in 2019. Earlier this year she did OK in Thailand – getting to semi-finals – but she wasn’t able to push on to a final. She is at the stage in her career now where fine tuning and incremental gains are important if she is to dominate consistently. She’s a wonderful all-rounder but sometime I consider that she puts too much emphasis on defence. I’d like to see her take the initiative more. In a recent interview with BWF she highlighted her victory over TTY in the Sudirman Cup as a turning point but I think the frustration of being ‘nearly there’ will be perfect fuel for her ambition. Prediction: Paris 2024 Gold
HBJ seems to have been replaced by her super-slim twin sister during lockdown and I’m excited to see what has changed about her approach in the course of the pandemic. It’s unlikely that the lack of international competition will have disadvantaged either of the Chinese competitors because they enjoy such a high standard domestically so it’s feasible that she will have added a new dimension to her play. If the seeding works as expected then her first big test is going to be in a QF against Nozomi – she doesn’t have a good H2H against the Japanese so if she can pull off a win then she may have to face her compatriot for a spot in the final. Prediction QF Exit.
Women’s Singles is crowded with fine athletes so it’s tricky to highlight one player who already has a foot on the podium. Olympic Gold is someone’s destiny and it looks to me as though it will boil down to Nozomi V Tzu Ying. The person who can stay fit, focused and adapt quickly to the conditions in the arena will have an advantage, but it’s always a hard tournament to call. TTY knows she must stay patient and cut out mistakes, Nozomi has to be confident in her ability to keep asking the tough questions. I’m impatient for it to start so we can enjoy the path to victory and watch dreams come true.
I am anticipating badminton extraordinaire. The quality of this competition is outstanding with huge expectations of some players. Athletes from the Asian heartlands of the sport – Indonesia, Japan, China & Taiwan – are likely to dominate the matches but who will triumph at the end is not particularly clear cut.
We haven’t watched most of these pairs in competition with each other for over a year and it will be intriguing to see who have been able to add an extra dimension to their game or who has lost a bit of sharpness. Realistically most of them are going to need a match or two to kick-start their muscles and focus on victory. The pairs who adapt to the conditions and negotiate their group games to the knock out stages without expending too much energy or getting injured will have a big advantage. The absence of noisy, partisan crowd is also likely to have an impact on some of the players although I’m at a loss to anticipate whether it will help or hinder.
The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.
Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo & Marcus Fernaldi Gideon
The Minions arrive in Tokyo as World Number Ones and top seeds but they are going to have to play the best games of their lives if they are going to get Gold. Group A will not allow any slip ups. Challenges to them will come from every direction as the calibre of their rivals is phenomenal. The venue is expected to be ‘slow’ and they must not allow themselves to get ensnared in an energy sapping smashing competitions. Opponents work hard to blunt their attacks so they must be prepared to reappraise tactics if the game is not going their way. Kevin has one of the best badminton brains in the sport and I’m in awe of his technical skills, superhuman reflexes and sheer desire, whilst Marcus’s strength and chemistry with his partner means the two of them have the weapons to beat everyone.
First they must negotiate their group and it’s vital they fight on their own terms. Their head to head records against their challengers in the first round gives no cause for concern but the reality of an Olympic stage after relative international inactivity for a while means that everyone is a threat. Kevin has brilliance embedded deep and these two would be worthy winners at the end of the tournament. I’m anxious though about their head-to-head record with Endo/Watanabe (2-6) because it seems inevitable that they will end up playing each other in a high stakes game. Prediction: Final
Seeded four this pair are a hazard to Indonesian ambitions. They begin their campaign in Group B and should progress without too much fuss, although Sozonov/Ivanov might be able to ask them some tough questions. Over the last few years they just seem to get better and better. Left-handed Yuta is a dazzling player, his vision and speed are at Kevin levels and this is reflected in their superb head to head record against the Minions (6-2). He is relentless but I often wonder if his threat is diluted by competing in two sectors; I’m fascinated to see how he copes with these demands overlaid by the pressure of a home Olympics. Endo has always been a top player but something about this partnership has liberated him to dream big. Perhaps his stubborn, reliable approach just nicely balances Yuta’s pzazz. Prediction: Final
Hendra Setiawan & Mohammad Ahsan
Could these two nurse their old bones to a Golden final. The day I watched them win on three legs at the All England in 2019 was the day I fell in love with Indonesian badminton. No superlative can do this pair justice but they are consistent winners of the best tournaments including Hendra’s Gold at the 2008 Olympics with his then partner, the late Markus Kido. Nevertheless, in Thailand they were beaten twice by Lee/Wang; they just could not contain the exuberant Taiwanese. At the time it was clear that Ahsan was competing with a dodgy leg so I hope that they have arrived in Japan in good shape. Their rivals in Group D are tough but if they can get the results they need with no injuries then they will be into the next round. Prediction Semi-Final
Lee Yang & Wang Chi-Lin
The most likely challengers for the top spot in Group A are the Taiwanese pair: Lee Yang/Wang Chi-Lin. These two were unstoppable in Thailand, winning three out of three tournaments. I think the most rewarding wins for them must have been against Ahsan and Setiawan in the SF of the Toyota Thailand Open and the WTF. Ahsan was not at 100% but it was clear that the Dads could not live with the Taiwanese muscular approach and it must have been a massive confidence boost to beat such sporting icons. Prediction Semi-Final
Li Jun & Liu Yu Chen
These two have a lot of attacking power and can use their aggression in Tokyo to damage everyone’s dreams. They both move well, have good 3D awareness of the court spaces and can use their height for some steep shots. I think Liu’s netplay will often allow him to gain an advantage right at the start of a rally; he is hard to pass with his long reach and steadfast approach. These two have been restricted to domestic competition since YAE20, and had been in a comparative slump prior to Covid. Maybe this break will have rejuvenated their desire or they could have added some refinements to their tactics. The current status of all the Chinese competitors is difficult to analyse because we haven’t been able to watch them for ages. I’m sure that the Chinese coaches will have prepared them well and if they are back to their best then the podium beckons.
Choi Solgyu & Seo Seungjae
Seo Seungjae’s contract issues have been put to one side for the duration of the Olympics. Or should I say that the suspension given him by the BKA will not take effect until after Tokyo. Of course this is great news for his partners in MD and XD and reveals how important he is to Korea’s medal hopes. He and Choi Solgyu are in the same group (D) as Ahsan/Setiawan and Aaron Chia/Soh Wooi Yik so there are some hard battles ahead.
Keigo Sonoda & Takeshi Kamura
Can the ‘second’ Japanese pair force their way into the medal reckoning? Their brawny, boisterous style can overwhelm rivals and enthrall spectators. They are tireless and so noisy in their mutual support between points that they amplify the pressure on court. Kamura’s work around the front; his anticipation and reading of the game allied to his partners relentless energy and enthusiasm means that they can dominate matches. However their head to head stats against the absolute top pairs are weak (Minions 11-5, Dads 5-2, Endo/Watanabe 4-2, Li/Liu 7-3) so they are going to have to bring something fresh to the tournament if they want to get on the podium. They are in an intriguing position – unseeded – in Group C with the Chinese pair; they should be able to get to the knockouts and then let’s see who they play in the latter stages.
Any Dark Horses?
Lots of these pairs have the ability to trouble the favourites but whether they can do it consistently and push on to a medal is hard to say. Lane and Vendy performed superbly in Thailand and Shetty and Rankireddy have plenty of potential but I think this outing will be part of their journey to Paris success in 2024. Battling it out to progress from Group B behind Watanabe/Endo are the Danes Rasmussen/Astrup and Russians Sozonov/Ivanov. This Olympics is being held under unique protocols so athletes who can seize every opportunity, stay fit and adapt to discomfort without being distracted will be the ones who triumph.
Who will win Gold?
Can anyone stop an All-Indonesian final? A lot depends on the draw after the group stage is completed but the pair who bring intensity and fokus right from the start will be at an advantage. This is going to be a strange covid-adjusted Olympics with few fans present but millions watching from a distance. Although many think that the conditions at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza don’t naturally suit the Minions style they are triple winners of the Japan Open so the reults suggest they relish the arena. Kevin and Marcus must solve the Yuta problem but this is a fabulous opportunity to cement their place amongst the games greats. They will have to overcome some tough tests but they have everything within themselves that they need to get Gold.
China has the top two seeds in this sector and must be confident of glory – the question is, who can disrupt their plans to dominate this part of the competition? Japan has home advantage and two fantastic competitors in Watanabe and Higashino, Thailand’s Bass & Popor’s challenge is likely to be robust whilst Jordan and Oktavianti have made no secret of their focus on Gold.
The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.
Group A: Zheng/Huang (#1), Tabeling/Piek, Seo/Chae, Elgamel/Hany
ZHENG Si Wei & HUANG Ya Qiong are top seeds and expected by their millions of fans at home in China to win the tournament – probably with a victory in the final over compatriots WANG/HUANG. The pressure they exert on rivals, their energy and their technical skills all combine to make them habitual winners. Zheng’s spatial awareness – especially his use of cross-court smashes or drives – means he sets up points for his partner to snaffle at the net. The main threat in their group are Koreans Seo Seung-jae/Chae Yujung who were strong in the Thailand bubble (Silver medallists twice) so I think these two pairs will progress into the knockout rounds. SSJ is also competing in the MD so there may be issues around fatigue for him. If Tabeling/Piek could force a win against the Koreans then the remainder of the games will have more significance but they have a hard task ahead.
Group B:Puavaranukroh/Taerattanachai (#3), Gicquel/Delrue, Ellis/Smith, Hurlburt-Yu/Wu
Bass/Popor were sensational on home turf in January – unbeaten in all three tournaments – and this has raised hopes for a good Olympic run. They are hungry for success and the last couple of years has seen them challenge for titles at all the major tournaments. This is a very tricky group though. Thom Gicquel and Delphine Delrue have been attracting more and more admiring appraisals and it’s obvious they have been working hard through the pandemic. I have a feeling that their sights are set on the title at their home Olympics and this competition is part of the ongoing project. Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith should have enough experience to negotiate this part of the competition and get into the knockout stages. If they can get to the QF the Brits are possible dark horses for a medal but their head-to-head against all of the seeds is not good. Their opening game is against the French and it is a must win for both pairs.
Group C: Jordan/Oktavianti (#4),Watanabe/Higashino, Christiansen/Boje, Wing Hang Leung/Somerville
Gold is the target for the Indonesian 4th seeds and they have what it takes to deny their rivals so long as Praveen Jordan can consistently find his form. His intimidating presence, blistering smash and all-round game make him a complicated opponent; Melati is a excellent foil for him. If PraMel start sluggishly then the Japanese pair could top the group. The current All England champions are eyeing a podium spot but as Yuta Watanabe is competing in the MD too I’m curious how he’s going to manage the physical and emotional demands upon him. I’m a big fan of Arisa Higashino; her play from the rear court liberates Yuta to maraud at the front and this is one of their major advantages over many rivals. Could the Danes or Australians seize the initiative in this group and grab one of the top two places? It’s quite a big ask, so let’s see who starts smartly and gets some momentum as pressure rises.
Group D: Wang/Huang (#2), Lamfuss/Herttrich, Tang/Tse, Chan/Goh
WANG Yi Lyu and HUANG Dong Ping are likely to boss this group. HDP is always an eye-catching net player with such a reliable touch and good strategic vision whilst her partner can consistently put away chances. Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying – the Silver medalists in Rio – will expect to progress out of the group alongside the Chinese pair.
Can any of these pairs stop the top seeds winning Gold? On paper the most likely would be their compatriots but we have all witnessed unexpected results in the Olympic theatre. Praveen Jordan is a bit temperamental and this can be turned to his advantage; it’s a useful strategy to be unpredictable especially against opponents like the Chinese who tend to be ‘hard-drilled’. It’s essential that he is competing at a consistent level though; otherwise PraMel will miss opportunities to win. There have been whispers of a possible injury to Jordan but he has dismissed this and said it is inevitable aches and pains after hard training. The Thai duo, Puavaranukroh/Taerattanachai have become serious contenders and the Korean pair in Group A could be fighting for a medal but – as with Yuta – I’m concerned about Seo Seung-jae’s risk of fatigue. As for Watanabe and Higashino; I’m a little nervous about Arisa’s defence if she comes under sustained pressure so as a team they must avoid situations that allow their opponents to turn the screw. Malaysians Chan/Goh know how to win an Olympic medal likewise Marcus Ellis who with Lauren Smith could be challenging for honours at the end.
Realistically it’s hard to see beyond Zheng Si Wei and Huang Ya Qiong. Although we haven’t been able to watch them in international competition for a while there is no doubt that they will have been preparing diligently and will be excited to assert their dominance. The Chinese badminton community always approach the Olympics with the highest expectations and in this instance they are justified in expecting two medals
The British have chosen 11 players to challenge for medals at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics but they are not necessarily the athletes we expected to be on the list at the start of June. In an astonishingly brutal decision the Rio bronze medallists – Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge – were dropped in favour of the young guns: Ben Lane and Sean Vendy. Of course, we know that regardless of qualifying via BWF ranking points the final gift of a place is decided by the coaches but it appears to be a decision that was communicated at the eleventh hour. This probably means it’s too late for any sort of meaningful appeal. As an observer I have no inside knowledge but Langridge’s instagram post from June 4th suggests he thought he was part of the team.
Men’s Doubles: Ben Lane & Sean Vendy
Lane and Vendy were excellent in Thailand in January. They thrived in the bubble and I really feel that their level of performance went up by several notches. The challenge for them now is to maintain that improvement with an eye on the future. Their pathway leads to the Paris Olympics and if they are going to disrupt the stranglehold that Indonesia, Japan and China have on this sector then the hard work is only just beginning. Tokyo offers vital experience and they must use it to enrich their future matches.
Mixed Doubles: Lauren Smith & Marcus Ellis
These two can go toe-to-toe with the best and I’m very excited about their chances for a medal. Ellis is a fantastic athlete: he never gives up and keeps fighting right to the end. His chippy attitude often means he seizes victory in 50/50 situations or even when defeat seems to be looming. It’s disappointing that he can’t defend his MD Bronze, however playing less games will narrow his focus and may help his load management. XD glory ultimately will stem from Lauren Smith and how she plays in the tournament. It’s vital that their strategies reflect her importance and the essential interceptions that Ellis can give at the net.
Women’s Singles: Kirsty Gilmour
This is Kirsty Gilmour’s second Olympics and it was no surprise that she qualified for the competition. Her title win at the 2020 SaarLorLux and especially her hard-fought semi-final triumph over Carolina Marin showed what a wholehearted competitor she is. She’s had a few injury niggles and training disruption but I hope she can progress through the tournament.
Men’s Singles: Toby Penty plus ParaBadminton Dan Bethell (SL3), Jack Shephard (SH6) and Krysten Coombes (SH6)
Penty will be making his Olympic debut in Tokyo so it will be interesting to see how he progresses and uses the experience to push on to – for instance – a possible medal at the Commonwealth Games next year. A lot is going to depend on the draw and his reaction to the pressure of the tournament.
Dan Bethell – who upgraded from tennis to badminton a while ago – has a genuine shot at Gold in his category (SL3) at the Parabadminton tournament. He won Silver at the World Championships in Basle 2019 and was beaten by Pramod Bhagat that day. The Indian is a superb player who has a habit of winning, so Bethell must be at his best if he wants to be on top of the podium.
Jack Shephard is an athlete who will be disappointed if he doesn’t win Gold in the SH6 class. He successfully defended his 2017 World Title in 2019 and he is the player all the others have to beat. Krysten Coombes – world #5 – is in the same sector. He won European Gold in 2016 and so knows what it takes to win high pressure games.
Women’s Doubles: Chloe Birch & Lauren Smith.
These two won silver at the European Games a couple of years ago and would be considered one of the best pairs in Europe. How far they progress is hard to predict simply because the duos from Japan, China, and Korea tend to dominate top level tournaments. A good draw and quick adjustment to local conditions could see them advance.
Men’s WH2: Martin Rooke
Rooke is a well-known competitor in both the singles and doubles of WH2. He’s one of those players who has a habit of winning so it would be no surprise to see him on the podium in Tokyo.
Can I Mention Rachel Choong?
I’m extremely disappointed that the first Paralympics to include badminton also excludes multiple world champion Rachel Choong. Her SH6 category is not included this time. Actually, it’s just the women’s SH6 that is left out, Jack Shephard and Krysten Coombes who is in the men’s SH6 will be in Tokyo. Perhaps someone can clarify the reason for this? I’m told it’s partly because when the programme for the parabadminton was announced the women’s SH6 did not have a wide global representation. Hopefully Paris 2024 will see this rectified.
Our Team GB athletes have four realistic chances of parabadminton medals including Gold and a chance of a further medal in the able-bodied sector. It has been a very hard year for all competitors and some nations have found it easier than others to maintain the function of a national training centre, to hold meaningful national competitions or to run Olympic Simulations.
Back in 2010 there was a magazine article http://www.theleisurereview.co.uk/articles10/christy.html that claimed Badminton England’s strategy was to be the number one badminton nation by 2016. That was a pretty taxing target but nevertheless the mission statement in 2021 still says that “Olympic success [is] at the heart of our ambitions”. The harsh truth is that success brings funding so it’s crucial that the national body can point to victories that show progress, that engage the population at large and inspire the next generation. It’s disappointing that there are no women athletes from the parabadminton community that have qualified. Of the 11 people travelling to compete only 3 are female; perhaps I can count Lauren Smith twice as she will compete in two sectors but whatever way we look at it something is not working. In terms of representing the community at large it might also be worth considering the lack of apparent diversity in the athletes backgrounds and whether this means that there is a source of talent that is not being included. I don’t know, I don’t have accurate information to hand regarding this.
The Olympics is always a hard competition to call. I hope that our athletes thrive and play their best games. It’s been a long journey to get to this point and all our players deserve their spots and the opportunity to compete against the best.