Has Indonesian Badminton Stagnated?

By Shubhi Rofiddinsa (Podcast Tepak Bulu)

After a disappointing semi-final exit against Japan in this years Sudirman Cup – losing 3-1 – many fans and experts heavily criticised the 20-player squad and questioned if they would ever repeat the win of 1989 and bring the cup home again. The fact that Indonesia hasn’t won any major team-tournament events since the 2002 Thomas Cup and 1996 Uber Cup makes the loss hurt a little more. Many regarded the Singles players contribution as disappointing as the team relied solely on doubles to rake up points.

Sudirman Cup 2019 team. Picture from Badminton Indonesia IG

The biggest question of them all is: has Indonesian badminton become stagnant recently? To answer that, let’s take a look at each disciplines’ progress so far this year before we set our eyes on the upcoming Indonesian Open 2019 in a few days.

Men’s Doubles

Who can Indonesian fans rely on to win games or tournaments? It’s always men’s doubles. The Minions – otherwise known as Marcus Fernaldi Gideon & Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo – are instantly recognised everywhere. They won all their matches in this year’s Sudirman Cup and their stature rises after each tournament.

The combination of attractive playing style and off-court demeanour add to the entertainment value of the game itself, making it more interesting to watch. Although the world number ones haven’t won as many titles as they did last year, their game is evolving: they are playing less explosively and being more patient in attack.

Photo from MFG’s Instagram

Meanwhile, Mohammad Ahsan/Hendra Setiawan are back on top again after their split in 2017 and have had a great first-half of the year so far: getting to four finals and winning two of them, All England and New Zealand Open .

Recovering from a game down Ahsan/Setiawan powered their way to the All England title.
Video courtesy BWF

Fajar Alfian/Muhammad Rian Ardianto is also a pair to watch this year winning the Swiss Open and silver at the Asian Games.


Women’s Doubles

Another discipline that can be counted on when it comes to consistent success in every tournament is Women’s Doubles. Nevertheless Greysia Polii/Apriyani Rahayu is the only Indonesian pair in the top 10 with no-one obvious waiting in the wings to join them there. They won all their matches in the Sudirman Cup until eventually succumbing to the Japanese powerhouse Mayu Matsumoto/Wakana Nagahara – the world number ones – in the semi final.

Polii will be 32 years old this year and questions have popped up about her successors. Names that have been mentioned are Ni Ketut Mahadewi Istarani, Rizki Amelia Pradipta, Della Destiara Harris, Agatha Imanuela and Siti Fadia Silva Ramadhanti. Indonesia’s head coach for women’s doubles, Eng Hian, said

“Maybe after the Olympic Games. 2021 maybe, finishing her contract with the sponsors first. After that, she might have thought about her next step (on what she wants to do). Be it a professional player or else”

This is a tricky area to regenerate. Finding a pair as successful as Polii/Rahayu, Polii/Maheswari or even Natsir/Marissa will be tough. It is the only sector that has not won an Olympic gold medal since Badminton’s inception in the games back in Barcelona 1992.


Mixed Doubles

The search continues for the ‘next’ Liliyana Natsir – one of the greatest of all time – after she retired from the badminton world earlier this year. Suprisingly, not many pairs from juniors are now competing at elite level. Although there has been good progress so far – by creating a competitive environment between the four main pairs – they always come up short in their finals.

Photo from BWF

Praveen Jordan/Melati Daeva Oktavianti have lost three finals so far this year: one in India, one in New Zealand, and another in Australia. The match that fans will always remember though is the semi final heartbreak at this year’s All England against the superior Zheng Siwei/Huang Yaqiong where they led 20-17 in the second set after winning the first one and ended up losing the match.

Meanwhile, Hafiz Faizal/Gloria Emmanuelle Widjaja haven’t been in top form. They lost their match against Denmark in the Sudirman Cup, they got to the final of the German Open but lost that too and are generally struggling to make much headway beyond quarter & semi finals. The newest pair – Tontowi Ahmad/Winny Oktavina Kandow have so far made good progress by contesting five quarter finals in six months. Ahmad is expected to be a good mentor for the 20-year-old youngster and the pair is fighting for the Olympic Games spot.

The 2017 World Junior Championship winners, Rinov Rivaldy/Pitha Haningtyas, seek to rise to the occasion as the elite pair for Indonesia in the coming years. Although they must be carefully observed and developed by their coaches if we want to see more of them in the future.


Men’s Singles

This is where it gets tricky because performances fluctuate. 2016 was the first time Indonesia could pin their hopes onto three youngsters to represent the nation.

Antony Sinisuka Ginting, Jonatan Christie and Ihsan Maulana Mustofa were in the Thomas Cup squad that year and the team finished runners-up after defeat by Denmark, the first European country to win the prestigious trophy. The first two players mentioned above have won three titles each and their form continues to improve with next year’s Olympics on the horizon. It seems that Ginting and Christie are the only players Indonesia can rely on to win titles but they often run up against the relentless Momota and don’t yet seem to have worked out how to beat him.

It’s going to be interesting to see how far Indonesia advances in the Thomas Cup next year.


Women’s Singles

No Superseries titles have been won by Indonesian women since its inception in 2009. Gregoria Mariska Tunjung and Fitriani frequently underachieve, although Fitriani did win the Thailand Masters back in January. It’s a realistic possibility that only one player will qualify for Tokyo 2020. Women’s Singles still has a lot of catching up to do to improve their competitiveness and succeed at the highest level. This is thrown into relief by the recent success of the South Korean player AN Se Young – if she has been coached to take on and beat the established top 20 players then why not the Indonesian women?

Re-live Fitriani’s maiden title in 2019 at Thailand Masters.
Video courtesy BWF

If this all seems rather folorn there is some positive news. With his success at producing great players like Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi, Reony Mainaky’s return home from Japan after his eight-year stint as a coach for their national team, will restore the public’s faith in the ambition of this team.


Conclusion

Men’s doubles will be the front-runner to grab the Gold medal in this year’s world championships in Basel, and also at the Olympics next year. Meanwhile other players performances can lack consistently good results.

In the end, Indonesia remains as one of the powerhouses in World Badminton; but languishing in the top five is not good enough for a nation with such a successful past and a fan base with the highest hopes. The stagnation can actually be seen from the over-dependency on certain disciplnes, especially doubles and this obviously hinders the ambition to win team championship titles.

Reony Mainaky’s return is a sign of intent but this is a mark of work in progress not ‘job done’. For these players to fulfil everyone’s expectations and realise their immense potential there needs to be a new approach that refuses to accept that what they are achieving on the world stage at the moment is the maximum possible rather it’s the start of something wonderful.


The author of this article – Shubhi Rofiddinsa – also broadcasts about badminton as the wonderful Podcast Tepak Bulu. Here’s a link to one of his episodes where he talks with Badminton Becky https://t.co/9YlAzrVhey?amp=1

You may also enjoy this piece about two of my favourite players: Polii & Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/12/a-thriving-partnership-indonesias-polii-and-rahayu/

Marin is sorely missed

Since her devastating ACL injury back in January there has been something missing in badminton.

Some of Marins best points – video courtesy of BWF

In a WS world that has a lot of ‘retrievers’ here is an unashamed attacker. Marin rampages around the court – so fit and powerful – and demands victory. After winning a point, she shouts, she wheels away, a brisk walk with her back to her opponent, then onto the next serve. Constantly trying to build that unstoppable momentum that carries her forward.

Photo from Carolina Marin’s IG

The Spaniard is missed for a lot of reasons but I am highlighting her big on-court personality because I think it’s crucial to her psychological make-up and her future. Marin takes up a lot of space: she’s physically big of course – she can reach anything – but all the shouting and stomping around means her opponent has to work hard to zone her out. The noise can disrupt concentration and her rivals need to stay emotionally tranquil to get the upper hand.

That horrendous day when she injured her knee; we have all seen the slo-mo replay of the point in the game where she leapt, reached, hit, then crumpled. (I don’t want to post film of it here because it makes me feel so uncomfortable). It was evident it was bad. Over the following days things became clearer: serious damage, an operation, heavy duty rehab. Here is her reaction:

“It’s time to prepare for the most difficult battle, but I have no doubt that I will come back stronger”

Dio Uno from Carolina’s IG

She has come through tough tests before and has a record of facing up to challenges successfully. Let’s rewind a few years. In 2014 and 2015 she won the World Championship and then came Gold in Rio 2016. Spain has Rafa: he is the ace racketeer, but suddenly there was Carolina. Winning the Olympic title inevitably brought her to the attention of the non-badminton community and it is the pinnacle for most sports. After this she suffered a common problem for Gold medallists, to find a motivation to continue and to do this she had to look into herself.

What next after Olympic Gold? Well, her 3rd World Championship of course!

Her big challenge was to regain her enthusiasm for the game that she had devoted her life to. What else was there to win? There followed a period of reflection and it almost was like she was treading water, trying to get herself back to the player she was. She obviously has a great team around her and this includes a psychologist. Whatever it was they added, it worked: August 2018 she became World Champion for the third time and back to her best.

Highlights of the World Championship WS Final courtesy BWF

So what does the future hold? She seems to be targeting the World Championships in August in Basle. It would be amazing if she were back to her highest level so soon after an ACL rupture however, don’t bet against it. After being denied the pleasure of playing since January she must be hungry to get back on court to mix it with the top players. No need to worry about motivation, nevertheless an anxiety is going to be around rerupture and returning too early. We all want her back on court, raising noise levels and charging around so lets wait and see if she can reappear soon and return to her strutting best.

If you enjoyed reading this follow the link to my piece about the wonderful Ratchanok https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/ and the new sensation AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

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

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

Video courtesy BWF

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

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

Video courtesy BWF

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Featured

Tai Tzu Ying: Goddess or Mortal?

Tai Tzu Ying is one of the most adored athletes in the world whose appeal cuts across national boundaries. A once in a generation player who dazzles and inspires whenever she plays.

Is she the best ever women’s singles player? If we measure solely on medals at the moment the answer is ‘no’. So why is she so loved and why does it feel that she has no equal?

“She is the personification of joy” – from MinPlus

“She is the most delightful player to watch on court, she makes badminton fun” from September

“She’s our seratonin” – from GEL

She became World #1 in 2016 after a magnificent run of results and has stayed there ever since.

As a regular user of Instagram she often posts charming pictures of herself eating ice cream, playing with Lego or training in the gym with her team and this all helps to blur the boundaries between the elite athlete and her worshipping fans. She has commented that in matches, when she has been losing, it is the thought of letting down her supporters that has spurred her on to eventual victory. She does care about the fans who back her.

Tai Tzu Ying has a zen-like presence on court; when I first started watching her I was confused by her calm, smiling approach to victory or loss. Now I believe it’s very important to her to win – why else would she devote herself to the sport? But I also see someone who appreciates her life with her family and who has nothing to prove in her field. I think that she enjoys playing and is as thrilled as her spectators when she executes a great shot.

Video courtesy of Shuttle Flash

Her skill is breath-taking; take a look at the compilation video by Shuttle Flash. The quality of her trickery is amazing and so wonderful to watch in this era dominated by attritional players. The root of her genius is from her teens:

“…it’s said that her father took her to play on badminton courts at small clubs run by badminton lovers everywhere in Taiwan when she was a child. Wanting to win over these skilled (but informal) players she practised her deception skills and gained lots of success…” by eeye24

There is also the fact that she suffered a hand injury when she as 13. Because her metacarpal damage restricted her forehand play she had to rely more heavily on her backhand which gave her better wrist strength. As her father pointed out, the injury was a blessing in disguise. Her capacity for deception is extraordinary and she is a true artist with her racket. The variation in her game – the range of shots and angles -is staggering.

Picture from shutterstock

The flip side of such an adventurous player is that there is a trace of inconsistency which runs through her career. Sometimes in the middle of a game her focus just seems to drift and suddenly her opponent will put together a run of points. Often at this moment she manages to retune herself into the game, get her concentration back and finish off the contest but it doesn’t always happen. Watch the video below where she talks about this and the role of her deceptive moves.

Video courtesy BWF

She also mentions her stubbornness. In my earlier blog https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/03/18/tai-tzu-ying-taiwans-sporting-icon/ I talked about her courage and the fact that she is relentless in the pursuit of victory. She dares her foe to match her dazzling talent and I still consider the psychological warfare that she wages against her opponents a key factor in her success. The genius that she brings to her games is a delight for her audience (& her) but it saps her rival’s emotional energy. In my opinion the only other current player who approaches this level of skill is Ratchanok May.

So now we are in Olympic qualifying year and Tai Tzu Ying has hinted that she could retire after Tokyo2020. I think everyone wants her to win Gold; to cement her place in history and to bring her sublime skills to the attention of the non-badminton world. We are lucky to be able to watch such a wonderful player who lights up the court with her brilliance. Who knows what the future holds for her – it’s going to be fantastic to watch the next year of badminton unfold – and I hope that legends are made in the process.


TTY just taking it easy! From IG

If you enjoyed this post follow the link to my piece about Ratchanok – another of my favourite players https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/ and also this article about AN Se Young: one of the most exciting players to emerge from Korea in recent years https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

Ratchanok :Can Thailand’s Sweetheart Get Gold?

Ratchanok Intanon is a magnificent player.

Malaysia Open 2019. Picture credit: Shutterstock.com

She is so elegant – almost balletic – she glides around the court with incredibly light feet. This graceful style is one of the features that makes her so enjoyable to watch. There’s a lot of depth and technical skill to her game so this combination makes her a very successful competitor and a tricky opponent to beat.

May is loved by all and is a very popular player on the circuit; it’s not unusual to see photos of her socialising with the Japanese players and recently it emerged she had played doubles in an exhibition match with Nozomi Okuhara.

May’s 24 though it seems like we have enjoyed watching her for years: she turned professional in 2007 and first exploded onto the international scene when she was only 14. How she came to the sport is quite a well-known story. Her parents worked at a sweet factory in Bangkok whose owner encouraged his employees children to play at the factory’s badminton courts to keep them away from the cooking and hot sugar. Her natural athleticism was recognised and so she was encouraged and supported to follow her pathway to success.

The compilation video below by Shuttle Flash calls her ‘Queen of Comebacks’ and I think this is a strong element of her approach. She doesn’t know when she is beaten; it’s rare that she just gives in. This must partly be the result of her experience but it also says something about her as a person. She is renowned for her determination and focus in training so I think this attitude carries through into matches quite easily.

Video courtesy of ShuttleFlash.

She won the Vietnam International Challenge in 2009 she was just 14, then became the youngest ever winner of the BWF World Junior Championships also when she was still 14. In 2013 she was triumphed in the BWF World Championships beating Li Xuerui over 3 games in the final and is still the youngest ever singles winner of that event. That year she also suffered from a foot injury and a back problem which limited the other tournaments she entered. The following two years were reasonably quiet by her standards – perhaps the older players had ‘found her out’ and possibly she lost some fitness through injuries – however 2016 is a different story.

Rio Olympic year saw Ratchanok win 3 Superseries titles in a row (India, Malaysia, Singapore): she beat Li Xuerui, Tai Tzu Ying and Sun Yu in each of the finals. This extraordinary run of form saw her become the first Thai to hold the world Number One spot, qualify for the Olympics, and was the flag bearer at the opening ceremony. In spite of this she was halted by Akane Yamaguchi and didn’t get beyond the round of 16; the rest of the year fizzled out somewhat owing to the knee injury she picked up in Rio.

From Ratchanok’s Instagram 2019

Since then there are so many achievements, an honour roll can’t begin to tell the whole story. I cannot remember ever seeing her play an ugly game. She has a beautiful touch at the net; it’s almost as though she can hold the shot back for a split second longer than the opponent expects – so not strictly speaking deception but still deceptive. She can vary the pace of the game and this tactic often disrupts her rivals rhythm.

She has a ‘fast racket’ and great technique which of course means that a full armoury of shots are at her fingertips. She is 169cm tall and uses her height and reach shrewdly, I love seeing her set up net kills that she executes so sharply. Her reverse slice drop shot is a thing of beauty, there are also punchy clears plus she has a dangerous straight and cross court smash. Her precision is outstanding; she will consistently place the shuttle right on the line.

So what does the future hold? She has been clear about her ambition:

“…to win an Olympic gold medal and to be Number 1 in the world”

Is Tokyo Gold a realistic possibility? In terms of ability and experience definitely yes but we can all name some outstanding players who will stand in her way. Morten Frost pointed out that the key to that medal will lie in the seeding and her weakness is that she is stagnating as a top 10 player. The consistency needed to stay in the top 10 for as long as her is remarkable but she needs to be in the top 4 so she can avoid meeting competitors like Akane or Tai Tzu Ying until the semi finals.

This is a very interesting look at Ratchanok’s training and it includes her mum cooking! Video courtesy of BWF.

It seems to me that she has lots of motivations for playing. Partly she has been driven by her desire to provide for her family but it also is important that she enjoys her games. Similar to Tai Tzu Ying she is not really a percentage player – I think she revels in her skills – for instance when she plays a cross court over the net to mid court it could go horribly wrong. It’s death or glory, but the glory on offer is too delightful to ignore. She’s an intelligent woman who loves her sport and is loved by everyone who watches her – we all want this refined, clever player to continue to win and make history.

Follow the links to read more about two of her main rivals. My article about Nozomi Okuhara is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ and Tai Tzu Ying is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/03/18/tai-tzu-ying-taiwans-sporting-icon/

Badminton & TeamGB: 2019 European Games

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

From Instagram

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

video by kind permission BWF

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

From Instagram

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

From the Adcock’s Instagram

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

From Instagram

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

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

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

Nozomi Okuhara: Racket Ready For Tokyo Glory?

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

“…everyone loves badminton…”

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

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

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

Okuhara from above by Shutterstock.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Thriving Partnership: Indonesia’s Polii and Rahayu.

A great player splits with her partner through injury and a young ‘nobody’ is suddenly propelled into the spotlight:

Video courtesy BWF

It takes guts to enter into a new doubles partnership. It means starting from fresh at the bottom of the rankings and learning a new person’s strengths. Polii was the senior player matched to the young raw Rahayu; it was a new dawn for her and a golden opportunity for her new partner.

When the Indonesian team was restructured at the end of 2016 new combinations of players were tried out in the women’s doubles camp. It was a shake up for both of them. Inevitably at the start there were failures as they put in the hard yards. All the training and planning that goes into elite sport is well-known but there’s no substitute for playing in match conditions under pressure. As they competed, they clicked and success came surprisingly quickly.

From Greysia Polii’s Instagram

Polii is the one who is tournament hardened; she brings a vast experience to any game. She’s been to the Olympics and played in all the high-profile competitions but Rahayu has drive and fearlessness. She is a great partner to have; she works hard and pushes the game aggressively. I love the way she opens up and goes for her shots. She relishes winning and wins well.

Video courtesy of BWF

Long rallies are a feature of women’s doubles these days; patience is needed as well as guile to penetrate well organised defences. These two are very fit and have the endurance to outlast their opponents. 50 & 60 shot rallies are no problem. With their strength and speed, they can turn the screw on their opponents really effectively. They won the 2019 India Open in two games but the last one went to 25-23. It shows a willingness to commit to victory, rather than let the match drift to an unnecessary third game.

There’s more to them than just stubborn stamina though. They’ve got great accuracy – especially Polii – and they are adept at changing direction in rallies to place the shuttle after working the opening. Greysia is the boss but there is great chemistry between them – take a look at the video at the top of this piece.

So what does the future hold? Greysia Polii is quoted as saying

“…we still have a lot of work on ahead of the Olympics…”.

It’ll be interesting to see how Olympic qualifying year goes. The first indicator of their ambition has to be the Indonesian Open in July; their home tournament needs them to be imperious and I’d love to see them reach the final. Its been wonderful to watch them develop as a unit over the past couple of years, they just get better and better, however can they challenge the Japanese for the title at their home Olympics?

If you enjoyed this, follow the link to an article by Podcast Tepak Bulu about the future of Indonesian Badminton https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/14/has-indonesian-badminton-stagnated/

Another Sensational Player From China: CHEN Yu Fei

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

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

Video courtesy of Badminton England

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

Photo credit: Hafiz Johari/Shutterstock.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P V Sindhu – India’s Superstar

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

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/Xinhua

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

Picture from IG

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

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

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

That medal moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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