Featured

Nozomi Okuhara: Racket Ready For Tokyo Glory?

“…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”?

Okuhara from above by Shutterstock.com

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.

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

She is a defensive player known for her speed, agility and endurance, so this means her games are characterised by long rallies. Her rival in the semi-final at the 2019 Malaysian Open – 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 the semi-final against Tai Tzu Ying she was unsettled by TTY’s spontaneity. At times Tai just refused to get into the groove of a long probing rally – she just finished the point off and moved on – eventually winning the game. Paradoxically this cautious approach is very dangerous; if her accuracy ever fails she hands over control to her adversary. There are times when it’s frustrating to watch because with the opposition court at her mercy she often eschews a swift kill and opts to send back another clear.

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

There are so many other outstanding women’s singles players who want that medal, any of the people in the top 10 could grab gold. Tai Tzu Ying 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.”

Featured

A Thriving Partnership: Indonesia’s Polii and Rayahu.

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…”.

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?

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.

Photo credit: Hafiz Johari/Shutterstock.com

Since her success at the 2018 Fuzhou Chinese Open, Chen has been on an upward trajectory. 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…

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.

Video courtesy of Badminton England


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?

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?

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.

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.

When we look at the players in the woman’s game there isn’t a huge difference in ability amongst the top 10. Her Olympic silver has been joined by a couple of BWF World Championship silvers and one from the Asian Games. In 2018 she was the winner of the World Tour Finals. 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.”

For the Women’s Singles she is the highest ranked home contender in the Yonex-Sunrise India Open this year. She was runner-up in 2018 but who can stop her getting gold in 2019?…

Footnote 31st March 2019: Ah well, it didn’t quite work out as perhaps the whole of India wanted. P V Sindhu lost in her semi final to He Bingjiao. The eventual winner of the Yonex-Sunrise India Open WS title was the brilliant Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand.

If you enjoyed this then follow the link to my page about Saina Nehwal https://womensbadminton.co.uk/saina/

Featured

Tai Tzu Ying: Taiwan’s Sporting Icon

Is Tai Tzu Ying the best ever women’s singles player?

My top takeaway from watching her at the All England Open Championships this year is that it would be impossible to name anyone else who plays in such an exciting way. She became World Number 1 back in 2016 after a dominant year and has been at the top ever since; winning back to back singles titles at the All England in 2017 and 2018.

A few years back when I first started watching her, I was confused by her unhurried style. She keeps smiling and keeps winning. No one is number 1 in the world by chance so I started to try and understand why she is so successful.

Photo credit Bonma Suriya/shutterstock.com

What sets her apart is her mind-blowing deception. She is a true artist: racket in hand, the quality of her trickery is amazing. Check out the compilation video posted by Shuttle Flash on YouTube. The variation in her game – the range of shots and angles – is staggering. She caresses the shuttle with deadly accuracy and finishes off rallies in jaw dropping style.

Video courtesy Shuttle Flash

Tai skims over the court and covers the corners with ease – moving in her own dance – all smooth agility and balance. She is so relaxed and at one with her game that her opponents have to put their foot on the gas to compete. Like many top sport stars time seems to expand to contain her talent.

She is a very brave player who is relentless in her pursuit of her opponent. This method of constantly daring her rival to match her sublime flair is exciting to watch but must be psychologically exhausting to play against…And, the best ever? Well, maybe not yet, she has no Olympic Gold, but the prospect of the women’s singles competition at Tokyo 2020 is just fascinating. Who do you think will win it? Chen Yufei? Or maybe Akane Yamaguchi? Let me know via comments.

There is stacks of talent in the women’s game at the moment but Tai Tzu Ying is extraordinary in her genius and I never get bored of her endless brilliance.

Yonex All England 2019. Definitely not village hall badminton

The Yonex All England is an unbelievable show: its where the world’s top players want to make history and where we all want to watch it happen. The arena is dark except for spotlights when the players emerge, the crowd is noisy and the intensity is often unbearable.

So, to my highlights of 2019

Video courtesy of Badminton England

The WD semi-final between Hirota/Fukushima and Chen/Jia was an epic physical battle. Right from the start both pairs tried to seize a place in the final. The Chinese duo were ferocious with their attacking smashes; Hirota and Fukushima kept getting the shuttle back but…two, three, four smashes in a row, it was just too much for them to live with. This happened point after point. I didn’t expect that Chen and Jia had the strength to play like this through the entire match. I was wrong. They dominated and they won.

On to the final where they faced Matsumoto and Nagahara, who kept hitting the shuttle up. Clever tactics to exploit tiredness or injury after the exertions of the day before? Nope. After three brutal games Chen and Jia were champions, they deserved it.

I loved watching Viktor Axelsen win his semi-final against Shi as did all the boisterous Danes watching from the seats around me. We were caught up in the charged atmosphere as the match ebbed and flowed. Yes, he did smash at 418kph; I can’t believe I saw it. Shi kept pushing and pushing to try and get back into the game but in the end was beaten.

It’s over for another year. A great spectacle where the worldwide badminton community comes together to support the elite. Congratulations to the winners, and congratulations to those people working behind the scenes to make it such a success. It is definitely not village hall badminton.