Featured

Japan’s TakaMatsu: Ayaka Takahashi & Misaki Matsutomo

The quest for badminton glory has come to an end for one of the greatest Japanese WD pairs ever.  When Ayaka Takahashi announced her retirement earlier this year she ended a partnership of 13 years.  The glittering bond between her and Misaki Matsutomo has been forged during a wonderful journey to the pinnacles of sporting success.

The Golden pair of Japanese badminton are loved by millions of fans worldwide.  Their story begins before the London Olympics.  They played together in High School; but as far as 2012 was concerned whilst their compatriots prepared for those Games they continued with their routine.  After 2012 they started moving up the rankings but as players, they were incomplete and still learning their trade. After a sequence of defeats, it was suggested that they could not withstand pressure but Matsutomo later reflected that it was the experience of losing that made her the competitor she turned into.

One of the characteristics I admire is their ability to evolve over the years: it is at the core of their success.  In this article I’ve tried to illustrate this whilst celebrating some of the highlights of their glorious career.

Uber Cup Final 2014

This was the beginning of the TakaMatsu legend.  It was obvious that they had made significant alterations to their patterns of play. The underpinning of any WD pair is reliable defence – naturally this was still in place – but they had transformed themselves into shuttle-hunters and their rivals could not equal their aggression and determination.  With Takahashi patrolling behind her partner, Matsutomo was released to create chances from the net that they both snapped up eagerly.  Incredibly, after winning the first 21-18 the Japanese pair were towelling down in the interval of the second 11-1 up.  Even as they dominated the second half the commentary team started to speculate whether a Chinese comeback was on the cards.  It wasn’t.  Match won 21-18, 21-9.

2016:  Annus Mirabilis

Seven titles were collected in 2016 including the Yonex All England.  It is difficult to pick just one game but the Rio Olympics was where they took their place amongst the immortals.  The final against Pedersen and Juhl was terrific: set one was scrappy but the Danes took their chances and closed it out 21-18.  In Set 2 the momentum began to shift because Takamatsu improved their attack strategy.  Matsutomo’s work at the net and mid-court was crucial: she exploited the weaknesses of the Danish left/right combination and started getting traction by executing some punchy, flat drives.  In combination with Takahashi’s hard work at the back they were able to create space in the opposition’s court where they could score points.  All square 21-9.

The start of final set gave us some long draining rallies alongside the ‘shuttlecock incident’ at 10-9.  Juhl’s frustration and annoyance at being denied a fresh shuttle boiled over when she brushed away Matsutomo’s racket.  I often wonder what went through Misaki’s mind at that point – I like to think that an imaginary switch was tipped in her brain – but on the surface she remained calm.  The points stayed balanced: 12-12, 14-14, 16-16 because neither pair could impose themselves.  Then suddenly the Danes were 19-16 up, 2 points from Gold.

In an extreme situation defiance is a better strategy than submission.  This was Matsumoto’s moment.  Born of utter confidence in her partner and her own ability she was decisive and swift.  Like all true greats she discovered another level within herself.  With brilliant vision and movement, she refused to lose; together they created five opportunities to score and she executed the chances.  GOLD.

WTF 2018 Final against LEE & SHIN

This is another milestone match.  It’s fascinating because it shows that their style is still progressing.  They have embraced the philosophy of creating attack from defence and this is what enables them to generate pressure from all over the court.

In this match Ayaka is still putting in huge amounts of physical work and it’s striking that her defensive lifts/clears are crucial but she has refined them since 2012.  Now they are mostly aimed for the corners, making space and opening the opponent’s court up so that they can implement attacking combinations.  This is synchronised with Misaki’s beautiful precise net play so they can both get chances to block and push the opponent’s shuttle back to the mid-court when they are under attack.  This resilience is hard to break.

In the second game LEE & SHIN have levelled at 20-20 and we’re starting to look at a third and deciding set.  It’s a classic Matsutomo moment.  Her resolve and focus drive the pair to resist Korean momentum, two points and job done, another title won.

TakaMatsu won Japan’s first badminton Gold at the Rio Olympics and Japanese women’s badminton has achieved staggering success in the years since.  With their endless achievements it’s impossible to do them justice in a short article.  We’ll miss them but they will not be disappearing from view. I’m excited at the idea of Matsutomo in mixed doubles and Takahashi was in the commentary box at the Danish Open…imagine Ayaka commentating on her old partner’s games next year. They have been inspirational athletes with a golden legacy.


Lots of people gave me ideas and contributed suggestions whilst I was writing this. I’d like to mention the badminton Twitter community including: Stefany Monica, Ulfa, Mongnoona2, MarieLgvl, Rakisdianrd, Kantaphon Wangcharoen, Lavern, Aakash Joshi and a big shoutout to @birdjapansuki, a great resource for anyone interested in Japanese Badminton. Sorry if I missed anyone – DM me and I’ll add you!


If you enjoyed this then take a look at this article about Japan’s Olympic hopes https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/11/01/japans-olympic-hopes/ or this one about Nozomi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/05/15/nozomi-okuhara/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

Nozomi v Carolina at the Danisa Denmark Open Finals

Wow – we were treated to a dazzling match for the WS title at the Denmark Open this evening.   

Screenshot from BWF TV

“I’m happy! Long time no see for a title! Compared to other opponents, Marin is faster and has a harder attack. I was focussed on defence and footwork, and my feet moved very well today. Overall the match went well for me.” – Nozomi Okuhara via BWF media service

This was set up to be a thriller right from the start: Carolina V Nozomi is Attack v Defence and Noise v Calm.  A nail-biting encounter was in prospect, a match to showcase all that is wonderful about this generation of Women players.  Both have been World #1, and both were Olympic medallists in Rio.  Outstanding quality that has been waiting months to get on a court.

In many ways this tournament has been an opportunity for both players to push the reset button.  Carolina successfully returned from her cruciate ligament injury but has suffered some personal tragedy over the past months.  Nozomi had a bittersweet 2019 where she gave consistently high-quality performances but was not able to close out championship matches; she ended up with too many silver medals.

Okuhara’s path to the final – consistent straight set wins in every round – suggested she was on a mission.  Marin’s progress was no less impressive: Bei Wen ZHANG took a set off her in their Quarter Final but the Spaniard has such high fitness that it would not have dented her energy levels.   

Set 1 Carolina Wins The Toss

Right from the start it was clear that these two competitors emphatically did not spend lockdown watching tv from their sofa.  Fabulous, high tempo badminton with both players giving everything for every point.  Okuhara was in great form.  The Japanese player was using her big defensive clears to put Marin under huge pressure.  Of course, her game was far more nuanced than this.  Her court coverage was superhuman, her snappy reflexes and great technique meant that although she wasn’t hitting outright winners her strategy was getting points on the board.  Marin was hitting good shots but was being frustrated over and over again.  Although she won the toss, and chose the ‘best’ end Carolina lost the first set 21-19.

Set 2 Silver or Gold?

Both players continued to push each other to play sparkling badminton.  The tension was growing.  Carolina had to get back into the game and she knew the pattern in 2019 from Nozomi was silver, silver, silver.  What could be done?  At 4-3 there was an exchange between the two of them which highlighted Okuhara’s hunger and desire.  An exchange over the next, superb anticipation and a venomous reply taking the score to 5-3.  The BWF commentary team pointed out that Marin was not her usual self between points, she was not hustling the pace along as normal.  Did she have a worry about her stamina after so many months away from the tour? Nozomi continued to screw down the pressure and Marin was becoming more exasperated.  Whatever she threw at her rival was coming back at her.  Her only options seemed to be to try and go for the margins but this high risk strategy gave rise to more lost points.  The title was moving out of her grasp until we came to 20-15 to Okuhara.  Match points.  Danger zone for both players.  16-20 one point saved with a savage smash; 17-20 another point saved after a long rally. Then Nozomi launched an attacked on Carolina’s backhand, moving her forward and back until it culminated in a title winning smash. Game!

A magnificent encounter that highlighted everything to love about women’s singles.  Two brilliant players who went all-out for the title.  Congratulations to Nozomi and commiserations to Carolina. What a time to follow women’s badminton!


If you enjoyed this take a look at my recent article about Nozomi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/05/15/nozomi-okuhara/

Thank you to all the players, officials and volunteers whose hard work has enabled this tournament to proceed.

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Danisa Denmark Open: Women’s Preview

Badminton is BACK!!!!!

Finally, some good news – after the obliteration of the badminton year I am so eager to see this tournament.  The week promises plenty of excitement with old favourites up against some new faces at the Danisa Denmark Open.  I especially want to see who has managed their fitness and performance levels successfully during the break so that they can seize games from ring-rusty opponents.  This could be the perfect time for some of the lesser known athletes to make an impression.

Women’s Singles

This is a very strong field and my gaze is drawn to Nozomi, Carolina and Michelle Li. One of the key features of lockdown has been loneliness. Many players seem to have been isolated from their usual support groups but these three are all familiar with a training regime that – for one reason or another – tends towards solitary. Of course, any singles player, once they are standing on court needs to be mentally self-sufficient with a tough temperament.

Michelle Li is the best Canadian in world badminton; she is a top 10 player in the world rankings and has achieved this with an obstinate focus on her goals of getting on the podium at the Olympics and driving the profile of the sport in her home country. This is a tournament where she must dominate her rivals; it seems like a wonderful opportunity to progress to a final of a S750 competition. I hope she arrives in Odense in top form ready to capitalise on the absence of others.

Carolina Marin will be ready to explode onto the court like a human hand grenade. The Olympic Champion is coming to Denmark to capture a title that has always eluded her. It’s hard for challengers to defuse her aggression. She calls up a competitive energy that rivals have to disrupt to get any sort of foothold in the match. The desire to win is her essence.

Nozomi Okuhara will arrive in Denmark with a strong possibility of winning Gold. She has had a frustrating run of silver medals over the past year, so the hiatus from covid could have been a good opportunity to reset her strategies. She is such a brilliant player with a wide range of skills to draw on in any situtation; her snappy reflexes and speed across the court mean she can absorb any pressure from a rival. The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics must have been an acutely painful experience for a player whose focus was to be the champion in front of her home crowd. I think we would all relish the chance to see Nozomi enjoy success in Odense.

The homeplayers were the Gold medalists at the European Team Championships back in February and if they are on form I think either Line Kjaersfeldt or Mia Blichfeldt could have a good run. It wouldn’t be a shock to see one of them still fighting for a medal at the weekend. Beiwen Zhang is another seed who should anticipate at least a SF spot.

Women’s Doubles

This sector is stacked with superb pairs and I am anticipating some epic battles.

No problems with social distancing at this airport! Pic borrowed from Sayaka’s Twitter feed but no photographer credited.

The top three seeds are three pairs from Japan: Fukuhiro, Matsumoto/Nagahara, and Matsuyama/Shida so the problem of friendly fire could become a live issue. The key question is who will stop the final being Japan v Japan?

Maiken Fruergaard and Sara Thygesen won a lot of friends in the course of January’s Indonesian Masters. In the end they succumbed in a blockbuster of a final to the home pair, Greyap. They sustained high levels of play and a great attitude; it was probably Greysia Polii’s depth of experience that overcame them finally because during the last few points the four players were operating on muscle memory. Therefore what can we expect of the Danes in Denmark? The bottom half of the draw looks quite tricky. It’s likely they could meet Matsumoto and Nagahara in the Quarter Final so this will be the game that defines their performance.

The Stoeva Sisters‘ threat is quite hard to quantify. For sure they have high fitness levels and can outlast their opposition but there is more to winning a badminton match than this. Long rallies are no surprise in women’s doubles but they need to bring a bit more to the party if they want to be on the podium on Sunday. They can be vulnerable to aggressive attack so I would like to see them bring more of an edge to their own strategy. A quick twitter poll that I conducted in the course of writing this preview very firmly concluded that getting to the Semi Final was the best they could achieve. Boring opponents into submission is not a risk free path to gold!

A WD final that pits Fukuhiro against Matsumoto/Nagahara could be a foretaste of the Tokyo Olympic final. If this happens then despite being seeded 1, Fukuhiro could lose. When we weigh up the styles of play then Mayu and Wakana have more aggression in their makeup but no less stamina. If it all boils down to a brawl for the last few points in a three set match they should get them.

Conclusions

Competitive life at the highest level is limited for any athlete. We have seen players and their national associations cope with this intermission in different ways. It remains to be seen whether training at home alone, frequent holidays or self-quarantine at a training centre are the best ways to approach this unwanted break. I’ve been astonished at the apparent lack of guidance available to people. Nevertheless intuitively I believe that the competitors who have continued their usual training routines with focus and dedication should reap rewards. I am concerned that an abrupt return to competition after only light training risks injury.

This is the time for players to set down a marker. It’s unfortunate that this is one tournament in isolation followed by another long wait until we go to Thailand but the athletes who have the mental strength to cope with this disruption can use Denmark as a real life measure of how effective their lockdown training has been. Any lack of success at the Open can be a catalyst for review and improvement.

What a momentous day the 13th October will be – finally badminton returns.


I’d like to dedicate this piece to the Danish badminton authorities, fans and volunteers. Since the postponement of the original Thomas & Uber Cups there have been months of uncertainty and I can only begin to imagine the hours and money that have been expended getting to this point. Thank you!


If you enjoyed this then Part 2 – my men’s preview is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/10/11/danisa-denmark-open-preview-pt2-the-men/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

Yonex All England 2020 Review

This was a competition that favoured players who could keep focus and grab opportunities. There is a joy to badminton that we all recognise and these are the times when we should celebrate happiness and curate our memories of watching the greatest tournament in our sport.

“Before its 21 anything can happen”

Praveen Jordan
The moment of victory for PraMel
Mixed Doubles – Praveen Jordan & Melati Daeva Oktavianti

The XD was an unexpected pleasure this year. Top seeds fell by the wayside and we arrived at Saturday night with the home favourites Lauren Smith/Marcus Ellis facing Praveen Jordan/Melati Daeva Oktavianti for a place in the final. The first set went to form – PraMel were shrewdly pulling Ellis out of position to neutralise his threat – but in the second the Brits held their nerve, saved two match points and roared on by the crowd forced the match to a decider. Praveen is notoriously unpredictable, however the hoohah around ‘time wasting’ and ‘being ready’ which resulted in an undeserved yellow card definitely lit a flame and the last game was a more comfortable 21-11 victory. The Indonesians were quicker and cleverer and deserved to progress.

No Thai player has ever won an All England title so Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai were staring down the barrel of history. They are a strong, fast pair and this was a match for all XD devotees. It ebbed and flowed but the balance of power was decided at the net. Praveen is such an imposing, athletic partner; he reached everything, his smash was vicious so this freed Melati to damage the Thai pair again and again. Even if she couldn’t score she keep the attacking momentum. Bass/Popor grabbed the second set but had given too much and were beaten 21-8 at the last.

Winning an All England title is the mark of a special player and Praveen Jordan has now won two with two separate partners.

Men’s Doubles – Hiroyuki Endo & Yuta Watanabe

This sector was lit up by the brilliance of Yuta Watanabe. He is faster than a flash. His net interceptions, his resilience and strength were irresistable. For his partner, it was a fourth appearance in the MD final, the first with his new partner and another chance to win the title that has eluded him.

This match sparkled. Gideon & Sukamuljo – world #1 – have already won the title twice but in the last year have consistently lost to the Japanese duo. The pace was superhuman. There was little to choose between these two teams as the intensity increased. No one cracked, no one avoided responsibility, here were four athletes trying everything to succeed. In the final set the Minions trailed 0-6, at the break they had pulled it back to 9-11. Marcus and Kevin bombarded Yuta & Hiroyuki in the last points but the Japanese held firm under incredible pressure. In the end the Japanese pair won the title. They deserved to win but Kevin and Marcus did not deserve to lose. It was a priviledge to watch.

Women’s Singles – Tai Tzu Ying

The Queen is the Queen.

All of TTY’s fans must have anticipated this tournament with a mixture of excitement and dread. We knew she had enjoyed success in January with the Begaluru Raptors and it was clear she was focusing on key competition in the run-up to Tokyo 2020. Her committment and strategy were perfect and in a repeat of 2019 she met CHEN Yufei in the final. This time the honours went to the Queen. (a longer appreciation of TTY’s progress through the YAE will be appearing on this blog as a standalone piece).

Follow the link here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/23/tai-tzu-ying-the-triple-champion/

Women’s Doubles – Yuki Fukushima & Sayaka Hirota

All week Fukuhiro had been focused with a quiet confidence. This match had them in dominant form with Hirota especially dazzling with her interceptions at the net. Early on they were finding space with long cross-court precise shots. Their movement around court was fluent as they continued to pressurize DU/LI and raced to a 10-4 lead. The Chinese pair were struggling to find space but they gradually slowed the Fukihiro momentum to get to 9-14.

Hirota’s competitive vision and her ability to get to the shuttle at pace meant that DU/LI could not challenge the control the Japanese pair had. Fukushima was equally aggressive and her appetite for smashing – especially XC – was significant in keeping DU/LI ‘s ambitions down. The Japanese pair secured the title in two sets and they were worthy winners.

Men’s Singles – Viktor Axelsen

Axelsen demolished the #1 seed CHOU Tien Chen in two sets. No games at this level are ‘easy’ but Viktor bulldozed his way through it whilst CTC will want to forget his error strewn match. The Dane grabbed his opportunity and after such a tricky 2019 disrupted by injury and allergies it’s fair to say he is getting back to his best.

Follow the link here to read a more in depth piece I wrote about Viktor for the Yonex All England website https://www.allenglandbadminton.com/news/in-depth-i-viktor-axelsen/

I feel that this sector was dominated by players who were absent as much as those who competed. We all know the situation Momota is in. I was astonished by the exit of Ginting and Christie in R1. I watched Ginting’s match and he simply had no answers to Gemke, he could not raise his level to get any foothold in the game. Frustratingly, another YAE passes him by.

The unseeded LEE Zii Jia was one of the stars of the tournament and it was Christie’s misfortune to meet him in R1. LEE looks hungry. He is athletic, explosive and speedy around the court – I think he may fancy his chances at the Olympics.


This year’s tournament was buffeted by external forces out of the control of the players and these, of course, will be a huge part of all our lives for the next few months. All of the athletes must, to some extent, have been affected by anxieties. Firstly, would it even go ahead? Secondly would they get home? Despite this it was drenched in quality right from the start and the right people won.


If you enjoyed this take a look at my article about Fukuhiro by following this link https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/

I would like to thank all the people who contributed to the competition. As well as the athletes/coaches/support staff there is a huge group of people behind the scenes including the Badminton England volunteers. I’d particularly like to mention Jan in the media centre – always cheerful, professional and kind.

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

January – Top Takeaways for Women’s Badminton.

A new year with old rivalries and the added piquancy of the Olympics in July. We are six months away from the biggest athletic event on the planet, the intensity and desire for success is going to build with each tournament and this all adds up to a scintillating few months in prospect for fans. The anticipation of qualification is offset by the dread of failure. 2020 has started with some thrilling matches; finals day at Istora was a cauldron of raw emotion – who didn’t relish those results with utter joy? What have we learned in January, who is up for the fight? Who has that podium in Tokyo in their sights?

Women’s Singles

TAI Tzu Ying has been treading a different path to her rivals this year. She is cherry-picking the best tournaments to support her ambition. This feels like an athlete with a plan and along with her coaches she understands that entering every tournament is not the effective way for her to achieve her goal. Getting the balance right between training, competition and fitness is what coaches are paid to do. I think it’s been a stroke of genius to play in the PBL. It has freshened up the daily grind, there are some excellent training partners for her and she gets to play matches that are important but it’s not a catastrophy to lose. For instance, only 16 years old but Gayatri Gopichand took a set off TTY in the PBL whilst playing for Chennai Superstarz – now here is a girl with ambition!

From BWF TV

As ever, this is the most dynamic, exciting sector of badminton with the best athletes. Head-to-head battles between the top 20 players are often gloriously unpredictable. In contrast to the men’s game there is no dominant player except that CHEN Yufei won 7 tournaments in 2019 and significantly she does not lose finals. As current World #1 she started 2020 in good form and won the Malaysia Masters by beating TAI Tzu Ying in two sets. Crucially she hasn’t built upon this opportunity to dominate; she was knocked out of the Indonesian Masters on the second day by the unseeded Line Kjaersfeldt.

Carolina Marin has been cultivating her old aura of unbeatability and has been on the podium at all three competitions this year. Reliable results should be a good indicator of future success so we have to acknowledge that she is the person in January who has delivered. Nevertheless, no titles yet and she has been beaten by three different players: CYF, May & Akane, so this tells me that she still has loads of work to do if she wants to defend her 2016 Gold medal.

Akane & Nozomi: no-one can be under greater pressure to do well in Japan than the two home players. January has been a good month for Akane. Her win over AN Se Young in the Thailand Masters final is perhaps a sign that she is emerging from a hard few months of injury disruption. Nozomi has had a quiet start to the year after a successful and frustrating 2019. Five finals, five runners up medals. There were times last year when she was modifying her game to incorporate more aggression, she has to be less predictable to just get that extra 1% that makes the difference between Silver and Gold.

Indian Badminton

Indian Badminton does seem to be going through a bit of a rough patch at the moment, last year was pretty uneven and not much has improved. Saina Nehwal is a true great of the game but results are not good enough at the moment to ensure her qualification for Tokyo. Only a fool would write off her chances at this point and on a positive note her triumph over AN Se Young in R2 of The Malaysia Masters was a reminder that she can beat anyone. I’m unconvinced that her current coaching setup adds to her competitive edge though; I think that if her fluency improves and strategies to get her qualification points whereever she can are used then we still may see her in Japan. Her withdrawal from the Badminton Asia Team Championships plus her recent political work point to a lack of focus. As an observer I just see chaos.

P V Sindhu has a reputation as a ‘Big Tournament Player’ and is the current world champion. Nevertheless, her tendency to crash out of tournaments too early is frustrating. We often excuse her underperformance because we see her respond well to the biggest challenges. I am sympathetic to this view but surely it’s better to win and get some competitive momentum rather than travel here, there and everywhere only to crash out early? Nevermind, emotions aside, I don’t think her results over the past six months are much worse than Akanes so perhaps it’s better to just enjoy the rollercoaster. Of course she will get to Tokyo, but will she get on the podium? On the strength of January’s performances I am sceptical.

Women’s Doubles

My highlight in January across all sectors has to be Polii & Rahayu’s victory at the Indonesia Masters. Their semi-final and final were emotionally exhausting epics. It’s taken a lot of courage for them to analyse and rebuild their game. Over the next few months I hope we see this revitalised pair win more. No Japanese duo has made a final yet this year and it’s still not decided which of them will be competing in Tokyo. This must be a difficult situation because they need to compete well to get ranking points to increase their chances of qualification however over-training and too much competition could risk injury or burn out. CHEN/JIA are very dangerous players, so strong and such brutal attackers but they are not dominating tournaments yet. It’s a very fluid picture; there is an opportunity in this sector for a pair to really boss the results – who will step up?

Any Conclusions?

Winning an Olympic Gold is never a fluke but rather the result of years and years of dedication. Carolina’s consistency in the routine of competition is the opposite of what we observe from P V Sindhu and yet judging by January’s results both of them risk being denied medals. TTY looks focused and although we know she can be perfectly imperfect, at the moment the logic of her regime seems sound. I’ve barely mentioned May or AN Se Young. Ratchanok had an excellent win over Marin in the final of the Indonesian Masters and no worries about her stamina in that 3 set match. ASY is still work in progress, but she is transtioning from Giant-killer to Giant. I wonder if this will be achieved by July?

There’s still a long way to go, a lot of matches to be played. The first milestone is the end of the qualifying period on the 26th April. Nerves are jangling a little already, once we have the final list of players the anticipation and dread can really begin.


I need to acknowledge the incredibly sad road traffic accident in Malaysia and offer sincere condolences to the family of the deceased driver, Mr N Bavan. I also send sympathy to everyone affected by this. We should appreciate the good things in our lives everyday. As Dato Lee Chong Wei said in his Chinese New Year Message …”time to put down everything, shut down the computer…go back home. There is someone there thinking for you. Always remember to treat it as the last new year you would ever have. Cherish your love one.”


If you enjoyed this article follow the link for my recent piece about Polii & Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/ or this one about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Greysap Redux: Polii & Rahayu Are Back

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

Greysap’s victory in the Women’s Doubles final at the Indonesia Masters was sensational. In an emotionally charged Istora the home crowd roared the fight to it’s climax. Fruergaard & Thygesen held match point at 20-19 after three punishing sets. Polii and Rahayu refused to give in. Again the Danes held match point at 21-20 but for a second time they would not concede. The Indonesians suddenly found some last bursts of desire and determination and sealed the win 23-21.

Celebrating the win. Screenshot BWF TV

2020 has begun well for Greysia Polii and Apriana Rahayu but there were times in 2019 when it seemed as though the partnership had run it’s course. In the first half of the year they won the India Open but they failed to build on this and did not seem to be able to dictate the course of their matches . Results were flat and there was a worry that they were using tactics that would never get them to the top of the podium. There was a palpable feeling of stagnation about their strategy and style.

At this moment we all wanted to hug them!

In August in Basle they won bronze at the BWF world championships. The QF match was a difficult tussle against CHEN & JIA who bombarded them with shuttles hit with alarming venom. It was hard to see how they would survive this gruelling game but they rejected easy options and stood their ground, eventually winning 25-23 23-21. In hindsight this tournament was a turning point. I think that because of Polii’s subsequent injury issues they had to have an honest conversation with themselves and their coaches about their future. In the past they often seemed happy ‘just’ to defend in matches but this was adding to their competitive decline. Other pairs had worked them out and a game based around long rallies, clears and defence was not enough.

Greysap’s participation in the SEA Games was odd. At the time other key Indonesian players were preparing for the World Tour Finals. However, in Manila they won Gold. Greysia Polii already held three silvers from this event with two other partners (Jo Novita & Nitya Krishinda Maheswari) but this time, with Apri Rahayu she finally got the Gold. Reports coming out of the Philippines were positive. But straight after the tournament ended they had to jump on a plane to China. They arrived in Guangzhou late, missed the Gala dinner, then never really got going at the round robin stage. They didn’t progess after losing every game. Greysap fans everywhere went into the break feeling confused. Was the SEA Games victory an anomaly?

These two are always smiling at each other and mutually supportive. Screenshot BWF TV

The first tournament of the year – The Malaysia Masters 2020 – saw them lose in the semi final to the eventual winners. There were reasons to be cheerful. And so we come to their ‘home’ tournament: The Indonesia Masters. We all know what happened next, but I want to look at how it happened because I think we have witnessed them transforming into a much sharper, more effective team.

The key to this change has been Apri. She has always been brave, aggressive, and works hard for the team. Now she has discovered something extra.

Recently Apri has been playing some XD with Tontowi Ahmad. It is a cliche in badminton that women who play XD often improve their confidence at the net for WD but I think this has happened. It must also be fantastic for her self belief that a legend like Tontowi wants to play with her. She has a focused hunger in the forecourt now. There is a drive to go and hunt for points and we are seeing great interceptions. This in alliance with the short flat rallies she can initiate with Greysia in support put immense pressure on opponents.

Their flat game has a great tempo and the sequences they can build from this put them at a competitive advantage. Both of them can execute steep smashes and they are relentless. They still have the stamina and appetite for long rallies but now Apri has improved her spatial awareness. She will change the direction of the shuttle in a rally to exploit space. Her appetite for winning the points has sharpened. Of course they are still great defenders and getting winners out of defence is a very powerful way of dominating an opponent.

The Indonesia Masters is done. There is a bigger goal that we are all starting to look at. The Tokyo Olympics is looming. The commentators are all looking at their rivals as favourites for a medal. The strength in depth of the Japanese WD pairs is such that we wonder which of them will miss out in the qualification process; CHEN & JIA are another two challengers who must believe they have a great chance of success.

I would love Greysia Polii and Apriyana Rahayu to be there in the medals, and why not? Here are two players who are so committed to their dream that they have had the courage to reshape their game. The key point is that they have changed; this makes them less predictable and therefore more dangerous. On court they are always mutually supportive, always smiling at each other, it’s obvious they have the temperament to hold their nerve when others crack. Greysia has so much experience of the elite competitions, she knows what is required and she has realised that this is it – no second chances for her now, retirement threatens. I hope we see them on that podium, I hope they stay fit, keep developing and do themselves justice. Go girls!


The moment of victory. Screenshot from BWF tv

This is a link to a blog I wrote about them around a year ago https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/12/a-thriving-partnership-indonesias-polii-and-rahayu/

If you enjoyed this then take a look at my article about the Minions https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/ or this one about one of Greysap’s main rivals Fukuhiro https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

HSBC BWF World Tour Finals: Women’s Preview

It’s been a year of sensational results in the women’s singles sector; now we are at the much anticipated season’s finale. The round robin format at the start means that the intensity will be focused from the first game so hold on tight for a tournament of dazzling skills and thrilling contests.

Women’s Singles
Screenshot from BWF TV

TAI Tzu Ying‘s supporters have been eyeing this tournament with a delicious mixture of anticipation and fear. No other mortal can play like her, she is an artist with her racket and consistently plays at a creative level beyond most rivals imagination. Although she has won three tournaments this year (Denmark/Malaysia/Singapore Open), none of them were at Super 1000 level. Recently, coach LAI has resigned his role with the national team to focus on her and there does seem to be a subtle shift in outlook. A victory here would settle the nerves a little as we head towards the Olympics. Prediction: Semi-final (but my heart wants her in the Final).

CHEN YuFeiis NOT the WTF female player of the year, however she has the knack of converting appearances in finals into wins – it’s a great skill – since winning the All England back in March she has added 5 more titles and been a part of the Chinese team who won the Sudirman Cup. She can counter any opponents style of play and has to be favourite for this title, especially as she may feel she has something to prove to the WTF now. It would be a shock if she were not in the final.

Ratchanok Intanon is always a contender. Brilliant technical skills (matched only by TTY) and a gritty never-say-die attitude get her to semi-finals and beyond. From her IG & FB posts it seems to me that she is putting a lot of work in at the gym to improve her endurance in matches. I think if the arena suits her and she gets a good start then she could grab Gold but realistically it’s probably going to be a Semi-final.

Akane Yamaguchi has had a year of contrasts. Her achievements in July were magnificent: triumph over P V Sindhu in the final of the iconic Indonesia Open was followed by the Japan Open title. These results contributed to her World #1 rank. But from August onwards she has endured a miserable few months with numerous injury niggles and shock exits from tournaments from unseeded opponents. Never mind, she is a superb player; it would be wonderful to see her progress beyond the round robin.

Nozomi Okuhara is one of the most consistent and popular players on the circuit – her results this year have been simultaneously good, unsatisfying and heart wrenching. The puzzle is that she has got to 5 finals but lost each time. I think her game is evolving, she seems to be a little more willing to take the initiative and be aggressive. It may be that what we see is ‘work in progress’ with the Olympic podium as the ultimate goal. I hope that she finds that extra couple of percent for her game to help her transform silver to gold this time. Prediction: Final

Busanan Ongbamrungphan is cementing her position as Thailand’s #2 behind Intanon and this should see her competing in the 2020 Olympics. She’s a positive, intelligent and aggressive player has taken some good scalps this year. Can she progress to the semi-final, or further? I hope the different format of the competition will do her a favour: she is usually unseeded on the tour and often has to fight her way through tricky early rounds, this time she is in the thick of it right from the start.

As World Champions are guaranteed their spot in the tournament, P V Sindhu‘s place is already reserved in Guangzhou. She is renowned as a “Big Tournament Player” – put more simply she often seems to find it hard to triumph in smaller competitions. Calamatous R1 exits or finals have characterised the past 12 months. Her recent work with Coach Kim has been very successful but it’s come to an end now. Can she defend the title she won last year? Perhaps, but she cannot afford a slow start.

HE Bing Jiao: A highlight of the year was seeing her keep her nerve to end her 3-year gold drought and win the Korea Open. She has the skills to do well but in the context of a very competitive sector she often fails to land titles.

Only eight players can qualify to attend from each sector (& eight teams from the doubles disciplines). There will be no room for AN Se Young; the new kid on the block has earned some astonishing results in the second half of this year but overall she has not done enough to be eligible to play. Michelle Li is another notable absentee but is a player who is going to have a great 2020.

So this is a clash of the ‘best of the best’ in the singles sector. At the time of writing the groups haven’t been announced for the round robin stage of the competition and it’s possible this will have an impact on the progress of a player. It’s been a long season with lots of shocks, beautiful shots, and plenty to enjoy. It is hard to predict how much tiredness and niggling injuries are going to influence everyone’s performance but all of these athletes deserve our admiration for their commitment to the sport we love. We are privileged to have witnessed the 2019 campaigns of these players & may the best woman win!


Women’s Doubles: A Brief Overview

The women’s doubles sector has been dominated by pairs from Japan over the past year as their training programme peaks in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. Fukuhiro have enjoyed a distinguished year and are many people’s favourites for the end-of-year gold. They are a model doubles pair with a great understanding of each other and magnificent defensive wall; however they are not invincible. The second Japanese duo Matsumoto/Nagahara arrive in Guangzhou as World Champions so it’s not hard to expect them on the podium at the end of the tournament.

Heartbreakingly Matsutomo/Takahashi – who won the title in 2018 -will miss out on the trip to China because only 2 pairs from each country are allowed to compete, regardless of their position in the rankings. As an aside, this will be a live issue in the run up to the Olympics as well. It is a very hard rule to like.

This part of the tournament has terrific athletes with no obvious weak candidates. KIM/KONG are very dangerous: the Koreans have the technical skill at the net to dissect any challenge and it seems irrelevant to point out that they have not played together for very long. The winners of the 2019 All England – CHEN/JIA – seem able to power their way through most encounters; their swift reactions and willingness to attack gives them the advantage in some ‘fast’ arenas. To be honest I haven’t seen much of their compatriots, DU/LI, the second Korean pair LEE/SHIN or the Thais Kititharakul/Prajongjai but the stats speak for themselves – they haven’t reached Guangzhou by accident. Polii/Rahayu have had a lacklustre few months since winning bronze at the World Championships in Basle. We know that Greysia has had an injury that hampered her so this could be a difficult competition for them to progress in.

Like Women’s Singles this is a very competitive line up with no obvious front runners. I think that CHEN/JIA are my favourites for the title; I’m basing that assessment on their performance at the All England Championships this year that I was lucky enough to watch live. Their speed and strength were breathtaking and so this, plus home advantage, I think will propel them in the direction of the podium. I can’t wait for the competition to begin.


©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Japan’s Fukuhiro: Can They Win Tokyo Gold?

The Champions of Fuzhou and new world number 1s are enjoying a great run of form.

It’s Olympic qualification year and the focus of elite badminton players everywhere is turning to Tokyo. Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota are one of the best women’s doubles pairs in the world, have recently reclaimed their #1 ranking, and are expected to be on the podium at the end of the competition.

At the Yonex All England Final 2018. Credit: Tang Shi/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

“Our strength is about being patient…”

Fukuhiro is an alliance built on the classic doubles foundation of a rock solid defence. They will resist any bombardment and they are so skilful at rotating position that they can diffuse the pressure between themselves. Women’s Doubles is characterised by long rallies; tension builds shot on shot, so to win they have to be able to draw on their mental strength and self belief. Take a look at the highlights from the final of the Indonesian Open (below). The speed of their reactions, commitment to each other and toughness see them triumph, and defend their title.

Video by kind permission of BWF

The essence of a great Doubles pair is two people playing with a perfect understanding of each other. It becomes something magical (think Daddies) when the players can sense what their partner is about to do. Exceptional movement is critical; this and effective anticipation is from hours and hours spent together on the practise court along with a sacrifice of the self for something grander. The video clip below from American Vape shows them training – the obvious thing to point out is that they play 2 against 3. This means they improve their endurance, their shot accuracy and their ability to handle unpredictable replies.

Training video from American Vape.

It’s clear they like each other in real life, their giggling in interviews, teasing each other and general demeanour shows athletes in tune with their partner. Showing their human side to their fans – their emotional generosity – means they are two of the most loved players in the world.

Film from Badminton Denmark.

However there is a paradox at the core of this partnership and I think it may account for the three silver medals at the Badminton World Championships. These two do not seem to have any weaknesses; they are exceptional all-rounders. So when the chips are down what do they emphasize? To be so balanced is a blessing and a curse.

Embed from Getty Images

It’s not accurate to simply define them as defensive players. They are comfortable with counter-attack. Fukushima puts a lot of work in at the rear court especially, but her strategy is not only based on clears: she has a very good disguised drop shot in her armoury. Hirota will be aggressive at the net and can snaffle points with her lightening reactions. When they are up against rivals like CHEN/JIA (who tend to be powerful and aggressive) they can endure the storm. Basing a strategy around smashing is high risk against Fukuhiro because it uses up a lot of energy. Eventually their rivals lose their bite and they are dispatched. Its a bit like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope trick in the Rumble in the Jungle.

“It’s all about qualifying for the Olympics for us…we haven’t been and we desperately want to go”

Fukuhiro are a great duo who are real contenders for gold at every competition they enter. Japanese players dominate the world rankings for WD but only two pairs can compete at the Tokyo Olympics. I would be astonished and devastated if they missed out. This is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cement their place in history with Olympic gold.

Embed from Getty Images

Here is a link to my look at Nozomi Okuhara https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/

You may also enjoy this piece about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

Or this one about the World #1 Kento Momota https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/27/kento-momota/

©2020 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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 BWF TV

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

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

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

From BWF TV

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.


©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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.