Yonex All England 2022: Women’s Preview

A sparkling line-up in all the women’s sectors promises some brilliant battles ahead. The stars are back! The German Open has been full of upsets with some seeds struggling to impose themselves on the tournament. Let’s see if this unpredictable picture lingers into England.

Image courtesy of BWF

Women’s Singles

Three-time winner TAI Tzu Ying usually has a scintillating presence on court & brings stardust to any tournament; exceptional racket skills and unconventional genius means that she will be challenging for the title. However there are some big challenges ahead.  In 2021 Akane Yamaguchi hit a dazzling run of form.  Liberation from Olympic expectations unleashed a new focus, her fitness has returned, and she must be eyeing the trophy with confidence.  These two are seeded to meet in the final in a repeat of 2018. On that occasion TTY triumphed so Akane will want revenge. Neither of them were on good form in Germany; both crashing out in their R2 matches so they both must step up their play if they want the trophy.

China is consistently producing exceptional women players. It’s astonishing to realise that CHEN Yufei – the current Olympic champion – is only seeded #3. Of course she has not been able to participate fully in the tour owing to China’s Covid restrictions.  She is a deadly opponent who can drain the fight from a rival before putting them to the sword.  The bottom half of the draw is arguably able to offer her a smooth journey to the SF and a potential game versus Akane or Sindhu. Realistically her consistency and fitness make her favourite for this title. HE Bing Jiao is always a bit of an enigma.  During the pandemic she has become leaner, but has she become meaner?  I think we will probably find out if she makes it to a QF with her compatriot CHEN Yu Fei.  After beating Akane in Germany her confidence should be sky high. The other notable Chinese player bringing form to the UK is ZHANG Yi Man who dispatched Sindhu in three sets in Mulheim. She meets CYF in R1 so it’s a tough ask to expect progress.

As the defending champion Nozomi Okuhara has little to prove but has a harsh draw to negotiate.  She has remained quite low profile since Tokyo but in December – for the third year running – was crowned winner at the All Japan Badminton Championships. In the first couple of rounds she’ll have to overcome a double Danish challenge; in R1 round she is meeting Denmark’s Line Christophersen then R2 could offer Mia Blichfeldt. Further in, TAI Tzu Ying, May or AN Se Young await.  She will need to be on her game from the moment she steps onto court on day 1.

Is this going to be AN Se Young’s tournament?  The top half of this draw offers a lot of banana skins & she would probably have to overcome May, TTY or Nozomi to get to the final. This is my worry.  I’m a little unconvinced that her stamina will hold up through a bruising tournament – the cumulative effect of game after game after game does have a cost, so she must be tactically clever and try to conserve energy wherever possible.

Ratchanok Intanon was in good form at the Olympics; the battle with TTY in Tokyo was outstanding and there is a possible repeat of that epic match in prospect in the semi-final.  First May has to negotiate early rounds that include ASY.  Under pressure she often she executes extraordinary shots, disdains percentage play and can unravel a rival with her extravagant skill. I love to watch her compete like this but I think sometimes it’s the consequence of a desire to speedily finish off a rival; if they manage to hang in the game there can be Trouble.

The renowned Big Game Player – Pursala V Sindhu – is hard to analyse. She has an Olympic bronze from 2021 but often over the past 2 or 3 years she has struggled to build a winning momentum that takes her all the way to the top of the podium.  She wasn’t able to progress beyond R1 at the German Open in the run-up to this tournament so I’m not sure what we can expect. She is one of the best of her generation but Akane awaits in the QF.

I see CHEN Yufei as favourite for this title. However Akane enjoyed impressive form at the end of 2021; if anyone can beat her they are serious contenders.

Women’s Doubles

All the badminton community is anticipating the international return of FukuHiro with warmth in their hearts. They are such a likeable pair: their spirit against the odds at the Tokyo Olympics was admired the world over.  We have watched Yuki Fukushima joining forces with other players whilst Sayaka Hirota recuperated from knee surgery but now is an opportunity to see them attempt to recapture the title they won together in 2020. It’s hard to estimate where they are in terms of form and fitness. They will have to take one match at a time and see what happens. Nothing is impossible for two of the best players on the circuit.

The #1 seeds (and winners in 2019) can be a real handful for any opponent.  CHEN Qing Chen is a valiant, tireless player who screws down the pressure whilst left-handed JIA Yi Fan loves to smash or get a hard flat rally going.  They both have plenty of power and use it with venom. If it boils down to a brawl at the end of a game for the last few winning points then probably the Chinese pair will edge through. If they bring their A game to Birmingham, they will be unstoppable. 

It’s been a while since Korea won the WD title in Birmingham.  In fact, it was 2017 when LEE So-hee won it with CHANG Ye-na.  What a record LEE has of competing and winning at the highest levels in badminton over nearly a decade.  She is seeded 2 with SHIN Seung-chan and they kick off their campaign with a tricky tie against the Stoevas. KIM So-yeong and KONG Hee-yong are seeded 3 in the top half of the draw – both pairs have all the skills to get to finals weekend and once they are there anything can happen.

2021 was a break-out year for Nami Matsuyama and Chiharu Shida who upped their competitive levels and enjoyed plenty of success at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton.  Their creative aggression marks out the evolution of the Japanese house style.  I’m excited to see if they continue their development into the last stages of this competition.

I’m not neutral, I’ve followed and admired Greysia Polii for years.  That gold medal win at the Olympics was one of my happiest badminton days so I want to watch the 6th seeds go deep into this competition.  Although the GreyAp partnership remains in place for Birmingham it’s noteworthy that Apriyani Rahayu planned to be with a different partner at the German Open but unfortunately a minor injury scuppered that idea.  PBSI have to plan for the future but I hope the Olympic Champions play well in Birmingham, no injuries and do themselves justice.

The current champions Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara who habitually win big events have been forced to withdraw because of a knee injury sustained during training.

This doubles competition does have the potential for a few upsets from unseeded pairs. Pearly TAN and Thinaah Muralitheran never know when they are beaten and their opponents are always in for a difficult hour or so on court. Likewise Maiken Fruergaard and Sara Thygesen can mix it with the best – in round one they face GreyAp and that’s a tricky challenge for the sixth seeds.

Mixed Doubles

I want to include XD in my women’s preview because I believe that it’s the performance of the woman in the duo that leads to victory .  The role of the woman partner has shifted over the last 15 years to a more proactive aggressive stance – I think mainly because of the influence of Liliyana Natsir, one of the true greats of the game. This benefits mobile players who are comfortable in attack and defence.

It’s quite hard to see beyond the first four seeds for the title. Deservedly at the top of the draw are the Thai pair Bass/Popor. They are physically strong, worked hard through 2021 and got plenty of success. They didn’t participate last year because of their focus on Olympic prep but 2022 will see them travelling to the UK with a strong chance of grabbing the trophy for Thailand. I think it’s significant that Sapsiree Taerattanachai is not competing in WD too. Her sole focus at this tournament will be XD. The two shutters who can stop them are the Tokyo Olympic Champions: WANG Yi Lyu & HUANG Dong Ping. I’m a big admirer of HUANG who is a wonderful doubles player with power, touch and plenty of smarts.  The destiny of the title is probably in her hands.

Who could challenge the favourites for the title?  Japan’s Yuta and Arisa are a formidable pair.  I love to watch them switch roles and see Yuta marauding at the net; this is a huge competitive advantage and very difficult to neutralise. The #2 seeds ZHENG Si Wei and HUANG Ya Qiong must also be eyeing the trophy but they have a very unconventional preparation for the tournament as they will be competing with different partners the week before in Germany.

Conclusions

So, a wonderful tournament hosting the best women players in the world lies ahead. The athletes who can stay fit and focused on their goals will be the ones who carry away the trophy on Finals Day. Every shot counts.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my recent article about TAI Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2022/03/02/tai-tzu-ying-at-the-all-england/


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Players of the Year 2021

It has been an extraordinary 12 months: alternating between feast and famine as the players enter bubbles for intense periods of competition and then exit to recover. These are my biased, sentimental, affectionate awards for 2021.

Screenshots courtesy BWF and Popor Instagram

Player of the Year: TAI Tzu Ying

In 2021 we have watched this impulsive free spirit confirm her reputation among the greats of the world game. Outstanding technical skills and creative genius often elevate her shots to works of art. A key target this year has been to step up her performance at the Olympics and World Championships so winning Silver at both is a significant improvement. She has stayed fresh and relatively injury free by focusing on only a few tournaments and she has been ever-present in the finals. The good news is that we can expect to see her on court in 2022 as the threat of retirement seems to have been put on hold for the time being.

Runners Up: CHEN Yufei for her error-free capture of Olympic Gold and Akane Yamaguchi who has been indefatigable and a worthy World Champion.

Best Competitor: Greysia Polii

The breathtaking Gold in Tokyo was a sensational, momentous achievement. Of course, Apriyani Rahayu had a significant role in the victory, but I want to highlight Greysia. Although retirement appeared to be on the horizon she was determined not to fade quietly into the background. A last Olympics, a last chance to get on the podium and boy did she grab it. Congratulations Greysia, always one of my favourite players

XD Player of the Year: HUANG Dongping & Sapsiree Taerattanachai

I cannot choose between these two brilliant players. HUANG Dong Ping’s Gold at the Olympics was magnificent; the final was a glorious tie between four gifted athletes. She is brave, has great reflexes and is adept at using the flat game to aggressive advantage. Popor has also enjoyed a stunning 12 months, winning eight titles, and – other than the Olympics – she and Bass have dominated the XD scene. Their physical resilience and mental strength are second to none. Interestingly both stand-out players compete successfully in WD as well.

Best Pair: Nami Matsuyama & Chiharu Shida

It’s been fascinating to watch their improvement recently; the leap from Super 100/300 up to the top levels has been harmonious and their upwards momentum got great rewards at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton. Maybe the Japanese ‘house style’ is evolving because they are more aggressive and more willing to try and seize the initiative than we expect. Both work hard, support each other and obviously enjoy their matches.

Runners Up: Greysia Polii & Apriyani Rahayu – seeing my two favourites get Gold at the Olympics is one of my best badminton moments ever.

Parabadminton player of the Year: Leani Ratri Oktila

Gold, Gold, Silver at the Tokyo Paralympic games – at Parabadminton’s debut the world #1 was totally dominant.

If He Was A Woman I’d Give Him An Award Too: Viktor Axelsen

A year packed full of achievements – bravo Viktor!

Conclusions

These are just some of the people I have loved to watch in 2021: it’s just my subjective opinion, I can’t pretend that I have spent any time evaluating the stats. The Olympics and the tournament bubbles have made this year unique. Some have thrived but injuries and withdrawals from tournaments have been common; let’s hope for less of a treadmill in 2022. There have been so many highlights (which I’ll cover in my Review of the Year) so I would like to thank all the players and everyone from the badminton community for making this such a memorable twelve months.


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Pearly Tan & Thinaah Muralitharan

2021 has been a breakout year for this young and exciting Malaysian pair. Their dynamism and tenacity have won them plenty of new fans over the past twelve months because they have been seriously challenging players ahead of them in the rankings

At the Indonesia Masters. Screengrab courtesy BWF

When they were at junior level, they were not WD partners unlike many of their current rivals. They have competitive familiarity across the sectors but the main factor significant to their current style of play is the influence of XD as the pair have both got experience in this discipline. Their bold approach to matches is refreshing and I sense that there is a shift happening away from the more traditional, old fashioned neutral play towards tactics that allow players to take the initiative in a match.

Their performance in the first round at the Toyota Thailand Open was an “aha moment” for fans and analysts.  It was an exhilarating contest packed full of drama.  After losing the first set they levelled then refused to concede the third.  It was simply gripping.  They were down 18-20, saved four match points and eventually won 27-25.  It was an 87 minute white knuckle ride where they kept their focus and eventually earned victory.   

As a pair they are keen to disrupt their rivals rhythms with intelligent use of angled shots.  Thinaah has a strong front court game and both can unleash some power. Naturally they are good defenders but it’s the intensity and pace of their attack that enables them to seize command with flat drives and effectively screw down on their opponents.

Their first world tour title win at the 2021 Swiss Open  was  confirmation that they are on the right track.  A straight set victory over the quintessence of defensive WD –  the Stoeva sisters –  felt like a  shot of adrenaline to the heart of the discipline.  It was proof that the partnership has raised their game over the past couple of years.

These two athletes are possible stars of the future and are part of the generational shift following Tokyo 2020.  They still have a lot of hard work to do if they want to move up to the consistent standards set in Women’s Doubles by the Japanese pairs.  It was revealing that in their recent Indonesian Master’s game against Matsuyama/Shida they were carried along by the momentum of the Japanese attack without really being able to derail it and they were beaten in two sets.  They must have more tactical options if Plan A is not successful.

“You’ll see us fail, I guarantee it.  But you will never see us quit”

Thinaah Muralitharan on her Instagram

It’s exciting to watch a pair with a fresh approach. They are ‘work in progress’ but they have the potential to keep moving up the rankings and can aim to be top 10 players. Their spirit and gritty resolve mean that they can frighten any opponent so they can regard the future with hope and optimism. I can’t wait to see how they meet the challenges of the next couple of years.


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Sudirman Cup Review

This edition of the SC was lit up by the brilliance of the women players.  Their spirit and strength were at the heart of the most successful teams. 

Misaki Matsutomo

The return by Misaki to Women’s Doubles for this tournament was a bittersweet gift to her admirers. The scratch pairing with Mayu Matsumoto had a few rough edges yet it was a treat to watch.  Misaki is a genius at the net – her touch and vision are sensational – but the skill that lifts her to Goddess status is her will to win.  At critical moments she can find a new level and seize victory.  In the semi-final against Malaysia, especially in the second set, her drive and aggression were unplayable and they beat TAN/THINAAH to seal the win for Japan. I wish her all the best in her Mixed Double’s journey but I wish she was still playing WD.

Akane Yamaguchi – Most Valuable Player

At a pivotal time in the final Akane gave a stellar performance: she had the self-belief and resources to challenge the best and gave BirdJapan hope.  She is an outstanding defender; in the final there were patches against CHEN Yufei when she was under intense pressure from the Olympic Champion.  Her strategy of keeping her tempo and defending everything however hopeless meant that CYF could never really settle into the sort of rhythm that lets her win 5 or 6 points in a row.  Often functioning on instinct, she was simply brilliant and won the match in two games 21-19, 21-16.

CHEN Yufei

In the run-up to the final, CYF was always the nucleus of Chinese victory.  In the quarter-final against Denmark her match against Mia Blichfeldt was a ‘must win’ because China – already trailing – risked elimination 0-3 if she could not level before the Men’s Singles.  The tie was pulsating with the competitive advantage ebbing and flowing between the two athletes. She held her nerve under intense scrutiny and clung on in the decider to win. In the semi-final against Korea, she lost the first set to AN Seyoung but was resolute and sucked ASY into her patient, error-free style which suffocated resistance.  It was only in the final against Yamaguchi’s faster pace that she lost a match.

Pearly TAN & THINAAH Muralitheran

The young Malaysian pair have been catching my eye for the last year or so and they have really started to challenge some of the more established doubles teams.  They stood out in this competition because of their fighting spirit and unwillingness to concede defeat.  Against GreyAp in the quarter final they battled the Olympic Champions for 90 minutes and saved six match points.  There’s no doubt they are the rising stars of this sector and I can’t wait to watch them again.

Honourable Mentions Also To:

CHEN Qing Chen and JIA Yi Fan for closing out the final and refusing to be intimidated by MatsuMatsu. Gregoria for making a fight of it in Indonesia’s quarter final and ending the competition with a 100% record. Mia Blichfeldt for her epic encounter with CHEN Yufei, and Greysia Polii for ‘surviving’.

Congratulations to China for their twelfth win in the Sudirman Cup – even without some of their best-know stars they arrived as favourites. There were some nail-biting matches and Denmark came close to eliminating them but in the end they deserved their victory.


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved


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Yuki and Sayaka at the Olympics

“If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”

Yuki’s LINE message to Sayaka (Trans by Sebastien @sebad110)

Is it ok to write about FukuHiro?  No Japanese Women’s Doubles medal in Tokyo would have been unimaginable six months ago but the top seeds were knocked out at the QF stage.  This does not even scratch the surface of Yuki and Sayaka’s Olympics.

Facing elimination together – screenshot from Eurosport.

The badminton world was staggered when Sayaka arrived on court and revealed a heavy knee brace on her right leg.  Despite the catastrophe that had befallen her the Gold medal favourites had decided to come and fight. 

Sooner or later, we have to accept that for all the time spent on analysis of games and players a match will always end in victory or defeat.  Nevertheless, at the Olympics the reaction of these two athletes to a serious injury subverted this into an honourable display that showed the strength of their partnership and their love of badminton played together.

The first match facing Birch/Smith was a chance to see if they could win on three and a half legs.  Unbelievably they battled through in two sets.  Fukushima carried a big burden: she ran for two whilst Hirota tried to avoid the back line.  Their tactics succeeded: 21-13 & 21-14.  There had to be a focus on keeping playing time to a minimum and the stats show that the longest rally was 54 strokes with the average length at 11.  In the next game against CHOW/LEE the Malaysians seemed prepped to exploit her restricted movement and got the first set but nerves took over and the self-confidence of the Japanese saw them win the following two sets.  This time the longest rally was 76 strokes with an average length of 13 per rally.

After the first game Hirota had described herself as at 70-80% and admitted that she had been injured during training on June 18th.  She later said:

“It’s like it became pitch-black. I thought it was impossible to go to the Olympics anymore. I felt very sorry for Fukushima-senpai”

Interview in NHK translated by Sebastien.

After an MRI scan, she was diagnosed with an ACL tear in her right knee plus damage to her meniscuses and lateral collateral ligament.  She described it as a “desperate time”. A specialist advised surgery but agreed – after two weeks rest from training – that it was feasible to wait until after the Olympic tournament.  The Donjoy-style brace she wore was designed to redeploy the way playing pressure impacted on her damaged knee.  The stress goes to the healthy parts and away from aggravating the pain.

The final group game was their first loss.  Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu had to work hard over three sets but in the end, they just could not find a way through.  This meant they had come second in Group A and would meet CHEN/JIA in a quarter final. Even if they had both been fit this tie would have been daunting. The Chinese are superb players; strong and smart so they knew they were in for a difficult day. Yuki’s LINE message to her partner that evening read

“…tomorrow regardless we win or lose, I want us to enjoy the match…Let’s overcome this together. Let’s speak together. If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”

Trans by Sebastien.

It was a brutal physical test and after three sets their goal of a home Olympics medal was gone. At the end they faced the world with tears and their arms around each other. The Chinese players’ sporting behaviour added to the emotion of the moment. Games like this can be very hard to spectate.

Sayaka has a hard six months of rehab ahead but her courageous attitude and the support of Yuki will sustain her. Fukuhiro’s Olympics was tragic and wonderful. I’m so sorry that they were not able to compete to 100% of their ability but seeing their reaction to heartbreak was inspiring. Their bravery and commitment shone through disappointment; the dream has not been lost, only delayed until Paris 2024.


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

Thank you to Sebastien for letting me use their translations of interviews in Japanese and also thank you to all the Fukuhiro fans out there who shared ideas and chatted about the Olympic journey with me.


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Brilliant Polii and Rahayu Win Olympic Gold

This was the most joyous Gold medal. Athletes can’t buy an Olympic victory; they earn one over years of perseverance and pain. Even then, some don’t reach their dream, so to watch Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu on top of the Tokyo podium was a glorious moment.

Screengrab from Eurosport

The origins of the triumph stretch back to a young Greysia who was focused on becoming a pro:

“I was born to be a badminton player. And I had that faith when I was 13, that I wanted to make history for Indonesia”

Greysia Polii

Along the way she endured a controversial exit from London 2012 and lost at the QF stage in Rio 2016 with Nitya Krishinda Maheswari. When the news broke that her partner required surgery and was going to retire Polii seriously considered hanging up her racket too.

Looking back this was when Eng Hian – the head of Indonesian Women’s Doubles – had a stroke of genius. He convinced her to delay retirement…to stay a little longer and help guide the progress of some of the younger players. In 2017 along came the talented but raw Apriyani Rahayu: aged 19 with a dislike of being told what to do, but intelligent and ambitious enough to recognise that this was a great opportunity to learn from Greysia. As time passed and the chemistry between them formed it started to occur to Polii that if she could instill a champion’s mindset into her young partner then maybe this could lead to great things. She would need patience, perseverance and to stay injury-free. Perhaps everything that had gone before was preparing her for this.

Fast Forward To Tokyo 2020

The tournament started brightly for GreyAp. Two wins out of two in the group stages and the importance of the final game against FukuHiro escalated. Suddenly here was an opportunity to emerge from the Round Robin as group winners and therefore avoid a seeded pair in the Quarter Final.

Wars of attrition pose little threat to the Indonesian duo. They have the physical resilience to endure a lot and that style of play offers a great platform for the sudden explosions of power from Apri or the creative vision and deft touches from Greysia. The Japanese top seeds could not handle the aggressive tempo of the contest. They were stubborn and resisted over three sets but folded in the last 21-8. So GreyAp entered the knockout rounds and I was feeling optimistic.

It’s been clear over the course of the Olympic badminton tournament that the Chinese athletes’ standards haven’t suffered from their lack of international competition. In the QF against DU/LI Greysia and Apri were asked some hard questions over three sets but they stood firm and refused to let the Chinese win.

The Semi-Final against LEE/SHIN was a daunting prospect but as the match progressed it was always GreyAp who had the upper hand. The competitive momentum that they had been building since the tournamnet began carried them on to the final. Another win, a guaranteed medal, history made.

This was a final waiting to be won. There was little point in waiting to be beaten by the hot favourites: I think Greysia and Apri realised this and it fed their ambitious attitude. Rahayu brought her ‘A game’ – make that her ‘A+ game’. Her energy and bravery constantly screwed down the pressure on CHEN/JIA. Her aggressive high tempo unsettled their rhythm and her noisy, boisterous attitude helped dominate the court space. At 1-1 in the first set there was a moment when Greysia took the shuttle mid-court on her backhand and pinged it crosscourt into empty space. At that moment I realised she knew they could win. The next point was gained by Polii’s delicate drop which emphasized her intent and desire. It was a close set as the four of them traded points but in the end GreyAp won it 21-19. Advantage Indonesia.

Set two opened with them racing to a 7-2 lead. Both players were decisive and self-assured. Unburdened by tension they were playing without inhibition and exuding self-belief. Everything they did worked. The Chinese tried to get back into the flow of the game but they were being swept along by the irresistable pace and vision of the Indonesians. Incredibly at 18-10 Polii’s strings broke but she had time to grab a replacement racket and win the rally.

There was an inevitability to the final moments as they had outclassed CHEN/JIA throughout the game. The (mostly) empty arena didn’t matter – we were all crying and screaming at our screens together as they celebrated victory. Often the difference between a Silver and Gold medal is simultaneously a universe and barely a whisker. The Indonesia duo had dominated in every area of the court and had played their best ever game at exactly the right moment. Congratulations Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu: Gold medallists and history makers!

Artwork by Rachel Florencia

If you enjoyed this then take a look at my earlier article about GreyAP https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

The Olympics: Women’s Doubles Preview

Who has the edge to get Gold?  The contest for the WD title in Tokyo will suit athletes with deep reserves of stamina and resistance – however to win the battle for supremacy one of these players must be willing to turn defence into attack quickly and seize points at crucial moments.

Pic Credit Sutterstock

The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.

Japan

Recently Japan’s women have built a good record of success at the Olympics.  Silver at London 2012 (Fujii/Kakiiwa) followed by a thrilling Gold from Misaki and Ayaka in Rio: unfortunately their partnership is over but the quality of the Japanese squad means that the two pairs competing in this sector have every chance of winning it.   Yuki Fukushima / Sayaka Hirota are top seeds and should expect to top Group A.   The key to notable results will be Yuki who can drive the team forward with her precision and strength.  At the Denmark Open their victory over compatriots Mayu Matsumoto / Wakana Nagahara stemmed from her power to control the theatre of battle.  She was comfortable varying the tempo and sometimes ignored the percentage shot to go for the line. 

The third seeds – Matsumoto and Nagahara – have every chance of making the final.  Prior to the Denmark Open result I would have characterised them as the more aggressive of the two Japanese pairs so I’m intrigued how they will approach this competition.  Group B rivals shouldn’t be able to prevent them getting into the next round and so as long as they snap up chances they can eye the podium with confidence.  It’s important both pairs win their groups so they avoid potentially knocking each other out before the final.

Indonesia

Greysia Polii/ Apri Rahayu are in Group A so they will have to negotiate an early match with the tournament favourites but more worryingly their recent H2H with Malaysians CHOW/LEE makes me nervous.  That is their first game in the round robin so we will have a clearer picture of what the future may hold following that. It’s Greysia’s third Olympics and I’m confident she has the experience and resilience to get through a close tie.  Both players performed well in the Thailand bubble so they can approach the days ahead with courage.  They are my favourite WD pair and I would be thrilled to see them with a medal. Go Girls!

South Korea

Korea is sending two pairs to this competition and this is probably the discipline where they have the best chance of a medal. LEE So-hee and SHIN Seung-chan were winners of the World Tour Finals and performed consistently in the Thai bubble.  They head Group C as 4th seeds. They both have Olympic experience from Rio although with different partners then. Their height and aggressive style can unbalance opponents so I expect them to approach matches with boldness and noise.  KIM Soyeong and KONG Heeyong are starting out unseeded in Group D but I think it’s important to note their victory in the 2019 Japanese Open against top Japanese players in the Olympic venue.  KONG’s attacking strength is nicely supported by KIM and so if they get into the knockout phase they are going to be tricky to beat. 

China

CHEN Qing Chen / JIA Yi Fan are seeded 2 and in Group D.  When I watched them win the YAE2019 final I was shocked by their power, aggression and intensity.  Many fans mark them as favourites for this event but the group they are in has the potential to sap their energy: they will meet Korea’s KIM/KONG and the Stoeva sisters.  This could weaken them somewhat for the following rounds which have the potential to become wars of attrition.   Despite that, they are an intimidating couple and it would not be a shock to see them medal. The second Chinese Pair DU Yue/LI Yin Hui are unseeded in Group C and may struggle to emerge from it.  The main danger to their ambitions are the Danes Fruergaard/Thygesen who have good reserves of stubbornness to draw on in tough games.  I would never write off any Chinese pair in this competition though.  Up until 2016 they had a stranglehold on Gold and I’m certain they want ‘their’ medal back!

Conclusions

If any of these pairs can defend against the overwhelming firepower of the Chinese duo CHEN/JIA they will probably be the ones at the top of the podium. We haven’t watched any of the players from China in ages but we know that the second seeds are formidable. It’s a competition where gritty self-belief fused with physical resilience will create the gap between medal success and failure. South Korea and Indonesia are providing the dark horses but as far as the Gold goes it’s hard to look further than China or Japan. I expect FukuHiro to be more strategically nimble than the others so if the seeding unfolds predictably they could be the ones celebrating on finals day.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my other Olympic previews here:

Women’s Singles https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/07/17/the-olympics-womens-singles-preview/

and Men’s Doubles https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/07/15/the-olympics-mens-doubles-preview/

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Yonex All England 2021: Doubles Preview

The arena in Birmingham awaits. The stage is set for badminton royalty to remind fans why they dominate world badminton. A Super 1000 tournament is the ultimate test and a Super 1000 title is the sign of sporting magnificence.

Men’s Doubles

Will anyone be able to stop the Minion’s progress to the title?  Indonesian men’s doubles is the finest in the world but that doesn’t mean the path to the podium is painless.

Kevin Sukamuljo & Marcus Gideon – were last year’s beaten finalists and are top seeds.  The key question is whether or not they can overcome the sort of strategies Yuta & Endo used against them in the final last year – have they been able to add those couple of extra percentage points to their performance to grab the gold?  It is vital that they are focused from the minute they step on court in R1 because there are some outstanding rivals ready to eliminate them.  If they get to the QF it’s possible they may meet the talented Indian pair Rankireddy/Shetty or the recent Swiss Open champions Astrup/Rasmussen.  Both of these can defend a barrage of flat, aggressive shots so a crucial asset for the Minions is going to be patience, and to be confident in the breadth of their attack. Prediction: Final – they will rock the All England together!

Takeshi Kamura & Keigo Sonoda are Japan’s highest seeds at 3. Kamura has great vision and anticipation with shuttle hunting at the core of his game.  Sonoda is the steadfast partner who backs him up and feeds off what he creates. They are the epitome of “fast and furious” with rowdy shouting and a brawny, dynamic approach. They never run out of energy but their head-to-head record against the Minions is quite weak so if they face each other over the net on the Saturday all the stats point to an Indonesian win.  Prediction: Semi Final

Hiroyuki Endo/Yuta Watanabe: I adore Yuta’s swashbuckling style and he is nicely balanced by Endo’s steadier approach.  It’s a rare player who can match Kevin Sukamuljo’s net play but Yuta is not intimidated by the Indonesian’s blistering reactions and can hold his own. Last year’s champions have every chance of defending their title but as they are ‘only’ seeded 4 they are not going to get an easy passage to the final.  It seems extraordinary to me that Yuta has a realistic chance of winning XD as well; surely there must come a point where his stamina is diluted?

Hendra Setiawan & Mohammad Ahsan: these two badminton heroes keep playing at the highest level and digging out results in taxing games.  Hendra’s skills belong to a different dimension when he is at the net, and he brings such control and determination to his matches.  They did play well in Thailand but were not able to stop Lee/Wang’s hat-trick of titles; in the final of the WTF they were simply overwhelmed by the Taiwanese players high speed muscular approach. They are seeded 2 and I never ever write them off.  Prediction SF.

Fajar Alfian & Muhammad Rian Ardianto.  I’m not sure what to expect from the fifth seeds.  I didn’t feel that they hit their stride in Thailand but when these two are at their best the combination of Ardianto’s crisp smashes and Alfian’s control of the net is exhilarating. It’s crucial that they find their competitive groove quickly, their rhythm in Thailand was too stuttery and they used a lot of energy chasing points rather than dictating games. Its feasible that they could meet the Dads at the QF stage and they will not be the favourites to win that game.

Mixed Doubles

There are exciting athletes in XD at the moment.  I’m intrigued to watch the new unseeded pairing of Olympic Gold Medallist Misaki Matsutomo with Yuki Kaneko.  When TakaMatsu broke up last year, Misaki switched disciplines from WD to XD in a bid to get a spot at the Tokyo games.  I don’t think they can expect to get beyond a Quarter Final but she is a competitor from the top draw and her fans would love to enjoy watching a good run in this tournament.  It feels as though this is a competition ready to be won by someone unexpected, especially as Bass/Popor have decided not to compete. I can’t lie, I would adore it if they over-achieved.

Praveen Jordan & Melati Daeva Oktavianti. Seeded 1 and the defending champions – PraMel are sharp-witted and shrewd players. Jordan always looks so strong and menacing; no one has a smash as hard as him.  If he is in the right frame of mind he can ride the momentum of a game and annihilate opponents.  Melati needs him to be focused and fit so she can concentrate on her own role. He has had an injury but is reportedly back to full training so the mission to retain their title is feasible.

Yuta Watanabe and Arisa Higashino: Yuta is not necessarily the most powerful player but he makes up for that with his anticipation and creativity.  It’s incredible that he has the stamina to compete at the highest level in two disciplines.  I like the partnership with Arisa because of her strength, when they find their positions reversed Yuta can rely on her to defend the back as he rules the front. This brings an extra dimension to their attack and can really turn the tide in their favour in a game. They are seeded 2 and I can’t really see who can stop their progress to a medal.

CHAN Peng Soon & GOH LIU Ying are the Rio silver medallists and should be looking at this competition as a good opportunity to win a title.  I think they must start brightly to try and build self-confidence before the possibility of a QF against Thom and Delphine.  They can get to the semi-final so long as they don’t get overwhelmed by the ebullient French pair.

Thom & Delphine: These two are being touted as the future of European XD and possible gold medallists at the Paris Olympics.  For now, they are just at the start of their journey but they are a confident duo who like to dominate and dictate the momentum of a match.  They are a stylish pair to watch, creative, zesty and always looking for gaps, especially out wide.  The intensity and quality of the competition they will face here is a step up from the Swiss Open but it is intriguing to measure them against some of the best in the world.  Prediction QF

Women’s Doubles

FukuHiro are top seeds and defending champions – they seem to have added a sprinkle of something extra to their game over the past year.  I think they have given themselves permission to be more than good.  In Denmark back in October Yuki Fukushima’s energy and desire propelled them on to the title.  Hirota’s swiftness of body and mind, her precision and anticipation screw down the pressure on opponents. If they bring the same aggression and accuracy to Birmingham the pair will be unstoppable. Prediction: Final

Embed from Getty Images

Nagahara & Matsumoto are often regarded as the Japanese pair with the most creative spark and aggression.  Matsumoto can unleash some brutal smashes and together they are a partnership that routinely wins big events.  Their rivalry with their compatriots will be an extra motivation especially after their defeat in the final at October’s Danish Open.  They failed to neutralise the influence of Fukushima and that was the decisive difference between them.  Prediction: Final

Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu: So, this looks like the last time Greysia will play at the All England and I’m sorry I can’t be there in person to cheer for one of my favourite players.  GreyAp competed fearlessly in January’s matches in Thailand and their triumph at the Yonex Thailand Open was a well-deserved, emotional victory.  I would love to see them on the podium here but I think the top seeds may just have a little bit extra over them.  Prediction:  My heart says final but my head says Quarter Final.  Good luck girls!

Jongkolphan Kititharakul & Rawinda Prajonjai can be a quick aggressive pair and are capable of despatching lower seeds without too much fuss but their head-to-head stats against the established Japanese players suggest that they are going to struggle to progress much further than a QF.  Their R1 game against Tan & Thinaah could be an awkward encounter.

Pearly TAN & THINAAH Muralitharan have a really tough draw because they are unseeded, but since playing in Thailand they have impressed everyone.  They possess winnability and seem to be able to squeak a result even when they are up against more experienced opposition. Their victory in the final of the Swiss Open against the Stoeva sisters was a good illustration of their desire; they played to win, not just to defend and they reaped the reward.  These two young Malaysians could be some stars in the making.

The doubles competitions in Birmingham are fascinating this year because so many of the top seeds have been absent from the international tour for a year or so.  Their challenge is to adapt to quarantine protocols quickly so they can compete at the levels of intensity and focus we expect.  There’s no doubt that the people who get to grips with the new procedures will be at an advantage. The saying goes that ‘when the sun comes out it dulls the other stars’, I’m very curious to see what the overall standard of play is. Will the athletes who have been missing now blaze a trail to the trophies despite their lack of match practice? or will they discover that while they’ve been away their European rivals have upped their levels?


If you enjoyed this read my review of last year’s tournament https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/21/yonex-all-england-2020-review/


©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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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/

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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.   

“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 net, 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.

©2022 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved