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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.

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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/

©2019 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.

What I talk about when I talk about badminton

Ladies don’t seem to talk much about sport, but as everyone knows, I’m no lady so I think it’s time to share why I’m passionate about badminton.

As it’s the fastest of all racket sports – at elite level shuttles can reach 200mph – reactions need to be high-speed. There are abrupt changes in direction and explosive jumps juxtaposed with deception and delicate net shots. I love the fact that the game is subtle and complex but it allows for physically powerful rampages around the court. To be a shrewd strategist is vital; no one gets to win without having their brain engaged. I’m an average player so I fit sport around life but I’ve come to appreciate that playing badminton and specifically doubles is a highlight of any day. When the doubles partnership clicks, practice pays off, tactics work and shots land. It’s a brilliant feeling to be part of. The things I inevitably pick over at 3am though are the missed shots: the net kill that got away, the serve flicked out beyond the back line and the disobedient legs that just did not move. In sport emotions can be on a roller coaster but running through that is the pleasure of being part of a team. There’s always someone by our side to shout encouragement, pull a great shot out of the bag or kick a little ass.

Is winning important? Of course I’d be lying if I said otherwise, but there is a lot more to sport and life than just that. Small victories, improved technique, better fitness, making new friends, these all add to my love of a game that frustrates and rewards me, often at the same time.