First, a confession – I didn’t watch the match today between Saina and Selvaduray Kisona. However, I want to award my ‘Player of the Day’ accolade to the Indian player because the last 24 hours must really have tested her resolve to get out on court and compete, let alone win.
The shocking news yesterday that two Indian players had tested positive for Covid made headlines worldwide. Her millions of fans were dismayed at the news that one of them was Saina and that her opponent had been awarded a walkover.
What a difference 24 hours has made. Gossip started leaking out that she had been retested and was now confirmed ‘negative’. Would she be allowed to reenter the competition? Was she OK?
She is a player who has a steely core; we’ve seen this throughout her career. Late yesterday when we got the news that she’d been reinstated it was also revealed that she had been stuck at the hospital for 10 hours. Today, in the last game of the session, having been shifted onto Ct 3 at short notice she won in two sets 21-15, 21-15.
I can’t report that her fitness is back to its best, or that niggling injuries are healed. But I’m thrilled to tell you that there can be no questions about the mental resilience and grit of this athlete. Congratulations Saina!
Honourable mentions today go to Daren LIEW who shocked Anders Antonsen by dumping him out of the tournament in two sets and Ratchanok Intanon who looked sharp and fit in her victory over YEO.
In a crazy year we fans have sustained ourselves on archive footage, home tournaments and hope. We enjoyed the one-off Denmark Open in October but badminton reactivates in Thailand on the 12th January. Everything was looking peachy until the news broke on January 3rd that Momota had tested positive at the airport as he was departing for Bangkok. As a precautionary measure the whole of the Japanese team have stayed home. China had already withdrawn so the competition continues without them.
Let’s see who has kept their training discipline over this enforced break. Who has learnt new strategies and skills, overcome niggling injuries and rediscovered their hunger to win? We had a glimpse of some players at the Denmark Open and again at the SaarLorLux but Bangkok is going to offer a bigger selection of athletes and some tough competition to anyone who thinks they can mix it with the best!
Which athlete has the stamina mental and physical to advance to the red zone of a third set and ask their rival some serious questions? Anders Antonsen probably thinks he can – he gave a great performance at the DO but he couldn’t walk unaided from the court at the end. What do we read into that? Well, here is a player who will plunge beyond the RED…he’s still growing as a competitor but at the death his muscle memory saw him through to seize the Denmark Open trophy. Seeded 3, he is in the bottom half of the draw and may well meet CHOU Tien Chen on the Saturday in a repeat of the All-England semi-final.
CHOU Tien Chen is seeded 2 and competed in Denmark even though Taiwan didn’t officially send players. He is slated to meet LEE Zii Jia at the quarter final stage and this could be a very tough test. LZJ is such an exciting player to watch and he was unlucky to miss out on the final at the Yonex All England back in March. His speed and power are exhilarating for spectators and hard to contain for rivals so CTC has got to be on guard right from set one or the match will run away from him. Antonsen awaits.
Anthony Ginting – seeded 5 – is always a player who excites me. I hope that during lockdown he has had the opportunity to refresh his strategies. He has to stop thinking he can beat Momota or other top players in 2 sets. As Susie Susanti observed, he needs a plan B or C when plan A fails. If he has added more strategies to his repertoire then the sky’s the limit: it could open a new chapter in his career. In R2 he should probably meet the rising star in Thai men’s singles, Kunlavut Vitidsarn. The three times World Junior Championcould block his advance; it’s a potential banana skin that Ginting must approach intelligently in order to win without expending his energy reserves. The Danish challenge is formidable in this sector. Rasmus Gemke is one of those players who has been a bit under the radar but hard work, grit, and good tactics mean that a possible match with Ginting in the quarter finals is going to reveal how far both men have really progressed over the past nine months. Gemke was a valiant loser in the final of the Denmark Open and remember he blocked Anthony’s progress at the 2020 All England. The current All England champion – Viktor Axelsen – didn’t compete in October because he was addressing an injury niggle so it may be quite tough for him to be at full throttle straightaway. He is seeded to meet Indonesian favourite Jonatan Christie in his quarter final: a great match in prospect for neutrals but too tough to call for this preview. Christie can sometimes be infuriatingly inconsistent but this could be a fabulous opportunity for him to set up a semi-final against his compatriot Ginting. HK Vittinghus will also be part of the competition following the withdrawal of Laksyha Sen who has injured his back. Vittinghus scored some great victories in his home tournament back in October and his confidence must have been boosted by this. Sometimes I feel he overthinks, sometimes he runs out of gas but always a hard player to beat.
TAI Tzu Ying is top seed but as Women’s Singles overflows with talent – even without the Chinese and Japanese competitors – she will definitely not have a smooth ride to the final. Her recent Instagram posts seem to reveal a player with mixed feelings about travel away from Taiwan. Of course, social media is hardly the portal to authentic insight so I think we just need to wait for things to unfold in Thailand before making any judgement. I’m intrigued how she will approach the challenges thrown at her in the Impact Arena. The world #1 last competed internationally when she won the YAE and that campaign illustrated a new capacity for patience. We know she has continued to train diligently all through the pandemic so the onus is on her rivals to upset her rhythm and conquer her.
The top half of the draw means that it’s expected TTY will clash with Michelle LI in her quarter final. If LI is 100% fit that could be a very hard match. The winner of which plausibly faces Sindhu in a semi-final.
I wonder how winter training in England has suited P V Sindhu? She has looked so happy and I would speculate that a reasonably quiet life consisting of practice and a small social circle has given her an opportunity to reset. The current World Champion is known as a ‘big match’ player and has all the tools to go a long way in this tournament. Can she win this title? Emphatically ‘yes’ so long as the self-assured, rampaging intense player we saw in the World Championship final is the one who turns up. Her technique and aggression will take her to the podium so long as she keeps her focus.
Can Saina Nehwal face down Sindhu if it becomesan all-India quarter final? Saina is such an intelligent player: mental resilience and the will to win come as standard but I think her stamina may be suspect if it goes to 3 sets. Before that she will have to overcome the Thai player Busanan Ongbamrungphan. She is unseeded but skillful and has what it takes to progress further.
Thai women’s badminton has plenty of brilliant players and at the forefront of course is wonderful Ratchanok Intanon. Seeded 4 she has got a brutal draw to negotiate beginning with YEO Jia Min in R1, Yvonne LI in R2 then moving onto a big QF clash with AN Se Young. The Korean is a frightening talent so I’m curious to see how she has matured over the past months. If she has increased her stamina as we’d expect, then Ratchanok has a fight to get to a SF that in all likelihood will be versus Marin. Carolina Marin has endured a tough year. The Prime documentary about her revealed what a truly extraordinary player and person she is. In my view, her participation at the SaarLorLux – not a tournament that we would necessarily expect someone of her high ranking to attend – illustrates her commitment to the sport she loves and the fact that she needs to play both for emotional and physical reasons. I’ve heard that she has had a slight hamstring worry but I don’t think it’s any cause for concern. There was something missing from her game in October though. Her usual dominance and competitive momentum were off the boil and it reminded me of the sequence in the Vietnam Open that’s shown in the Prime documentary. Her strategy and trust in the process set out by Rivas were slightly off. The clip where she sits on the floor, utterly devastated that the game hasn’t gone her way, is very illuminating.
It’s a new beginning and the year is going to be choc-a-bloc with quality tournaments alongside the Tokyo Olympics. Some old friends are haven’t made it this month and we’re going to miss them. I would have loved to see the new look HE Bing Jiao, Nozomi has been on a great streak of form and Akane lights up any match. We’ll have to be patient for Momota’s return to court and postpone our desire for MomoGi. Even despite this I know for sure we’ll enjoy the games ahead – finally, finally 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.
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.
This sector is stacked with superb pairs and I am anticipating some epic battles.
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.
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!
The bombshell word ‘retirement’ was spoken by TAI tzu Ying about a year ago and a shudder passed through her millions of fans. Seven months into lockdown with no big tournament since YAE I’m beginning to understand what the badminton landscape will look like without this extraordinary player and I don’t like it. Jaw dropping visionary play blended with virtuoso racket skills is a mix made in badminton heaven so a tournament without the chance to witness a reverse slice straight backhand drop executed by the Queen suddenly loses a little glitter.
In her most recent interview on Badminton Unlimited TTY offers some reassurance to her supporters. She is certain that she will continue to compete until next season ends and then she will mull over her options. This means that we can enjoy the anticipation of watching her participate in her third Olympics. I would love to see her on that podium in Japan, alongside some of my other favourites like Ratchanok, Nozomi or Akane. Imagine a Gold medal match between May and Tzu Ying; this would be a version of paradise for me and lots of other fans.
Coach Lai has been smart in keeping training fresh. TTY has mentioned before that she doesn’t go out ‘much’. Pictures on Instagram frequently show her enjoying being outdoors and I’ve often joked that she should work for the Taiwan tourist board when she retires. The beautiful scenery around her gives a spectacular backdrop to a bike ride or hike with her training partners. Without the intensity of a jam-packed tournament calendar she should be able to address any niggling injuries, and enjoy a fitness programme with an altered aim. I think that the focus will have been adjusted because she will not have to be on a (literal and metaphorical) treadmill to get prepared for next week’s match. This is why we have seen her enjoying cross training and sports like beach football and boxing. The emphasis on agility and flexibility remains but there will be interesting cross-fertilisation from other sports. It’s a good time to review technique and strategies but most of all this is a chance to emotionally refresh and rest intelligently.
The playing career of an elite player is really quite short. Movement has to be explosive with instant changes in direction and this can trigger severe pressure on knees and arms. Press conferences after finals are often conducted with the winners pressing ice-packs to their shoulders. The emotional cost of competition can be challenging too; stepping onto court with the hopes of your nation upon your shoulders is not easy; especially when supporters don’t see the hours of sweat in training. Added to this are the constant demands of the tournament schedule: international travel may seem glamourous but an endless landscape of airports and hotels can quickly dull the excitement.
We have three tournaments planned for Thailand in January 2021 with exacting covid protocols insisted upon by the Thai authorities. Quarantines, regular swab tests and temperature checks blended with stringent hygiene requirements and social bubbles should give reassurance to many but perception of risk is diverse. It’s impossible to predict where we will be in the trajectory of this pandemic by then.
Covid has annihilated the tournament schedule and it has given many athletes time to pause and reflect on their career path. The motivation to train without a reason is hard to maintain so it is reassuring to see that Tai Tzu Ying can still get up early in the morning, leave her house at 7am and start training at 8.30. This is the mark of a true champion. The players who can keep their enthusiasm and focus amidst the crisis will be the ones who return stronger. I long to watch her next game.
No competitive badminton worldwide since March and I’ve reached the point where I’d be happy just to watch TAI Tzu Ying open a new tube of Victor shuttles; albeit in a new and unexpected way. And so it was with a sense of glee that I heard that the Sports Administrators in Taiwan had made the shrewd decision to arrange a Mock Olympics for their qualified athletes.
All sportspeople need the grind of training to be freshened up at times otherwise they become stale. The challenge was to find suitable opponents to play Badminton’s world #1. The tournament needed to be a worthwhile venture; something to keep TTY on her toes and give her something to think about.
Sensationally they decided to pit TTY against male players. Suddenly this became news all around the world.
“Playing like a girl means you’re a badass”
In July a video was uploaded on TTY’s Instagram of some sparring against HSUEH Hsuan Yi. In the clip we see her scoring points with pinpoint accuracy down the tramlines. Her deception skills mean that she can wrong foot him at times. Crucially we do not observe his power. I’m not sure if this is because her strategy is based around denying him the chnce to smash or if for the purposes of the training session he has retired that shot. He is a very good player: six times Taiwan National MS Champion with a highest world ranking of 31. This is a tough training regime.
It is physiologically impossible for a woman to compete equally against a man in sport. At least, it is nearly impossible. Fans of 1970’s Women’s Tennis will remember the incomparable Billie-Jean King beating Bobby Riggs over three sets in a supposed triumph against male chauvenism but this isn’t the same situation at all. Here it seems that we have male and female badminton players collaborating for the good of TAI Tzu Ying and for Taiwan’s hopes for an Olympic medal.
Round 1: TTY against LIN Chia Hsuan
The game begins with TAI Tzu Ying allowed an 8 point advantage per set. It’s clear that she wants to keep him moving around – she keeps probing his deep backhand. This is the foundation of her strategy, she is trying to build shot sequences to find gaps and to test his endurance. She often scores down his backhand tramline and she takes the first set 21-19. There were times when she was falling into the trap of aiming right for the lines and giving herself no margin of error – he did profit from this.
The second set goes to LIN 21-18. When he gets an opportunity to use his power TTY can usually handle his shot; I think this is down to her great technique allied to fast reflexes and clever anticipation. When he gets through her defence it often seems to be a smash combination of left/right. He is also varying the pace and trying to keep the pressure on. She can’t quite cover the court. The net exchanges are very interesting, both of them executing some beautiful shots but a few errors from TTY give him points.
The third set is a fascinating passage of play and is, I think, extraordinarily revealing about TAI Tzu Ying. It’s clear she wants to win. She is grazing her knees while retrieving wide shots and goes into the interval 11- -1 up. Play resumes. A reactive midcourt backhand kill gets the score to 15-5. LIN is making mistakes and my feeling is that he is tired. The Queen wins the set (&therefore the match) 21-11. I think that it was her superior stamina and resilience that carried her through.
Round 2: TTY against TSAI Chien Hao
A shorter, 2 set match which TAI Tzu Ying loses. In this contest she is only given a 3 point head-start and it’s not really enough. TSAI Chien Hao is a lively opponent – not known at all on the international circuit – but by all accounts a player who spars with the national team and who is still attending University.
Despite the loss we still see some beautiful shots from TTY. In Set 1 a couple of lovely disguised XC drops. Characteristically she also keeps retrying her gentle XC net reply – really just a caress of the shuttle – until she succeeds in scoring from it after a couple of fails. At 15-16 she tried a fast, flick serve but this highlighted the difficulty with playing against a man; it was just smashed mercilessly back. Possibly my favourite shot of the whole tournament was at 2-0 during a rally when TCH tried a disguised shot at the net, it wrong footed TTY but she turned, stuck out her racket and created a magical xc reply that just gently dropped over the net. Absolute genius.
By Set 2 both players are tiring. There are mistakes interwoven with astonishing skills from the Queen but she cannot get any sort of foothold in the match as TCH’s progress to 21 points is unstoppable.
Men’s Singles has some crucial differences to the women’s game and it was interesting to consider that TTY would not really be able to use her high serve in these two games. This meant that she had to alter elements of her playing style; unrelenting pressure at the net upon her low serve was potentially an issue. The other noteworthy observation is the length of the games. The advantage TTY gained from her first male opponent starting 8 points behind should be balanced by the fact that this tended to mean each game had more points to contest. Her concentration mid-match can sometimes waver and so these games would show that this is no longer a problem.
This was a very enjoyable sequence of games for all TTY fans. Of course it offered a somewhat artificial situation but it was a lively competition that reminded us all what we’ve been missing since Tzu Ying’s triumph at the All England. Congratulations to all the competitors and thanks to the organisers.
“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”
Anyone who loves badminton must adore watching Ratchanok’s matches. Her racket skills are magnificent and they have been the foundation of a fantastic career. There are countless highlights – too many to list – but becoming World Champion in 2013 at age 18, being ranked world #1 in 2016, a bronze at the World Championships in 2019 and a consistent spot in the Top 10 confirm her status as one of the most outstanding players of her generation.
May’s movement around a court is smooth and graceful; this elegance is wonderful to watch but it is also efficient. A core strategy of Women’s Singles is movement – the urgent pressure on a rival to cover distance and direction at pace. As she skims over the court, she exerts time-pressure on her opponent. The nanoseconds she gains all add up to an advantage. She often seems able to hold a shot for a split second before she pulls the trigger; this means she lures the other player to anticipate the shuttle’s destination, often with unfortunate consequences.
My favourite element of her game is her net play. She can go toe-to-toe with anyone and emerge victorious. Her net spin shot is delicate, precise and it often gets her out of trouble. A typical sequence is net spin, answered with a weak lift then a point winning smash/kill from May. There is so much complexity and technical skill to her game. It’s a misconception that players are born with this talent; May can execute these shots because she has practised for thousands of hours and she has the imagination and tactical ability to use them effectively.
I also regard her as a courageous player – although on occasion this is a blessing and a curse. Her precise shots mean that she has the confidence to place the shuttle on the line. Under pressure from an opponent who ‘just’ keeps it in play – for example a strategy used by CHEN Yufei – she can sometimes be tempted to try and cut a rally short and go for a quicker point rather than play percentages and wait for a clear opportunity to score. Some analysts have questioned her resilience as a result of this.
The COVID crisis has been hugely disruptive to most athletes training programmes and different nations have tried to tackle this dislocation in assorted ways. We’ve seen home tournaments in many places including Indonesia and Taiwan, and more coach-supervised training. The people who can exit the lockdown having added to their game, rested injury niggles and refreshed their outlook are going to enjoy a significant advantage in competitions.
May has been very clear about her goal of winning an Olympic medal. The road to Tokyo2020 has had more twists and turns than we could have ever predicted back in January so with that in mind what are her prospects if it goes ahead as planned next year? She has not been wasting this enforced break from tournaments. If we look at her social media posts, they are full of gym work. It looks like she is addressing questions about her endurance. She is always a gritty competitor who knows how to win and so enhancing her stamina is going to be one of those incremental gains that could be significant in the heat of battle.
Ratchanok Intanon is one of badminton’s most loved players. It’s not simply due to her attractive playing style. She works hard and takes nothing for granted; her gracious sporting attitude, bravery under pressure and obvious enjoyment of life means she is a great role model for aspiring athletes. I would simply be delighted if she was standing on the podium in Tokyo next year.
Sometimes a player is more than just a player because they inhabit a unique style that captures the essence of their sport. TAI Tzu Ying is one of these people. Like Serena Williams or Lionel Messi she has that star quality whenever she competes. She is a free spirit who brings a creative exhilaration to any match.
When the kid from Taiwan first bust onto the international scene it was her magnificent racket skills that drew fans to her. She has the gift of being able to control time – it slows and expands to contain her talent. It is still that sensational expressive style that makes people fall in love with her but over the past decade she has added extra layers to her game. Her mesmerizing skill continues to glitter however 2020 has seen her game continue to evolve.
Tournaments at the beginning of this year have shown her address the tension between artistry and scoring points. Regular analysts had identified a tendency to lose focus midway through a match often allowing a rival to regain a foothold in the set. At the core of TTY is the power to sparkle rather than to merely play but during her campaign at the All England this year we witnessed a new element in her game – the ability to wait. The vitue of patience is a sharp weapon in badminton. The beauty of this strategy is that, in the past, it has been used against her.
I think this willingness to include new facets in her play is the sign of a great player. Developing her mental stamina alongside her prodigious gym work adds extra options when she approaches a match. There was a tangible sense in Birmingham that the time for mistakes was past; errors were reduced. Of course she is still the Queen of Deception, her magical misdirection when she is in full flow is wonderful.
In 2019 TTY sent a chill through supporters hearts when she uttered the alarming word ‘retirement’. The demands of elite sport are incredibly restrictive. The physical and emotional cost of training, competing, and international travel does not leave much time for normal life. One more Olympics, one more season and then she would finish; she talked longingly of cycling holidays around Taiwan, and of perhaps opening a school. Her instagram posts often feature her hiking in the mountains or paddling a canoe; she is obviously a person who delights in the natural world around her
None of us could have foreseen the disruption to normal life this year. With the Olympics postponed the players who keep their motivation and stay in shape will gain an advantage. There is a national competition that has been organised for elite Taiwanese athletes in August to help them review progress and sharpen their focus after this gap. TAI Tzu Ying is due to play some male rivals in order to measure herself against a tough challenge: it was decided that the available women players would not push her enough. Her victory at the All England in March was a warning to her rivals and a reassurance to her fans; the dream of seeing TTY on the podium at the Olympics is still real. This feels like a date with destiny. What a time to love women’s badminton.
Sometimes players burst onto the badminton scene from nations with no obvious tradition in the sport. It’s a fascinating topic to examine, not least because it includes some of our favourites. It’s remarkable that the majority of these athletes are women who play singles. Here are people who have had to break down barriers at every point in their careers and it’s arguable that a resolute focus translates best to the singles game. The loneliness of the court, often with no support staff can be a difficult challenge. To be able to meet the challenge and succeed takes an exceptional person.
Carolina Marin. The current Olympic Champion hails from a country that has never enjoyed headline success in badminton yet she has won the World Championships 3 times and has been on the podium at just about every BWF tournament at some time in her career. Initially she loved flamenco, but after watching a friend play badminton she was hooked. The sport had such a low profile in Spain it’s said that her parents had not even heard of it when she asked for her own racket. It’s important to her story that her coach – Fernando Rivas – has also been a single-minded pioneer. He is a sports scientist who has studied badminton and conducted research in other European countries. He had been a player but not the country’s best. When he arrived at the national training centre in Spain (2005) he encountered signifiicant resistence to his new approach. The prevalent culture had been shaped by an influential coach who had left but there was a reluctance to embrace a different style. The rise of Marin could not have happened without Rivas and his development of a new way of training. Likewise Rivas needed a talent like Marin to prove that his methods worked. Clearly they do; the next step is to see if a badminton legacy is created and Spain becomes a European powerhouse of the sport.
Saina Nehwal. Today Saina is a worldwide superstar whose appeal reaches far beyond sport. It’s not true to say that badminton was unknown in India before she came along because Prakash Padukone and Pullela Gopichand had been high profile men’s shuttlers – both winners of the All England amongst other titles. Nevertheless Saina elevated the game and contributed hugely to the normalisation of women’s participation in it in so many countries. Often in the early days, her career was characterised by the phrase ‘Saina versus China’ because the world scene was dominated by exceptional Chinese players. Her determination and stubborness got her to the point where she could compete with – and beat – the world’s best. She is an inspiration to millions of people who have taken up the sport because of her. A true trailblazer.
Michelle Li is the best Canadian to compete in World badminton. Although she was born in Hong Kong her playing career began after her family settled in Canada. She receives no financial support so has to fund her tournament participation. Despite this she is a top 15 WS, who has come back from serious knee surgery
“…I kind of do everything on my own. When I’m in Canada I don’t have any training because I don’t have anyone to train with…most of my training happens in tournaments…For sure, if I win a medal in Tokyo it will get better. Nobody in Canada expected me to do well. If I can generate better results for Canada, it will change the situation.
Michelle Li in Sportstar.
Kirsty Gilmour is Scotland’s stand-out player. Recently the Scottish women’s team qualified for the Uber Cup and will make their debut in the competition with Gilmour as a key component. Although Britain has a vibrant badminton community, athletes who make it into the world top 30 are not common and it’s a tribute to her dedication that she can go toe-to-toe with the best in the world. She set her sights on Olympic qualification and this has taken her on what can be a lonely road to get enough points. She often has to compete with no coach at her side but should qualify for Tokyo as a member of TeamGB.
It’s not true to claim that these players came out of nowhere. They are athletes who have emerged from a club environment with an extra spark that has driven them to new competitive heights. Most of them are self-funded with a tiny support network compared to Chinese or Indonesian players. There are plenty more that I could have looked at: Beiwen Zhang (USA) and Yvonne Li (Germany) are two obvious examples. They are typically women who have had to work hard and sacrifice things along the way to achieve a dream. I hope we see them all compete successfully at the Olympics and continue to inspire others to enjoy a wonderful sport.
Last year’s results were, on the face of it, bittersweet. Six finals and the runner-up spot each time. However, I think that when we analyse them from distance we can see and understand that she is an athlete who always demands the best performance possible from herself. To be a constant presence on the podium is the foundation of success and the margins between first and second spot are slim. Women’s Singles is enjoying the best of times, the dazzling talent in the Top 10 means that there are no effortless matches.
Whatever tournament Nozomi Okuhara enters the honours are always within her grasp so she began 2020 with a big chance of an Olympic medal. We have had to postpone the dream of seeing a favourite player on top of the podium in Tokyo; none of us is untouched by C-19 but for an athlete who has devoted a huge proportion of her life to earning the chance to perform at the Olympic tournament it must be incredibly frustrating. She already holds a Bronze medal from Rio and she would love to upgrade it in front of her home crowd.
“The Olympic Games remains the most important target for me, especially as it will be held in Japan this time. It will be difficult but I want to win gold medal for the fans.”
Nozomi is known for her defensive style characterised by long rallies however there is so much more to her game than that. If you rewatch her victory at the All England in 2016 it brilliantly illustrates the depth of her talent. In this match it was very difficult for WANG Shixian to exert any sustained pressure upon her partly because she is so nimble and fast across the court. Her lovely racket skills, snappy reflexes and precision shots are delightful to watch and nearly impossible to oppose.
Over the years it seems as though her emphasis has changed so that the defensive approach is her predominant tactic. The pressure she exerts on a rival – because she is willing to extend a rally – means that she can feed off unforced errors. She has good stamina and this allows her to play with this strategy. The problem with this plan is that her opponents may refuse to be drawn into it. For instance when she and PV Sindhu met in the final of the 2019 World Championships she was annihilated by the Indian’s brisk aggression. Sindhu was smashing, following up, and giving full rein to an onslaught that was unmanageable.
The Quarter Final against Sindhu at this years All England was revealing. The first set was quite brutal and she lost it 12-21; in spite of that, this was not another demolition. She hauled herself back into the game and won the next two sets to progress to the Semi. I had already seen her play in Round 1 against Michelle Li and I was shocked by the power and speed she was using then. There was a point when she turned and smashed straight down the line with such venom that her intent was unmistakable.
I think the best version of Nozomi would be one who has lost patience and sharpened her sword. I love it when she dictates the match and keeps to a pace that suits her. The tempo she can play at plus her tenacious approach make her one of the best athletes on the tour. Being able to play with more bite will enhance her attack within the rally. When competitive badminton restarts it will be fascinating to see if she rebalances elements of her game. She will be one of the favourites to triumph at the Olympics, she has all the talent to succeed in her wish to earn Gold for her country.
At 17 she burst onto the BWF world tour with a tremendous victory in the New Zealand Open final against Chinese legend LI Xue Rui. This was her breakthrough moment. As she despatched the Olympic Gold medalist there was a palpable feeling of a generational shift. Better was to follow, as she became the youngest ever winner of a Superseries 750 title – the Yonex French Open – she came out on top in three sensational sets against Marin. Along the way she also collected two Super 100 trophies: the Canada Open and the Akita Masters.
AN Se Young is not the finished article but she has the skills and power to ask serious questions of any women’s singles player in the Top 10. Other badminton nations are looking on with envy because her potential is unlimited.
Analysts and fans would put her firmly in the ‘retriever’ category of players. Retrievers force their opponents to work, and work hard. She is physically robust with a puppyish energy around the court. She isn’t one of the big beasts – like Marin – but her style is a sustained, nagging pressure. She will stifle her rival by defusing attacks and then feed off mistakes when they abandon percentage play and go for winners to force the issue. It is a very tricky style to counter.
At the start of 2019 she was ranked just inside to world top 100. At the moment, while positions are frozen owing to the C-19 crisis she is #9. Here is her view about what catapulted her to the top 10.
“I changed my play style this season. Last Year  my playing style was more attacking, but it used to make me more tired and burnt out easily. I decided to evolve my playing style to defend more and make it more all round. I think that has helped me this year. Now I prefer playing defence rather than attack”
This is such an interesting self-analysis because it contains at it’s heart a paradox. AN Se Young changed her style and the result was some good successes. However, if she continues to pursue these tactics she risks stagnation. There are retrievers galore in the Women’s Singles sector and some of them are better at these strategies than she is.
A good example to illustrate this is her recent R1 match at the All England against the top seed CHEN Yufei. Both of these players have excellent all-round skills, both like to sit and wait, but only one of them could triumph and it was CYF. The problem was that AN Se Young lacked a cutting edge. She was covering the court but not hitting enough winners. She could not/would not vary her pace and most of the time she seemed unable to force Yufei into errors. The Chinese star consistently found space cross-court to AN Se Young’s forehand and gained a lot of points down this route.
She is still at the stage in her development where she is learning to win. It could be that the postponement of the Olympics will allow her to explore the areas she should use when the match is not going her way. There are glimpses of her attacking ability in every game and more experience will mean her ability to analyse and neutralise her opponents’ threat will improve. At the moment she relies too heavily on the covert menace in her style; once she includes more attacking bravado – without running out of stamina – she will have the badminton world at her mercy.