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.
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.
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.
Tai Tzu Ying is the creative spark who can elevate badminton into more than sport. The fusion of brilliant shots and brave resolve is breathtaking to watch. Her sensational technical skills make comparisons with Roger Federer easy. Just like him she can do just about anything with her racket; the variety and fluency is electrifying.
However, she has struggled to play her best games at the past two Olympics. No medal at London 2012 or Rio 2016 so, with talk of retirement in the air, the focus has been on Tokyo. Fans around the world have craved a podium spot for her so The Queen arrived in Japan with a clear goal.
TAI Tzu Ying came to the final to win; CHEN Yu Fei arrived determined not to lose. Two equals but with contrasting approaches to the match. It was a fascinating clash. CHEN Yu Fei is strategically shrewd and her consistency was effective in neutralising some of TTY’s flair: she won the first set 21-18. TAI Tzu Ying fought back hard in set two to force a decider. It was a relentless battle on court and inside the player’s heads.
Set three began badly for TAI Tzu Ying. CHEN Yu Fei pounced on some errors and racked up quick points to lead 10-3. TTY’s fighting spirit was not subdued though. Over some intensely nerve-wracking minutes she clawed her way back into contention but although she almost caught up she could not alter the momentum of the contest. CHEN Yu Fei triumphed 21-18.
So finally TAI Tzu Ying has an Olympic medal; it would have been unbearable if she had returned home to Taiwan empty-handed. She was true to herself and the way she has to play the game. Just like Federer at London 2012 she came to win Gold but in the end got Silver. She couldn’t have given any more to the fight. Congratulations TAI Tzu Ying from your millions of fans – we are so proud of you!
TAI Tzu Ying was breathtaking today as she seized a place in the Olympic final. Her flair and courage were irresistable. PV Sindhu fought hard but at crucial moments she could not contain the creative genius of the Queen.
The battle for the first set saw the balance of power swing backwards and forwards between the two athletes. Sindhu has rediscovered her 2019 form in Tokyo and she refused to allow TTY to get any scoring momentum although she could not take control herself. Both players were utterly focused on their quest for the final. Sindhu led at the interval and stayed with the scoring up to 18-18 but TAI’s strategy of moving the World Champion from side to side whilst trying to push her back succeeded in minimising the threat of the Indian’s power smash. This was very shrewd and allowed her to take charge in the last three points and secure the opening set 21-18.
The second set and a change of ends saw the screw being turned by TAI Tzu Ying. Although it was pretty even at the interval the scoreline was ticking over nicely in favour of Taiwan. Errors started to creep in from Sindhu and she was finding it increasingly tricky to control the shuttle in her long shots. The pressure was relentless and TAI’s exquisite technical skills were allowing her to drive the direction of the game; in the end the set was closed out 21-12
So, we have the priviledge of being able to watch TAI Tzu Ying in an Olympic final: something I have craved for years. Since she started mentioning retirement the focus for fans has been this gold medal match. Moments like these are fleeting, I hope she enjoys the game, with no injuries and does justice to her magnificent talent.
Inevitably this competition will be an emotional roller coaster. Nothing is decided except that there will be a new Olympic champion.
There will be 43 competitors on day 1; in this sector there are 14 seeds and so the preliminary stages will break down into 13 groups of 3 and one group of 4. The group of four includes the #2 seed (TTY) who then gets a bye in the R16; although CHEN Yufei is in a group of three, as #1 seed she also has a bye at that stage.
Nozomi Okuhara (3)
The winner of a Bronze medal in Rio will be one of the standout players in Tokyo. She knows what it takes to get on the podium and has every chance of upgrading to Gold in her home Olympics. Her progress as a competitor since those 6 defeats in finals in 2019 has been outstanding and her victory over Marin at the 2020 Denmark Open was important with a strong redemptive quality. The only other tournament she has played in this year – Yonex All England 2021 – also ended with a win so it would seem that Nozomi has spent lockdown learning how to turn silver into Gold.
TAI Tzu Ying (2)
The exhilaration of watching TTY in full flow belongs on the world stage of the Olympics yet she has never shone in this tournament. The opportunity to win a medal here is something her many fans (myself included) crave for her. Chances like this are fleeting and she has been frank about her intention to retire ‘soon’. I would love to see this sublime player become part of Olympic badminton legend. Prediction: Gold.
CHEN Yu Fei (1)
The top seed has not competed internationally since YAE20 so I’m intrigued to discover whether she has altered much about her game. She is resilient and is adept at staying in a match. Her composure and stubborn persistence against players who have more flair means she often waits for them to run out of ideas and then attacks. Her strength may also be a weakness: I have wondered in the past how risk-averse she is because sometimes she just seems too patient. This was part of the reason for her defeat against TTY in the final in Birmingham in 2020. If she makes the final – her route may involve beating AN Se Young and Nozomi – it could prove to be the difference between silver and Gold.
Pursala V Sindhu (6)
At her best Sindhu is uncontainable and although she seems to suffer inconsistent form there’s no doubt she can raise her game at the top tournaments. Nozomi must still get nightmares about her annihilation by PVS at the 2019 World Championship final. Her part of the draw is tough, but at her best she has the beating of Blichfeldt and Akane. Indian women’s singles has a great tradition of success at the Olympics – including Sindhu’s Silver in Rio – so she has the experience to force her way into the reckoning.
Ratchanok Intanon (5)
May’s sparkling skills on court could mean a medal chance in her third Olympics but her route to the podium is scary. Probably she will meet Gregoria in the R16 and assuming she progresses past the Indonesian it’s likely that her QF will be against TAI Tzu Ying. This is a neutral’s nightmare. These two breathtaking players light up every tournament so I’m sorry that one of them will lose their chance of glory. The head-to-head stats are pretty even (15-14 in TTY’s favour) so it will be a fascinating and excruciating game to spectate.
Akane Yamaguchi (4)
Akane has been under the radar more than her compatriot during lockdown so we’ll have to wait to see what sort of form she’s in. Her counter-punching style could work effectively at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza so although she doesn’t have a particulary convincing record against some of the others in her part of the draw I see her as a firm contender.
AN Se Young (7)
ASY has been regarded as a dark horse chance for the Gold here since she flew up the rankings in 2019. Earlier this year she did OK in Thailand – getting to semi-finals – but she wasn’t able to push on to a final. She is at the stage in her career now where fine tuning and incremental gains are important if she is to dominate consistently. She’s a wonderful all-rounder but sometime I consider that she puts too much emphasis on defence. I’d like to see her take the initiative more. In a recent interview with BWF she highlighted her victory over TTY in the Sudirman Cup as a turning point but I think the frustration of being ‘nearly there’ will be perfect fuel for her ambition. Prediction: Paris 2024 Gold
HBJ seems to have been replaced by her super-slim twin sister during lockdown and I’m excited to see what has changed about her approach in the course of the pandemic. It’s unlikely that the lack of international competition will have disadvantaged either of the Chinese competitors because they enjoy such a high standard domestically so it’s feasible that she will have added a new dimension to her play. If the seeding works as expected then her first big test is going to be in a QF against Nozomi – she doesn’t have a good H2H against the Japanese so if she can pull off a win then she may have to face her compatriot for a spot in the final. Prediction QF Exit.
Women’s Singles is crowded with fine athletes so it’s tricky to highlight one player who already has a foot on the podium. Olympic Gold is someone’s destiny and it looks to me as though it will boil down to Nozomi V Tzu Ying. The person who can stay fit, focused and adapt quickly to the conditions in the arena will have an advantage, but it’s always a hard tournament to call. TTY knows she must stay patient and cut out mistakes, Nozomi has to be confident in her ability to keep asking the tough questions. I’m impatient for it to start so we can enjoy the path to victory and watch dreams come true.
In a breaking news story the Rio 2016 Gold medalist has announced that she will be unable to defend her title in Tokyo.
The devastating news came after she felt some discomfort in her left anterior cruciate ligament during training last week. The medics have confirmed that she will have to undergo surgery to repair both meniscus and the torn ACL. It’s quite hard to speculate what the future holds but there is no doubt that this is a serious injury. She had the drive and self-belief to recover from a similar problem to her right knee so she knows the scale of the work that awaits her.
Marin is a fierce competitior who has shown a fantastic commitment to the sport throughout lockdown. She has been willing to travel far and wide to continue playing in tournaments; her two wins in Thailand in January were out of the top drawer.
The tournament in Tokyo will not be the same without her. Best wishes Caro!
The whole tournament is dominated by the most eagerly awaited comeback in modern badminton history. The return of Momota. The spotlight will be on him from the second he steps back on court.
Kento Momota is like a ravenous lion circling a water hole and preparing to pounce on unsuspecting antelope; here is a lion who hasn’t tasted red meat in a looong time.
It’s impossible to guess his level of fitness after such a lengthy absence but his superior mental strength will have driven him on to train and stay focused. He has all the weapons to regain his title after missing the AE last year and he can often expose highly seeded opponents as one-dimensional. He has an aura of a returning king although he must feel some nerves about the standards he can reach at the beginning of his campaign. Viktor Axelsen has set a high benchmark over the past three months so Momota must be on guard. Prediction: Final
Viktor Axelsen – the defending champion – had a brilliant January in Thailand so he will be arriving in Birmingham with high hopes of keeping his title. He has been awesome at grabbing opportunities to win over the past 3 months: a living embodiment of Carpe Diem. However, that loss at the WTF keeps niggling away at me. His power, fitness and will to win are second to none but he was unsettled by Antonsen’s cunning tactics. Falling prey to a version of the rope-a-dope trick must have been incredibly frustrating and I wonder what the effect of that will be long-term. Axelsen has introduced us to his ‘mental coach’ recently, who is an ex special forces soldier so he clearly wishes to explore how his psychology can give him an edge. In the final of the Swiss Open he was unstoppable as he bulldozed his way to the trophy. It’s worth noting that his opponent – Vitidsarn – did start the encounter well and his tactics reminded me of Momota’s ‘waiting game’ approach, but he made too many errors and ran out of steam. Momota has plenty of stamina and he knows not to give VA power to feed off, so if they meet in the final Viktor should be pushed harder. Prediction Runner up
Anders Antonsen – the WTF Champion – is never a person to fade into the background and the past six months have been full on drama. Starting in October, his epic battle against Gemke in the final of the Denmark Open left both unable to walk unaided from the arena, in November he contracted Covid, January saw patchy performances in the first two tournaments in Bangkok then he roared back to form in the WTF to snatch victory away from Axelsen; this all adds layers of experience to an intelligent player who needs to be on court. Viktor has better fitness and stamina but Antonsen has better strategies. Last year’s YAE saw him retire hurt from his semi-Final against CHOU Tien Chen which was a huge disappointment as he had every chance of making the final at that point. He is seeded 3 so it may be that we see an all-Danish semi final with the liklihood of a fired-up Viktor looking for revenge.
Anthony Ginting spearheads the Indonesia challenge in this sector. When he is consistently at his best, he is unstoppable and we saw flashes of this brilliance in Thailand but he didn’t have enough for a podium finish. On the whole, after such a long break, his performance gave some cause for optimism, or at least no cause for alarm. In the SF of the Yonex Thailand Open he came up against a resolute VA in the third set but overall, he lost that tie 53-55 which puts a revealing slant on his defeat. His levels dropped off in the next two tournaments and this is exasperating as he is such a glorious player. I saw lockdown as a useful opportunity for some players to improve areas of their game and instinctively I would point to his ‘third set’ strategies. There are not really gaps in his technique but something is missing in this area that his coaches need to address. I would love to see him come to Birmingham and gift us fans a MomoGI in the semi final. And then I want a final.
Kunlavut Vitidsarn was the World Junior Champion for three years running (2017/18/19) and is one of badminton’s rising stars. Axelsen demolished him in the second set of the final of the Swiss Open but his fluency around the court and technical skill is exciting. As he builds on his experience and puts more hours in at the gym we will see an improvement in stamina and pace. The fact that he stayed with Viktor in the first set whilst playing patiently should worry Jonatan Christie who plays him in the first round.
Jonatan Christie is seeded 5 and has a brutal draw: possibly meeting Axelsen at the QF stage. If so then he could struggle to progress as their h2h coupled with the Danes form doesn’t indicate any easy points. It would be wonderful to see him get to the weekend but it would be a bit of a jaw-dropper if he can subdue the Dane. Last year LEE Zii Jia who is seeded 6, had a thrilling run to the SF before losing in a closely fought match with VA. He is very mobile, with good technical skills, a great player for a neutral to support. He looked a bit lethargic at the Swiss Open so perhaps he is an athlete who needs to compete consistently to maintain his focus and pace. A possible Quarter Final with Momota is on the horizon and to have any dream of progress he must improve on his recent form.
Owing to Marin’s late withdrawal from the tournament the top half of the draw is suddenly looking less intimidating for the other players. Akane, Pornpawee, and Pursala would have had to beat her to get to the final; now there is one less obstacle on the road.
Akane Yamaguchi is seeded 3 but still, this will be the first time we have seen her in an international tournament for a year and I honestly don’t know what we can expect. She was the beaten finalist (in three sets) against Nozomi at the All-Japan National Championships in December. Before the pandemic her brief period at World #1 was followed by some inconsistency. At her best, she is a contender for the title, so the puzzle is about the level she is at when she hits the courts on the 17th March. She is known as a retriever but there have been occasions when she has used a fiercer style; combining more aggression with her great court coverage will give her more options when she is under pressure. The prospect of a QF against Pornpawee is intriguing. Mew nearly beat Marin in the Semi Final of the Swiss Open; she seemed down and out but hauled herself back into contention. Peppery unpredictability with unlimited stamina could be a good strategy.
Nozomi Okuhara‘s victory in the final of the Denmark Open over Marin came after a dazzling two sets; she would not let the Spaniard get a foothold in the game. The strategy of frustrating and denying her the chance to build a competitive rhythm disrupted her momentum and was a key element in Nozomi’s success. In the context of 2019 where she consistently reached finals only to lose this was a big breakthrough. The court coverage, stamina and sheer stubbornness of Nozomi are hard to break. She last won in 2016 but with the Tokyo Olympics in mind she will be aiming to become a hard player to beat at the end of a tournament so this is the perfect place to set a marker. The hall conditions should suit her but she must get the right balance between attack and defence.
Ratchanok Intanon – the #4 seed – is coming to the All England for another shot at winning the title. She was close in 2017 but was relegated to Silver by TAI Tzu Ying. We often criticise TTY for lack of patience but I think that May suffers with this too – her sublime technical skills sometimes mean that she doesn’t play the percentages. May could potentially be looking at a semi-final against Nozomi which would be a dream for fans. Rather like Anthony in the MS I wish she was more solid in the third set. It’s harder than it looks to behave with restraint in that section of a match but it is within her capabilities; we have all watched epic games where she fights with incredible grit and courage. In her 2020 win at the Indonesia Masters she overcame Marin in three sets so she can be inspired by this.
Pornpawee CHOCHUWONG’s progress since her victory over Carolina Marin at the Spain Masters in 2020 has been dislocated because of the effect of Covid cancellations on the badminton tour. Nevertheless, she had victories over TAI Tzu Ying and Ratchanok in Bangkok which shows that she has the ability to compete with the best. Her recent SF match against Carolina Marin at the Swiss Open was a defeat but she pushed all the way with a gritty and skilful display. Seeded 6 she has every reason to be optimistic if she can cut some of her errors. It would be an upset if she won the title but she has a chance – especially in the absence of Marin – and the mental stamina to push all the way to the end of a third set. Her obstinate outlook is a big advantage and it could be the foundation of tremendous achievements.
I would love to see Pursala V Sindhu rampage through the early rounds of this competition in the sort of form that won her the title at the World Championships in 2019. She’s a great athlete, but it just seems that sometimes she cannot dig herself out of a hole when the game tilts away from her. The final at the Swiss Open showed her difficulties; she struggled on her lunges to the front court to reach wide shots and wasn’t using any creativity to stop Marins anticipatory game. On the positive side she did get to the final and in the first set she seemed to have a bit more speed around the court. I hope that her coaching environment becomes more settled so that she can continue to develop her range.
So we have a men’s competition where we have to measure athletes against Viktor’s tough standards but Momota has returned to complicate things and a women’s competition that is missing TTY and Carolina but still features players with a realistic chance of the Gold medal later on in the year in Tokyo. All England success this year will go to the competitor who can come to the court with intensity and desire after twelve months of disruption and boredom. Can Viktor prove that he is the new King of the courts?
TAI Tzu Ying is celebrated as a dazzling player: the best of her generation. She is a sensational athlete who combines breath-taking technical skill with daring and panache. She is applauded by millions of fans worldwide whenever she appears. However, when she wins a title her celebratory snapshot on Instagram always contains at least four more people. This is her acknowledgement of the huge team effort behind her victories. In this article I want to look at some of the people who help light TTY’s path to glory.
Coach LAI – Head Coach
“…all we can do is be better than before.”
Coach LAI in conversation with BWF TV
The badminton Gods were smiling on the day LAI Chien Cheng was assigned to work at TTY’s high school for his Substitute Military Service. Over the years this chance meeting sparked a collaboration that has been a blessing for both. LAI had a good badminton background but made the decision to finish his sporting career when he was 21 preferring instead to put his energy into his post grad studies. After connecting through her school badminton programme, at first, he was TTY’s sparring partner but his importance to her meant that his contribution expanded and in Feb 2015 he became her official coach. By the end of 2016 she was world #1
LAI’s strength is that he understands what style to use to inspire TAI. He is in a position of respect but he is on TTYs wavelength, so his emotional literacy enables him to get the most from his player. She has commented in the past that other coaches have attempted to change her style but she ‘can’t’ play like that. He recognises that there will be no reward in altering her game.
TTY’s impulsiveness and freedom to express badminton joy on court means that she uses shots that rivals can’t imagine. LAI has said that he tries to focus on areas to improve and look for incremental gains. At elite level small advances can make a huge difference and revitalise a player’s armoury. LAI remarked recently that his biggest challenge has been to innovate in training – he was reluctant to copy other people’s methods because it would lead to stagnation. I have heard a similar observation from Fernando Rivas when he has spoken about his work with Carolina Marin. Both men understand that to achieve the extraordinary they have to be pioneers.
Crucially LAI says that he will often find more than one solution to a problem. He has a genuine relationship with TTY that has a foundation in trust and honesty so the communication between them allows a focus on the process of training and this builds a winning attitude.
It was no big surprise in February 2019 to hear that LAI had been asked to become the head coach for the Taiwan badminton team for the Olympics – he was widely regarded as one of the brightest young coaches in the world at that point. In the following six months TTY’s titles dried up. He resigned from his role in October 2019 so that he could concentrate his attention back to her.
However, the relationship did not resume exactly as before. The support team had been reinforced in Jan 2019 and this meant there were three more people to help fuel the search for excellence:
WAN Chia Hsin – Coach
We often see Coach WAN talking to TTY and holding the ice pack to her neck in the intervals in matches. He competed internationally for Taiwan up to 2014 and now works in her team. His responsiblity is to implement Coach Lai’s plans. This is a vital part of the framework around TAI Tzu Ying. He will provide precise assessments on areas for attention, and feedback to LAI to influence strategies. A second coach means that ideas and tactics can be analysed from new viewpoints.
Wang Shih-Ting – Physiotherapist
A large part of WANG’s role is to address aches and pains; I doubt that any elite athlete can avoid these niggles so the challenge is to manage discomfort effectively. Like TTY’s physical trainer – FAN Zan-Yu – she is a graduate of Kaohsiung Medical University. Her responsibility covers post-practice and post-match recovery. Physios tend to use manual therapies like massage to manipulate the body. This helps blood flow and relieves stiffness and we often see photos of this on Instagram as TAI Tzu Ying lies on a treatment table. She will note injury patterns, plan rest and use this information to help fine tune training routines.
FAN has been a great all-round athlete across many disciplines from swimming to frisbee but she’s mainly known as a basketball player. Her duties are centred around maintaining fitness and running the pre-match warm up. She works closely with the physio and ultimately her contribution will give TTY confidence that she has the stamina and agility to beat her rivals. I think that there is an intriguing synergy between basketball and badminton. Both need explosive power, high speed directional changes and 3D vision and both make huge demands on an athlete’s body.
TTY has a loving and supportive family who are united in support of her. When they were children, her parents took her and her sister along when they played badminton. As she got older her father used to enter her in ‘open’ tournaments when she would compete against seniors – and lose! She now credits this as a formative experience, one that taught her to accept defeat. Her father is responsible for the idiosyncratic stringing pattern we see on her racket. It’s revealing that she was treated with understanding by them when she wanted to give up training so she could have fun with her friends but they also supported her when she restarted. Her happy relationship with her Grandma is famous on Instagram.
Some fans have suggested that I add a little more about TTY’s father here. As well as being a caring and supportive dad he was pivotal in picking Coach LAI as a sparring partner in the first place so it was his shrewd judgement that initiated this fruitful alliance. Throughout her career he has been her manager; overseeing arrangements and ensuring she continues her journey in badminton in the best way possible.
Coach Lai and the team have worked in partnership to inspire and motivate her but they are only part of the story. She is adored by fans and has often commentated that she wants to win for them. Win or lose they offer unconditional support. It’s fascinating to consider how many people have walked along the path to excellence with TAI Tzu Ying.
I’d like to thank everyone who helped with information for this piece including DeeTree (@tty4ever and taitzuyingfans.wordpress.com), Shodo0702 (@Sandrali13), eeye24 (@eeye24), Jenny Day, TTY’s Facebook admin and of course BWF TV.
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!