Since January 2019 Mixed Doubles has been missing one of the world’s best players. Liliyana Natsir is a genuine legend, one of badmintons immortals. No one else can match her achievements on the world stage.
Early on in her career she tasted some success in Women’s Doubles however it was her partnership with Nova Widianto that elevated her to superstar status. He was already a senior player, well-known for his fluent court coverage and potent smash. Together they were world #1 and among their 14 titles were two World Championships (2005 & 2007) plus a Silver medal at the Beijing Olympics. The badminton world was shocked in 2010 when the partnership was dissolved. On the surface this seemed like a catastrophe but it marked the beginning of the renowned Owi/Butet team. Far from being an ending it was the start of something special.
Competing with Tontowi Ahmad gave a new dimension to her career. She became the senior partner: the big sister. The Owi side of the duo is an infuriatingly inconsistent blend of committed athlete, hard worker, and skilled player. He was prone to ‘off’ days and stress. The blend of the two of them worked so well because at the core of the relationship was a shared hunger for success at the pinnacle of their sport. Together they dominated mixed doubles; there are too many titles to list but highlights include three All England titles in a row (2012, 2013, 2014), two World Championships (2013, 2017) and, best of all, Olympic Gold in Rio 2016.
She is a rock studded with precious stones and each one is a glittering skill that she brings to the court. Her emotional resilience, and desire for victory are the foundation of her sporting character. Tontowi needs a partner who can refocus him when a match gets tricky.
For sure, the main responsibility of a woman in classic XD strategy is to dominate the net area. There are thinner margins for error here. Her nerves of steel were crucial to her success. Her speedy reactions and interceptions reflect pressure back to her opponents and set up weak returns to be buried. Her touch is so refined, there are occasions when she just seems to brush the shuttle over the cord, other times she executes a brutal net kill and the point is won.
She is a creator, a wonderful athlete to have as a partner. One of the assets that sets her apart from many other women in XD is her rear court ability. A standard tactic is for the opposition to try and disrupt the traditional roles of the man at the rear and the woman at the front. However this was a very dangerous path against Owi/Butet. Her spatial perception of the court – her tactical vision – is second to none; it is as though her brain can compute more than one angle of view simultaneously. She finds space or she makes space. Her shot making skills are not diminished by distance from the net.
She retired with nothing left to prove. No other player has come close to her triumphs in mixed doubles. Her achievements are stellar. Highlights include four World Championships with two different partners, domination of the All England for three years in a row, and an Olympic Gold: these are the sort of stats that any athlete dreams of when they embark on a career in sport. Greatest Of All Time? Definitely.
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.
Who will be the next Indian badminton player to win a medal at the Olympics? The current World Champion, and Silver medallist from Rio 2016, Pusarla Venkata Sindhu must have high hopes. Sindhu has a reputation as a ‘big tournament player’; the bigger the stage, the bigger the prize. This is a player who motivates herself by focussing on the major titles, the ones that everyone wants to win.
When she is performing to the best of her ability, she is unstoppable. There are times when her attacking power is breath-taking. Nevertheless, her erratic form can be very frustrating for her supporters. Playing singles can be a lonely game. It requires strong self-belief. Sometimes when she plays her confidence seems a little unsteady. She can look quite vulnerable, but this should be an area that her coach will help with. Even when playing alone on the court there should always be someone at her side during the mid-game break offering encouragement and suggestions.
We all know by now that Tokyo 2020 has become Tokyo 2021. Coach Agus Dwi Santoso was appointed to the national coaching team in February and the unexpected extra months could give him and the players chance to build their training routines rather than be drawn into increasingly desperate firefighting. The Indonesian has a great pedigree and has recently been working in Thailand with players like Busanan and Kantaphon. It is a key moment for Indian badminton. Since Coach Kim left, Sindhu’s form has been inconsistent and the other top players seem to be drifting with time running out for qualification. With a fresh approach and a clear vision they may still be able to turn things around.
Sindhu is a fantastic player; no-one flukes winning a World Championship final. The fundamental strategy in singles is about movement. At her best, Sindhu’s aggression has its foundation in her ability to control the rally by moving her foe around the court and provoking a weak shot. Her technique and strength mean that she already hits the shuttle fiercely; her stature allows her to find steep angles. This gives less time to the opponent on the other side of the net. Sindhu follows up her smash very swiftly – often with a net kill to bury any weak return. This is a wonderful way to keep pressure high and provoke mistakes.
Her offensive game is not simply based on smashes. Her fast, flat clears (very different to the loopy kind we all see at local club nights), and punched drives are a good way to keep the momentum of the match on her side. It’s dangerous to attempt to gain recovery time by clearing over her head; a slight misjudgement and a savage riposte is the result.
Her long stride and reach give her good court coverage but she can look a little susceptible when the tables are turned and she is forced to defend the corners. Getting trapped by a sequence of ‘over’ reaching can undermine her poise. The disadvantage of a high centre of gravity is the risk to stability. I think this is a weakness that has been exploited in the past but has improved. People often claim that tall players lack agility and balance but this is a skill that can be developed in the gym and it’s obvious this is an area that has been worked upon.
If Sindhu plays with conviction, she has no-one to fear. Her precision and power make her invincible since her attacking game is so hard to defuse. She has extra time now to prepare for Tokyo and must use it to her advantage. She has a great chance of getting on that Olympic podium and upgrading her 2016 Silver to a 2021 Gold.
We have to wait a little longer than expected to see if CHEN Yu Fei will follow in the footsteps of LI Xuerui, ZHANG Ning and GONG Zhichao to win Olympic Gold. It’s indisputable that she would have expected to be on the podium if the tournament had gone ahead in July.
CHEN Yu Fei’s victory at the 2019 Yonex All England kickstarted a year which climaxed in December when she was crowned world #1. She is the first Chinese Women’s Singles player since LI Xuerui to achieve this distinction. Still only 21, CHEN Yu Fei has enjoyed an extraordinary run of success since her triumph over TAI Tzu Ying in Birmingham last March. In the return encounter in March 2020 TTY reversed the previous year’s result but there is no doubt that she ill be a key competitor in the Olympics in 2021.
The talent and quality in this generation of Women’s Singles players is magnificent. Part of the appeal of this sector is that there is no particular style that dominates every tournament. The fitness of the athletes, their technical skills and tactical sense all mean that results can be erratic. Some key players have lacked consistency – for instance Sindhu and Akane have had a tendency to crash out in the early rounds of competition. Others, like Saina and Marin have had their seasons disrupted by injuries. However, CHEN Yu Fei has been a reliable presence most of the time with the stand-out ability to win in a final once she gets to it.
As a 21-year-old, with the backing of the Chinese coaching establishment to support her she can continue to develop and extend herself; the improvement since 2018 has been stellar which reveals her commitment and focus. CHEN has been identified as perhaps the spearhead of a renaissance in Chinese women’s singles. For instance, not so long ago they dominated the All England. Between 2000 and 2014 there were 11 winners and 12 runners-up in this sector but then the talent seemed to dry up. Since then only one podium spot (WANG Shixian in 2016) until CHEN’s title win in 2019.
The foundation of CHEN Yu Fei’s badminton is quite simple. She is a fine player with excellent all- round mastery of the game. Her physical durability is such a positive feature; consistent fitness allows her training to build up to tournaments in a controlled way. She is an extremely intelligent strategist, always alert to opportunities to gain points. Her tendency to rebalance her game as the match progresses is a major asset; this responsiveness to threats means that if she can stay in a game when she is under pressure, she can often grind out a win. Her default strategy is patience. Frequently, against someone who relies more on flair and deception, she will sit back and let them play. She has got endless stamina. She can wait for a storm to blow itself out and then pounce. I love the way she will cleverly conserve energy: she can keep the shuttle in play and then towards the last few points in a set she can accelerate away and inflict defeat. Against players with suspect resilience this is a brutally efficient approach. It’s a method of increasing pressure because her rival will feel the desire to win the game briskly or else risk running out of energy. This is the trap that is set. The need to win provokes mistakes and often the match spirals away. The temptation is to risk more, to aim for the lines, to score a quick point. This makes compelling theatre for spectators but is ineffective most of the time.
Patience is at the core of her strategy and if I had to single out a weakness, I would say that this can stray into an avoidance of risk. In a very close match, the ability to be unpredictable can make the difference between Silver and Gold.
She returned to the Yonex All England a tougher player than ever: as well as her tour triumphs she had a central role in China’s Sudirman Cup victory. She was seeded #1 and got to the final but was out-thought by TAI Tzu Ying. Her main rival had arrived at the party with a new strategy; this time TTY played with patience and picked her moments to attack. CYF just could not get a foothold in the game and lost it in straight sets.
When the BWF tour resumes it will be fascinating to see what she has learned from this loss because acheiving the correct balance between risk and safety, attack and defence is going to be crucial in her progress to the podium in Tokyo.
“After the announcement a few days ago about the cancellation of competitions, I told myself to cherish every moment on court and to play my very best”
TAI Tzu Ying to Badminton Unlimited 15.3.20
TAI Tzu Ying is adored all over the world because her are fans captivated by her genius on court and her personality off it. Is she the greatest ever? With her 2020 victory at the Yonex All England – her third title in four years – we have to salute a dazzling talent, a player who is the best of her generation, a legend.
She is the one who will light up any game with her bewitching skills. In her heart there is the need to enjoy the spontaneous pleasure of a great shot however this has co-existed with errors which have cost her titles. This tension – between artistry and efficiency – needed to be tackled. Tzu Ying arrived in Birmingham threatening retirement after the Olympics; immortality beckoned, could she focus, cut the mistakes and cement her iconic status?
Semi-Final against Carolina Marin
Marin began like a runaway train. She was loud, powerful and effective. At 10-6 she sent TTY sprawling and went into the interval five points up. Tzu Ying was mainly serving high and pulling/pushing Marin all over the court but making errors. Serve alternated between then but Marin kept her edge until it the scores got to 18-12. TTY served, Marin didn’t attempt to play the shuttle and it was called out: Tzu Ying challenged. Hawkeye called IN. This was a turning point, the shuttle had caught the line by a whisker. Marin went on to win the first set 21-19 but something had changed, the balance of power had shifted.
TTY started the second set in imperious form. She moved Marin everywhere keeping her under constant pressure and forcing errors. Tzu Ying was pitiless. Marin lost her concentration and lost the set 21-13. Third set, TTY continued with her exceptionally beautiful play. Marin’s pace and power were being dismantled by the majestic skills of TAI. Marin’s focus and game were demolished, and she lost 21-11. Marin was a gallant opponent, she said struggled with the drift but she just could not contain TTY’s brilliance.
Final against CHEN YuFei
Her fourth consecutive final at the Yonex All England and a rematch of 2019 when CHEN YuFei was victorious in straight sets. We know that when Yufei gets to a final she does not lose. Last year one of CYF’s main weapons in defeating The Queen was patience, this year the tables were turned.
“Today I kept reminding myself that I had to be very patient in order to win, because CHEN is a very consistent player and good mover. So with my style of play, there’s actually more pressure on me.”
TAI Tzu Ying to Badminton Unlimited 15.3.20
Over the week, as the intensity of the competition surged, we watched as TAI Tzu Ying simply got better and better. There was a focus and cool determination. Interestingly I think she has modified her game. Patience is a sharp weapon to add to her armoury. There were less errors because she was more precise about when she chose to launch her attacks. She was relentless in the way she attacked CYF. As against Marin she used her high serve to push her opponent back and limit her options and like Marin CHEN could not get control of the rallies. The first set went to Tzu Ying 21-19, the second 21-15; towards the end TTY was simply sensational. Her courage and mental strength made her an unassailable opponent.
She had a wonderful week in Birmingham which ended in a tremendous victory. She is a giant of the game, a sporting icon of the same calibre as Messi or Federer. What a time to be a fan of women’s badminton!
This was a competition that favoured players who could keep focus and grab opportunities. There is a joy to badminton that we all recognise and these are the times when we should celebrate happiness and curate our memories of watching the greatest tournament in our sport.
“Before its 21 anything can happen”
Mixed Doubles – Praveen Jordan & Melati Daeva Oktavianti
The XD was an unexpected pleasure this year. Top seeds fell by the wayside and we arrived at Saturday night with the home favourites Lauren Smith/Marcus Ellis facing Praveen Jordan/Melati Daeva Oktavianti for a place in the final. The first set went to form – PraMel were shrewdly pulling Ellis out of position to neutralise his threat – but in the second the Brits held their nerve, saved two match points and roared on by the crowd forced the match to a decider. Praveen is notoriously unpredictable, however the hoohah around ‘time wasting’ and ‘being ready’ which resulted in an undeserved yellow card definitely lit a flame and the last game was a more comfortable 21-11 victory. The Indonesians were quicker and cleverer and deserved to progress.
No Thai player has ever won an All England title so Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai were staring down the barrel of history. They are a strong, fast pair and this was a match for all XD devotees. It ebbed and flowed but the balance of power was decided at the net. Praveen is such an imposing, athletic partner; he reached everything, his smash was vicious so this freed Melati to damage the Thai pair again and again. Even if she couldn’t score she keep the attacking momentum. Bass/Popor grabbed the second set but had given too much and were beaten 21-8 at the last.
Winning an All England title is the mark of a special player and Praveen Jordan has now won two with two separate partners.
Men’s Doubles – Hiroyuki Endo & Yuta Watanabe
This sector was lit up by the brilliance of Yuta Watanabe. He is faster than a flash. His net interceptions, his resilience and strength were irresistable. For his partner, it was a fourth appearance in the MD final, the first with his new partner and another chance to win the title that has eluded him.
This match sparkled. Gideon & Sukamuljo – world #1 – have already won the title twice but in the last year have consistently lost to the Japanese duo. The pace was superhuman. There was little to choose between these two teams as the intensity increased. No one cracked, no one avoided responsibility, here were four athletes trying everything to succeed. In the final set the Minions trailed 0-6, at the break they had pulled it back to 9-11. Marcus and Kevin bombarded Yuta & Hiroyuki in the last points but the Japanese held firm under incredible pressure. In the end the Japanese pair won the title. They deserved to win but Kevin and Marcus did not deserve to lose. It was a priviledge to watch.
Women’s Singles – Tai Tzu Ying
The Queen is the Queen.
All of TTY’s fans must have anticipated this tournament with a mixture of excitement and dread. We knew she had enjoyed success in January with the Begaluru Raptors and it was clear she was focusing on key competition in the run-up to Tokyo 2020. Her committment and strategy were perfect and in a repeat of 2019 she met CHEN Yufei in the final. This time the honours went to the Queen. (a longer appreciation of TTY’s progress through the YAE will be appearing on this blog as a standalone piece).
All week Fukuhiro had been focused with a quiet confidence. This match had them in dominant form with Hirota especially dazzling with her interceptions at the net. Early on they were finding space with long cross-court precise shots. Their movement around court was fluent as they continued to pressurize DU/LI and raced to a 10-4 lead. The Chinese pair were struggling to find space but they gradually slowed the Fukihiro momentum to get to 9-14.
Hirota’s competitive vision and her ability to get to the shuttle at pace meant that DU/LI could not challenge the control the Japanese pair had. Fukushima was equally aggressive and her appetite for smashing – especially XC – was significant in keeping DU/LI ‘s ambitions down. The Japanese pair secured the title in two sets and they were worthy winners.
Men’s Singles – Viktor Axelsen
Axelsen demolished the #1 seed CHOU Tien Chen in two sets. No games at this level are ‘easy’ but Viktor bulldozed his way through it whilst CTC will want to forget his error strewn match. The Dane grabbed his opportunity and after such a tricky 2019 disrupted by injury and allergies it’s fair to say he is getting back to his best.
I feel that this sector was dominated by players who were absent as much as those who competed. We all know the situation Momota is in. I was astonished by the exit of Ginting and Christie in R1. I watched Ginting’s match and he simply had no answers to Gemke, he could not raise his level to get any foothold in the game. Frustratingly, another YAE passes him by.
The unseeded LEE Zii Jia was one of the stars of the tournament and it was Christie’s misfortune to meet him in R1. LEE looks hungry. He is athletic, explosive and speedy around the court – I think he may fancy his chances at the Olympics.
This year’s tournament was buffeted by external forces out of the control of the players and these, of course, will be a huge part of all our lives for the next few months. All of the athletes must, to some extent, have been affected by anxieties. Firstly, would it even go ahead? Secondly would they get home? Despite this it was drenched in quality right from the start and the right people won.
I would like to thank all the people who contributed to the competition. As well as the athletes/coaches/support staff there is a huge group of people behind the scenes including the Badminton England volunteers. I’d particularly like to mention Jan in the media centre – always cheerful, professional and kind.
Doubles is intense, it is the supreme embodiment of badminton. Fierce battles rage across the court; pace, power and guile form the contours of the match. The finest tournament in the world has an extra pressure this time around because it is Olympic year: many still strive to win enough ranking points to compete in Tokyo. This is great news for fans who love drama and stress but if you need a quiet life…look away now!
“Two people until the end, do not regret” Matsutomo
The magnificent MD athletes from Indonesia simply shine on every stage. Intensity, resilience and desire add up to some wonderful players.
The 2019 title holders – Mohammad Ahsan & Hendra Setiawan – famously won on 3 legs last year after an all-consuming final. I love them. They are outstanding players and incredible ambassadors for the sport. They have every chance of playing in the final so long as they carefully manage their old legs.
Gideon & Sukamuljo are top seeds and have a heavy weight of expectation loaded on their shoulders. At their best, with Marcus as reliable foundation and Kevin riffing around him they are simply unbeatable. Gorgeous shots, dazzling reactions and relentless athleticism raise the sport to heights few others can aspire to.
Fajar Alfian & Muhammad Rian Ardianto are seeded 5 and got to the Semi Final last year. Their high energy explosive game puts them firmly in the ‘fast ‘n’ furious’ camp; they should still be in the competiton by finals weekend.
If we consider WD then Greysia Polii & Apri Rahayu have had a great start to 2020 and if they play in the same way that took them to victory at the Indonesia Masters they will get to the semi-finals. I think they are more successful when Apri is decisive at the forecourt. I’ve mentioned before that their game and competitive strategy is evolving. Her power and confidence means they can really dominate rallies – they shouldn’t resort to defensive clears as a default tactic. I think they were fortunate to win the Spanish Masters because there were times when their gameplan slipped back to the 2019 version of themselves. The other Indonesian pair, Ramadhanti &Sugiarto, are in the same part of the draw as Greyap.
Park Joo-Bong – the legendary head coach – has overseen Japanese players challenge the traditional Chinese dominance in all sectors. This often means that their biggest rivals are each other.
As far as WD is concerned we are in the heart-rending position of knowing that only 2 out of the 3 top pairs from Japan are going to qualify to play in their home Olympics. The quest for points overshadows tournaments and I think the risk is that the four players who make the cut will be mentally exhausted by the time July arrives. That said, a win at the All England could virtually cement some players positions. Matsumoto & Nagahara are seeded 2 and were runners-up in 2019. Fukushima & Hirota are third seeds and are desperate to progress. And so we come to Matsutomo & Takahashi who are seeded 7 in Birmingham. Can the defending Olympic Champions get a podium finish? They need to focus every atom of experience and desire because they have a hard road to the final which includes a possible CHEN/JIA QF followed by compatriots who need success too. This is another pair who need to look after old legs.
The two main MD pairs Sonoda/Kamura and Endo/Watanabe are consistently excellent players who have to compete in a sector stuffed with Indonesian brilliance. I particularly like the fast and furious style of Sonoda/Kamura but that’s not enough to beat Marcus and Kevin. It’s possible either pair could get to a SF and then anything could happen, particularly if they can be more unpredictable with the pace they attack at.
Some say that China is not the dominant force it’s been in the past yet Chinese athletes are defending 3 titles at the All England this year. The strength is in the women’s sector; for now, the men are being eclipsed by the depth of other nation’s squads.
#1 Seeds and WD defending Champions CHEN Qingchen & JIA Yifan are aggressive, tough players. They are great at ratcheting up the pressure on their opponents: they can zero in on a victim with pitiless ferocity by using hard flat drives and fast smashes. Who can stop them winning? DU Yue & LI YinHui are seeded 6th but it’s hard to see them getting as far as the weekend.
There’s only one seeded pair in the MD: LI Junhui & LIU Yuchen – China used to be such a powerhouse but now the talented players in Indonesia and Japan dominate the rankings. Li & Liu are clever athletes; they can play a power game but they are also capable of varying the tempo and this can cause frustration for players like Sukamuljo. It can be a very smart tactic to break up the flow of the game against the Minions. It’s been pointed out that if Li/Liu run out of ideas they resort to a monotonous smashing game; that isn’t going to work in the big arena. Realistically I think they are going to struggle to get beyond QF.
Korea’s WD players are experiencing a similar headache to their Japanese counterparts. As things stand there are still 4 pairs who could qualify for Tokyo. In Birmingham Lee So-Hee/Shin Seung-chang and Kim So-yeong/Kong Hee-yong are seeded 5 and 6 and look to be most likely to challenge. The drama over the past few weeks has been around the MD/XD player Seo Seung-jae who was suspended then not suspended by his national association (BKA) following confusion around sponsorship deals he had signed. It seemed disproportionate to punish his partners and destroy their hopes for this year so I’m glad he’s back in the mix.
Realistically I think we can only say that the WD teams have an outside chance of medals owing to the strength of the opposition. However, it’s interesting to observe that Korean badminton coaches enjoy plenty of success working away from home. I’ve already mentioned Park Joo-Bong and Japan, there is also Kang Kyung-jin who works with the Chinese squad plus Coach Kim who worked in India with PV Sindhu in the period she became World Champion.
China, Japan and Indonesia look set to see off opposition from the other nations for the doubles crowns. I adore following doubles; the tactics, tempo and talent mean that for fans the spectacle is second-to-none. The spine-tingling experience of watching the spotlit pairs as they play for glory at the All England is a joy. Ahsan & Setiawan had a fantastic 2019 and it would be wonderful to see them defend their title. As the tournament progresses, the tension will rise, legs will tire and towards the end it’s mental strength and an athletes appetite for the fight that gets them to the podium. May the best team win!
Welcome to the greatest badminton tournament in the world. This is the one that all elite players want to win and the one that fans from around the world long to attend. A dislocated build-up to this tournament will undoubtedly have tested players focus. All of us have fretted about the coronavirus and the postponement of the German Open will have disrupted the training plans of some.
Winning this tournament is never a fluke; years have been spent training for these games. All those drills, the weights, the sweat have all been leading to the moment when the competitors walk onto the court in Birmingham and begin.
We are in the Golden Age of women’s badminton. This is the zesty sector, full of talent and excitement, the top 20 players is a corps of excellence drawn from around the world. CHEN Yufei is the current holder of the title and there are 3 other ex-champions TAI Tzu Ying, Carolina Marin and Nozomi Okuhara taking part as well.
Badminton immortality beckons – who will answer the call?
TAI Tzu Ying – Seeded 2 – Champion in 2017 & 2018
At the core of TTY is the desire to sparkle not to merely play. No-one has the technical mastery she brings to the court; the breathtaking shots she executes are simply magnificent. Her vision and creative energy elevates her game to a level of brilliance that we expect of a genuine great of the game. Her achilles heel is her lack of consistency: sometimetime her focus can wander, I think she can sometimes be bored into losing a game. Her participation in the PBL in January was a clever way to undertake a segment of training; it allowed her to hit with new partners, get match practice and enjoy herself. It’s been pointed out that perhaps playing games only up to 15 points may help her concentration – well, we’ll see! Rumours that she plans to retire after the Tokyo Olympics are adding an extra sense of desire from fans who just want to see the QUEEN win everything. Prediction Final
Nozomi Okuhara – Seeded 4 – Champion in 2016
Nozomi’s 2019 synchronised hope and despair – her fans watched so many finals that ended with Silver. She knows what it takes to win in Birmingham and possibly the hall conditions will help but she has to be the boss a bit more frequently. I want to see her snap up points. Patience is such a cornerstone of her tactics but to be effective it must be used alongside impatience, unpredictability and aggression. Sometimes we see flashes of a more attacking player and if she could get this part of her strategy right it would make the difference between winning and coming second. There are no easy games at Super 1000 level but she has the ability to get right to the final.
CHEN Yufei – Seeded 1 – Champion 2019
The defending champion has enjoyed an excellent win streak since her victory last March. After the All England she appeared in six finals and was unbeaten. Despite her status as top seed she has a very difficult route to finals weekend. In R1 she faces Korean Wonderkid AN Se Young, R2 will be Busanan or Blichfeldt and QF could be Ratchanok. She is an even more resilient player than last year; she has high fitness levels, great patience and solid technique. It’s her patience in games that proves to be such a key weapon. Opponents have to be very sure of their own stamina to equal her, she will often soak up pressure throughout the match before ambushing her rival in the last few points. Prediction Quarter Final.
Ratchanok Intanon – Seeded 5 – Runner Up 2017
Ratchanok often employs a ‘do or die’ approach and I adore her for that. A wonderful win at Istora in the Indonesia Masters final against Marin over 3 sets settled my nerves about her resilience so I think she has an outside chance here. A possible QF against CHEN Yufei awaits; she must not let CYF bore her into losing the match! Prediction Semi Final, Go May!
Saina Nehwal – Unseeded – Runner Up 2015
Desperately seeking points to secure her fourth (yes, fourth) Olympic spot Saina has a dangerous R1 clash with Akane to begin. To have any chance of progressing she must start well; to her credit since her QF exit at the Spanish Masters she has been training in Denmark. She identified her movement on court as one of the reasons for underperformance last year and it’s true she has often lacked fluency. If she has addressed this weakness then her shrewd gameplay will have a solid foundation. She is a tenacious fighter and even if Akane dispatches her I still don’t think her Olympic hopes are finished. Prediction: it’s not over
AN Se Young – Unseeded
The dynamic, dangerous prospect from Korea could pose some serious questions to CHEN Yufei in R1. This tie could go either way; CYF should have enough resilience and experience to get over the line but I’m not certain of this result. In the past ASY seems to falter as the cumulative efect of hard games pile up. I think this is only because she is young, soon it will not be a problem. She could beat CYF but I don’t think she’ll win the title.
P V Sindhu – Seeded 6 – Rio Olympics 2016 Silver Medal
Sindhu’s underwhelming performances since her magnificent triumph at the World Championships in Basle have often been explained by the phrase ‘big tournament player’. Her motivation – if that is the problem – should not be an issue here. Like TTY she also particiated in the PBL so it will be interesting to see if the different vibes around playing for the franchise team had a positive effect. At her best she will annihilate her opponent with a savage exhibition of pressure badminton, at her worst she can crash out in R1. Beiwen Zhang is her first challenger and that is a match that could go either way.
Akane Yamaguchi – Seeded 3 – Runner Up 2018
I hope that Akane’s triumph at the Thailand Masters means that the fitness issues that have been dragging her down since last August are conquered. That final was against AN Se Young who just seemed to run out of ideas. More importantly though, Akane did not run out of legs. BirdJapan has such a colossal few months coming up it’s vital that she regains the form she had back in July 2019. I think her performance in this competition will be the first indication of what we can expect at the Uber Cup and then at the Olympics. Prediction: Semi
After a ghastly 2019 dominated by her ACL rupture and rehab Caro has returned to competition and is back on court. Noisiness is part of the strategy, she likes to dominate the space physically and aurally, it contributes to unsettling her opponents. She has not won a title this year yet and I was shocked that she lost the Spain Masters to Pornpawee Chochuwong. This was a well-worked victory, Marin’s ability to deal with a gruelling three set match was questioned and Chochuwong exploited cross-court opportunities really effectively. Prediction QF.
Women’s Singles is choc-a-bloc with talent; the quality of the unseeded players competing here means that upsets and shocks are inevitable. The Yonex All England is a critical showcase for athletes in Olympic year and success here could mean participation in Tokyo is guaranteed. I’m not neutral, I hope the Women’s Singles title is won by the player who is adored around the world and whose style sums up the joy that is fundamental to her game. If this is TAI Tzu Ying’s last championship then I would love to see her on the podium. There have been distractions and anxieties but now is the time to focus on sport.
After the excitement of the PBL and the Team Championships the tour arrives in Europe for the next few months
We are counting down to the end of the Olympic qualifying period. The situation for players who have already confirmed their spot – such as Marcus & Kevin – is excellent. They can manage their preparations to peak in July; no need to risk injury or burn-out. However, athletes who are hovering in the borderlands, those who are in the position of being ranked between about 10-25, are going to get drawn into an increasingly fraught scrabble for points. Some will be anxiously looking over their shoulders whilst others know that they can get to Japan, with a huge effort plus a bit of luck.
Because of the tragic situation in China and elsewhere regarding Covid-19 the travel restrictions have had an impact upon some players attendance. I believe the Chinese team are going to have a European base for a while to help with their quarantine compliance. Unfortunately this will not be in time for this Spanish tournament so there have been some significant withdrawals. Well, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good; the competitors who can make Spain must make the most of the circumstances they are in.
Women’s Singles – WARNING! THIS IS ALL ABOUT SAINA
Carolina Marin must be looking at the other players in her home tournament in much the same way that a lion views antelope drinking at a water hole. Prediction: Winner!
Her die-hard supporters are still focusing all their positivity around Saina Nehwal‘s push to qualify for the Olympics again. If she can, it would be a magnificent acheivement. If she fails, then armchair fans can easily identify areas that should have/could have been managed differently. It’s a lack of consistency that has frustrated her ambitions over the last 12 months. She has had persistant injuries and has commented that her problems on court stem more from an inability to move smoothly rather than any lack of desire. There also seems to be a lack of clarity around her coaching support. As an experienced elite player she surely is the best judge of who she needs courtside but I feel lukewarm about the idea of her husband providing this help. Tactical advice should come from an expert. It’s undeniable that she has fallen prey to distractions away from the game too: Vogue covers and political ambition may refresh a jaded player or they may dissipate focus.
At a minimum she must get to the semi-final but Line Kjaersfeldt awaits in R2. She has already beaten the Indian this year at the Thailand Open and, during the Indonesian Masters back in January, she shocked CHEN YuFei in the second round in straight sets so Saina must be awake from the minute she gets on court. Kjaersfeldt could easily play the sort of strategy that exploits Saina’s lack of fluency. The key question is: Can Saina’s cunning carry her through? If she can play the sort of game that saw her win against AN Se Young in Malaysia then the answer is YES! Prediction: Semi
XXXX STOP PRESS XXXX DANES WITHDRAW XXXX
After their wonderful victory in the European Women’s Team Championships on 16.2.20 some key Danish players have withdrawn from the tournament citing injuries. Unfortunately Mia Blichfeldt (originally seeded 2), and Line Kjaersfeldt will be missing from the Women’s singles. Saina MUST take advantage of this to accrue Olympic points; she will not get dealt a better hand by fate this year!
Busan Ongbamrungpham and Pornpawee Chochuwong are two Thai players who are often overshadowed by May’s superstar status but I’m sure there are benefits to this. They must get to train with her at times and it’s interesting that Thailand is getting more strength in depth these days (consider the success of the juniors). Either of these two could get themselves a podium place but the prize on offer will be more than that. Both are still fighting for an Olympic spot, but both cannot go because of Ratchanok. Chochuwong is slightly behind her compatriot in the rankings so I think she needs to do well here. Saina needs to watch out because either of these two could trample on her ambitions to fulfil their own.
The BWF ranking list that’s due to be published at the end of April will confirm which players make Tokyo and who stays home. Some athletes are on a knife edge now; they have to seize the moment. The absence of many of the Chinese players gives an unlooked-for advantage to the competitors in this tournament. If we consider Marin, her side of the draw looks reasonably trouble-free; she should be able to pocket this home tournament. The interesting question is, can Saina rise to the challenge?
Chinese players were the dominant force of the 2019 All England Championships: of the five titles up for grabs they won three. The current holders of the Women’s Doubles trophy, CHEN Qing Chen and JIA Yi Fan will be in an upbeat mood as they analyse the year they had – altogether six tournament victories – and optimistic about meeting the challenges ahead.
Women’s Doubles is contested by lots of talented twosomes from all over the badminton playing world but it’s interesting to note that there is no Momota-like presence who rules supreme. Consider the five Super750 tournaments from last year, remarkably they were each won by different pairs. However, CHEN & JIA have the competitive edge when we look at the most coveted trophies on the tour, the Super1000. They are able to inject a bit of extra sparkle under pressure and this enabled them to win two of the 3 – the YAE & the China Open – and bronze in the third. This trio of elite competitions are the ones that all players want to win, so to bag two in a year is a mark of superiority and it illustrates their enjoyment of performing on the big stage in front of a large crowd.
What is it about this partnership that makes them thrive at the highest level? They have been playing together for years and so the crucial foundation of rotation and mutual support has become effortless. The flow of movement is very smooth, this underpins their attacks and lets them pummel opponents into defeat. Crucially they both have reliable serves (the most important shot in the game in my opinion) so unlike some of their rivals they can expect to gain control of the rally right from the start. And, of course, they have the expertise of the Chinese coaches to support them at every match.
CHEN is a pressure player, always busy with energy and focus. Good technique means she can generate a lot of power despite her lack of height (164cm). Her superb cross-court smashes are unleashed with ferocity and accuracy to gain a lot of points for the team. At the start of her senior career she competed in Mixed and Women’s Doubles and has enjoyed success in both. Nowadays she concentrates more on WD but playing against men has informed her style. She’s brave, resolute and will face down aggression easily. She provoked headlines at the YAE last year when she cut short her celebrations, trimmed her lap of honour and avoided the spotlights. She explained later that she wanted a low profile so as not to distract her friend CHEN Yufei, who was about to enter the arena to play her Women’s Singles final. This shows a good mark of respect for her teammates and a lack of ego.
It’s often said – most notably by the great Morten Frost – that JIA Yi Fan is the key to this partnership’s success. If she is playing to her potential then they tend to win. She is left-handed and like CHEN can produce a lot of power. She is a decisive player who will smash, follow-up and then bury the shuttle to clinch a point. Her flat drives build pressure to force mistakes especially when she puts them together in her attacking sequences. She has a delicate touch at the net too, and can take the sting out of a speeding shuttle to wrongfoot opponents.
As a pair they play at a high tempo and with venom. I watched their semi-final and final in Birmingham last year and was stunned by their hostile bombardment of their opponents. The experience of seeing them play live was memorable because the speed and accuracy they can produce is overwhelming. They can be unceasingly intense and often opponents get pinned down midcourt as flat vicious drives and smashes zero in on them. I always think that the attacking combination of a lefty with a conventional right-hander is a mix guaranteed to unsettle rivals. They have to unpick their muscle memory to modify the standard defence routines so a proportion of their automatic responses to pressure are obsolete.
Can they retain their title in Birmingham? They’ve begun the year in anticlimactic fashion at the Malaysian Masters but I don’t think we should read anything major into that result. As we know, 2020 is Olympic year which is significant to the focus of athletes’ training cycles. The danger from the Japanese WD pairs is huge. There are lots of players who are going to be pushing to the limit because qualification for Tokyo is restricted to two WD pairs per country. Fukushima and Hirota, Matsumoto and Nagahara, not to mention the current Olympic Champions Matsutomo and Takahashi all need success in England.
So, there are threats to CHEN & JIA’s desire to make it two in a row in Birmingham but not many players who have the firepower that they can bring to a match. The pace and power they unleash is breath-taking. Momentum in sport is so important and any athlete with ambitions to win in March will need to bring their best game to the All England. On the big stage, in the important competitions is where this Chinese pair shine and there is no better tournament for them to cement their legend.