YEO Jia Min: Giant Killer from Singapore

YEO Jia Min has burst onto the elite badminton scene with some outstanding performances at this World Championships. Her memorable win against a below par Akane Yamaguchi means that she is suddenly under a spotlight.

The games against Akane and then Vu have showcased a player who is stepping up to compete against top opposition. She plays with a great attitude; very calm and unhurried, so she allows herself to flourish even under pressure.

Pic from BWC TV

Her range of shots and lovely smooth movement around the court let her attack and dominate the rallies. She is able to go toe-to-toe with anyone to trade tumbling net shots and she has been likened to Tai Tzu Ying by Gill Clark. I think this is because of the flair she shows around the front and midcourt. Outrageous angles, confident smashes/kills, and a disguised sliced drop all form part of her armoury.

From BWF TV

Her badminton education has been wide ranging. Last year at age 19 she left home in Singapore and went to play in the Danish league. No doubt the high standards expected there helped hone the pitiless killer instinct we saw against Akane.

It’s interesting at this point to consider her coach – Mulyo Handoyo – and acknowledge the influence coaches from Indonesia have in the world of Badminton. He was once the coach of the legendary Taufik Hidayat, and who better to have in one’s corner than someone who has seen it all, who stays calm, & smiles encouragingly when shots don’t quite work out. It’s also noticeable that he often encourages her to an unofficial time-out face wipe after she’s won a tough rally.

“Her fighting spirit was high when she played against the top seed and tried to control the game by making clear decisions during the tie” Mulyo Handoyo

Although she lost in the quarter final to Ratchanok Intanon she can be very proud of what she has achieved during this World Championships. She’s at a crucial point in her career – essentially its ‘win or learn’. Of course she still makes mistakes, but her hard work has got her to a position now where she can play with the elite and be their equal. It’s going to be a very exciting year for YEO Jia Min.

If you enjoyed this follow the link to my article about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

and this one that looks at TAI Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

Lauren Smith: Doubles For Britain.

Lauren Smith has become one of the best doubles players in Europe this year. With Tokyo 2020 getting closer and closer, the possibility of representing Great Britain in the Olympics is very real.

The interesting question is: will she get there and be in Women’s Doubles with Chloe Birch, Mixed Doubles with Marcus Ellis or both?

Pic from BWF TV

There’s no doubt she has the hunger and temperament to compete with the best and 2019 has seen her play take on more consistency – especially in Women’s Doubles. The partnership with Chloe Birch is an interesting one. Birch also plays singles, and has observed in the past that experience in this discipline enhances her doubles play. I think she’s right: having a partner who is used to covering the whole court and battling through long rallies must be an advantage.

They have earned some great results together this year. Who can forget the crucial win in the Sudirman Cup against Denmark’s Fruergaard & Thygesen? It was the last match in the tie with the scores drawn at 2-2. The highlights clip below doesn’t really do justice to the determination and intensity that Birch & Smith brought to the court. It was an exhilarating game to watch because they played with courage and character to challenge the Danes.

Video by kind permission of BWF

It went to three games but it ended in victory for the Brits: 21-12, 19-21, 21.-11. That was probably their highest profile success this year but prior to that they had won the Super 100 Orleans Masters and the Azerbaijan International. After that they went to the European Games in Minsk and beat the Danish pair again, on their way to clinching silver.

Pic from Badminton England twitter

Her mixed doubles partnership with Marcus Ellis is also flourishing. Most recently they came away with the European Games XD Gold after beating the Adcocks (#1 seeds) in the final at the Falcon Club. That reversed the previous year’s result in the Commonwealth Games when they got silver.

Ellis gives a vast experience to the pair – Bronze with Langridge in Rio is a favourite – but the success is not based on past glory; it’s more to do with the willingness to commit to hard work, unglamourous travel, and coherent development. Just as in WD, Smith is happy to take responsibility at the net, she executes good kills and is not intimidated by the opposition. She can always be relied on to battle even if the match isn’t going her way. Fast reactions, a good defence, nerve and great stamina all add to her arsenal. She also has an oddly unsettling racket position when she serves low; it’s very difficult to see what she is about to do.

She is strategically nimble in both disciplines, good at rotating pressure and not letting herself be a victim of a rivals attempts to bully. She has mentioned before that she’s inquisitive and likes to see how other elite athletes train, so I think this is a very positive aspect of her attitude.

There’s more opportunities for success in XD. Part of Smith’s strength is her personal attitude: when she’s playing she is aggressive and decisive. A typical comment from her on twitter after reaching the QF with Ellis in the Indonesian Open was:

“…found the conditions pretty tricky so it wasn’t the prettiest game! But as always really happy with our fight in the tough moments!”

She has been successful all through her career with various partners and now the focus is with her to drive on to the next stage to explore what she can achieve next.


If you enjoyed this follow the link to take a look at my blog about Tai Tzu Ying – one of the world’s most adored athletes https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

And this one about the current World #1 in Women’s Singles: Akane Yamaguchi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/09/japans-akane-yamaguchi-hotter-than-july/

Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi: Hotter Than July

Wow! Akane – what a July!

As we enter the second half of 2019 Akane Yamaguchi is at the top of the world rankings. First she won the Indonesian Open – arguably the best tournament in the world – and then followed it up a week later by triumphing in her home tournament: The Japan Open.

Akane has always been a formidable player with plenty of successes along the way but suddenly her achievements have become supercharged and she is unstoppable. Women’s Singles is an incredibly competitive discipline at the moment so what is it that is giving her the edge over her rivals?

Bizarrely I think it was failure that has spurred her on. Looking back to the Sudirman Cup, the crucial tie in the final was the Women’s Singles: Akane Yamaguchi against Chen YuFei. It was a three game battle with neither player consistently dominant. The Chinese crowd was very noisy; it was an intense and passionate atmosphere with huge emotional pressure exerted on both athletes. It’s been noted that at one point in the game Morten Frost described Akane’s play as erratic. That’s quite a brutal assessment, but the point is that in the end she lost.

Both players finished flat out on the floor but CHEN Yufei was the victor.
Video courtesy BWF

We all know it’s a team competition but losing that three game match was pivotal to Japan’s eventual loss in the final. The Japanese team oozed togetherness and exuberance as they supported each other through the tournament so it must have been utterly devastating for them all not to get gold.

Up until recently Akane has always been known as a retriever, which often means that she is a defender. This is a very simplistic reduction of an elite athletes game; it’s quite a reactive style but she is great at covering the court and very quick to regain her base position.

However, things have changed since the Sudirman Cup…everyone had some time off before they got back to training. Time to recover physically and mentally but also an opportunity to take stock. Then came July and one of the principal events in the badminton calendar: The Indonesian Open.

It was a fresh Akane with an evolved style. Suddenly she was applying her explosive power to a more attacking game and the final against P V Sindhu showcased how effective this new aggression was.

Sindhu found her game being squeezed. Yamaguchi, above all, was being ferocious in her follow-ups. There were some ruthless flat drives, and midcourt smashes. There was more pressure applied in rallies. She began each game like a tornado and barely relaxed her focus. No longer content to react, Akane was taking the game and demanding to win.

Akane wins the Indonesia Open – Video by kind permission BWF

It was a great victory. Sindhu played well but just couldn’t equal Akane’s fierceness; without warning Yamaguchi had stepped up her game.

So we come to the Japanese Open – her home tournament. Her progression to the final took in triumphs against Sindhu and Chen Yufei to set up a meeting with her compatriot Nozomi Okuhara. The scoreline of 21-13, 21-15 lets you know it was an emphatic victory. Again, this was the evolved style. Yamaguchi went toe-to-toe with Okuhara and it was her intensity allied to some awesome accuracy that meant she was able to withstand Okuhara’s propensity for lengthy rallies.

“I was worried I wouldn’t be able to win the long rallies, but I was patient, and whenever there was a chance to make a decisive shot, I was able to make the sharp shots,” said Yamaguchi.

I think it’s a good measure of Akane as a woman and an elite player that she took the worst kind of defeat and used it as fuel for progress:

“I wish I could’ve played this well in the Sudirman Cup final. The loss in the final made me learn and helped me improve.”

The road to Tokyo 2020 has a lot of twists and turns yet but momentum and big match experience counts for a lot. I want to end this piece by urging you to watch the film clip below – the happiness on Akane’s face is so infectious it is an utter joy to see.

Akane and VERY BIG SMILES. This tweet was from the Akane Yamaguchi Fanbase (@AYamaguchiFans).

If you enjoyed this follow the link to my piece about Nozomi Okuhara https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ and also this one about Tai Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

Indian Badminton Needs A Fresh Impetus As Stars Continue To Falter

By G Rajaraman.

PV Sindhu enjoyed a good run to the women’s singles final of the Indonesian Open Super Series in Jakarta, but was found wanting when facing Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi across the net in the title clash. It was not her physical prowess that was tested, but her ability to think on her feet. We saw that last year as well in the Asian Games women’s singles final, where Sindhu was up against Tai Tzu-Ying of Chinese Taipei.

Such repeated tactical failures, not to mention the lack of success on the BWF World Tour lead to questions about whether those coaching the elite players have explored all possibilities in helping them realise their potential.

In any other sport the chief coach would have been held responsible. Pullela Gopichand, who took over the reins as National Coach from Vimal Kumar back in 2006 and has ploughed a lonely furrow by and large, has delivered some heartening results in the past. But that should not be a reason for the Badminton Association of India to gloss over recent results.There is no point lamenting the unexplained departure of Indonesian Mulyo Handoyo in early 2018. Nor will much be served by pointing fingers at the conspicuous absence of a team of coaches working to ensure that the assembly line would not lose shape and form. It is perhaps more important to see what can be done to remedy the situation.

India’s badminton gained momentum when Saina Nehwal won the Olympic games bronze medal in London 2012 and Sindhu topped it with a silver medal in Rio four years later. Yet, the high of 2017 when Srikanth won a clutch of four Super Series titles has receded as a distant memory now in the following 18 months. Indeed, the slide has been quite palpable: if we consider winning an international title as a benchmark, the drought is stark.

Credit: Veri Sanovri/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

Last year, Sameer Verma won the men’s honours in two Super 300 events – while PV Sindhu claimed the women’s singles crown in the World Tour Finals in Shanghai. And this year, Saina Nehwal won the Indonesian Masters, a Super 500 event. To be sure, Sourabh Verma won two Super 100 titles while Sameer Verma and Subhankar Dey picked up one each last year. It is significant that there have been no winners even in Super 100 tournaments this year. As for doubles competition, suffice to say that the story has been bleaker than in singles.

Sameer Verma winning a Super 300 title – The Syed Modi International – last year. Video by permission of the BWF

The BAI’s junior programme has not inspired confidence that the success of a handful of elite players at global level over the past few years can be replicated in the immediate future. A huge part of the reason is the inadequate exposure provided to most of the juniors.

Lakshya Sen and Kartikey Gulshan Kumar are ranked in the top five in the men’s section while Jakka Vaishnavi Reddy and Aakarshi Kashyap are in the top 10 in the women’s section, but it would be a good wager that they have paid their own way (or got their own sponsors) for most tournaments.

Of course, some good news surfaces in a sporadic manner, the most recent being left-handed Malvika Bandod defeating top-seeded Phittayaporn Chaiwan 21-18, 21-19 in the WS second round of the Badminton Asia Junior Championships in Suzhou, China. If the right support is extended to the deserving, some of them may go on to be good flag-bearers for Indian badminton.

Word has it that the Sports Secretary – Radheysham Julaniya – has indicated to the BAI to come up with a dynamic plan to help the juniors sharpen their competitive skills. The reported decision to not fund trips to all international events for the senior lot can come as a wake-up call against stagnation.

For a sport that has caught the fancy of youngsters, it would be a pity if badminton were not to capitalise on its popularity. While many a discipline is struggling to create a mass base in the country, this sport has ignored the need to create rungs between the base and the elite level. It is never too late to do some course correction so that the legacy is not lost.

The BAI is not short of cash. According to data in the public domain it earned no less than Rs 11.62 crore from broadcast rights & Rs 9.57 from sponsorship in 2016-17. The powers that be must identify a team of committed coaches across the nation to handle the junior programme but with a chief coach for juniors who can help with a roadmap for the transition. It must take the most talented juniors under its wings, providing them with the righ environment in training and support to compete so they can move to the next level.

Resting on their oars has never helped anyone progress. The time for BAI to realise this is fast slipping away. Yes, Indian badminton needs to get off the treadmill that it has found itself on and get going. Sooner than later if it wants to stay relevant on the global stage and not cede its position in the popularity stakes in India to other disciplines of sport.


A longer version of this article was published by The Quint in July 2019 https://www.thequint.com/


If you enjoyed this please follow the link to the blog about P V Sindu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/03/25/p-v-sindhu-indias-superstar/ and this one about Saina Nehwal https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/05/14/saina-nehwal-indias-beloved-champion/

Marin is sorely missed

Since her devastating ACL injury back in January there has been something missing in badminton.

Some of Marins best points – video courtesy of BWF

In a WS world that has a lot of ‘retrievers’ here is an unashamed attacker. Marin rampages around the court – so fit and powerful – and demands victory. After winning a point, she shouts, she wheels away, a brisk walk with her back to her opponent, then onto the next serve. Constantly trying to build that unstoppable momentum that carries her forward.

The Spaniard is missed for a lot of reasons but I am highlighting her big on-court personality because I think it’s crucial to her psychological make-up and her future. Marin takes up a lot of space: she’s physically big of course – she can reach anything – but all the shouting and stomping around means her opponent has to work hard to zone her out. The noise can disrupt concentration and her rivals need to stay emotionally tranquil to get the upper hand.

That horrendous day when she injured her knee; we have all seen the slo-mo replay of the point in the game where she leapt, reached, hit, then crumpled. (I don’t want to post film of it here because it makes me feel so uncomfortable). It was evident it was bad. Over the following days things became clearer: serious damage, an operation, heavy duty rehab. Here is her reaction:

“It’s time to prepare for the most difficult battle, but I have no doubt that I will come back stronger”

She has come through tough tests before and has a record of facing up to challenges successfully. Let’s rewind a few years. In 2014 and 2015 she won the World Championship and then came Gold in Rio 2016. Spain has Rafa: he is the ace racketeer, but suddenly there was Carolina. Winning the Olympic title inevitably brought her to the attention of the non-badminton community and it is the pinnacle for most sports. After this she suffered a common problem for Gold medallists, to find a motivation to continue and to do this she had to look into herself.

Her big challenge was to regain her enthusiasm for the game that she had devoted her life to. What else was there to win? There followed a period of reflection and it almost was like she was treading water, trying to get herself back to the player she was. She obviously has a great team around her and this includes a psychologist. Whatever it was they added, it worked: August 2018 she became World Champion for the third time and back to her best.

Highlights of the World Championship WS Final courtesy BWF

So what does the future hold? She seems to be targeting the World Championships in August in Basle. It would be amazing if she were back to her highest level so soon after an ACL rupture however, don’t bet against it. After being denied the pleasure of playing since January she must be hungry to get back on court to mix it with the top players. No need to worry about motivation, nevertheless an anxiety is going to be around rerupture and returning too early. We all want her back on court, raising noise levels and charging around so lets wait and see if she can reappear soon and return to her strutting best.

August 2019 UPDATE: Marin withdraws from BWF World Championships. Carolina posted a message withdrawing from these on 4.8.19. Although she must be personally disappointed not to make this milestone in her rehab, when we look at the bigger picture it must be the right decision. Bodies take time to heal: it doesn’t matter if you are an elite athlete or someone who gets on court for a hit once a week. By giving herself this bit of extra time it removes the pressure to perform when things are not quite 100%. I know all of her fans only want her to be fit and happy and so will welcome her back once her body is right. Best of luck, Carolina, for the year ahead!

If you enjoyed reading this follow the link to my piece about the wonderful Ratchanok https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/ and the new sensation AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

AN Se Young: Korea’s Sensational 17 Year Old.

This young player has been under the spotlight since her Sudirman Cup triumph over world #1 Tai Tzu Ying.

Video courtesy BWF

She’s the spearhead of the new generation of players from Korea: other country’s fans look on jealously as her reputation grows after every tournament she competes in. Analysts and coaches have been enthusing about her potential for a while but it’s only recently that she has come to the attention of the wider badminton community. 2019 has been her breakout year.

First came the win against LI Xue Rui in the New Zealand Open Final. It was a ruthless operation that set down a marker to the rest of the players on the tour. Here was someone ranked at 89 in the world who could dispatch a far more experienced opponent in two games. Watch the highlights of the game below and you see a player who has speed, vision and touch.

Video courtesy BWF

Next came Korea’s Sudirman Cup campaign and that match against Tai Tzu Ying. Everyone knew that on paper TTY was going to win – except that is the Korean coaches – who planned the tactics for AN to implement

“My strategy was to defend in the beginning of each rally and then to take my opportunity…my coach advised me to pay attention to the front and keep the rally going”

Clearly part of the plan was to use AN’s youth and energy to keep the pressure on against Tai in the style that was so successful for CHEN Yufei in the All England Championships this year. It’s too simplistic to reduce the tactics to this though; especially as we all know how much time Tai spends in the gym. If you watch the BWF video at the start of this article you can spot how powerfully AN plays. Lightening reactions allied to some brutal mid-court kills show that merciless streak that every top player needs to win. In the post match interview Tai said

“She is tall, powerful and has very good footwork on the court”

Well, frankly, that isn’t telling us anything we didn’t know already, but in an oblique way it’s telling us a lot. Here is the player who no-one has quite worked out yet, someone with star quality and plenty of shots. Remember the following day? Ratchanok came along, she put up a great fight but the Thai player was just too much. There was mental strength and physical bravery but there was also a suggestion of a weakness on her deep backhand side that May didn’t hesitate to exploit.

And so we come to the recent Canadian Open: another opportunity to gain experience and Olympic qualification points. Again AN Se Young had a fairly low profile, again she progressed without much fuss, and again she won against decent opposition. She’s steadily climbing the rankings whilst getting to know how the superstars operate. We all have our views as to who will get Olympic Gold. Here is a player who has burst onto the scene, a tough rival but someone who isn’t quite the finished article. I think Tokyo2020 is going to arrive a little too early on her path to greatness but there are going to be plenty of other medals along the way.

If you like AN Se Young follow the link to my article about Ratchanok May https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/ and also one about CHEN Yufei https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/03/another-sensational-player-from-china-chen-yu-fei/

I recently read an excellent article about AN Se Young on Everything Badminton – follow the link here https://everything-badminton.com/an-se-young-the-young-and-dangerous/

Featured

Tai Tzu Ying: Goddess or Mortal?

Tai Tzu Ying is one of the most adored athletes in the world whose appeal cuts across national boundaries. A once in a generation player who dazzles and inspires whenever she plays.

She became World #1 in 2016 after a magnificent run of results and has stayed there ever since.

Is she the best ever women’s singles player? If we measure solely on medals at the moment the answer is ‘no’. So why is she so loved and why does it feel that she has no equal?

“She is the personification of joy” – from MinPlus

“She is the most delightful player to watch on court, she makes badminton fun” from September

“She’s our seratonin” – from GEL

As a regular user of Instagram she often posts charming pictures of herself eating ice cream, playing with Lego or training in the gym with her team and this all helps to blur the boundaries between the elite athlete and her worshipping fans. She has commented that in matches, when she has been losing, it is the thought of letting down her supporters that has spurred her on to eventual victory. She does care about the fans who back her.

Tai Tzu Ying has a zen-like presence on court; when I first started watching her I was confused by her calm, smiling approach to victory or loss. Now I believe it’s very important to her to win – why else would she devote herself to the sport? But I also see someone who appreciates her life with her family and who has nothing to prove in her field. I think that she enjoys playing and is as thrilled as her spectators when she executes a great shot.

Video courtesy of Shuttle Flash

Her skill is breath-taking; take a look at the compilation video by Shuttle Flash. The quality of her trickery is amazing and so wonderful to watch in this era dominated by attritional players. The root of her genius is from her teens:

“…it’s said that her father took her to play on badminton courts at small clubs run by badminton lovers everywhere in Taiwan when she was a child. Wanting to win over these skilled (but informal) players she practised her deception skills and gained lots of success…” by eeye24

There is also the fact that she suffered a hand injury when she as 13. Because her metacarpal damage restricted her forehand play she had to rely more heavily on her backhand which gave her better wrist strength. As her father pointed out, the injury was a blessing in disguise. Her capacity for deception is extraordinary and she is a true artist with her racket. The variation in her game – the range of shots and angles -is staggering.

Picture from shutterstock

The flip side of such an adventurous player is that there is a trace of inconsistency which runs through her career. Sometimes in the middle of a game her focus just seems to drift and suddenly her opponent will put together a run of points. Often at this moment she manages to retune herself into the game, get her concentration back and finish off the contest but it doesn’t always happen. Watch the video below where she talks about this and the role of her deceptive moves.

Video courtesy BWF

She also mentions her stubbornness. In my earlier blog https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/03/18/tai-tzu-ying-taiwans-sporting-icon/ I talked about her courage and the fact that she is relentless in the pursuit of victory. She dares her foe to match her dazzling talent and I still consider the psychological warfare that she wages against her opponents a key factor in her success. The genius that she brings to her games is a delight for her audience (& her) but it saps her rival’s emotional energy. In my opinion the only other current player who approaches this level of skill is Ratchanok May.

So now we are in Olympic qualifying year and Tai Tzu Ying has hinted that she could retire after Tokyo2020. I think everyone wants her to win Gold; to cement her place in history and to bring her sublime skills to the attention of the non-badminton world. We are lucky to be able to watch such a wonderful player who lights up the court with her brilliance. Who knows what the future holds for her – it’s going to be fantastic to watch the next year of badminton unfold – and I hope that legends are made in the process.


If you enjoyed this post follow the link to my piece about Ratchanok – another of my favourite players https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/ and also this article about AN Se Young: one of the most exciting players to emerge from Korea in recent years https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

Badminton & TeamGB: 2019 European Games

England were magnificent in their Sudirman Cup games against Denmark this year. The matches were full of courage, a refusal to give in and the desire to beat their main rivals for European supremacy. England eventually won the tie 3-2 by triumphing in all the doubles disciplines and this included Chloe Birch, Lauren Smith and Marcus Ellis playing in two 3 game matches each

From Instagram

England upgrades to become TeamGB for the European Games starting in Minsk on June 21st and the key difference for the badminton contingent is that the Scot, Kirsty Gilmour is a potent addition to the Women’s Singles. She is a powerful athlete: the third seed with a great chance of getting to the medal stages of the tournament. She is very energetic – not bothered about grazing her knees as she dives around – and never hesitates to give everything to defend a point. Chloe Birch is seeded 8 and will get through her group; as in the Sudirman Cup she is playing in two disciplines – unusually in modern times she competes in both singles and doubles.

video by kind permission BWF

Lauren Smith and Chloe Birch were the two players who brought it home for England against Denmark. It was a glorious game; on a knife edge throughout. If you take a look at the BWF highlights above you can see they showed immense bravery and character to clinch it – watching their relief and elation at the end was very exciting. They defeated Sara Thygesen and Maiken Fruergaard and coincidently they have drawn each other again in the group stages. It’s bound to be a spicy encounter with the Danes out for revenge but even though they are the top seeds they are the ones who should be nervous. Smith and Birch are in a winning habit this year; they have already triumphed in the Orleans Masters and the Azerbaijan International Open. The Stoeva sisters are absent because of a dispute with their national body so I see the British duo as the best Women’s Doubles pair in Europe at the moment. They are genuine contenders for gold.

From BWF TV

Toby Penty performed well against Viktor and took him to 3 games in his Sudirman Cup tie. His autoimmune condition has been in the news recently but as he has said, on court is where he can feel like himself and concentrate on the game. He’ll get through his group but after that it’s hard to predict how far he can progress. Axelsen has withdrawn owing to allergies so arguably he and Antonsen are the two top players in Minsk. Penty’s form is coming good at the right time too following his recent silver medal at the Spanish International. Men’s Doubles sees Marcus Ellis partnering Chris Langridge. These two are battle hardened campaigners: I always feel eager to watch them because I know they will give everything – remember the ‘cramp collapse’ at the end of the SC tie? They play to win and are a great partnership – a good example of two players who support each other to success.

TeamGB has the top two seeds in Mixed Doubles. Britain’s best-known shuttlers – the Adcocks – are competing as top seeds and should progress through Group A without too much fuss. the start of 2019 was a bit lukewarm, mainly due to niggly injuries but they had a pretty good tournament at the Australian Open in June, reaching the quarter finals. Always ambitious, they have the drive and courage to take this title and I assume this is part of their pathway to realise their desire for Olympic Gold in 2020.

Lauren Smith and Marcus Ellis are also competing in the XD in Group B and may be asked some tough questions before they get to the knock out stages. In the Sudirman Cup they held their nerve in a tricky match. Smith is physically strong and bold so I don’t think it is easy to intimidate her at the net. The dream is for them to meet the Adcocks in the final and at that point anything could happen!

From BWF TV

It’s always a thrill to follow tournaments like this and I think TeamGB have got the talent and character to dominate in the badminton. The Sudirman Cup showed that the British players have the mental strength to step up and challenge the Danes; at this level results often turn on a refusal to give in, to chase, and just sheer hard work and we’ve proved we’ve got that. It would be a shock if significant medals went to anyone other than Denmark or GB and in this year leading up to Tokyo 2020 being in the winning habit is going to pay dividends.

Saina Nehwal: India’s Beloved Champion

Badminton in India changed forever in August 2012 when Saina Nehwal won an Olympic bronze medal and reached beyond the sporting community into superstardom.

Credit: Veri Sanovri/Xinhua/Alamy Live News

“Saina honestly did something amazing for Indian badminton…I literally had never watched badminton until she started winning. She actually carved out a space for a sport not very popular in India – especially for women – and now it’s so much better.” By September

Like many others I first noticed her at London 2012, however, by that point she was already Commonwealth Champion so she had already achieved significant success.  Losing that semi final in the Olympics must have been  utterly gut wrenching both for her and the nation watching back home.  The bitter disappointment was transformed when she won the bronze and elevated badminton’s popularity to new heights.

On the surface she has quite a ‘classic’ approach to her matches.  By that I mean – as in all singles – she likes to move her opponent to the four corners, tries to get them off balance, makes space, then pounces.  But that description is too simple and doesn’t take into account her brilliance as a tactician or her psychological power.  It’s this mix of skills – all shots form part of her armoury – that make her such a potent player and a fascinating shuttler to watch.

I’ve heard it said that her game relies on retrieving.  Clearly, the disadvantage of this style can be that it is reactive.  There is either going to be a hint of hesitation or a bit of anticipation.  Both of which are weaknesses to be exploited by an opponent.  Someone like Tai Tzu Ying – who has spontaneous unpredictable creativity – can really punish this.   Against most rivals though it is not a flaw; it showcases her incredible mental strength and strategic dexterity. There is no doubt that she needs to draw rivals into rallies. She has a potent smash – her best shot in my opinion – she has to lure the other player into a weak lift to let her unleash.

She has a genius for defence – always a couple of steps ahead and carefully applying pressure upon her opponent.  How must it feel to play against her when nothing you try will break her resistance?  This is the remarkable emotional force she has.  She will fight until her last breath, she never gives up, she doesn’t recognise when she is beaten. She is the sort of person you want by your side in a war.

“Winning is the only option. I am someone who does not like losing in tournaments.”

2015 was arguably the highlight of her career so far because she achieved World No. 1 status .In the years before that, she triumphed in lots of BWF Superseries events such as the Indonesian Open (2009/2010/2012/2019), Singapore Open (2010), Hong Kong Open (2011) and too many others to list here. But then, just as her Rio Olympics campaign was starting, we all know about that knee injury.

Saina talks about injury and her role as an ambassador for Clean, Fair and Honourable Badminton.
Video by kind permission of BWF

It’s a tribute to her hard work and commitment that she came back to the top of the sport after her operation. Her smash needs to be perfect now because as she follows it in to the net there is the threat that she will be caught out. Her shot selection can be a bit risk averse; her pleasure is clearly in doing whatever it takes to win rather than revelling in pin point accuracy.  That attacking clear to a corner is an incredibly useful shot; likewise the cross court net shot to wrong foot her opponent.

I still think there is a lot to come from Saina providing her workload is managed properly. By that I mean that as she gets older it would be ridiculous to play in too many tournaments – badminton is such a physically demanding sport – wear and tear would just be inevitable. But with the right team behind her: coaches, physios, nutritionalists and of course her fans she can still be a beacon for Indian and world badminton.

Saina Nehwal must be the most beloved Indian player. She has been an inspirational game changer in her sport and has touched people far beyond the badminton community. I’ve been inundated with requests to write about her; it’s been hugely enjoyable watching some of her past games and talking to fans about her style. The affection felt for her and the admiration of her is incredible. I’ll give the last word to one of her millions of fans:

“She made an entire nation believe that with hard work and passion Indians can reach the very top in world badminton and consistently win titles. Making a big space for badminton in a cricket mad nation is not easy, now badminton is the second most popular sport in India” Arun – Saina Fan

If you enjoyed this follow the link for more Saina quotes https://womensbadminton.co.uk/saina/

Follow the link below for my article about the other Indian Superstar, P V Sindhu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/03/25/p-v-sindhu-indias-superstar/

A Thriving Partnership: Indonesia’s Polii and Rahayu.

A great player splits with her partner through injury and a young ‘nobody’ is suddenly propelled into the spotlight:

Video courtesy BWF

It takes guts to enter into a new doubles partnership. It means starting from fresh at the bottom of the rankings and learning a new person’s strengths. Polii was the senior player matched to the young raw Rahayu; it was a new dawn for her and a golden opportunity for her new partner.

When the Indonesian team was restructured at the end of 2016 new combinations of players were tried out in the women’s doubles camp. It was a shake up for both of them. Inevitably at the start there were failures as they put in the hard yards. All the training and planning that goes into elite sport is well-known but there’s no substitute for playing in match conditions under pressure. As they competed, they clicked and success came surprisingly quickly.

Game Face! Pic from BWF TV

Polii is the one who is tournament hardened; she brings a vast experience to any game. She’s been to the Olympics and played in all the high-profile competitions but Rahayu has drive and fearlessness. She is a great partner to have; she works hard and pushes the game aggressively. I love the way she opens up and goes for her shots. She relishes winning and wins well.

Video courtesy of BWF

Long rallies are a feature of women’s doubles these days; patience is needed as well as guile to penetrate well organised defences. These two are very fit and have the endurance to outlast their opponents. 50 & 60 shot rallies are no problem. With their strength and speed, they can turn the screw on their opponents really effectively. They won the 2019 India Open in two games but the last one went to 25-23. It shows a willingness to commit to victory, rather than let the match drift to an unnecessary third game.

There’s more to them than just stubborn stamina though. They’ve got great accuracy – especially Polii – and they are adept at changing direction in rallies to place the shuttle after working the opening. Greysia is the boss but there is great chemistry between them – take a look at the video at the top of this piece.

So what does the future hold? Greysia Polii is quoted as saying

“…we still have a lot of work on ahead of the Olympics…”.

It’ll be interesting to see how Olympic qualifying year goes. The first indicator of their ambition has to be the Indonesian Open in July; their home tournament needs them to be imperious and I’d love to see them reach the final. Its been wonderful to watch them develop as a unit over the past couple of years, they just get better and better, however can they challenge the Japanese for the title at their home Olympics?

If you enjoyed this, follow the link to an article by Podcast Tepak Bulu about the future of Indonesian Badminton https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/14/has-indonesian-badminton-stagnated/

And this piece by Dev Sukumar on the BWF website about Liliyana Natsir https://bwfworldchampionships.bwfbadminton.com/news-single/2019/08/08/winny-will-need-support-liliyana-natsir/