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Pearly Tan & Thinaah Muralitharan

2021 has been a breakout year for this young and exciting Malaysian pair. Their dynamism and tenacity have won them plenty of new fans over the past twelve months because they have been seriously challenging players ahead of them in the rankings

At the Indonesia Masters. Screengrab courtesy BWF

When they were at junior level, they were not WD partners unlike many of their current rivals. They have competitive familiarity across the sectors but the main factor significant to their current style of play is the influence of XD as the pair have both got experience in this discipline. Their bold approach to matches is refreshing and I sense that there is a shift happening away from the more traditional, old fashioned neutral play towards tactics that allow players to take the initiative in a match.

Their performance in the first round at the Toyota Thailand Open was an “aha moment” for fans and analysts.  It was an exhilarating contest packed full of drama.  After losing the first set they levelled then refused to concede the third.  It was simply gripping.  They were down 18-20, saved four match points and eventually won 27-25.  It was an 87 minute white knuckle ride where they kept their focus and eventually earned victory.   

As a pair they are keen to disrupt their rivals rhythms with intelligent use of angled shots.  Thinaah has a strong front court game and both can unleash some power. Naturally they are good defenders but it’s the intensity and pace of their attack that enables them to seize command with flat drives and effectively screw down on their opponents.

Their first world tour title win at the 2021 Swiss Open  was  confirmation that they are on the right track.  A straight set victory over the quintessence of defensive WD –  the Stoeva sisters –  felt like a  shot of adrenaline to the heart of the discipline.  It was proof that the partnership has raised their game over the past couple of years.

These two athletes are possible stars of the future and are part of the generational shift following Tokyo 2020.  They still have a lot of hard work to do if they want to move up to the consistent standards set in Women’s Doubles by the Japanese pairs.  It was revealing that in their recent Indonesian Master’s game against Matsuyama/Shida they were carried along by the momentum of the Japanese attack without really being able to derail it and they were beaten in two sets.  They must have more tactical options if Plan A is not successful.

“You’ll see us fail, I guarantee it.  But you will never see us quit”

Thinaah Muralitharan on her Instagram

It’s exciting to watch a pair with a fresh approach. They are ‘work in progress’ but they have the potential to keep moving up the rankings and can aim to be top 10 players. Their spirit and gritty resolve mean that they can frighten any opponent so they can regard the future with hope and optimism. I can’t wait to see how they meet the challenges of the next couple of years.


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

Akane Yamaguchi

“I’m just going to purely enjoy badminton”

Akane in a recent article by Dev Sukumar. Courtesy BWF

Watching a revitalized Akane win back-to-back tournaments in Denmark and France has been one of the highlights of the last few weeks.

Akane on the podium at the French Open. Screengrab courtesy BWF

She has been the standout player on the circuit recently. Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of multiple competitions since Tokyo 2020, she has flourished.

Sudirman & Uber Cup

Akane was at the heart of Japan’s success in the team competitions in Vantaa and Aarhus. Two silver medals do not do justice to her immense contribution. Both times Japan lost in the final to China, but both times she chalked up victories against CHEN Yu Fei in straight sets. There was an all-consuming intensity to these games. She seldom made mistakes and as she upped the tempo of the match CYF struggled to find scoring opportunities because her rival’s court coverage was formidable. Contrast this to their previous meeting in the same competition (Sudirman Cup 2019) and her improvement is clear. The next time these two face each other over a net is going to be awesome.

Victor Denmark Open: October 2021

In the Uber Cup AN Se Young was the only player to unpick Akane’s defence (in two sets) and so this final was an opportunity to see what effect the loss had had upon her Japanese foe. The first set was controlled by ASY; despite a heavily strapped thigh her movement was fluid and dominant. The second set began in much the same way with Yamaguchi struggling to summon up the energy to put any fizz on the shuttle; she was making mistakes too and there seemed to be an inevitability to the Korean’s advance to the top of the podium. By 16-16 Akane was fighting desperately to stay in the match: diving, scrambling, scrapping and just giving everything to stay in contention. 18-18. 19-19. A match point to ASY came and went amidst exhausting rallies. The score reached 23-23 before Akane was able to get the points needed to close it out 25-23. Ominously, in the interval, ASY ripped off her strapping and called for the doctor for the second time.

The third set was a story of triumph and tragedy. As it began, it was obvious that the Korean was less smooth in her movements. With the score against her at 3-7 she was red carded for ‘delay’ but effectively she was trying to work out whether she could continue and at 16-5 down she admitted defeat.

No-one ever wants to win a title in these circumstances, but Akane’s triumph was based on perseverance and her emphatic refusal to concede the game in the second set. AN Se Young missed her opportunity to win when she failed to convert her match point. Akane was very courageous in Set 2 since she committed everything to those long rallies; her grit paid off as ASY wilted under the grueling examination of her stamina. This was a fascinating duel.

Yonex French Open 2021

Yamaguchi’s European success continued with her title win against compatriot Sayaka Takahashi in Paris. A straight sets victory, this was a little more straightforward but there are no easy games at this level. Akane’s top-quality defence and stamina effectively neutralized her opponent’s threat; Takahashi stayed with the momentum at first, but she was forced to cut her margins and go for the line so, as she tired, mistakes crept into her game. The final score was 21-18, 21-12.

Conclusions

Back in July 2019 Akane Yamaguchi was world #1 – albeit briefly – but later suffered training disruption and some shock defeats owing to niggly injuries. In common with many in the Japanese team there were substantial expectations on her shoulders when the Olympics began but she was unable to make a significant impact. Now I think she has revisited her motivation to compete and it has given her a fresh outlook. Her epic battle with AN Se Young for the Denmark title showcased her unending resilience and phenomenal court coverage; I hope we get the chance to see plenty more clashes between these two. As one of the most lovable athletes on the tour plenty of fans will be cheering her on to more podium finishes. The Bali bubble beckons and she can travel to Indonesia with plenty of confidence that she will be making a big impression.


You may like to read Dev Sukumar’s BWF article https://bwfworldtour.bwfbadminton.com/news/?pyear=2021&pmonth=10 or take a look at my earlier piece about her https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/09/japans-akane-yamaguchi-hotter-than-july/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

Yonex French Open 2021 Review

Hot on the heels of Odense the action moved to Paris. It quickly became obvious that some athletes were running on empty; the challenges of a schedule that includes an Olympics, a Sudirman Cup, a Thomas, or Uber Cup and the Denmark Open over the space of 12 weeks following lockdowns, quarantines and illness was a lot to embrace, physically and mentally. Which brings me to Akane, Momota and The Unseeded.

Screengrab courtesy BWF

Akane – Winner Women’s Singles

Whilst some have struggled with the relentless pressure of tournaments since the Tokyo Olympics, Akane has thrived. She arrived in Paris as the Denmark Open champion and continued her hot streak right through to victory in the final again. These back-to-back wins suggest she has rediscovered the form that made her world#1 back in July 2019. It was her defensive excellence, swift court coverage and faultless anticipation which neutralised Takahashi’s challenge today. Akane is the standout Women’s Singles player in the world at the moment.

The Unseeded win Men’s Singles and Doubles: Tsuneyama, and KO/SHIN

It’s always magical to watch an unseeded player battle through to a final and win. Both of the men’s titles in this tournament went to players who were expected to lose earlier on. Kanta Tsuneyama triumphed over the more experienced CHOU Tien Chen in three tough sets; his perseverance and precision shots were the foundation of success and his delight in victory was irresistible.

In Men’s Doubles KO Sung Hyun and SHIN Baek Cheol faced Gideon and Sukamuljo. The Koreans are the former world champions who have been enduring a very lean period over the past couple of years. The Minions are working their way though their own existential crisis at the moment so it was hard to know what to expect from this contest. The Korean’s victory was quite brisk, no long rallies but a relentless drive for the title that stopped the Indonesian pair from getting any sort of toehold in the match. It was a long way from a classic, but KO and SHIN deserved the win. I hope Kevin and Marcus can take some encouragement from getting to the final.

Momota

“….the body is worn out but the heart is fine so it’s OK”

Kento Momota IG story (rough translation)

Sometimes sport is more than victory. Over the past few weeks Momota has consistently refused easy options. His resilience and character has driven him on to compete. When it seems as though his body is aching for a rest he has stepped back on court to play again. As the beaten finalist in Denmark he could have – maybe should have – withdrawn from this tournament; instead his desire for badminton carried him on to the Semi-Final where he eventually had to concede the match because of injury. It’s clear that he is still getting back to his best form but every time he plays he progresses. I’m looking forward to Bali and I reckon it’s not going to be long to wait before his next title. (WTF?)

Yuta and Arisa

Yuta Watanabe continues to impress on the XD stage. I love his spatial awareness: his ability to find gaps on his opponents side of the court is second to none. His support for Arisa – on and off court – is exemplary and so this is the basis of a partnership that will keep developing and keep winning. After today’s win they can go to Bali feeling confident about their ability to be in the mix at the end of a tournament.

Conclusions

Apart from top seeds LEE/SHIN winning the WD competition, the story of this Yonex Paris Open is of athletes triumphing over low expectations, injuries and fatigue. Kanta Tsuneyama’s, road to the MS title as an unseeded player was tough but it’s always extra special to watch ‘upset’ wins like these. Sayaka Takahashi reached the WS final despite a career threatening back injury last year. Kevin and Marcus got to their first final since AE2020 and although they lost out to unseeded KO/SHIN they must find some positives in that to fuel recovery from their slump.


If you enjoyed this, take a look at my recent article about Jonatan Christie https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/10/16/thomas-cup-semi-final-mvp-jonatan-christie/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

Indonesia Win The Thomas Cup!

Nineteen years of waiting is over – today Indonesia have won back the Thomas Cup.

They did it. Pic courtesy BWF

This team just got better and better as the competition progressed and to beat China 3-0 in the final was a measure of how far they improved together. This band of brothers will always be renowned as the athletes who won the trophy for Indonesia’s 14th time with the legendary Hendra Setiawan as their captain.

Who could have predicted what this team was capable of? It was packed with talent but some of the athletes had been misfiring in recent games and others were looking lackluster. The first tie was a 5-0 leg-stretcher against Algeria but next came Thailand. This match was equal at 2-2 with both senior MS losing, so it required Rhustavito to step up at the end to keep his team winning.  The contest with Taiwan was also finely balanced: this time Ginting and Christie won, only for the MD to lose.  Again they had to look to Rhustavito to rescue the result.  This victory was crucial to confirm seeding into the knockout stages.

The ‘El Classico’ against Malaysia in the quarter final was a tie I was regarding with a mixture of dread and excitement. It was lose-able. But this is when the team really started to look like they were contenders. LEE Zii Jia is in the form of his life but he was dispatched by Anthony in straight sets; the Minions overcame CHIA/SOH over three and the tie was wrapped up by Christie.  No need for any five match dramas.

A semi-final against Denmark on their home turf is always going to be a daunting prospect; especially when the first encounter is against Olympic Champion Viktor Axelsen. It was playing out true to form until the third match when Jonatan Christie walked on court to battle Anders Antonsen.  What followed was a truly great performance from a man who has struggled with his form for a while.  Over 100 minutes he stayed cool, kept to his plan and exposed Antonsen’s bland attack and his lack of stamina.  This blow to Danish ambitions was mortal, and Alfian/Ardianto executed the coup de grace for a 3-1 win.

One of the exceptional features of this team is that there was always a win around the corner from a loss.  Their self-belief escalated as the days passed. They knew that history was waiting to be made and when the chances came against China they grabbed them. A 3-0 victory is really something. The last words belong to one of my favourite players ever. Hendra Setiawan is an absolute icon and a wonderful ambassador for badminton; I’m thrilled that it was him who raised the trophy on the podium

“I cannot express this feeling. I am just happy”

Hendra Setiawan talking to BWF

If you enjoyed this then take a look at my recent article about Jonatan Christie https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/10/16/thomas-cup-semi-final-mvp-jonatan-christie/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Sudirman Cup Preview

The battles in Finland will prove which nation has the best squad and who can hold their nerve when the pressure soars. Bragging rights and national prestige are at stake: this is the trophy that everyone wants to take home.

Screenshot from BWF

It’s the 17th time that the World Team Championships have been held and invariably the Asian badminton powerhouses monopolize the finals. Pick one from China, Indonesia or South Korea and history guarantees that their players will be walking onto the court on the last day. No other country has ever won. Could we see a surprise this time?

The Sudirman Cup starts with sixteen teams in four groups on September 26th; during this stage, all five matches across the sectors are played. After this phase is complete, there is a draw to determine the Quarter-Finals and subsequently Semi-Finals. Crucially this is a knockout stage and every tie is “best of five”. This is when players who can force results and drive teammates on to glory will shine.

Group A: China, Thailand, Finland, and India

China dominate this competition and their twenty-strong team is an intimidating prospect for any rival. Over the last few months CHEN Yufei’s patient, error-free game has seen her crowned Olympic and China National Games Champion; in XD WANG/HUANG hold the same twofold honour whilst in Women’s Doubles CHEN/JIA will be in the vanguard of the Chinese defence of the title. This is a magnificent team but they look susceptible in the Men’s sectors. A revitalised SHI Yu Qui is a great asset but there is no CHEN Long with him in the Singles. I’m curious about the Men’s Doubles line up as this is definitely a sector in transition. Are they beatable? Yes! But probably not until the Final….and possibly not even then.

The battle for second place is likely to be won by Thailand considering they have more firepower than an Indian team weakened by the absence of Saina and Sindhu. Thailand have an exciting fusion of experienced winners like Bass/Popor in XD, alongside Chochuwong and Ongbamrungphan in WS, balancing out the relative inexperience of triple junior world champion Kunlavut Vitidsarn in Men’s Singles. India won’t be a pushover though, especially in the doubles categories so clearly the tie between them will decide group position. I think Finland will have plenty of home support but to escape this group will require impossibly dramatic results.

Group B: Taiwan, Korea, Tahiti, Germany

Korea has a fine tradition in this tournament; and in Thailand this year we saw good-to-great performances from it’s doubles pairs and AN Se Young. I think they will top the group and leave Taiwan and Germany to fight it out for second spot. Taiwan’s team is disadvantaged because they are not bringing their Olympic medalists: LEE/WANG or TTY so this could be a tight fight for qualification. Germany’s squad includes Lamsfuss, Herttrich and Yvonne LI and they must realise they have a good chance of winning a couple of their ties if they can get results in key areas. Tahiti can compete unburdened by expectation but results against them may turn out to be important.

Group C: Indonesia, Denmark, ROC, Canada

Indonesia’s team of all the talents can travel to Finland confident that they have the quality and experience to get to the final. The squad is exceptional with Olympic Gold medalists and title holders to match China. Two influential players are at the core of it: Hendra Setiawan and Greysia Polii have the mental strength to inspire their fellow Indonesians to aim high. I think two key personnel are Praveen Jordan and Anthony Ginting because they will inevitably be participating in crucial matches; they must keep focused and crush their opponents.

The cup has never been won by a European nation but Denmark has been in the final twice, most recently in 2011. They are by far the best team in Europe and in Viktor Axelsen they have the Olympic Champion. The squad is capable of challenging hard. I don’t think they quite have the depth across all the sectors to win but they should progress to the knockout stages and could get to the Semi-Final.

Group D: Japan, Malaysia, England, Egypt

After their subdued performance at the Olympics and some high profile retirements I’m curious to see how BirdJapan approach the competition they came so close to winning in Nanning 2019. They may be short of a bit of Men’s Doubles experience but this is still a wonderful team who are well-known for mutual support from the sidelines. I think we should disregard the Tokyo results and look to Momota, Nozomi and the rest to play without pressure, build early confidence and do well. Prediction: Semi Final

Malaysia and England will be scrapping for second place; both are teams in transition who have brought a selection of youngsters. I remember the scintillating Sudirman Cup tie between England and Denmark back in 2019 especially the courageous performance of Birch/Smith in the WD and I hope they can rekindle that spirit here and escape the group. It’s going to be tough to equal Malaysia’s quality but this is the tie they must win to progress.

Who Will Bring It Home?

Can anyone stop China winning again? It will be a big task to equal their ambition and dedication to possession of the Sudirman Cup. This is a unique tournament which rewards special athletes. The only other team with the all-round depth of talent that can sustain a long campaign is Indonesia. The beauty of this tournament is that no player can triumph on their own; so the squad with the spirit and resilience to compete without flinching will be bringing the trophy home.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my recent article about Polii and Rahayu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/08/12/brilliant-polii-and-rahayu-win-olympic-gold/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

Yuki and Sayaka at the Olympics

“If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”

Yuki’s LINE message to Sayaka (Trans by Sebastien @sebad110)

Is it ok to write about FukuHiro?  No Japanese Women’s Doubles medal in Tokyo would have been unimaginable six months ago but the top seeds were knocked out at the QF stage.  This does not even scratch the surface of Yuki and Sayaka’s Olympics.

Facing elimination together – screenshot from Eurosport.

The badminton world was staggered when Sayaka arrived on court and revealed a heavy knee brace on her right leg.  Despite the catastrophe that had befallen her the Gold medal favourites had decided to come and fight. 

Sooner or later, we have to accept that for all the time spent on analysis of games and players a match will always end in victory or defeat.  Nevertheless, at the Olympics the reaction of these two athletes to a serious injury subverted this into an honourable display that showed the strength of their partnership and their love of badminton played together.

The first match facing Birch/Smith was a chance to see if they could win on three and a half legs.  Unbelievably they battled through in two sets.  Fukushima carried a big burden: she ran for two whilst Hirota tried to avoid the back line.  Their tactics succeeded: 21-13 & 21-14.  There had to be a focus on keeping playing time to a minimum and the stats show that the longest rally was 54 strokes with the average length at 11.  In the next game against CHOW/LEE the Malaysians seemed prepped to exploit her restricted movement and got the first set but nerves took over and the self-confidence of the Japanese saw them win the following two sets.  This time the longest rally was 76 strokes with an average length of 13 per rally.

After the first game Hirota had described herself as at 70-80% and admitted that she had been injured during training on June 18th.  She later said:

“It’s like it became pitch-black. I thought it was impossible to go to the Olympics anymore. I felt very sorry for Fukushima-senpai”

Interview in NHK translated by Sebastien.

After an MRI scan, she was diagnosed with an ACL tear in her right knee plus damage to her meniscuses and lateral collateral ligament.  She described it as a “desperate time”. A specialist advised surgery but agreed – after two weeks rest from training – that it was feasible to wait until after the Olympic tournament.  The Donjoy-style brace she wore was designed to redeploy the way playing pressure impacted on her damaged knee.  The stress goes to the healthy parts and away from aggravating the pain.

The final group game was their first loss.  Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu had to work hard over three sets but in the end, they just could not find a way through.  This meant they had come second in Group A and would meet CHEN/JIA in a quarter final. Even if they had both been fit this tie would have been daunting. The Chinese are superb players; strong and smart so they knew they were in for a difficult day. Yuki’s LINE message to her partner that evening read

“…tomorrow regardless we win or lose, I want us to enjoy the match…Let’s overcome this together. Let’s speak together. If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”

Trans by Sebastien.

It was a brutal physical test and after three sets their goal of a home Olympics medal was gone. At the end they faced the world with tears and their arms around each other. The Chinese players’ sporting behaviour added to the emotion of the moment. Games like this can be very hard to spectate.

Sayaka has a hard six months of rehab ahead but her courageous attitude and the support of Yuki will sustain her. Fukuhiro’s Olympics was tragic and wonderful. I’m so sorry that they were not able to compete to 100% of their ability but seeing their reaction to heartbreak was inspiring. Their bravery and commitment shone through disappointment; the dream has not been lost, only delayed until Paris 2024.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my earlier article about Fukuhiro https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/

Thank you to Sebastien for letting me use their translations of interviews in Japanese and also thank you to all the Fukuhiro fans out there who shared ideas and chatted about the Olympic journey with me.


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

Brilliant Polii and Rahayu Win Olympic Gold

This was the most joyous Gold medal. Athletes can’t buy an Olympic victory; they earn one over years of perseverance and pain. Even then, some don’t reach their dream, so to watch Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu on top of the Tokyo podium was a glorious moment.

Screengrab from Eurosport

The origins of the triumph stretch back to a young Greysia who was focused on becoming a pro:

“I was born to be a badminton player. And I had that faith when I was 13, that I wanted to make history for Indonesia”

Greysia Polii

Along the way she endured a controversial exit from London 2012 and lost at the QF stage in Rio 2016 with Nitya Krishinda Maheswari. When the news broke that her partner required surgery and was going to retire Polii seriously considered hanging up her racket too.

Looking back this was when Eng Hian – the head of Indonesian Women’s Doubles – had a stroke of genius. He convinced her to delay retirement…to stay a little longer and help guide the progress of some of the younger players. In 2017 along came the talented but raw Apriyani Rahayu: aged 19 with a dislike of being told what to do, but intelligent and ambitious enough to recognise that this was a great opportunity to learn from Greysia. As time passed and the chemistry between them formed it started to occur to Polii that if she could instill a champion’s mindset into her young partner then maybe this could lead to great things. She would need patience, perseverance and to stay injury-free. Perhaps everything that had gone before was preparing her for this.

Fast Forward To Tokyo 2020

The tournament started brightly for GreyAp. Two wins out of two in the group stages and the importance of the final game against FukuHiro escalated. Suddenly here was an opportunity to emerge from the Round Robin as group winners and therefore avoid a seeded pair in the Quarter Final.

Wars of attrition pose little threat to the Indonesian duo. They have the physical resilience to endure a lot and that style of play offers a great platform for the sudden explosions of power from Apri or the creative vision and deft touches from Greysia. The Japanese top seeds could not handle the aggressive tempo of the contest. They were stubborn and resisted over three sets but folded in the last 21-8. So GreyAp entered the knockout rounds and I was feeling optimistic.

It’s been clear over the course of the Olympic badminton tournament that the Chinese athletes’ standards haven’t suffered from their lack of international competition. In the QF against DU/LI Greysia and Apri were asked some hard questions over three sets but they stood firm and refused to let the Chinese win.

The Semi-Final against LEE/SHIN was a daunting prospect but as the match progressed it was always GreyAp who had the upper hand. The competitive momentum that they had been building since the tournamnet began carried them on to the final. Another win, a guaranteed medal, history made.

This was a final waiting to be won. There was little point in waiting to be beaten by the hot favourites: I think Greysia and Apri realised this and it fed their ambitious attitude. Rahayu brought her ‘A game’ – make that her ‘A+ game’. Her energy and bravery constantly screwed down the pressure on CHEN/JIA. Her aggressive high tempo unsettled their rhythm and her noisy, boisterous attitude helped dominate the court space. At 1-1 in the first set there was a moment when Greysia took the shuttle mid-court on her backhand and pinged it crosscourt into empty space. At that moment I realised she knew they could win. The next point was gained by Polii’s delicate drop which emphasized her intent and desire. It was a close set as the four of them traded points but in the end GreyAp won it 21-19. Advantage Indonesia.

Set two opened with them racing to a 7-2 lead. Both players were decisive and self-assured. Unburdened by tension they were playing without inhibition and exuding self-belief. Everything they did worked. The Chinese tried to get back into the flow of the game but they were being swept along by the irresistable pace and vision of the Indonesians. Incredibly at 18-10 Polii’s strings broke but she had time to grab a replacement racket and win the rally.

There was an inevitability to the final moments as they had outclassed CHEN/JIA throughout the game. The (mostly) empty arena didn’t matter – we were all crying and screaming at our screens together as they celebrated victory. Often the difference between a Silver and Gold medal is simultaneously a universe and barely a whisker. The Indonesia duo had dominated in every area of the court and had played their best ever game at exactly the right moment. Congratulations Greysia Polii and Apriyani Rahayu: Gold medallists and history makers!

Artwork by Rachel Florencia

If you enjoyed this then take a look at my earlier article about GreyAP https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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TAI Tzu Ying Wins Olympic Silver

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.

Screen grab from Eurosport.

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!


If you enjoyed this then take a look at the article I wrote about Team TAI Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/02/25/team-tai-tzu-ying/

©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

The Olympics: Women’s Doubles Preview

Who has the edge to get Gold?  The contest for the WD title in Tokyo will suit athletes with deep reserves of stamina and resistance – however to win the battle for supremacy one of these players must be willing to turn defence into attack quickly and seize points at crucial moments.

Pic Credit Sutterstock

The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.

Japan

Recently Japan’s women have built a good record of success at the Olympics.  Silver at London 2012 (Fujii/Kakiiwa) followed by a thrilling Gold from Misaki and Ayaka in Rio: unfortunately their partnership is over but the quality of the Japanese squad means that the two pairs competing in this sector have every chance of winning it.   Yuki Fukushima / Sayaka Hirota are top seeds and should expect to top Group A.   The key to notable results will be Yuki who can drive the team forward with her precision and strength.  At the Denmark Open their victory over compatriots Mayu Matsumoto / Wakana Nagahara stemmed from her power to control the theatre of battle.  She was comfortable varying the tempo and sometimes ignored the percentage shot to go for the line. 

The third seeds – Matsumoto and Nagahara – have every chance of making the final.  Prior to the Denmark Open result I would have characterised them as the more aggressive of the two Japanese pairs so I’m intrigued how they will approach this competition.  Group B rivals shouldn’t be able to prevent them getting into the next round and so as long as they snap up chances they can eye the podium with confidence.  It’s important both pairs win their groups so they avoid potentially knocking each other out before the final.

Indonesia

Greysia Polii/ Apri Rahayu are in Group A so they will have to negotiate an early match with the tournament favourites but more worryingly their recent H2H with Malaysians CHOW/LEE makes me nervous.  That is their first game in the round robin so we will have a clearer picture of what the future may hold following that. It’s Greysia’s third Olympics and I’m confident she has the experience and resilience to get through a close tie.  Both players performed well in the Thailand bubble so they can approach the days ahead with courage.  They are my favourite WD pair and I would be thrilled to see them with a medal. Go Girls!

South Korea

Korea is sending two pairs to this competition and this is probably the discipline where they have the best chance of a medal. LEE So-hee and SHIN Seung-chan were winners of the World Tour Finals and performed consistently in the Thai bubble.  They head Group C as 4th seeds. They both have Olympic experience from Rio although with different partners then. Their height and aggressive style can unbalance opponents so I expect them to approach matches with boldness and noise.  KIM Soyeong and KONG Heeyong are starting out unseeded in Group D but I think it’s important to note their victory in the 2019 Japanese Open against top Japanese players in the Olympic venue.  KONG’s attacking strength is nicely supported by KIM and so if they get into the knockout phase they are going to be tricky to beat. 

China

CHEN Qing Chen / JIA Yi Fan are seeded 2 and in Group D.  When I watched them win the YAE2019 final I was shocked by their power, aggression and intensity.  Many fans mark them as favourites for this event but the group they are in has the potential to sap their energy: they will meet Korea’s KIM/KONG and the Stoeva sisters.  This could weaken them somewhat for the following rounds which have the potential to become wars of attrition.   Despite that, they are an intimidating couple and it would not be a shock to see them medal. The second Chinese Pair DU Yue/LI Yin Hui are unseeded in Group C and may struggle to emerge from it.  The main danger to their ambitions are the Danes Fruergaard/Thygesen who have good reserves of stubbornness to draw on in tough games.  I would never write off any Chinese pair in this competition though.  Up until 2016 they had a stranglehold on Gold and I’m certain they want ‘their’ medal back!

Conclusions

If any of these pairs can defend against the overwhelming firepower of the Chinese duo CHEN/JIA they will probably be the ones at the top of the podium. We haven’t watched any of the players from China in ages but we know that the second seeds are formidable. It’s a competition where gritty self-belief fused with physical resilience will create the gap between medal success and failure. South Korea and Indonesia are providing the dark horses but as far as the Gold goes it’s hard to look further than China or Japan. I expect FukuHiro to be more strategically nimble than the others so if the seeding unfolds predictably they could be the ones celebrating on finals day.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my other Olympic previews here:

Women’s Singles https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/07/17/the-olympics-womens-singles-preview/

and Men’s Doubles https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/07/15/the-olympics-mens-doubles-preview/

©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

The Olympics: Men’s Doubles Preview

When the going gets tough, the tough get going!

I am anticipating badminton extraordinaire.  The quality of this competition is outstanding with huge expectations of some players.  Athletes from the Asian heartlands of the sport – Indonesia, Japan, China & Taiwan – are likely to dominate the matches but who will triumph at the end is not particularly clear cut.

Pic credit Solomon7/Shutterstock

We haven’t watched most of these pairs in competition with each other for over a year and it will be intriguing to see who have been able to add an extra dimension to their game or who has lost a bit of sharpness.  Realistically most of them are going to need a match or two to kick-start their muscles and focus on victory.  The pairs who adapt to the conditions and negotiate their group games to the knock out stages without expending too much energy or getting injured will have a big advantage. The absence of noisy, partisan crowd is also likely to have an impact on some of the players although I’m at a loss to anticipate whether it will help or hinder.

The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.

Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo & Marcus Fernaldi Gideon

The Minions arrive in Tokyo as World Number Ones and top seeds but they are going to have to play the best games of their lives if they are going to get Gold.  Group A will not allow any slip ups. Challenges to them will come from every direction as the calibre of their rivals is phenomenal.  The venue is expected to be ‘slow’ and they must not allow themselves to get ensnared in an energy sapping smashing competitions. Opponents work hard to blunt their attacks so they must be prepared to reappraise tactics if the game is not going their way. Kevin has one of the best badminton brains in the sport and I’m in awe of his technical skills, superhuman reflexes and sheer desire, whilst Marcus’s strength and chemistry with his partner means the two of them have the weapons to beat everyone.

First they must negotiate their group and it’s vital they fight on their own terms. Their head to head records against their challengers in the first round gives no cause for concern but the reality of an Olympic stage after relative international inactivity for a while means that everyone is a threat. Kevin has brilliance embedded deep and these two would be worthy winners at the end of the tournament. I’m anxious though about their head-to-head record with Endo/Watanabe (2-6) because it seems inevitable that they will end up playing each other in a high stakes game. Prediction: Final

This article considers their chances in more depth https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/06/06/kevin-marcus-and-tokyo-gold/

Hiroyuki Endo & Yuta Watanabe

Seeded four this pair are a hazard to Indonesian ambitions. They begin their campaign in Group B and should progress without too much fuss, although Sozonov/Ivanov might be able to ask them some tough questions. Over the last few years they just seem to get better and better. Left-handed Yuta is a dazzling player, his vision and speed are at Kevin levels and this is reflected in their superb head to head record against the Minions (6-2). He is relentless but I often wonder if his threat is diluted by competing in two sectors; I’m fascinated to see how he copes with these demands overlaid by the pressure of a home Olympics. Endo has always been a top player but something about this partnership has liberated him to dream big. Perhaps his stubborn, reliable approach just nicely balances Yuta’s pzazz. Prediction: Final

Hendra Setiawan & Mohammad Ahsan

Could these two nurse their old bones to a Golden final. The day I watched them win on three legs at the All England in 2019 was the day I fell in love with Indonesian badminton. No superlative can do this pair justice but they are consistent winners of the best tournaments including Hendra’s Gold at the 2008 Olympics with his then partner, the late Markus Kido. Nevertheless, in Thailand they were beaten twice by Lee/Wang; they just could not contain the exuberant Taiwanese. At the time it was clear that Ahsan was competing with a dodgy leg so I hope that they have arrived in Japan in good shape. Their rivals in Group D are tough but if they can get the results they need with no injuries then they will be into the next round. Prediction Semi-Final

Lee Yang & Wang Chi-Lin

The most likely challengers for the top spot in Group A are the Taiwanese pair: Lee Yang/Wang Chi-Lin. These two were unstoppable in Thailand, winning three out of three tournaments. I think the most rewarding wins for them must have been against Ahsan and Setiawan in the SF of the Toyota Thailand Open and the WTF. Ahsan was not at 100% but it was clear that the Dads could not live with the Taiwanese muscular approach and it must have been a massive confidence boost to beat such sporting icons. Prediction Semi-Final

Li Jun & Liu Yu Chen

These two have a lot of attacking power and can use their aggression in Tokyo to damage everyone’s dreams. They both move well, have good 3D awareness of the court spaces and can use their height for some steep shots. I think Liu’s netplay will often allow him to gain an advantage right at the start of a rally; he is hard to pass with his long reach and steadfast approach. These two have been restricted to domestic competition since YAE20, and had been in a comparative slump prior to Covid. Maybe this break will have rejuvenated their desire or they could have added some refinements to their tactics. The current status of all the Chinese competitors is difficult to analyse because we haven’t been able to watch them for ages. I’m sure that the Chinese coaches will have prepared them well and if they are back to their best then the podium beckons.

Choi Solgyu & Seo Seungjae

Seo Seungjae’s contract issues have been put to one side for the duration of the Olympics. Or should I say that the suspension given him by the BKA will not take effect until after Tokyo. Of course this is great news for his partners in MD and XD and reveals how important he is to Korea’s medal hopes. He and Choi Solgyu are in the same group (D) as Ahsan/Setiawan and Aaron Chia/Soh Wooi Yik so there are some hard battles ahead.

Keigo Sonoda & Takeshi Kamura

Can the ‘second’ Japanese pair force their way into the medal reckoning? Their brawny, boisterous style can overwhelm rivals and enthrall spectators. They are tireless and so noisy in their mutual support between points that they amplify the pressure on court. Kamura’s work around the front; his anticipation and reading of the game allied to his partners relentless energy and enthusiasm means that they can dominate matches. However their head to head stats against the absolute top pairs are weak (Minions 11-5, Dads 5-2, Endo/Watanabe 4-2, Li/Liu 7-3) so they are going to have to bring something fresh to the tournament if they want to get on the podium. They are in an intriguing position – unseeded – in Group C with the Chinese pair; they should be able to get to the knockouts and then let’s see who they play in the latter stages.

Any Dark Horses?

Lots of these pairs have the ability to trouble the favourites but whether they can do it consistently and push on to a medal is hard to say. Lane and Vendy performed superbly in Thailand and Shetty and Rankireddy have plenty of potential but I think this outing will be part of their journey to Paris success in 2024. Battling it out to progress from Group B behind Watanabe/Endo are the Danes Rasmussen/Astrup and Russians Sozonov/Ivanov. This Olympics is being held under unique protocols so athletes who can seize every opportunity, stay fit and adapt to discomfort without being distracted will be the ones who triumph.

Who will win Gold?

Can anyone stop an All-Indonesian final? A lot depends on the draw after the group stage is completed but the pair who bring intensity and fokus right from the start will be at an advantage. This is going to be a strange covid-adjusted Olympics with few fans present but millions watching from a distance. Although many think that the conditions at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza don’t naturally suit the Minions style they are triple winners of the Japan Open so the reults suggest they relish the arena. Kevin and Marcus must solve the Yuta problem but this is a fabulous opportunity to cement their place amongst the games greats. They will have to overcome some tough tests but they have everything within themselves that they need to get Gold.


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my other Olympic Badminton previews https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/07/14/the-olympics-mixed-doubles-preview/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Fyi

Group A: Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo/Marcus Fernaldi Gideon, Lee Yang/Wang Chi-Lin, Ben Lane/Sean Vendy, Chirag Shetty/Satwiksairaj Rankireddy

Group B: Hiroyuki Endo/Yuta Watanabe, Anders Skaarup Rasmussen/Kim Astrup, Ivan Sozonov/Vladimir Ivanov, Anuoluwapo Juwon Opeyori/Godwin Olofua

Group C: Li Jun Hui/Liu Yu Chen, Keigo Sonoda/Takeshi Kamura, Mark Lamfuss/ Marvin Seidel, Phillip Chew/Ryan Chew

Group D: Hendra Setiawan/Mohammad Ahsan (2), Aaron Chia/Soh Wooi Yik, Choi Solgyu/Seo Seungjae, Jason Anthony Ho-Shue/Nyl Yakura