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.
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; some news organisations also reported damage to her meniscuses and lateral collateral ligament but she has not confirmed that. 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.
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.
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.
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”
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!
Tai Tzu Ying is the creative spark who can elevate badminton into more than sport. The fusion of brilliant shots and brave resolve is breathtaking to watch. Her sensational technical skills make comparisons with Roger Federer easy. Just like him she can do just about anything with her racket; the variety and fluency is electrifying.
However, she has struggled to play her best games at the past two Olympics. No medal at London 2012 or Rio 2016 so, with talk of retirement in the air, the focus has been on Tokyo. Fans around the world have craved a podium spot for her so The Queen arrived in Japan with a clear goal.
TAI Tzu Ying came to the final to win; CHEN Yu Fei arrived determined not to lose. Two equals but with contrasting approaches to the match. It was a fascinating clash. CHEN Yu Fei is strategically shrewd and her consistency was effective in neutralising some of TTY’s flair: she won the first set 21-18. TAI Tzu Ying fought back hard in set two to force a decider. It was a relentless battle on court and inside the player’s heads.
Set three began badly for TAI Tzu Ying. CHEN Yu Fei pounced on some errors and racked up quick points to lead 10-3. TTY’s fighting spirit was not subdued though. Over some intensely nerve-wracking minutes she clawed her way back into contention but although she almost caught up she could not alter the momentum of the contest. CHEN Yu Fei triumphed 21-18.
So finally TAI Tzu Ying has an Olympic medal; it would have been unbearable if she had returned home to Taiwan empty-handed. She was true to herself and the way she has to play the game. Just like Federer at London 2012 she came to win Gold but in the end got Silver. She couldn’t have given any more to the fight. Congratulations TAI Tzu Ying from your millions of fans – we are so proud of you!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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:
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.
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
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.
The British have chosen 11 players to challenge for medals at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics but they are not necessarily the athletes we expected to be on the list at the start of June. In an astonishingly brutal decision the Rio bronze medallists – Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge – were dropped in favour of the young guns: Ben Lane and Sean Vendy. Of course, we know that regardless of qualifying via BWF ranking points the final gift of a place is decided by the coaches but it appears to be a decision that was communicated at the eleventh hour. This probably means it’s too late for any sort of meaningful appeal. As an observer I have no inside knowledge but Langridge’s instagram post from June 4th suggests he thought he was part of the team.
Men’s Doubles: Ben Lane & Sean Vendy
Lane and Vendy were excellent in Thailand in January. They thrived in the bubble and I really feel that their level of performance went up by several notches. The challenge for them now is to maintain that improvement with an eye on the future. Their pathway leads to the Paris Olympics and if they are going to disrupt the stranglehold that Indonesia, Japan and China have on this sector then the hard work is only just beginning. Tokyo offers vital experience and they must use it to enrich their future matches.
Mixed Doubles: Lauren Smith & Marcus Ellis
These two can go toe-to-toe with the best and I’m very excited about their chances for a medal. Ellis is a fantastic athlete: he never gives up and keeps fighting right to the end. His chippy attitude often means he seizes victory in 50/50 situations or even when defeat seems to be looming. It’s disappointing that he can’t defend his MD Bronze, however playing less games will narrow his focus and may help his load management. XD glory ultimately will stem from Lauren Smith and how she plays in the tournament. It’s vital that their strategies reflect her importance and the essential interceptions that Ellis can give at the net.
Women’s Singles: Kirsty Gilmour
This is Kirsty Gilmour’s second Olympics and it was no surprise that she qualified for the competition. Her title win at the 2020 SaarLorLux and especially her hard-fought semi-final triumph over Carolina Marin showed what a wholehearted competitor she is. She’s had a few injury niggles and training disruption but I hope she can progress through the tournament.
Men’s Singles: Toby Penty plus ParaBadminton Dan Bethell (SL3), Jack Shephard (SH6) and Krysten Coombes (SH6)
Penty will be making his Olympic debut in Tokyo so it will be interesting to see how he progresses and uses the experience to push on to – for instance – a possible medal at the Commonwealth Games next year. A lot is going to depend on the draw and his reaction to the pressure of the tournament.
Dan Bethell – who upgraded from tennis to badminton a while ago – has a genuine shot at Gold in his category (SL3) at the Parabadminton tournament. He won Silver at the World Championships in Basle 2019 and was beaten by Pramod Bhagat that day. The Indian is a superb player who has a habit of winning, so Bethell must be at his best if he wants to be on top of the podium.
Jack Shephard is an athlete who will be disappointed if he doesn’t win Gold in the SH6 class. He successfully defended his 2017 World Title in 2019 and he is the player all the others have to beat. Krysten Coombes – world #5 – is in the same sector. He won European Gold in 2016 and so knows what it takes to win high pressure games.
Women’s Doubles: Chloe Birch & Lauren Smith.
These two won silver at the European Games a couple of years ago and would be considered one of the best pairs in Europe. How far they progress is hard to predict simply because the duos from Japan, China, and Korea tend to dominate top level tournaments. A good draw and quick adjustment to local conditions could see them advance.
Men’s WH2: Martin Rooke
Rooke is a well-known competitor in both the singles and doubles of WH2. He’s one of those players who has a habit of winning so it would be no surprise to see him on the podium in Tokyo.
Can I Mention Rachel Choong?
I’m extremely disappointed that the first Paralympics to include badminton also excludes multiple world champion Rachel Choong. Her SH6 category is not included this time. Actually, it’s just the women’s SH6 that is left out, Jack Shephard and Krysten Coombes who is in the men’s SH6 will be in Tokyo. Perhaps someone can clarify the reason for this? I’m told it’s partly because when the programme for the parabadminton was announced the women’s SH6 did not have a wide global representation. Hopefully Paris 2024 will see this rectified.
Our Team GB athletes have four realistic chances of parabadminton medals including Gold and a chance of a further medal in the able-bodied sector. It has been a very hard year for all competitors and some nations have found it easier than others to maintain the function of a national training centre, to hold meaningful national competitions or to run Olympic Simulations.
Back in 2010 there was a magazine article http://www.theleisurereview.co.uk/articles10/christy.html that claimed Badminton England’s strategy was to be the number one badminton nation by 2016. That was a pretty taxing target but nevertheless the mission statement in 2021 still says that “Olympic success [is] at the heart of our ambitions”. The harsh truth is that success brings funding so it’s crucial that the national body can point to victories that show progress, that engage the population at large and inspire the next generation. It’s disappointing that there are no women athletes from the parabadminton community that have qualified. Of the 11 people travelling to compete only 3 are female; perhaps I can count Lauren Smith twice as she will compete in two sectors but whatever way we look at it something is not working. In terms of representing the community at large it might also be worth considering the lack of apparent diversity in the athletes backgrounds and whether this means that there is a source of talent that is not being included. I don’t know, I don’t have accurate information to hand regarding this.
The Olympics is always a hard competition to call. I hope that our athletes thrive and play their best games. It’s been a long journey to get to this point and all our players deserve their spots and the opportunity to compete against the best.
The qualifications are over, the invites are sent; we can see athletes standing on the brink of greatness. Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Marcus Fernaldi Gideon are world #1 and two players who have the talent and ambition to win Gold.
The Men’s Doubles contest will be edge-of-the-seat stuff for fans as the Minions style naturally amplifies the intensity of matches. Sukamuljo plays without restraint; his split-second analysis and retaliation raises the pulse of the spectators and the game. He is the architect of a controlled mayhem within the boundaries of the court– his high tempo style is so unpredictable yet it never seems to wrong-foot his partner. Kevin is an entertainer who loves to show what he can do. He is an extraordinary competitor who has been set free to express his talent because of his wonderful relationship on court with Marcus.
Marcus Gideon is the anchor of the partnership. Behind the mercurial Kevin his work rate at the back of the court is huge. Kevin’s random creativity fits well with Marcus and their chemistry together is magic. I adore the way their energy sparks drama around the net. If opponents are not broken by the fast flat game extra pressure rests on Gideon. Clever rivals neutralise them with shots that are designed to disarm their aggression and it’s obvious that this tests their patience.
Nothing is certain in the Olympic arena except that the path to the podium will be unforgiving. The competition begins with 16 pairs made into four groups each headed by one of the top 4 qualifiers. It’s vital that they bring a single-minded focus to the court because only the top four are kept apart at this stage. This means that a group could contain Astrup/Rasmussen, Kamura/Sonoda, and LEE/WANG. We’ll find out more about this when the draw is held prior to the start of the competition but the possibility exists for some brutal opening matches.
I think their main challenge is finding a way to beat pairs like Endo/Watanabe who can withstand the flat fast game. Yuta can engage with Kevin at the net and the Japanese understand that by taking the pace off the shuttle they can exert sustained pressure to frustrate the Indonesian pair. Lifting high to the back of the court is a strategy we see used to blunt Sukamuljo’s attack. There’s no doubt that Kevin’s ambitious vision is the key to victory so long as his partner can keep the shuttle in play. His perception of space, and his anticipation of it opening up, could be what sets them on the road to glory. His agile badminton intellect fused with a ‘quiet eye’ and the physical ability to execute the shot will make the difference. The phenomenon of ‘quiet eye’ is well-known in sport psychology – it’s that tracking gaze fixed on a target just before a decisive movement. It’s analytical observation that knows what is important and when it’s important.
What does the Olympic tournament hold for the Minions? There is a huge weight of expectation that rests on their shoulders and their coaches and fans have to protect them – as far as possible – from unnecessary pressure that could dilute their focus. They have to be able to compete with a quiet mind. I don’t mean that we should expect the Olympics to be a picnic for them but I want stress to be fuel for great performances. There is no inevitability to progress. Can they take on Japan’s finest and defuse the threat? Taiwan and China will be tough opponents and of course, if things go well the seeding could unwind as far as an all-Indonesian final.
The Indonesian system routinely delivers standout players who have incomparable technical skills fused with great defence and they compete with flair and spirit. Fans all over the world are longing to see the top seeds at the top of the podium but it’s likely that this will be an event that demands more from them than any other. Men’s Doubles is going to be a fierce contest between equals so the players who adapt quickly to the conditions in the hall and the odd empty atmoshere will be at an advantage. Kevin and Marcus won at the Musashino Forest Sport Plaza back in 2019 and this will be their opportunity to cement their legendary staus in badminton. Good luck, play well, have fun & no injuries!
Inspired by the recent BWF series I started thinking…
Vision: TAI Tzu Ying
TTY’s creative genius is Box Office Gold. Everyone wants to see that backhand reverse slice straight drop, especially when they least expect it. Her bedrock is superb technical skills blended with fitness. The cocktail of flair, bravery and total self-belief is irresistable. Because her shots are so unpredictable she stops rivals from anticipating her moves and this give her a tremendous competitive edge. Any player who nurtures aspirations to get to the very top has to be inspired by TAI’s style.
Explosive Power: Carolina Marin
Marin’s superb athleticism blended with her attacking style makes her a formidable opponent. She smashes, lunges and kills with venomous force. She blazes on court; once she seizes the momentum of the game 6 or 7 points are in her pocket in the blink of an eye. She is a rowdy, disruptive, noisy adversary who has harnassed her passion to carry her to the top of the sport.
Win-Ability: Misaki Matsutomo
There’s just something about Misaki Matsutomo – she seems able to force a victory, to break opponent’s will to win even when they are in a commanding position. Of course the best example of this was the WD Rio Olympic final in 2016. On the surface she looks mild but underneath she has an iron will. Her instinctive response to danger is defiance; at 19-16 behind in the Gold medal match something was unleashed from deep inside her. Her clever movement, trust in her partner and dominance at the net saw her at the top of the podium. I’d love her to reach these heights in her XD career.
Accuracy: Ratchanok Intanon
May has a lot in common with TTY in terms of the technical quality of her strokes and she can execute some of the most breathtaking shots one would see on a court. However, sometimes having the ability to land a shuttle on the line is a blessing and a curse. Under pressure, and losing patience Ratchanok will often adopt a ‘death or glory’ approach. Instead of playing percentage badminton and simply keeping the rally going she will push up a level and try for the point. When it works it is majestic and a joy to watch.
Stamina: Nozomi Okuhara
Her style of play has long rallies at its core so her endurance is second-to-none. However, this is a too simplistic view of this brilliant player. She is fleet-footed and agile around the court with excellent flexibility. She is clever and has superb technical skills although sometimes I think she delays finishing off a rally for too long – the opposite of Ratchanok. I really respect her strength of focus in her pursuit of Tokyo Gold at a very tough time for the sport. On a personal level, she is adorable. When BirdJapan play team competitions she can be spotted on the sidelines leading the cheering for compatriots, and her all-round grace under pressure make her a very special person.
Potential: AN Se Young
In a couple of years time ASY could dominate the world scene. For now, shes a tournament random variable: often able to vanquish more illustrious opponents but not yet able to consistently reach finals weekend. I’d like her to work on the ability to shock. For now she has great anticipation and good all-round skill but she is quite reactive – to get to the next level I want to see effective shots that I don’t expect and better stamina over the duration of a competition.
It’s been amusing to try and build my Women’s Gold medal player, but there’s no doubt that some skills will outweigh others in tournament conditions in a drifty stadium. I didn’t include some of my favourite players: Saina’s intelligence and will to win, Sindhu’s power, Yuki’s consistency and Greysia’s defence but in the end this was just for fun. I’m sure you can suggest people I should have included – feel free to use the comments option.
Shock withdrawals, shock exits and shock reinstatements; January’s tournaments were never dull. Unless of course, you happen to be a player quarantined in the Bangkok Novotel for 20 hours a day with chicken for dinner again. Indomie products were suddenly currency and some athletes were incentivised by the prospect of a year’s supply of the world’s best instant snack.
This is my look at the three Thailand tournaments. I’m not pretending that I’m unbiased, or that I can cover everything but I hope my highlights remind you what a cracking few weeks fans have just enjoyed.
HK Vittinghus’ January was epic. Initially on the reserve list he had the ambition to gamble and start the long trip to Thailand from Denmark with no guarantee of a game. Events moved in his favour when the Japanese team turned back at Tokyo airport following Momota’s positive test. His story stuttered at the Yonex Thailand Open when he lost to compatriot Gemke in R1 but the following week saw him excel and become the focus of fierce support from fans in Indonesia who had realised that the further he progressed the more likely Anthony Ginting was to qualify for the World Tour Finals. Some wild incentives involving Indomie noodles were offered. Through very intense games he found a route to to the final and a match against Axelsen. Along the way, his results meant that Anthony Ginting did qualify. Axelsen powered through the encounter but HK can be proud of his month’s work.
Astonishingly there were triple champions in MD and XD and double champions in MS and WS which suggests that finding the winning formula fast in the impact arena offered big rewards. I think that people with good underlying fitness combined with the resilience and drive to make the most of opportunities were at an advantage. Fatigue – mental and physical – was a factor for some as there was little breathing space between each tournament.
The Danish men controlled the courts all month – I’ve already mentioned Vittinghus but the fluctuations in the balance of power between Axelsen and Andersen is fascinating and I’m really looking forward to see who has the upper hand in March. Andersen prevented his fellow Dane from a clean sweep of titles by some tactics at the World Tour Finals that some found controversial. Not me. I felt he was strategically very smart. It’s unfair to reduce his astute strategy to his ‘easy’ concession of the second set. Throughout the match he refused to give Viktor pace from smashes to feed off and this was a key element in his win.
There were times when we saw sublime standards from Anthony Ginting and I was disappointed that he didn’t get to a final. His challenge is to stay with a game at the death. CHOU Tien Chen consistently made the semi-final of all three tournaments but somehow just lacked the resources to finish a match off.
Carolina Marin – like Viktor – completely dominated her sector in the first two tournaments; bulldozing TAI Tzu Ying aside as she triumphed in both of their finals . At the season’s finale she was prevented from making it a hat trick by a tactically astute performance by TTY who finally managed to eliminate errors when it came to the crucial stage of the game. This link will take you to my article that discusses TTY’s win in more detail https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/02/02/tai-tzu-ying-genius/
I’m often dazzled by Ratchanok Intanon to the extent that I don’t give enough attention to the other athletes in the Thai team. Pornpawee Chochuwong can look back over her matches with a lot of satisfaction. We saw her potential twelve months ago when she beat Marin in the final of the Spain Masters and it turns out that that was not a fluke. At the end of a hard month she was a semi-finalist at the World Tour Finals and posed a threat to every player. AN Se Young also caught my eye: she got to three semi finals but couldn’t quite push through to a podium finish.
A deserved hat-trick of titles for the home pair Dechapol Puavaranukroh & Sapsiree Taerattanachai (Bass/Popor). They have been on the brink of good results for a while and this month they competed with gutsy resilience and strong self-belief. They are a wonderful team with excellent mobility, stamina and racket skills.
“This is my reward for nine months of hard work and dedication”
Sapsiree Taerattanachai courtesy BWF Media press office
This success could see them start to dominate their sector.
I’ve always been a big fan of GreyAp and so I was beyond thrilled to watch their emotional win in the YTO. Soon their journey together will end. I’m delighted that they have used these tournaments to showcase their best style: Greysia smiling and Apri roaring on to victory. Well played girls!
The Taiwanese duo – LEE Yang and WANG Chi-Lin – really enhanced their reputations throughout January. Not only did they win all three competitions but their humble self-deprecating comments endeared them to watching fans. Playing to their strengths they used power and muscle non-stop to overcome rivals. They were too fast and furious even for Ahsan and Setiawan to tame and no-one beats the Dads by accident. On the subject of the Dads; once again these two gnarly warriors battled through adversity and showed why they are admired worldwide. Here is my look at Ahsan’s gritty fight to stay in the game when he was struggling with an injury https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/01/20/mohammad-ahsan-player-of-the-day-total-legend/
Finally…Coach Kim, Happiness and Hope
The effervescent Coach Kim popped up in Thailand with the Korean team. Her energetic style radiates confidence and is irresistible. During the interval she seems able to outline any observations to her team in about ten frenetic cheerful seconds then she calmly sits down whilst the opposition coach remains standing.
It was an uplifting few weeks. Back to back tournaments undoubtedly stretched athletes but they still delivered some breathtaking matches full of skill. I think they gave supporters hope that there is a return to regular badminton just around the corner.
In a crazy year we fans have sustained ourselves on archive footage, home tournaments and hope. We enjoyed the one-off Denmark Open in October but badminton reactivates in Thailand on the 12th January. Everything was looking peachy until the news broke on January 3rd that Momota had tested positive at the airport as he was departing for Bangkok. As a precautionary measure the whole of the Japanese team have stayed home. China had already withdrawn so the competition continues without them.
Let’s see who has kept their training discipline over this enforced break. Who has learnt new strategies and skills, overcome niggling injuries and rediscovered their hunger to win? We had a glimpse of some players at the Denmark Open and again at the SaarLorLux but Bangkok is going to offer a bigger selection of athletes and some tough competition to anyone who thinks they can mix it with the best!
Which athlete has the stamina mental and physical to advance to the red zone of a third set and ask their rival some serious questions? Anders Antonsen probably thinks he can – he gave a great performance at the DO but he couldn’t walk unaided from the court at the end. What do we read into that? Well, here is a player who will plunge beyond the RED…he’s still growing as a competitor but at the death his muscle memory saw him through to seize the Denmark Open trophy. Seeded 3, he is in the bottom half of the draw and may well meet CHOU Tien Chen on the Saturday in a repeat of the All-England semi-final.
CHOU Tien Chen is seeded 2 and competed in Denmark even though Taiwan didn’t officially send players. He is slated to meet LEE Zii Jia at the quarter final stage and this could be a very tough test. LZJ is such an exciting player to watch and he was unlucky to miss out on the final at the Yonex All England back in March. His speed and power are exhilarating for spectators and hard to contain for rivals so CTC has got to be on guard right from set one or the match will run away from him. Antonsen awaits.
Anthony Ginting – seeded 5 – is always a player who excites me. I hope that during lockdown he has had the opportunity to refresh his strategies. He has to stop thinking he can beat Momota or other top players in 2 sets. As Susie Susanti observed, he needs a plan B or C when plan A fails. If he has added more strategies to his repertoire then the sky’s the limit: it could open a new chapter in his career. In R2 he should probably meet the rising star in Thai men’s singles, Kunlavut Vitidsarn. The three times World Junior Championcould block his advance; it’s a potential banana skin that Ginting must approach intelligently in order to win without expending his energy reserves. The Danish challenge is formidable in this sector. Rasmus Gemke is one of those players who has been a bit under the radar but hard work, grit, and good tactics mean that a possible match with Ginting in the quarter finals is going to reveal how far both men have really progressed over the past nine months. Gemke was a valiant loser in the final of the Denmark Open and remember he blocked Anthony’s progress at the 2020 All England. The current All England champion – Viktor Axelsen – didn’t compete in October because he was addressing an injury niggle so it may be quite tough for him to be at full throttle straightaway. He is seeded to meet Indonesian favourite Jonatan Christie in his quarter final: a great match in prospect for neutrals but too tough to call for this preview. Christie can sometimes be infuriatingly inconsistent but this could be a fabulous opportunity for him to set up a semi-final against his compatriot Ginting. HK Vittinghus will also be part of the competition following the withdrawal of Laksyha Sen who has injured his back. Vittinghus scored some great victories in his home tournament back in October and his confidence must have been boosted by this. Sometimes I feel he overthinks, sometimes he runs out of gas but always a hard player to beat.
TAI Tzu Ying is top seed but as Women’s Singles overflows with talent – even without the Chinese and Japanese competitors – she will definitely not have a smooth ride to the final. Her recent Instagram posts seem to reveal a player with mixed feelings about travel away from Taiwan. Of course, social media is hardly the portal to authentic insight so I think we just need to wait for things to unfold in Thailand before making any judgement. I’m intrigued how she will approach the challenges thrown at her in the Impact Arena. The world #1 last competed internationally when she won the YAE and that campaign illustrated a new capacity for patience. We know she has continued to train diligently all through the pandemic so the onus is on her rivals to upset her rhythm and conquer her.
The top half of the draw means that it’s expected TTY will clash with Michelle LI in her quarter final. If LI is 100% fit that could be a very hard match. The winner of which plausibly faces Sindhu in a semi-final.
I wonder how winter training in England has suited P V Sindhu? She has looked so happy and I would speculate that a reasonably quiet life consisting of practice and a small social circle has given her an opportunity to reset. The current World Champion is known as a ‘big match’ player and has all the tools to go a long way in this tournament. Can she win this title? Emphatically ‘yes’ so long as the self-assured, rampaging intense player we saw in the World Championship final is the one who turns up. Her technique and aggression will take her to the podium so long as she keeps her focus.
Can Saina Nehwal face down Sindhu if it becomesan all-India quarter final? Saina is such an intelligent player: mental resilience and the will to win come as standard but I think her stamina may be suspect if it goes to 3 sets. Before that she will have to overcome the Thai player Busanan Ongbamrungphan. She is unseeded but skillful and has what it takes to progress further.
Thai women’s badminton has plenty of brilliant players and at the forefront of course is wonderful Ratchanok Intanon. Seeded 4 she has got a brutal draw to negotiate beginning with YEO Jia Min in R1, Yvonne LI in R2 then moving onto a big QF clash with AN Se Young. The Korean is a frightening talent so I’m curious to see how she has matured over the past months. If she has increased her stamina as we’d expect, then Ratchanok has a fight to get to a SF that in all likelihood will be versus Marin. Carolina Marin has endured a tough year. The Prime documentary about her revealed what a truly extraordinary player and person she is. In my view, her participation at the SaarLorLux – not a tournament that we would necessarily expect someone of her high ranking to attend – illustrates her commitment to the sport she loves and the fact that she needs to play both for emotional and physical reasons. I’ve heard that she has had a slight hamstring worry but I don’t think it’s any cause for concern. There was something missing from her game in October though. Her usual dominance and competitive momentum were off the boil and it reminded me of the sequence in the Vietnam Open that’s shown in the Prime documentary. Her strategy and trust in the process set out by Rivas were slightly off. The clip where she sits on the floor, utterly devastated that the game hasn’t gone her way, is very illuminating.
It’s a new beginning and the year is going to be choc-a-bloc with quality tournaments alongside the Tokyo Olympics. Some old friends are haven’t made it this month and we’re going to miss them. I would have loved to see the new look HE Bing Jiao, Nozomi has been on a great streak of form and Akane lights up any match. We’ll have to be patient for Momota’s return to court and postpone our desire for MomoGi. Even despite this I know for sure we’ll enjoy the games ahead – finally, finally Badminton is BACK!