Last year’s results were, on the face of it, bittersweet. Six finals and the runner-up spot each time. However, I think that when we analyse them from distance we can see and understand that she is an athlete who always demands the best performance possible from herself. To be a constant presence on the podium is the foundation of success and the margins between first and second spot are slim. Women’s Singles is enjoying the best of times, the dazzling talent in the Top 10 means that there are no effortless matches.
Whatever tournament Nozomi Okuhara enters the honours are always within her grasp so she began 2020 with a big chance of an Olympic medal. We have had to postpone the dream of seeing a favourite player on top of the podium in Tokyo; none of us is untouched by C-19 but for an athlete who has devoted a huge proportion of her life to earning the chance to perform at the Olympic tournament it must be incredibly frustrating. She already holds a Bronze medal from Rio and she would love to upgrade it in front of her home crowd.
“The Olympic Games remains the most important target for me, especially as it will be held in Japan this time. It will be difficult but I want to win gold medal for the fans.”
Nozomi is known for her defensive style characterised by long rallies however there is so much more to her game than that. If you rewatch her victory at the All England in 2016 it brilliantly illustrates the depth of her talent. In this match it was very difficult for WANG Shixian to exert any sustained pressure upon her partly because she is so nimble and fast across the court. Her lovely racket skills, snappy reflexes and precision shots are delightful to watch and nearly impossible to oppose.
Over the years it seems as though her emphasis has changed so that the defensive approach is her predominant tactic. The pressure she exerts on a rival – because she is willing to extend a rally – means that she can feed off unforced errors. She has good stamina and this allows her to play with this strategy. The problem with this plan is that her opponents may refuse to be drawn into it. For instance when she and PV Sindhu met in the final of the 2019 World Championships she was annihilated by the Indian’s brisk aggression. Sindhu was smashing, following up, and giving full rein to an onslaught that was unmanageable.
The Quarter Final against Sindhu at this years All England was revealing. The first set was quite brutal and she lost it 12-21; in spite of that, this was not another demolition. She hauled herself back into the game and won the next two sets to progress to the Semi. I had already seen her play in Round 1 against Michelle Li and I was shocked by the power and speed she was using then. There was a point when she turned and smashed straight down the line with such venom that her intent was unmistakable.
I think the best version of Nozomi would be one who has lost patience and sharpened her sword. I love it when she dictates the match and keeps to a pace that suits her. The tempo she can play at plus her tenacious approach make her one of the best athletes on the tour. Being able to play with more bite will enhance her attack within the rally. When competitive badminton restarts it will be fascinating to see if she rebalances elements of her game. She will be one of the favourites to triumph at the Olympics, she has all the talent to succeed in her wish to earn Gold for her country.
Welcome to the greatest badminton tournament in the world. This is the one that all elite players want to win and the one that fans from around the world long to attend. A dislocated build-up to this tournament will undoubtedly have tested players focus. All of us have fretted about the coronavirus and the postponement of the German Open will have disrupted the training plans of some.
Winning this tournament is never a fluke; years have been spent training for these games. All those drills, the weights, the sweat have all been leading to the moment when the competitors walk onto the court in Birmingham and begin.
We are in the Golden Age of women’s badminton. This is the zesty sector, full of talent and excitement, the top 20 players is a corps of excellence drawn from around the world. CHEN Yufei is the current holder of the title and there are 3 other ex-champions TAI Tzu Ying, Carolina Marin and Nozomi Okuhara taking part as well.
Badminton immortality beckons – who will answer the call?
TAI Tzu Ying – Seeded 2 – Champion in 2017 & 2018
At the core of TTY is the desire to sparkle not to merely play. No-one has the technical mastery she brings to the court; the breathtaking shots she executes are simply magnificent. Her vision and creative energy elevates her game to a level of brilliance that we expect of a genuine great of the game. Her achilles heel is her lack of consistency: sometimetime her focus can wander, I think she can sometimes be bored into losing a game. Her participation in the PBL in January was a clever way to undertake a segment of training; it allowed her to hit with new partners, get match practice and enjoy herself. It’s been pointed out that perhaps playing games only up to 15 points may help her concentration – well, we’ll see! Rumours that she plans to retire after the Tokyo Olympics are adding an extra sense of desire from fans who just want to see the QUEEN win everything. Prediction Final
Nozomi Okuhara – Seeded 4 – Champion in 2016
Nozomi’s 2019 synchronised hope and despair – her fans watched so many finals that ended with Silver. She knows what it takes to win in Birmingham and possibly the hall conditions will help but she has to be the boss a bit more frequently. I want to see her snap up points. Patience is such a cornerstone of her tactics but to be effective it must be used alongside impatience, unpredictability and aggression. Sometimes we see flashes of a more attacking player and if she could get this part of her strategy right it would make the difference between winning and coming second. There are no easy games at Super 1000 level but she has the ability to get right to the final.
CHEN Yufei – Seeded 1 – Champion 2019
The defending champion has enjoyed an excellent win streak since her victory last March. After the All England she appeared in six finals and was unbeaten. Despite her status as top seed she has a very difficult route to finals weekend. In R1 she faces Korean Wonderkid AN Se Young, R2 will be Busanan or Blichfeldt and QF could be Ratchanok. She is an even more resilient player than last year; she has high fitness levels, great patience and solid technique. It’s her patience in games that proves to be such a key weapon. Opponents have to be very sure of their own stamina to equal her, she will often soak up pressure throughout the match before ambushing her rival in the last few points. Prediction Quarter Final.
Ratchanok Intanon – Seeded 5 – Runner Up 2017
Ratchanok often employs a ‘do or die’ approach and I adore her for that. A wonderful win at Istora in the Indonesia Masters final against Marin over 3 sets settled my nerves about her resilience so I think she has an outside chance here. A possible QF against CHEN Yufei awaits; she must not let CYF bore her into losing the match! Prediction Semi Final, Go May!
Saina Nehwal – Unseeded – Runner Up 2015
Desperately seeking points to secure her fourth (yes, fourth) Olympic spot Saina has a dangerous R1 clash with Akane to begin. To have any chance of progressing she must start well; to her credit since her QF exit at the Spanish Masters she has been training in Denmark. She identified her movement on court as one of the reasons for underperformance last year and it’s true she has often lacked fluency. If she has addressed this weakness then her shrewd gameplay will have a solid foundation. She is a tenacious fighter and even if Akane dispatches her I still don’t think her Olympic hopes are finished. Prediction: it’s not over
AN Se Young – Unseeded
The dynamic, dangerous prospect from Korea could pose some serious questions to CHEN Yufei in R1. This tie could go either way; CYF should have enough resilience and experience to get over the line but I’m not certain of this result. In the past ASY seems to falter as the cumulative efect of hard games pile up. I think this is only because she is young, soon it will not be a problem. She could beat CYF but I don’t think she’ll win the title.
P V Sindhu – Seeded 6 – Rio Olympics 2016 Silver Medal
Sindhu’s underwhelming performances since her magnificent triumph at the World Championships in Basle have often been explained by the phrase ‘big tournament player’. Her motivation – if that is the problem – should not be an issue here. Like TTY she also particiated in the PBL so it will be interesting to see if the different vibes around playing for the franchise team had a positive effect. At her best she will annihilate her opponent with a savage exhibition of pressure badminton, at her worst she can crash out in R1. Beiwen Zhang is her first challenger and that is a match that could go either way.
Akane Yamaguchi – Seeded 3 – Runner Up 2018
I hope that Akane’s triumph at the Thailand Masters means that the fitness issues that have been dragging her down since last August are conquered. That final was against AN Se Young who just seemed to run out of ideas. More importantly though, Akane did not run out of legs. BirdJapan has such a colossal few months coming up it’s vital that she regains the form she had back in July 2019. I think her performance in this competition will be the first indication of what we can expect at the Uber Cup and then at the Olympics. Prediction: Semi
After a ghastly 2019 dominated by her ACL rupture and rehab Caro has returned to competition and is back on court. Noisiness is part of the strategy, she likes to dominate the space physically and aurally, it contributes to unsettling her opponents. She has not won a title this year yet and I was shocked that she lost the Spain Masters to Pornpawee Chochuwong. This was a well-worked victory, Marin’s ability to deal with a gruelling three set match was questioned and Chochuwong exploited cross-court opportunities really effectively. Prediction QF.
Women’s Singles is choc-a-bloc with talent; the quality of the unseeded players competing here means that upsets and shocks are inevitable. The Yonex All England is a critical showcase for athletes in Olympic year and success here could mean participation in Tokyo is guaranteed. I’m not neutral, I hope the Women’s Singles title is won by the player who is adored around the world and whose style sums up the joy that is fundamental to her game. If this is TAI Tzu Ying’s last championship then I would love to see her on the podium. There have been distractions and anxieties but now is the time to focus on sport.
The Badminton World Championships start on August 19th so I’m taking a look at some of the main contenders for Women’s Singles gold.
This discipline is full of talent – and unlike the men’s singles it’s not dominated by one person – so it will be an intriguing contest right from the beginning. All tournaments offer a rising intensity as players progress through the rounds: physical endurance can be sapped as well as the emotional drain of competition. The parity of ability amongst the top seeds means that being able to deal with tournament pressure will have a huge part to play. Who will relish the fight?
“…every player has a chance of being crowned champion.” Ratchanok
Nozomi Okuhara: Contender
Nozomi’s been in the waiting room this year – she hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success as Akane and yet she is a fabulous player. Her tactics often mean she gets stuck in a war of attrition so I’d like to see a bit less patience and more drive to finish off a rally. I think her edge is blunted by predictability so it would be great to see her surprise her opponent (& us!) a bit more often. Prediction: Final.
Tai Tzu Ying: The Queen
Tai Tzu Ying has never won the World Championships and goes into this competition as #2 seed. Because of her hints about retirement and her lack of big tournament form recently, fans have focused on this title with the sense that time is running out. I cannot pretend to be neutral about Tai Tzu Ying – the way she plays is brilliant and gives me so much pleasure – so I wish I felt more confident about this tournament. Her possible path to the final is tough and includes Sindhu who would relish a big battle. Prediction Semi Final.
Akane: World #1
Akane’s triumph at the Indonesian Open quickly followed by success in the Japan Open – her home tournament – means that she enters the World Championships as #1. Since disappointment in the Sudirman Cup her game has become more aggressive with a willingness to push her rivals around. She can’t just win everything from now on though, can she? Prediction Semi Final.
Feifei is a very clever player with the might of the Chinese coaches behind her. I think she is good at rebalancing her game to beat whoever she faces. Often she traps ‘flair’ players into thinking they will conquer her by playing their natural game. She waits it out and then finishes them off; her natural strength means she can get through three draining games. It’s been said that her weakness is her inability to cope with her nerves but this seems to be eratic. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: fighter
Sindhu is renowned as a big match player and this skill is a huge advantage in the top tournaments. By her own standards 2019 has been quite quiet but July saw her spring into life. It was great to see a refreshed player getting her game back. I love her style when she unleashes her inner badminton beast and dominates the court with her aggressive smashes and drives. I think that’s going to be the secret of success for her; when she’s confident and plays like that she can become unstoppable. She is seeded 5 and her path to success looks very tough: Zhang Beiwen in R16 and possibly TTY in the quarters. Prediction: QF owing to hard draw.
2019 has seen Saina endure various injuries and this has obviously disrupted her training programme. Her half of the draw is no picnic & includes players like Chen Yufei and P V Sindhu. She always has the desire to win and heaps of experience but realistically I can’t see her progressing beyond QF. That’s not necessarily a bad performance in the context of her year so far. I see this competition as her opportunity to continue to work on her match fitness and focus on her aim to get to Tokyo 2020. Prediction QF
“… women’s singles is so competitive that on any given day whoever can control herself and play her style of game will be the champion.” Ratchanok
May lost out in the Thailand Open Final to Chen Yufei but she played very well in that match. CYF won because she played with patience and endurance – often in rallies she was content to simply keep sending the shuttle back. Towards the end May did slightly alter her approach but by that point it was too late. It’s been noticeable that since then she has been posting plenty of evidence on IG of her hard work in the gym so perhaps this means she’s preparing her body for longer games with less reliance upon a dazzling winner and more focus on turning the screw. Prediction Semi Final
Funny things can happen in knock-out tournaments; sometimes athletes really fly through their games and suddenly find themselves in a quarter final. The Indonesian players -Fitriani & Tunjung – are both talented but frustratingly inconsistent. Their homeland can have high hopes of medals from others but it would be a welcome shock if honours came from WS.
Michelle Li from Canada can push anyone on her day and often gets good results but realistically I don’t think she would trouble Chen Yufei (assuming she gets past Saina).
Chochuwong had a great run in the Thailand Open but again her draw is tricky. Lastly He Be Jiao is seeded 6 so has to be taken seriously as a possible semi-finalist.
So, in conclusion…
That gold medal, that title, the culmination of years of work, is realistically within the reach of about eight of the players. It’s going to take an immense effort – physically and emotionally – to clinch the prize. I also think it requires someone to play with inspiration and joy; there is more to winning this than mere sweat and toil.
Nozomi Okuhara is part of an exceptional generation of Japanese shuttlers who have been challenging the Chinese domination of the game. She is one of the best Women’s Singles players in the world and a genuine hope for a medal at the Olympics in Tokyo 2020.
“…everyone loves badminton…”
Who is this extraordinary woman who bows respectfully as she enters and leaves the court and who tweets humbly after a game that next time she will “try harder”?
The badminton competition at the Tokyo Olympics is already being hotly anticipated all over Asia. Japan’s problem – or strength – is that they just have so many remarkable women players. Okuhara is part of an ambitious national team; there are lots of tournaments between now and the Olympic finals but the big prize, without doubt, will be the gold medal.
She is a defensive player known for her speed, agility and endurance, so this means her games are characterised by long rallies. One of her main rivals – Tai Tzu Ying – said of her
“Okuhara is a good opponent, she’s very durable”
She loves to draw her opponents into these extended exchanges and ironically, although she is tough enough to see them through to the end I think that against top opponents it can often be a weakness. During games against Tai Tzu Ying she can be unsettled by TTY’s spontaneity. At times Tai just refuses to get into the groove of a long probing rally – she just finishes the points off and moves on – eventually winning the game. So, paradoxically her cautious approach is very dangerous; if her accuracy ever fails she hands over control to her adversary. There are times when it’s frustrating to watch because with the opposition court at her mercy she often eschews a swift kill and opts to send back another clear.
Is she waiting for the perfect chance to punish her opponent? Morten Frost said of her that ” she needs to find ways to score points”. To her credit I believe that she has started taking courageous steps to add some brutality to her game. She has recently left her team – Nihon Unisys – and is now working with a personal coach, Shoji Sato. She has realised that her vision of being on that Tokyo podium needs a new approach if it’s going to come to pass. She has commented before that she needs to stay fit to succeed so this has to mean she will dismantle part of her game. Her defensive style must be harsh on her injury prone knees.
There are so many other outstanding women’s singles players who want that medal, any of the people in the top 10 could grab gold. Tai Tzu Ying and Akane Yamaguchi must be favourites but what about Carolina Marin? Could she engineer a sensational comeback from injury to defend her Rio 2016 title? Well, it’s all speculation at this point. In interviews Okuhara inevitably talks of the joy and happiness that badminton brings her. She was Japan’s first women’s singles world champion but she recently said:
“The Olympic Games remains the most important target for me, especially as it will be held in Japan this time. It will be difficult but I want to win gold medal for the fans.”