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The Olympics: Women’s Singles Preview

Adventures In Anxiety

Inevitably this competition will be an emotional roller coaster. Nothing is decided except that there will be a new Olympic champion.

Pic from Fifg/Shutterstock.com

There will be 43 competitors on day 1; in this sector there are 14 seeds and so the preliminary stages will break down into 13 groups of 3 and one group of 4.  The group of four includes the #2 seed (TTY) who then gets a bye in the R16; although CHEN Yufei is in a group of three, as #1 seed she also has a bye at that stage.

Nozomi Okuhara (3)

The winner of a Bronze medal in Rio will be one of the standout players in Tokyo.  She knows what it takes to get on the podium and has every chance of upgrading to Gold in her home Olympics.  Her progress as a competitor since those 6 defeats in finals in 2019 has been outstanding and her victory over Marin at the 2020 Denmark Open was important with a strong redemptive quality. The only other tournament she has played in this year – Yonex All England 2021 – also ended with a win so it would seem that Nozomi has spent lockdown learning how to turn silver into Gold.

TAI Tzu Ying (2)

The exhilaration of watching TTY in full flow belongs on the world stage of the Olympics yet she has never shone in this tournament. The opportunity to win a medal here is something her many fans (myself included) crave for her. Chances like this are fleeting and she has been frank about her intention to retire ‘soon’. I would love to see this sublime player become part of Olympic badminton legend. Prediction: Gold.

CHEN Yu Fei (1)

The top seed has not competed internationally since YAE20 so I’m intrigued to discover whether she has altered much about her game.  She is resilient and is adept at staying in a match.  Her composure and stubborn persistence against players who have more flair means she often waits for them to run out of ideas and then attacks.  Her strength may also be a weakness: I have wondered in the past how risk-averse she is because sometimes she just seems too patient.  This was part of the reason for her defeat against TTY in the final in Birmingham in 2020.  If she makes the final – her route may involve beating AN Se Young and Nozomi – it could prove to be the difference between silver and Gold.

Pursala V Sindhu (6)

At her best Sindhu is uncontainable and although she seems to suffer inconsistent form there’s no doubt she can raise her game at the top tournaments. Nozomi must still get nightmares about her annihilation by PVS at the 2019 World Championship final. Her part of the draw is tough, but at her best she has the beating of Blichfeldt and Akane. Indian women’s singles has a great tradition of success at the Olympics – including Sindhu’s Silver in Rio – so she has the experience to force her way into the reckoning.

Ratchanok Intanon (5)

May’s sparkling skills on court could mean a medal chance in her third Olympics but her route to the podium is scary. Probably she will meet Gregoria in the R16 and assuming she progresses past the Indonesian it’s likely that her QF will be against TAI Tzu Ying. This is a neutral’s nightmare. These two breathtaking players light up every tournament so I’m sorry that one of them will lose their chance of glory. The head-to-head stats are pretty even (15-14 in TTY’s favour) so it will be a fascinating and excruciating game to spectate.

Akane Yamaguchi (4)

Akane has been under the radar more than her compatriot during lockdown so we’ll have to wait to see what sort of form she’s in. Her counter-punching style could work effectively at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza so although she doesn’t have a particulary convincing record against some of the others in her part of the draw I see her as a firm contender.

AN Se Young (7)

ASY has been regarded as a dark horse chance for the Gold here since she flew up the rankings in 2019. Earlier this year she did OK in Thailand – getting to semi-finals – but she wasn’t able to push on to a final. She is at the stage in her career now where fine tuning and incremental gains are important if she is to dominate consistently. She’s a wonderful all-rounder but sometime I consider that she puts too much emphasis on defence. I’d like to see her take the initiative more. In a recent interview with BWF she highlighted her victory over TTY in the Sudirman Cup as a turning point but I think the frustration of being ‘nearly there’ will be perfect fuel for her ambition. Prediction: Paris 2024 Gold

You can read the full interview from BWF via this link https://olympics.bwfbadminton.com/news-single/2021/07/16/road-to-tokyo-beating-tai-tzu-ying-was-turning-point/

He Bing Jiao

HBJ seems to have been replaced by her super-slim twin sister during lockdown and I’m excited to see what has changed about her approach in the course of the pandemic. It’s unlikely that the lack of international competition will have disadvantaged either of the Chinese competitors because they enjoy such a high standard domestically so it’s feasible that she will have added a new dimension to her play. If the seeding works as expected then her first big test is going to be in a QF against Nozomi – she doesn’t have a good H2H against the Japanese so if she can pull off a win then she may have to face her compatriot for a spot in the final. Prediction QF Exit.

Verdict

Women’s Singles is crowded with fine athletes so it’s tricky to highlight one player who already has a foot on the podium. Olympic Gold is someone’s destiny and it looks to me as though it will boil down to Nozomi V Tzu Ying. The person who can stay fit, focused and adapt quickly to the conditions in the arena will have an advantage, but it’s always a hard tournament to call. TTY knows she must stay patient and cut out mistakes, Nozomi has to be confident in her ability to keep asking the tough questions. I’m impatient for it to start so we can enjoy the path to victory and watch dreams come true.


Take a look at my previews for the other sectors https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/07/15/the-olympics-mens-doubles-preview/ and https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/07/14/the-olympics-mixed-doubles-preview/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Yonex All England 2021: Singles Preview

The whole tournament is dominated by the most eagerly awaited comeback in modern badminton history.  The return of Momota. The spotlight will be on him from the second he steps back on court.

Artwork by Nekokite

Men’s Singles

Kento Momota is like a ravenous lion circling a water hole and preparing to pounce on unsuspecting antelope; here is a lion who hasn’t tasted red meat in a looong time.

It’s impossible to guess his level of fitness after such a lengthy absence but his superior mental strength will have driven him on to train and stay focused.  He has all the weapons to regain his title after missing the AE last year and he can often expose highly seeded opponents as one-dimensional.  He has an aura of a returning king although he must feel some nerves about the standards he can reach at the beginning of his campaign.  Viktor Axelsen has set a high benchmark over the past three months so Momota must be on guard.    Prediction: Final

Viktor Axelsen – the defending champion – had a brilliant January in Thailand so he will be arriving in Birmingham with high hopes of keeping his title.  He has been awesome at grabbing opportunities to win over the past 3 months: a living embodiment of Carpe Diem. However, that loss at the WTF keeps niggling away at me.  His power, fitness and will to win are second to none but he was unsettled by Antonsen’s cunning tactics.  Falling prey to a version of the rope-a-dope trick must have been incredibly frustrating and I wonder what the effect of that will be long-term.  Axelsen has introduced us to his ‘mental coach’ recently, who is an ex special forces soldier so he clearly wishes to explore how his psychology can give him an edge.  In the final of the Swiss Open he was unstoppable as he bulldozed his way to the trophy. It’s worth noting that his opponent – Vitidsarn – did start the encounter well and his tactics reminded me of Momota’s ‘waiting game’ approach, but he made too many errors and ran out of steam.   Momota has plenty of stamina and he knows not to give VA power to feed off, so if they meet in the final Viktor should be pushed harder.  Prediction Runner up

Anders Antonsen – the WTF Champion – is never a person to fade into the background and the past six months have been full on drama.  Starting in October, his epic battle against Gemke in the final of the Denmark Open left both unable to walk unaided from the arena, in November he contracted Covid, January saw patchy performances in the first two tournaments in Bangkok then he roared back to form in the WTF to snatch victory away from Axelsen; this all adds layers of experience to an intelligent player who needs to be on court.  Viktor has better fitness and stamina but Antonsen has better strategies.  Last year’s YAE saw him retire hurt from his semi-Final against CHOU Tien Chen which was a huge disappointment as he had every chance of making the final at that point. He is seeded 3 so it may be that we see an all-Danish semi final with the liklihood of a fired-up Viktor looking for revenge.

Anthony Ginting spearheads the Indonesia challenge in this sector.  When he is consistently at his best, he is unstoppable and we saw flashes of this brilliance in Thailand but he didn’t have enough for a podium finish.  On the whole, after such a long break, his performance gave some cause for optimism, or at least no cause for alarm.  In the SF of the Yonex Thailand Open he came up against a resolute VA in the third set but overall, he lost that tie 53-55 which puts a revealing slant on his defeat.  His levels dropped off in the next two tournaments and this is exasperating as he is such a glorious player. I saw lockdown as a useful opportunity for some players to improve areas of their game and instinctively I would point to his ‘third set’ strategies. There are not really gaps in his technique but something is missing in this area that his coaches need to address. I would love to see him come to Birmingham and gift us fans a MomoGI in the semi final. And then I want a final.

Kunlavut Vitidsarn was the World Junior Champion for three years running (2017/18/19) and is one of badminton’s rising stars.  Axelsen demolished him in the second set of the final of the Swiss Open but his fluency around the court and technical skill is exciting.  As he builds on his experience and puts more hours in at the gym we will see an improvement in stamina and pace.  The fact that he stayed with Viktor in the first set whilst playing patiently should worry Jonatan Christie who plays him in the first round.

Jonatan Christie is seeded 5 and has a brutal draw: possibly meeting Axelsen at the QF stage.  If so then he could struggle to progress as their h2h coupled with the Danes form doesn’t indicate any easy points.  It would be wonderful to see him get to the weekend but it would be a bit of a jaw-dropper if he can subdue the Dane. Last year LEE Zii Jia who is seeded 6, had a thrilling run to the SF before losing in a closely fought match with VA.  He is very mobile, with good technical skills, a great player for a neutral to support.  He looked a bit lethargic at the Swiss Open so perhaps he is an athlete who needs to compete consistently to maintain his focus and pace. A possible Quarter Final with Momota is on the horizon and to have any dream of progress he must improve on his recent form.

Women’s Singles

Owing to Marin’s late withdrawal from the tournament the top half of the draw is suddenly looking less intimidating for the other players. Akane, Pornpawee, and Pursala would have had to beat her to get to the final; now there is one less obstacle on the road.

Akane Yamaguchi is seeded 3 but still, this will be the first time we have seen her in an international tournament for a year and I honestly don’t know what we can expect.  She was the beaten finalist (in three sets) against Nozomi at the All-Japan National Championships in December. Before the pandemic her brief period at World #1 was followed by some inconsistency. At her best, she is a contender for the title, so the puzzle is about the level she is at when she hits the courts on the 17th March. She is known as a retriever but there have been occasions when she has used a fiercer style; combining more aggression with her great court coverage will give her more options when she is under pressure. The prospect of a QF against Pornpawee is intriguing. Mew nearly beat Marin in the Semi Final of the Swiss Open; she seemed down and out but hauled herself back into contention. Peppery unpredictability with unlimited stamina could be a good strategy.

Nozomi Okuhara‘s victory in the final of the Denmark Open over Marin came after a dazzling two sets; she would not let the Spaniard get a foothold in the game. The strategy of frustrating and denying her the chance to build a competitive rhythm disrupted her momentum and was a key element in Nozomi’s success.  In the context of 2019 where she consistently reached finals only to lose this was a big breakthrough. The court coverage, stamina and sheer stubbornness of Nozomi are hard to break. She last won in 2016 but with the Tokyo Olympics in mind she will be aiming to become a hard player to beat at the end of a tournament so this is the perfect place to set a marker. The hall conditions should suit her but she must get the right balance between attack and defence.

Ratchanok Intanon – the #4 seed – is coming to the All England for another shot at winning the title. She was close in 2017 but was relegated to Silver by TAI Tzu Ying. We often criticise TTY for lack of patience but I think that May suffers with this too – her sublime technical skills sometimes mean that she doesn’t play the percentages.  May could potentially be looking at a semi-final against Nozomi which would be a dream for fans. Rather like Anthony in the MS I wish she was more solid in the third set. It’s harder than it looks to behave with restraint in that section of a match but it is within her capabilities; we have all watched epic games where she fights with incredible grit and courage. In her 2020 win at the Indonesia Masters she overcame Marin in three sets so she can be inspired by this.

Pornpawee CHOCHUWONG’s progress since her victory over Carolina Marin at the Spain Masters in 2020 has been dislocated because of the effect of Covid cancellations on the badminton tour.  Nevertheless, she had victories over TAI Tzu Ying and Ratchanok in Bangkok which shows that she has the ability to compete with the best.  Her recent SF match against Carolina Marin at the Swiss Open was a defeat but she pushed all the way with a gritty and skilful display. Seeded 6 she has every reason to be optimistic if she can cut some of her errors. It would be an upset if she won the title but she has a chance – especially in the absence of Marin – and the mental stamina to push all the way to the end of a third set. Her obstinate outlook is a big advantage and it could be the foundation of tremendous achievements.

I would love to see Pursala V Sindhu rampage through the early rounds of this competition in the sort of form that won her the title at the World Championships in 2019.  She’s a great athlete, but it just seems that sometimes she cannot dig herself out of a hole when the game tilts away from her.  The final at the Swiss Open showed her difficulties; she struggled on her lunges to the front court to reach wide shots and wasn’t using any creativity to stop Marins anticipatory game. On the positive side she did get to the final and in the first set she seemed to have a bit more speed around the court. I hope that her coaching environment becomes more settled so that she can continue to develop her range.

So we have a men’s competition where we have to measure athletes against Viktor’s tough standards but Momota has returned to complicate things and a women’s competition that is missing TTY and Carolina but still features players with a realistic chance of the Gold medal later on in the year in Tokyo. All England success this year will go to the competitor who can come to the court with intensity and desire after twelve months of disruption and boredom. Can Viktor prove that he is the new King of the courts?


If you enjoyed this then take a look at my preview for the doubles sector https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2021/03/08/yonex-all-england-2021-doubles-preview/ or read my review of last year’s competition https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/21/yonex-all-england-2020-review/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Japan’s Olympic Hopes

Writing from the depths of lockdown life – where many of us find it difficult to jettison our pyjamas much before midday – it’s incongruous to imagine the elite athletes who are sticking with their pre-covid routines and dreams.  But these are the times when we truly see players mettle.  Commitment to reaching the Olympic podium won’t be switched on or off according to whim: it’s a vow made in childhood and it has to be honoured.

Who can maintain an edge?

The genius at the centre of the Japanese badminton world is coach PARK Joo Bong. As a player he described himself as ‘greedy for Gold’. His XD Gold at the Seoul Olympics – when badminton was a demonstration event – plus his MD Gold in 1992 at the Barcelona Olympics confirm his place amongst the game’s greats. After retirement and some coaching roles in England, Malaysia and back home in Korea he became head coach of the Japanese team in 2004. In 2012 there was a WD silver for Japan in London then Rio 2016 saw TakaMatsu win WD Gold and Nozomi Okuhara clinch Bronze in WS. His masterplan is designed to reach a crescendo at the Tokyo Olympics.

Badminton stumbled back to life his October.  Whilst other sports have reactivated, we have been beset by delays and cancellations.  However, the Danish Open – a prestigious Super750 event – offered the chance to gauge which players had maintained their edge.  Disappointingly it suffered withdrawals, nevertheless ‘everyone’ from Japan appeared to be ready to travel.  Flights and hotels were booked but just before the start of the tournament Denmark experienced a spike in Covid cases and club owners asked their players to remain in Japan.  Although this was frustrating for fans waiting to see the re-emergence of Momota the women’s sector still sent most of the top athletes.

Women’s Doubles The final at the Denmark Open between NagaMatsu & FukuHiro – was seen by many as a possible rehearsal for the Olympic final. The starring role of deciding who may get Gold in Tokyo was taken by Yuki Fukushima.  She was a handful all through the match.  Her consistency, precision and variations were top quality and so she defused the more attack-minded rivals.  The 2020 All England champions Fukushima and Hirota are a team with plenty of experience. Their defence is rock solid and they are all-rounders with no real weakness except that sometimes they become a little predictable.  The 2018 and 2019 BWF World Champions – Mayu Matsumoto and Wakana Nagahara – are a very sparky duo; happy to take chances and be creative when they are hunting points.  Matsumoto is a tall hard-hitter who is spatially aware and great at the net.   I used to think they have the best chance of Gold but after the DO I’m not sure.   It wouldn’t be a shock if the final was an all Japanese duel.

Women’s Singles – Nozomi was in dazzling form at the Denmark Open. Her victory over Carolina Marin in the final meant we didn’t have to suffer with her on the podium as she added to her silver medal collection from 2019.  Clearly she has continued to train hard and her play was at a consistently high level.  Already an Olympic medallist she has unswervingly said that her target is Gold in front of her home crowd. Akane Yamaguchi did not travel to Europe but is another who has big expectations on her shoulders.  Briefly world number 1 last year, the end of 2019 was disrupted by injuries.  It’s likely that despite the disadvantages of this hiatus in play she may benefit from the break to address those niggles.  The conditions at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza are likely to suit both players so with a good draw they will be challenging for top honours.

Men’s Doubles – in world badminton this sector produces the most insanely exciting games and two of the best pairs are from Japan.  The real speed kings reside here, with the emphasis on swift reflexes, shrewd tactics and power.   The current All England champions – Yuta Watanabe and Hiroyuki Endo – have all these characteristics along with resilience, determination and courage.  There is quite a big age gap between them (Yuta is only 22 and Hiroyuki 33) and so we would have to wonder if the partnership will continue after the Olympiad, but never mind, for now they burn bright.  Yuta’s brilliant net play balanced by Hiroyuki’s strength and power from the rear court is hard for rivals to counter. They have a remarkable record against the world Number 1s – Indonesia’s Sukamuljo & Gideon, and a final between these four exceptional athletes, a repeat of the final in Birmingham is one that would delight everyone.  The second duo from Japan consists of Takeshi Kamura and Keigo Sonoda: they live the phrase ‘the fast and the furious’.  Sonoda is always bouncing on his toes, his internal dynamo just never seems to rest.  These two can dazzle with their speed and athleticism and it’s likely they will be fighting compatriots for a medal at the knockout stages in Tokyo

Men’s Singles – Momota is world number 1 and favourite for the Gold.  His net skills, anticipation and reflexes mean that his games have a quality that makes victory seem inexorable.  His psychological power over his rivals – the aura that surrounds him on court – gives him an extra weapon to use.  His mental strength and emotional self-reliance are key characteristics that will help him survive yet another delay to his date with destiny.  Who has the ability to challenge him?  The Danish Open showcased the progress of Anders Antonsen who will try to upset him.  Viktor Axelsen along with Taiwan’s CHOU Tien Chen are credible challengers too, but, all fans crave a MomoGi final in every competition, and Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting definitely has the potential to earn a medal in Tokyo. The importance of stamina and focus can’t be overstated in the context of beating Momota.  I’m confused as to who the other Japanese competitor may be.  Kenta Nishimoto made the SF in Denmark or Kanta Tsuneyama – who did not travel – could be the second player.   

Mixed Doubles – the leading Japanese pair, Yuta Watanabe & Arisa Higashino, are the All England champions of 2018 and runners up from 2019.  Arisa is renowned as an aggressive hard-hitter if she is in the rear court, so when she and Yuta find their traditional positions reversed in a match, they do not suffer too much disadvantage.  Her partner has fine technical skills and is always searching for space to score points.  They are a formidable pair but there is a risk that Yuta may be spread too thinly.

There’s no doubt that once the XXXII Olympiad starts the Japanese competitors will be challenging for a podium spot in every sector.  The standout athlete for me is Yuta Watanabe; he is an extraordinary player who competes in Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles.  The big question is whether he can win two events; can he withstand the physical and emotional strain that getting to the knockout stages in both would bring?  A home Olympic medal guarantees immortality and to wait an extra year before walking out onto the court at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza must be particularly frustrating for the Japanese team.  All of us – players and fans – are eager for the sport we love to restart properly.


If you enjoyed this take a look at BWF’s article about PARK Joo Bong here http://bwfmuseum.isida.pro/library/profiles/news-317-17/ and my review of the recent Denmark Open is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/10/19/danisa-denmark-open-review/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Nozomi v Carolina at the Danisa Denmark Open Finals

Wow – we were treated to a dazzling match for the WS title at the Denmark Open this evening.   

“I’m happy! Long time no see for a title! Compared to other opponents, Marin is faster and has a harder attack. I was focussed on defence and footwork, and my feet moved very well today. Overall the match went well for me.” – Nozomi Okuhara via BWF media service

This was set up to be a thriller right from the start: Carolina V Nozomi is Attack v Defence and Noise v Calm.  A nail-biting encounter was in prospect, a match to showcase all that is wonderful about this generation of Women players.  Both have been World #1, and both were Olympic medallists in Rio.  Outstanding quality that has been waiting months to get on a court.

In many ways this tournament has been an opportunity for both players to push the reset button.  Carolina successfully returned from her cruciate ligament injury but has suffered some personal tragedy over the past months.  Nozomi had a bittersweet 2019 where she gave consistently high-quality performances but was not able to close out championship matches; she ended up with too many silver medals.

Okuhara’s path to the final – consistent straight set wins in every round – suggested she was on a mission.  Marin’s progress was no less impressive: Bei Wen ZHANG took a set off her in their Quarter Final but the Spaniard has such high fitness that it would not have dented her energy levels.   

Set 1 Carolina Wins The Toss

Right from the start it was clear that these two competitors emphatically did not spend lockdown watching tv from their sofa.  Fabulous, high tempo badminton with both players giving everything for every point.  Okuhara was in great form.  The Japanese player was using her big defensive clears to put Marin under huge pressure.  Of course, her game was far more nuanced than this.  Her court coverage was superhuman, her snappy reflexes and great technique meant that although she wasn’t hitting outright winners her strategy was getting points on the board.  Marin was hitting good shots but was being frustrated over and over again.  Although she won the toss, and chose the ‘best’ end Carolina lost the first set 21-19.

Set 2 Silver or Gold?

Both players continued to push each other to play sparkling badminton.  The tension was growing.  Carolina had to get back into the game and she knew the pattern in 2019 from Nozomi was silver, silver, silver.  What could be done?  At 4-3 there was an exchange between the two of them which highlighted Okuhara’s hunger and desire.  An exchange over the net, superb anticipation and a venomous reply taking the score to 5-3.  The BWF commentary team pointed out that Marin was not her usual self between points, she was not hustling the pace along as normal.  Did she have a worry about her stamina after so many months away from the tour? Nozomi continued to screw down the pressure and Marin was becoming more exasperated.  Whatever she threw at her rival was coming back at her.  Her only options seemed to be to try and go for the margins but this high risk strategy gave rise to more lost points.  The title was moving out of her grasp until we came to 20-15 to Okuhara.  Match points.  Danger zone for both players.  16-20 one point saved with a savage smash; 17-20 another point saved after a long rally. Then Nozomi launched an attacked on Carolina’s backhand, moving her forward and back until it culminated in a title winning smash. Game!

A magnificent encounter that highlighted everything to love about women’s singles.  Two brilliant players who went all-out for the title.  Congratulations to Nozomi and commiserations to Carolina. What a time to follow women’s badminton!


If you enjoyed this take a look at my recent article about Nozomi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/05/15/nozomi-okuhara/

Thank you to all the players, officials and volunteers whose hard work has enabled this tournament to proceed.

©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Nozomi Okuhara

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.

Pic by Hafiz Johari/Shutterstock

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.


If you enjoyed this article take a look at an earlier one about Nozomi https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ or this one about Fukuhiro https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/06/japans-fukuhiro-can-they-win-tokyo-gold/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Yonex All England 2020 pt1

Women’s Singles

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

Carolina Marin – Seeded 8 – Champion 2015 & Rio Olympics 2016 Gold Medal.

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.

Conclusions

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.


Follow this link for part 2 of my preview covering doubles https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/06/yonex-all-england-2020-pt-2/

If you enjoyed this preview take a look at my blog about TAI Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/16/tai-tzu-ying-the-queen/

©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Badminton World Championships Basel 2019: WS Preview

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

Shutterstock

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.

Chen Yufei

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

(Xinhua/Zheng Huansong)

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.

Saina Nehwal

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

Ratchanok Intanon

“… 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

Any Surprises?

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.

© 2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Nozomi Okuhara: Racket Ready For Tokyo Glory?

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”?

Nozomi comes over as a very thoughtful, intelligent and focused person in this interview. Video courtesy BWF

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.

Okuhara from above by Shutterstock.com

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.”


Here’s my article about one of her biggest rivals P V Sindhu https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/08/25/p-v-sindhu-world-champion/

If you enjoyed this article follow the link to read about Tai Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/ and if you want to find out more about Carolina Marin click this link https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/11/marin-is-sorely-missed/

©2019 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved