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Players of the Year 2021

It has been an extraordinary 12 months: alternating between feast and famine as the players enter bubbles for intense periods of competition and then exit to recover. These are my biased, sentimental, affectionate awards for 2021.

Screenshots courtesy BWF and Popor Instagram

Player of the Year: TAI Tzu Ying

In 2021 we have watched this impulsive free spirit confirm her reputation among the greats of the world game. Outstanding technical skills and creative genius often elevate her shots to works of art. A key target this year has been to step up her performance at the Olympics and World Championships so winning Silver at both is a significant improvement. She has stayed fresh and relatively injury free by focusing on only a few tournaments and she has been ever-present in the finals. The good news is that we can expect to see her on court in 2022 as the threat of retirement seems to have been put on hold for the time being.

Runners Up: CHEN Yufei for her error-free capture of Olympic Gold and Akane Yamaguchi who has been indefatigable and a worthy World Champion.

Best Competitor: Greysia Polii

The breathtaking Gold in Tokyo was a sensational, momentous achievement. Of course, Apriyani Rahayu had a significant role in the victory, but I want to highlight Greysia. Although retirement appeared to be on the horizon she was determined not to fade quietly into the background. A last Olympics, a last chance to get on the podium and boy did she grab it. Congratulations Greysia, always one of my favourite players

XD Player of the Year: HUANG Dongping & Sapsiree Taerattanachai

I cannot choose between these two brilliant players. HUANG Dong Ping’s Gold at the Olympics was magnificent; the final was a glorious tie between four gifted athletes. She is brave, has great reflexes and is adept at using the flat game to aggressive advantage. Popor has also enjoyed a stunning 12 months, winning eight titles, and – other than the Olympics – she and Bass have dominated the XD scene. Their physical resilience and mental strength are second to none. Interestingly both stand-out players compete successfully in WD as well.

Best Pair: Nami Matsuyama & Chiharu Shida

It’s been fascinating to watch their improvement recently; the leap from Super 100/300 up to the top levels has been harmonious and their upwards momentum got great rewards at the Indonesian Festival of Badminton. Maybe the Japanese ‘house style’ is evolving because they are more aggressive and more willing to try and seize the initiative than we expect. Both work hard, support each other and obviously enjoy their matches.

Runners Up: Greysia Polii & Apriyani Rahayu – seeing my two favourites get Gold at the Olympics is one of my best badminton moments ever.

Parabadminton player of the Year: Leani Ratri Oktila

Gold, Gold, Silver at the Tokyo Paralympic games – at Parabadminton’s debut the world #1 was totally dominant.

If He Was A Woman I’d Give Him An Award Too: Viktor Axelsen

A year packed full of achievements – bravo Viktor!

Conclusions

These are just some of the people I have loved to watch in 2021: it’s just my subjective opinion, I can’t pretend that I have spent any time evaluating the stats. The Olympics and the tournament bubbles have made this year unique. Some have thrived but injuries and withdrawals from tournaments have been common; let’s hope for less of a treadmill in 2022. There have been so many highlights (which I’ll cover in my Review of the Year) so I would like to thank all the players and everyone from the badminton community for making this such a memorable twelve months.


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Yuki and Sayaka at the Olympics

“If you smile, I’ll be fine too.”

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

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

Facing elimination together – screenshot from Eurosport.

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

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

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

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

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

Interview in NHK translated by Sebastien.

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

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

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

Trans by Sebastien.

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

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


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

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


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

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Brilliant Polii and Rahayu Win Olympic Gold

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

Screengrab from Eurosport

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

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

Greysia Polii

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

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

Fast Forward To Tokyo 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork by Rachel Florencia

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


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Featured

TAI Tzu-Ying: Player of the Day

The Olympic Semi-Final

TAI Tzu Ying was breathtaking today as she seized a place in the Olympic final. Her flair and courage were irresistable. PV Sindhu fought hard but at crucial moments she could not contain the creative genius of the Queen.

Pic from Shutterstock

The battle for the first set saw the balance of power swing backwards and forwards between the two athletes. Sindhu has rediscovered her 2019 form in Tokyo and she refused to allow TTY to get any scoring momentum although she could not take control herself. Both players were utterly focused on their quest for the final. Sindhu led at the interval and stayed with the scoring up to 18-18 but TAI’s strategy of moving the World Champion from side to side whilst trying to push her back succeeded in minimising the threat of the Indian’s power smash. This was very shrewd and allowed her to take charge in the last three points and secure the opening set 21-18.

The second set and a change of ends saw the screw being turned by TAI Tzu Ying. Although it was pretty even at the interval the scoreline was ticking over nicely in favour of Taiwan. Errors started to creep in from Sindhu and she was finding it increasingly tricky to control the shuttle in her long shots. The pressure was relentless and TAI’s exquisite technical skills were allowing her to drive the direction of the game; in the end the set was closed out 21-12

So, we have the priviledge of being able to watch TAI Tzu Ying in an Olympic final: something I have craved for years. Since she started mentioning retirement the focus for fans has been this gold medal match. Moments like these are fleeting, I hope she enjoys the game, with no injuries and does justice to her magnificent talent.


Here is an article I wrote about TTY after her victory at the All England in 2019 https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/23/tai-tzu-ying-the-triple-champion/


Today also saw a wonderful performance from Anthony Ginting to reach the MS semi-finals and fabulous play by Polii and Rahayuu to get to the WD final. Two archive articles about them are here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/25/anthony-sinisuka-ginting/ and here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

The Olympics: Men’s Singles Preview

Can CHEN Long rediscover his mojo and defend his Rio Gold or are we about to see a new player on top of the podium? Will Denmark break the hold that China has had on this competition since Lin Dan first won it in 2008 or can one of the men from Indonesia seize the medal?

Pic from Shutterstock/Hirohito Takada

The competition begins with 14 groups of three players: ONLY group winners will progress to the round of 16 on July 29th.

Kento Momota

It was clear Momota lacked match fitness at this year’s All England so the group games will help him sharpen up. Domination of the net and forecourt blended with lightening speed is crucial to him. He exerts pressure with his great anticipation and is peerless in his match management.  He is so good at judging the tipping point in an encounter; usually staying within a couple of points of his rivals score, then switching on his turbocharger and accelerating away to victory.  He always has an energy reserve to draw on in the last few points of the final set.  It’s arguable that this characteristic breaks the morale of opponents before they even step on court. He remains hot favourite for Gold.

Viktor Axelsen

Viktor was immense in Thailand in January. He created a winning momentum and dispatched rivals at will.  His blend of focused power and speed was overwhelming and so the two titles he won had an air of inevitability about them.  However he did fall victim to a clever strategy by Antonsen at the WTF so if he wants to upgrade his Bronze from Rio he needs to resist mind games and zero in on the prize. A possible quarter final with Jonatan Christie will be a big test.

Anders Antonsen

Antonsen dreams of Tokyo Gold. His progress over the past couple of years has been impressive – he put down a marker in his victory over Momota at the 2019 Indonesia Masters and has continued to prove his quality in tournaments since.  His victory at the Denmark Open 2020 was magnificent but I think his covid-adjusted performance in January’s Thailand bubble was more revealing.  A first round exit followed by a SF defeat in two sets suggested he was still suffering from the effects of infection.  His victory in the World Tour Finals highlighted his invention and opportunism. 

Sun Tzu said “If your opponent is temperamental, seek to irritate him” and AA certainly succeeded in unbalancing Axelsen with his tactics.  I’m intrigued to see if he can repeat the feat.

Jonatan Christie

Jojo has a really brutal draw to negotiate if he is to medal in Tokyo but he looked bright and hungry for success at the Simulasi Olimpiade in July so I’m optimistic that he’ll be ready for the battles ahead. His route to the final means that he will probably have to overcome Shi Yu Qi, Viktor Axelsen, and Momota. Anyone who can do that in the space of a few days deserves Gold.

SHI Yu Qi

Shi Yu Qi ‘s form is a bit of a mystery and we are only going to get a clear picture once he steps on court. The last couple of years have been disrupted by injury as well as covid but if he is back to his best then he will be a challenger for a podium place. He has a clash with Jonatan Christie in the Round of 16 and if he progresses then Viktor awaits.

Anthony Ginting

Ginting has so many of the qualities we look for in an Olympic champion.  Speed across the court synchronised with breathtaking shots means that he challenges for titles at the highest level.  In January in Thailand he dazzled but only in flashes and I was disappointed he didn’t get to a final.  There have been times when he has failed to break a rivals impetus; he gets set on a particular strategy and if that starts to fail under pressure he struggles to alter his approach and loses his grip on the game.  Commentators have speculated that he would benefit from more stamina but I think it’s more to do with self belief.  Anders Antonsen will probably try and block his path to the semi finals; if Anthony can get past the Dane then he has a great chance to impose himself on the competition. Dream Big Anthony!

LEE Zii Jia

About two years ago I remember seeing LEE Chong Wei tip his fellow countryman as a possible prospect for Gold in Tokyo.  Since then he triumphed over Viktor Axelsen at the All England 2021 so can take a lot of confidence from beating the world’s best.  He has speed, agility, power and a trademark backhand smash, but a tough route to the podium. Feasibly CHEN Long followed by a QF against CHOU Tien Chen.  He doesn’t have a good H2H against Chou so this will be a big challenge to negotiate before he can start dreaming of a medal.

CHEN Long

Lee Chong Wei recently observed that it’s impossible to know the kind of form Chen Long is in because he has only competed domestically during the pandemic. I’m unconvinced that CHEN long can defend his Gold from Rio as his form has been so inconsistent following that win.  Carolina Marin seems to have coped much better with motivating herself after winning sport’s highest honour.  This analysis is probably too simplistic and dismissive though. The resources of the Chinese will have been focused on preparing him for this campaign so we may see a revitalised player on court.

CHOU Tien Chen

Assuming CTC wins his group he will have a bye in the following round and a possible QF against either CHEN Long or LEE Zii Jia.  His record against CL is terrible (0-9) but they haven’t met for a couple of years; against LZJ he has the upper hand (5-2) but the Malaysian is improving all the time. CTC is a consistent presence in semi finals but often just seems to lack the resources at the death to finish things off.  Taiwan has maintained a good focus on the Olympics including simulations and so the second seed will be well prepared for his second Olympiad.

Predictions

The QF could look at bit like this:

Winner
MomotaVNgMomota
AxelsenVChristieToo close to call
Ginting VAntonsenGinting
LZJvCTCCTC

The Semi finals then would probably be Momota against Axelsen/Christie and Antonsen/Ginting clashing with LEE Zii Jia or CHOU Tien Chen. We all know that this tournament has the potential to post some freaky results; the man who adapts quickly to an empty arena and can step away from the shadows of the pandemic will have an advantage. I see Christie and Ginting as dark horses: of course they will have to overcome a substantial Danish challenge first. Always though we circle back to Momota and he must still be the favourite for Gold.


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


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

The Olympics: Men’s Doubles Preview

When the going gets tough, the tough get going!

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

Pic credit Solomon7/Shutterstock

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

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

Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo & Marcus Fernaldi Gideon

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

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

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

Hiroyuki Endo & Yuta Watanabe

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

Hendra Setiawan & Mohammad Ahsan

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

Lee Yang & Wang Chi-Lin

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

Li Jun & Liu Yu Chen

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

Choi Solgyu & Seo Seungjae

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

Keigo Sonoda & Takeshi Kamura

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

Any Dark Horses?

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

Who will win Gold?

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


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


©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Fyi

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

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

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

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


Marin To Miss Olympics

In a breaking news story the Rio 2016 Gold medalist has announced that she will be unable to defend her title in Tokyo.

Picture from Shutterstock/ Hafiz Johari

The devastating news came after she felt some discomfort in her left anterior cruciate ligament during training last week. The medics have confirmed that she will have to undergo surgery to repair both meniscus and the torn ACL. It’s quite hard to speculate what the future holds but there is no doubt that this is a serious injury. She had the drive and self-belief to recover from a similar problem to her right knee so she knows the scale of the work that awaits her.

Marin is a fierce competitior who has shown a fantastic commitment to the sport throughout lockdown. She has been willing to travel far and wide to continue playing in tournaments; her two wins in Thailand in January were out of the top drawer.

This is the statement from Carolina’s Twitter feed

The tournament in Tokyo will not be the same without her. Best wishes Caro!


2020 Imagined Olympic Finals: Men’s Singles – MomoGi

We know they inspire each other to brilliance: relentless attack verses unbending defence. But no-one could have predicted the twists and turns in this game, Momota’s life is a magnet for drama so this stage was set for him. Adrenaline overload as the two athletes walked out to the show court. Momota – gameface – seemingly oblivious to everything whilst Anthony, happy and smiling; chatting to the child mascot escorting him. A torrent of noise as the crowd made their support heard. The arena was dominated by Japanese supporters but there was a section full of Indonesian flags behind one end. Those fans, already emotionally exhausted by the achievements of Marcus & Kevin on Super Saturday were determined to bring the spirit of Istora to this match too.

Both of these men had a ‘perfect’ run to the final. Neither dropped a set or experienced any injury worries. In his SF against Anders Andersen, Momota was pushed hard and only won the second set after extra points: 23-21. He was determined to finish the game off and we saw unusual flashes of an impatient player at times. Anthony profited from SHI Yuqi’s obvious fatigue earlier in the tournament but in his SF against Malaysia’s LEE Zii Jia we saw a player fixed on forcing a win. LZJ could not live with his intelligent tactics in difficult playing conditions.

SET 1: 21-19 Momota

It was a fairly bloodless start to the match. Both were nervous and making unforced errors. Neither seemed able to read the drift in the Arena with Momota hitting the shuttle long at least three times. Anthony made 2 ill-judged challenges to line calls; Hawkeye was unmoved. Anthony decided he needed the court mopped but he was moving well. Momota’s usual patient, reactive style saw him win without too much effort. Plenty of analysts had predicted that the environment in the arena would suit him and in the first set at least they were proven right. All-in-all if you are going to watch the game on catch up skip the first set and jump to set 2.

SET 2: 13-21 Ginting. Fireworks.

After the damp squib of set one, set 2 had a rare incandescence. Rallies were contested at lightening pace, all sweat and reflex. Ginting had to win it to stay in the chase for the Gold. What did Coach Hendry say to him? Suddenly Anthony had dashed into a shocking 8-4 lead using beautiful precision shots building sequences to make the Japanese player scramble. Momota requested a doctor and the stadium held it’s breath. The big screen showed a close up of the King’s left foot. Only a small blister. To be honest, he should have been more careful putting his sock on, but after some freeze spray and a dressing he got up and returned to the fight. Abruptly Momota transformed himself. A long-hidden aggressive edge saw his usual game plan tilt away from persistant defence.

There was an urgency to his play that was utterly compelling. He started clawing his way back into the set and went into the interval 7-11. The foot was dressed again, but no shirt change. The 2 minute interval stretched into 2 and a half…3 minutes. Anthony was bouncing along a tramline, staying warm, ignoring the crisis. We watched as the umpire covered his microphone and said something short and sharp. Momota sprang up and took his position to receive serve; rocking forward and back full of contained energy. Anthony was pitiless. His movement was fluid and easy. Forcing Momota to move from corner to corner he dominated the rallies with vicious, irresistable attack; he was able to vary the pace, never allowing the left-hander to get a momentum going. At 13-19 Momota challenged a line call: it was a tactical challenge to allow himself time to regroup and to free up the interval for more treatment. He had obviously decided that it was better to let this set go and then have a ‘death or glory’ final game. 13-21 to Ginting.

Final Set: Blood, Sweat & Tears

Momota sat down and removed his shoe: the blood was obvious. Anxiety rippled through the Arena. Clean bandage, more freeze spray and tape. 1 minute and 50 seconds later he was back on court waiting for Ginting. No drama. Trying to make the psychological point (to who?) that he didn’t need to take the whole 2 minutes.

Immediately Momota seized the initiative with a trademark exchange at the net; the hairpin left Anthony wrong-footed. But as the points ticked by, backwards and forwards neither player could impose their game plan on the match. Momota abandoned all reliance on his ‘sit and wait’ strategy. His smash, follow up, kill routine was exhilarating but Ginting equalled him in power and desire. The fast flat exchanges across the net were shocking to watch. When Anthony could defend the initial smash he was then able to trap Momota far away from the net on the back trams. Mid-game interval 11-10 Momota.

The two players returned to the court for one last effort in this career defining match. Momota had to outlast Ginting. Anthony’s shots were sheer class, fantastic accuracy and control but it was clear that he was starting to tire. Momota had returned to his defensive approach and in the end it was his 1% of extra resilience that got him to the finishing line first: 21-18. Both players completely drained; Anthony hands on knees, looking down, Kento flat on his back on the court – no shout of victory, just exhaustion. Then they shake hands, embrace, smile. Both full of sporting concern for the other; exemplary behaviour from two exceptional players.

World Number 1 – Kento Momota – was crowned Olympic champion today in front of his home crowd after an heroic three set battle with Indonesia’s Anthony Ginting. Momota is confirmed King but that doesn’t tell you the story of a match that will become legendary.

Fans who were at the Musashino Forest Sportsplaza this evening will boast to their grandchildren ‘I was there’. It was magnificent, it was heartbreaking.


It never happened, all events are fictional. If you’d like someone else to win feel free to write your own.


If you enjoyed this take a look at my Imagined Olympics Doubles final https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/08/07/2020-imagined-olympic-finals-mens-doubles/

TAI Tzu Ying: The Greatest

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Sometimes a player is more than just a player because they inhabit a unique style that captures the essence of their sport. TAI Tzu Ying is one of these people. Like Serena Williams or Lionel Messi she has that star quality whenever she competes. She is a free spirit who brings a creative exhilaration to any match.

When the kid from Taiwan first bust onto the international scene it was her magnificent racket skills that drew fans to her. She has the gift of being able to control time – it slows and expands to contain her talent. It is still that sensational expressive style that makes people fall in love with her but over the past decade she has added extra layers to her game. Her mesmerizing skill continues to glitter however 2020 has seen her game continue to evolve.

Tournaments at the beginning of this year have shown her address the tension between artistry and scoring points. Regular analysts had identified a tendency to lose focus midway through a match often allowing a rival to regain a foothold in the set. At the core of TTY is the power to sparkle rather than to merely play but during her campaign at the All England this year we witnessed a new element in her game – the ability to wait. The vitue of patience is a sharp weapon in badminton. The beauty of this strategy is that, in the past, it has been used against her.

I think this willingness to include new facets in her play is the sign of a great player. Developing her mental stamina alongside her prodigious gym work adds extra options when she approaches a match. There was a tangible sense in Birmingham that the time for mistakes was past; errors were reduced. Of course she is still the Queen of Deception, her magical misdirection when she is in full flow is wonderful.

In 2019 TTY sent a chill through supporters hearts when she uttered the alarming word ‘retirement’. The demands of elite sport are incredibly restrictive. The physical and emotional cost of training, competing, and international travel does not leave much time for normal life. One more Olympics, one more season and then she would finish; she talked longingly of cycling holidays around Taiwan, and of perhaps opening a school. Her instagram posts often feature her hiking in the mountains or paddling a canoe; she is obviously a person who delights in the natural world around her

None of us could have foreseen the disruption to normal life this year. With the Olympics postponed the players who keep their motivation and stay in shape will gain an advantage. There is a national competition that has been organised for elite Taiwanese athletes in August to help them review progress and sharpen their focus after this gap. TAI Tzu Ying is due to play some male rivals in order to measure herself against a tough challenge: it was decided that the available women players would not push her enough. Her victory at the All England in March was a warning to her rivals and a reassurance to her fans; the dream of seeing TTY on the podium at the Olympics is still real. This feels like a date with destiny. What a time to love women’s badminton.


If you enjoyed this then read my appreciation of TTY’s win at the All England this year https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/03/23/tai-tzu-ying-the-triple-champion/ or this one https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/12/16/tai-tzu-ying-the-queen/

©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved

Indonesia’s Olympic Hopes

Indonesia’s badminton achievements at the Olympics has been outstanding. Along with rivals from Korea and China their players are the aristocrats of the sport. Badminton is a recent addition to the games, it was only introduced in 1992 and since then, the nation’s athletes have won at least one Gold at every tournament bar London 2012.

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Men’s Doubles: with three pairs in the top 10 the depth of Indonesia’s talent in this sector is extraordinary. Power, speed, net skills and resilience are all key, but the essence of a successful doubles team is balance between the two players. The magnificent World #1s Sukamuljo & Gideon have been at the top for a while. Kevin’s sublime ability paired with Marcus’s more muscular game is almost irresistable, but they are not invincible. Their millions of fans must be anticipating the olympics feeling a mixture of impatience and anxiety because if an opponent manages to disrupt their prefered formation they can be vulnerable (as we saw in the 2020 All England Final). Endo/Watanabe were able to win because their strategy stopped Kevin dominating at the front. Ahsan & Setiawan are ranked #2. Hendra Setiawan is one of the greatest MD players ever; already an Olympic Gold Medalist (2008 Beijing with Markis Kido), he has won everything and then won it it again. I get goosebumps when I think about the Daddies after watching them win on three legs to clinch the 2019 All England: they are inspirational figures who play with great heart. Commentators often point to their age – it’s not irrelevent of course but that it is a small disadvantage that is outweighed by their poise and experience. Lets not forget Alfian/Ardianto: ranked #6 but as things stand these two will miss Tokyo because of the quota. This must be heart-breaking for them but the only attitude they can take is to keep competing. They are hungry and their time will come. Prediction: I’m frightened of Endo/Watanabe but I’ll say Gold for one of these pairs.

Men’s Singles: Anthony Sinisuka Ginting is a sublime player, but he can be simultaneously exciting and infuriating. His inconsistency costs him titles. When he is at his spectacular best the speed of his reactions, his touch at the net, and his courage means that he is a genuine Gold medal prospect. I would love to see a MomoGi final; at the moment Momota has the edge in their encounters but Anthony is still a developing athlete and I’m excited to see how he’ll emerge from the current hiatus. Jonatan Christie should be getting to Tokyo ranked #7. Another fine player, if he can get through the round robin stage unscathed he could have a chance at a medal. Prediction: At least one medal…& I crave a final with Anthony v. Kento.

Women’s Doubles: Two of my favourite players – Polii & Rahayu – should go to Tokyo ranked #8. This will be Greysia Polii’s last Olympics (possibly her last major competition) and she is another inspirational athlete who has served her sport well. The women’s sector is stuffed full of brilliant double’s teams and so these two may struggle to make the podium. The key to success or failure will be how Apri is deployed. We know that they can defend all day but predictable play will not be enough. I loved the way they battled when they won at the Indonesia Masters back in January and at the time I felt that their game was evolving. Apri was much more aggressive at the front and they were able to exert prolonged pressure on their opponents. Prediction: Maybe a Bronze? I hope so.

Mixed Doubles: One of the legacies of Liliyana Natsir is the XD title from the Rio games. Can the Indonesia players defend this successfully? The Mixed tournament is quite open so although on paper the Chinese duos Zheng/Huang and Wang/Huang look to be favourites at lot will depend upon how Jordan/Oktavianti and Faizal/Widjaja progress through the early stages. This competition is all about seizing the moment and if Praveen Jordan can be at his imperious peak at the right time the Gold is possible although it’s too close to call.

Womens Singles: All fans of this sector know that it is overflowing with dazzling players so for Gregoria Mariska Tunjung to survive the cut and get into the knockout stage would be great. She is a wonderful player to watch, with impressive skill and imagination. For her to make headway at the tournament outside factors will need to be in her favour in addition to her playing to her potential. If she can build up some momentum and confidence anything can happen. Tokyo will perhaps be a stage on her journey to more success rather than a defining competition.

So what then can we expect in Tokyo? Owing to the worldwide C-19 crisis everyone has had to endure disruption to training programmes and anxiety and frustration. The athletes who will triumph at the delayed games are those who have been able to maintain focus and keep their competitive hunger without burn-out. It’s a tricky balancing act because no-one can stay at peak performance for ever. Most competitiors training regimes would have been carefully constucted to peak for July 2020; so now they need to keep the pot simmering without it boiling dry. On the other hand, a break from relentless touring and a chance to address chronic injuries could be a key factor. Those who can step back and make adjustments without losing their momentum will have a huge advantage.

As an outsider looking in I see badminton as the Olympic sport where Indonesia dominates – not simply because of talented players but the influence of Indonesian coaches can be seen all over the world in other national teams. Of course we cannot ignore China’s leading position or Japan’s current abundance of world-beaters but this is what makes the tournament in prospect so thrilling. We have had extra time to build our anticipation for this event, when we emerge from quarantine and the BWF tour resumes it will be wonderful to support our favourites back on the road towards Olympic Gold.


If you would like to read more about Greysia Polii and Apri Rahayu follow this link https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2020/01/19/greysap-redux-polii-rahayu-are-back/ and my piece about Anthony Ginting is here https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/25/anthony-sinisuka-ginting/

If you are interested in the Minions here is an article I wrote last year https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/11/29/the-minions-indonesian-superheroes/

©2021 Amanda Bloss All Rights Reserved