YEO Jia Min: Giant Killer from Singapore

YEO Jia Min has burst onto the elite badminton scene with some outstanding performances at this World Championships. Her memorable win against a below par Akane Yamaguchi means that she is suddenly under a spotlight.

The games against Akane and then Vu have showcased a player who is stepping up to compete against top opposition. She plays with a great attitude; very calm and unhurried, so she allows herself to flourish even under pressure.

Pic from BWC TV

Her range of shots and lovely smooth movement around the court let her attack and dominate the rallies. She is able to go toe-to-toe with anyone to trade tumbling net shots and she has been likened to Tai Tzu Ying by Gill Clark. I think this is because of the flair she shows around the front and midcourt. Outrageous angles, confident smashes/kills, and a disguised sliced drop all form part of her armoury.

From BWF TV

Her badminton education has been wide ranging. Last year at age 19 she left home in Singapore and went to play in the Danish league. No doubt the high standards expected there helped hone the pitiless killer instinct we saw against Akane.

It’s interesting at this point to consider her coach – Mulyo Handoyo – and acknowledge the influence coaches from Indonesia have in the world of Badminton. He was once the coach of the legendary Taufik Hidayat, and who better to have in one’s corner than someone who has seen it all, who stays calm, & smiles encouragingly when shots don’t quite work out. It’s also noticeable that he often encourages her to an unofficial time-out face wipe after she’s won a tough rally.

“Her fighting spirit was high when she played against the top seed and tried to control the game by making clear decisions during the tie” Mulyo Handoyo

Although she lost in the quarter final to Ratchanok Intanon she can be very proud of what she has achieved during this World Championships. She’s at a crucial point in her career – essentially its ‘win or learn’. Of course she still makes mistakes, but her hard work has got her to a position now where she can play with the elite and be their equal. It’s going to be a very exciting year for YEO Jia Min.

If you enjoyed this follow the link to my article about AN Se Young https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

and this one that looks at TAI Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

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.

Pic from Twitter

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

From BWF TV

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

From BWF TV

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.

Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi: Hotter Than July

Wow! Akane – what a July!

As we enter the second half of 2019 Akane Yamaguchi is at the top of the world rankings. First she won the Indonesian Open – arguably the best tournament in the world – and then followed it up a week later by triumphing in her home tournament: The Japan Open.

Akane has always been a formidable player with plenty of successes along the way but suddenly her achievements have become supercharged and she is unstoppable. Women’s Singles is an incredibly competitive discipline at the moment so what is it that is giving her the edge over her rivals?

Bizarrely I think it was failure that has spurred her on. Looking back to the Sudirman Cup, the crucial tie in the final was the Women’s Singles: Akane Yamaguchi against Chen YuFei. It was a three game battle with neither player consistently dominant. The Chinese crowd was very noisy; it was an intense and passionate atmosphere with huge emotional pressure exerted on both athletes. It’s been noted that at one point in the game Morten Frost described Akane’s play as erratic. That’s quite a brutal assessment, but the point is that in the end she lost.

Both players finished flat out on the floor but CHEN Yufei was the victor.
Video courtesy BWF

We all know it’s a team competition but losing that three game match was pivotal to Japan’s eventual loss in the final. The Japanese team oozed togetherness and exuberance as they supported each other through the tournament so it must have been utterly devastating for them all not to get gold.

Up until recently Akane has always been known as a retriever, which often means that she is a defender. This is a very simplistic reduction of an elite athletes game; it’s quite a reactive style but she is great at covering the court and very quick to regain her base position.

However, things have changed since the Sudirman Cup…everyone had some time off before they got back to training. Time to recover physically and mentally but also an opportunity to take stock. Then came July and one of the principal events in the badminton calendar: The Indonesian Open.

It was a fresh Akane with an evolved style. Suddenly she was applying her explosive power to a more attacking game and the final against P V Sindhu showcased how effective this new aggression was.

Sindhu found her game being squeezed. Yamaguchi, above all, was being ferocious in her follow-ups. There were some ruthless flat drives, and midcourt smashes. There was more pressure applied in rallies. She began each game like a tornado and barely relaxed her focus. No longer content to react, Akane was taking the game and demanding to win.

Akane wins the Indonesia Open – Video by kind permission BWF

It was a great victory. Sindhu played well but just couldn’t equal Akane’s fierceness; without warning Yamaguchi had stepped up her game.

So we come to the Japanese Open – her home tournament. Her progression to the final took in triumphs against Sindhu and Chen Yufei to set up a meeting with her compatriot Nozomi Okuhara. The scoreline of 21-13, 21-15 lets you know it was an emphatic victory. Again, this was the evolved style. Yamaguchi went toe-to-toe with Okuhara and it was her intensity allied to some awesome accuracy that meant she was able to withstand Okuhara’s propensity for lengthy rallies.

“I was worried I wouldn’t be able to win the long rallies, but I was patient, and whenever there was a chance to make a decisive shot, I was able to make the sharp shots,” said Yamaguchi.

I think it’s a good measure of Akane as a woman and an elite player that she took the worst kind of defeat and used it as fuel for progress:

“I wish I could’ve played this well in the Sudirman Cup final. The loss in the final made me learn and helped me improve.”

The road to Tokyo 2020 has a lot of twists and turns yet but momentum and big match experience counts for a lot. I want to end this piece by urging you to watch the film clip below – the happiness on Akane’s face is so infectious it is an utter joy to see.

Akane and VERY BIG SMILES. This tweet was from the Akane Yamaguchi Fanbase (@AYamaguchiFans).

If you enjoyed this follow the link to my piece about Nozomi Okuhara https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/04/23/nozomi-okuhara-racket-ready-for-tokyo-glory/ and also this one about Tai Tzu Ying https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/01/tai-tzu-ying-goddess-or-mortal/

Featured

Tai Tzu Ying: Goddess or Mortal?

Tai Tzu Ying is one of the most adored athletes in the world whose appeal cuts across national boundaries. A once in a generation player who dazzles and inspires whenever she plays.

She became World #1 in 2016 after a magnificent run of results and has stayed there ever since.

Is she the best ever women’s singles player? If we measure solely on medals at the moment the answer is ‘no’. So why is she so loved and why does it feel that she has no equal?

“She is the personification of joy” – from MinPlus

“She is the most delightful player to watch on court, she makes badminton fun” from September

“She’s our seratonin” – from GEL

As a regular user of Instagram she often posts charming pictures of herself eating ice cream, playing with Lego or training in the gym with her team and this all helps to blur the boundaries between the elite athlete and her worshipping fans. She has commented that in matches, when she has been losing, it is the thought of letting down her supporters that has spurred her on to eventual victory. She does care about the fans who back her.

Tai Tzu Ying has a zen-like presence on court; when I first started watching her I was confused by her calm, smiling approach to victory or loss. Now I believe it’s very important to her to win – why else would she devote herself to the sport? But I also see someone who appreciates her life with her family and who has nothing to prove in her field. I think that she enjoys playing and is as thrilled as her spectators when she executes a great shot.

Video courtesy of Shuttle Flash

Her skill is breath-taking; take a look at the compilation video by Shuttle Flash. The quality of her trickery is amazing and so wonderful to watch in this era dominated by attritional players. The root of her genius is from her teens:

“…it’s said that her father took her to play on badminton courts at small clubs run by badminton lovers everywhere in Taiwan when she was a child. Wanting to win over these skilled (but informal) players she practised her deception skills and gained lots of success…” by eeye24

There is also the fact that she suffered a hand injury when she as 13. Because her metacarpal damage restricted her forehand play she had to rely more heavily on her backhand which gave her better wrist strength. As her father pointed out, the injury was a blessing in disguise. Her capacity for deception is extraordinary and she is a true artist with her racket. The variation in her game – the range of shots and angles -is staggering.

Picture from shutterstock

The flip side of such an adventurous player is that there is a trace of inconsistency which runs through her career. Sometimes in the middle of a game her focus just seems to drift and suddenly her opponent will put together a run of points. Often at this moment she manages to retune herself into the game, get her concentration back and finish off the contest but it doesn’t always happen. Watch the video below where she talks about this and the role of her deceptive moves.

Video courtesy BWF

She also mentions her stubbornness. In my earlier blog https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/03/18/tai-tzu-ying-taiwans-sporting-icon/ I talked about her courage and the fact that she is relentless in the pursuit of victory. She dares her foe to match her dazzling talent and I still consider the psychological warfare that she wages against her opponents a key factor in her success. The genius that she brings to her games is a delight for her audience (& her) but it saps her rival’s emotional energy. In my opinion the only other current player who approaches this level of skill is Ratchanok May.

So now we are in Olympic qualifying year and Tai Tzu Ying has hinted that she could retire after Tokyo2020. I think everyone wants her to win Gold; to cement her place in history and to bring her sublime skills to the attention of the non-badminton world. We are lucky to be able to watch such a wonderful player who lights up the court with her brilliance. Who knows what the future holds for her – it’s going to be fantastic to watch the next year of badminton unfold – and I hope that legends are made in the process.


If you enjoyed this post follow the link to my piece about Ratchanok – another of my favourite players https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/06/26/ratchanok-can-thailands-sweetheart-get-gold/ and also this article about AN Se Young: one of the most exciting players to emerge from Korea in recent years https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/07/08/an-se-young-koreas-sensational-17-year-old/

P V Sindhu – India’s Superstar

She is a badminton VIP in a cricket obsessed nation and is listed by Forbes as the highest earning non-tennis athlete in the world. How did she get to these heights?

Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/Xinhua

I think it was written in the stars that her path led to sporting greatness – but why badminton?

The story goes that as a 6-year-old she was inspired to pick up a racket by Pullela Gopichand’s victory in the Men’s Singles at the All England Championships in 2001. After he wound down his playing career, he opened his academy in Hyderabad and before long she was training there. We all know that excellence is not an accident so what has driven her from an idealistic child to the sporting celebrity she is today

Gopichand has been crucial to her development. His 4am starts are the stuff of legend but there is more to this than simply being an early riser. Famously, three months prior to the Rio Olympics, he banned her from eating sugar or using her mobile. What a shrewd coach he is; by stressing the sacrifices she was making he was training her mind to focus on the target of a medal. It wasn’t a time for trivial things. The competition was a pivotal point when her game advanced to another level. She matched and despatched Tai Tzu Ying, Wand Yihan and Nozomi Okuhara, some of the best players in the sport.

She lost the Olympic final to Carolina Marin but returned home a superstar. Her life has never been the same.

Her powerful smashing game is thrilling to watch, her height – 179cm – allows her to dominate her opponents. She is happy to smash cross court and can exploit steep angles. I’ve heard it said that sometimes her defence is a bit suspect and that her height handicaps her ability to reach low shots. I don’t agree. She has a great reach, but sometimes she appears to be a bit methodical as she builds up a rally to the point where she can overwhelm her opponent. I consider patience to be the mark of a great player. Physically she is very strong and has the endurance to outlast anyone. She is very different to someone like Tai Tzu Ying who often relies on trickery; Sindhu is aggressive and goes out to seize her prizes.

QF WS against Nozomi – a great example of PV’s fight, technique and skill.

When we look at the players in the woman’s game there isn’t a huge difference in ability amongst the top 15; WS at the moment is overflowing with talent. What sets Sindhu apart is her gritty determination. Gopichand has celebrated this publicly and this famous quote from her sums up her attitude

“I am once again ready to roar for my next fight, to finish and win. No loss is ever enough…to stop me believing in myself.”

In December 2018 She won the BWF World Tour Finals tournament in Guangzhou – the first Indian to do so – beating Nozomi Okuhara in 2 games in the final. This was after failing to win a single tournament that year. After that great achievement 2019 has not started easily. She was beaten in the semi final of the Yonex-Sunrise India Open and the Sudirman Cup was not a successful outing for the Indian team. She often seems to be a player who raises herself up for big matches and perhaps finds the relentless grind of the tour a bit tiresome.

There is something missing at the moment. It may be that she and her coaches are rethinking her game in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics and we are in the middle of the remodelling phase; or is she bored and needs a completely new approach? Whatever it is, this is a big game player who still has a lot to win. I hope she is given the support and access to the expertise she’s going to need to keep progressing.

If you enjoyed this then follow the link to my page about Saina Nehwal https://womensbadminton.co.uk/saina/ and here’s the link to my article about Saina https://womensbadminton.co.uk/2019/05/14/saina-nehwal-indias-beloved-champion/

Current Status: EXCITED

What’s so good about the Yonex All England Championships?

It’s the chance to be inside a buzzing arena and witness sporting history being made. Will the exciting Japanese duo of Fukushima and Hirota justify their seeding at number 1? Or could another women’s doubles pair rise to challenge them?

For me, nothing compares to live matches. Firstly it’s a shared emotional experience. In Birmingham there will be about 15000 people brought together and we all want to see success and feel as though we played our part in it. I think that watching on TV simply doesn’t come close – it’s like comparing eating chocolates to just looking at the box. Getting caught up in the drama of the moment is a welcome escape from subjects like Brexit, terrible weather and single-use plastics.

This is the world’s best badminton competition and anyone who has ever picked up a racket will be stunned by the quality of the action. Excellence is not an accident though, no-one succeeds in this tournament just by turning up. Failure, sweat and hard, hard work will all contribute to eventual triumph.

I find there is a bittersweet joy in following sport; especially if emotions are tied to a particular performer or country. Tournaments can be a peculiar kind of torture when we stagger from one day to the next, not quite sure how things will end but not able to walk away. Dare we expect the unexpected?

What I talk about when I talk about badminton

Ladies don’t seem to talk much about sport, but as everyone knows, I’m no lady so I think it’s time to share why I’m passionate about badminton.

As it’s the fastest of all racket sports – at elite level shuttles can reach 200mph – reactions need to be high-speed. There are abrupt changes in direction and explosive jumps juxtaposed with deception and delicate net shots. I love the fact that the game is subtle and complex but it allows for physically powerful rampages around the court. To be a shrewd strategist is vital; no one gets to win without having their brain engaged. I’m an average player so I fit sport around life but I’ve come to appreciate that playing badminton and specifically doubles is a highlight of any day. When the doubles partnership clicks, practice pays off, tactics work and shots land. It’s a brilliant feeling to be part of. The things I inevitably pick over at 3am though are the missed shots: the net kill that got away, the serve flicked out beyond the back line and the disobedient legs that just did not move. In sport emotions can be on a roller coaster but running through that is the pleasure of being part of a team. There’s always someone by our side to shout encouragement, pull a great shot out of the bag or kick a little ass.

Is winning important? Of course I’d be lying if I said otherwise, but there is a lot more to sport and life than just that. Small victories, improved technique, better fitness, making new friends, these all add to my love of a game that frustrates and rewards me, often at the same time.