The Champions of Fuzhou and new world number 1s are enjoying a great run of form.
It’s Olympic qualification year and the focus of elite badminton players everywhere is turning to Tokyo. Yuki Fukushima and Sayaka Hirota are one of the best women’s doubles pairs in the world, have recently reclaimed their #1 ranking, and are expected to be on the podium at the end of the competition.
“Our strength is about being patient…”
Fukuhiro is an alliance built on the classic doubles foundation of a rock solid defence. They will resist any bombardment and they are so skilful at rotating position that they can diffuse the pressure between themselves. Women’s Doubles is characterised by long rallies; tension builds shot on shot, so to win they have to be able to draw on their mental strength and self belief. Take a look at the highlights from the final of the Indonesian Open (below). The speed of their reactions, commitment to each other and toughness see them triumph, and defend their title.
The essence of a great Doubles pair is two people playing with a perfect understanding of each other. It becomes something magical (think Daddies) when the players can sense what their partner is about to do. Exceptional movement is critical; this and effective anticipation is from hours and hours spent together on the practise court along with a sacrifice of the self for something grander. The video clip below from American Vape shows them training – the obvious thing to point out is that they play 2 against 3. This means they improve their endurance, their shot accuracy and their ability to handle unpredictable replies.
It’s clear they like each other in real life, their giggling in interviews, teasing each other and general demeanour shows athletes in tune with their partner. Showing their human side to their fans – their emotional generosity – means they are two of the most loved players in the world.
However there is a paradox at the core of this partnership and I think it may account for the three silver medals at the Badminton World Championships. These two do not seem to have any weaknesses; they are exceptional all-rounders. So when the chips are down what do they emphasize? To be so balanced is a blessing and a curse.
It’s not accurate to simply define them as defensive players. They are comfortable with counter-attack. Fukushima puts a lot of work in at the rear court especially, but her strategy is not only based on clears: she has a very good disguised drop shot in her armoury. Hirota will be aggressive at the net and can snaffle points with her lightening reactions. When they are up against rivals like CHEN/JIA (who tend to be powerful and aggressive) they can endure the storm. Basing a strategy around smashing is high risk against Fukuhiro because it uses up a lot of energy. Eventually their rivals lose their bite and they are dispatched. Its a bit like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope trick in the Rumble in the Jungle.
“It’s all about qualifying for the Olympics for us…we haven’t been and we desperately want to go”
Fukuhiro are a great duo who are real contenders for gold at every competition they enter. Japanese players dominate the world rankings for WD but only two pairs can compete at the Tokyo Olympics. I would be astonished and devastated if they missed out. This is their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cement their place in history with Olympic gold.
Saina Nehwal is the superstar who has leapt over mere sporting boundaries to make history all through her career.
Millions of fans have followed her since the early days of succcess when she was the torchbearer for women’s badminton in Indian. Before her famous victories its profile was modest but she sent a jolt through the sporting community and now the sport is enjoyed and supported by millions.
“when I was a match point down it was like a shock. It was a big match and winning it means a lot to me. Even many years from now those present here will remember how Saina won the Gold. It is a proud feeling” Saina after her CG Gold.
What she says is true. Speak to any devotee and they will remember where they were on the day of the Delhi Commonwealth Games WS Badminton final. Some were at the office watching on a shared TV, some at a club, others were at home with family but everyone recalls the happiness and relief of that moment when she seized her destiny.
She is a dangerous, complex player to face. Her foundations are rugged, she possesses the full array of shots and takes a somewhat orthodox approach: a standard singles strategy of pulling and pushing her opponent around the court, shifting focus from side to side, waiting for a weak return to seize upon and punish. This is hardly the full story though. The characteristics that have elevated her are psychological strength combined with tactical dexterity.
While she doesn’t have the pace of three or four years ago she can compensate for this with her resilience. She is a good defender and although too much reliance on retrieving can be a weakness I don’t recognise this as a fault in her game. She is an intelligent reader of other players and can out-maneouvre opponents during the match. Of course, this mental strength really draws the sting of a rival. She is lethal once the momentum starts to go in her direction. As soon as this happens she turns the screw and can make sure the other player suffers a drought of opportunities. Her emotional muscle often overpowers because the other player just runs out of ideas.
Since the All England Championships she has had to cope with a sequence of injuries which will have affected her training and so her fluency on court. As she recovers her fitness she will have an eye on the Olympic qualifying date of 30th April 2020; she must be ranked in the top 16 then to book her place in Tokyo. So long as her regime is well-managed I don’t see any reason for her to miss this milestone. Could she win another medal?
Saina was the first Indian to win the World Junior Badminton Championships (2008)
She was the first Indian woman to win a Super Series Tournament (Indonesian Open 2009)
First Indian to win an Olympic medal at badminton (London 2012)
First Indian Woman to be ranked World Number 1 (2015)
Saina would have been a success whatever profession she chose; she could have been a scientist, engineer or architect, it wouldn’t matter. She is a person who brings 100% commitment and integrity to whatever she undertakes. She has inspired millions of people all around the world and given so much to the badminton community. The loyalty and passion of her fans is second-to-none and the sport is by far the richer for her influence.
The tour swings by Europe for October: first Denmark then France. In the last few months we’ve seen Akane dispatched in R1 (thrice), Nozomi crumple somewhat after her World Championship final mauling by Sindhu and HE Bing Jiao end her 3 year search for a title; so what does the Danish tournament have in store? In a year of jaw-dropping upsets, giant killings and injuries will we have predictable problems or unexpected catastrophes? One thing is certain, the final in Odense will not be between the top two seeds….or will it?
TAI Tzu Ying: Defending Champion & World Number 1
So what can we expect? Well, the extraordinary is ordinary for TTY. Her stunning technical ability combined with a no-limits approach is an irresistible blend. Her weakness is often her focus, which can drift. Sometimes she snaps back into the match and scores points at will, but occasionally the momentum is handed to her rival and the game is lost. She is defending champion but only seeded 4. To her advantage, Coach Lai will be looking after her full-time now he has stepped down from his Taiwan national team duties. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: World Champion & seeded 5
Following the excitement of Basle, Sindhu has crashed out of two tournaments without touching the podium. In the larger context of her career this isn’t a concern; clearly her normal life has been disrupted by the hoohaa surrounding her fabulous victory. More alarming though is the unfortunate departure of coach Kim; I hope appropriate support is in place to fill the gap. Tunjung is her R1 opponent and she is very capable of beating the Indian. AN Se Young is potentially her next challenge. It’s no exageration to say she has the worst draw of any of the seeds. Prediction either early exit or final!
CHEN YuFei: Ms Consistency & seeded 2
Since the beginning of 2019 Feifei has won four finals (including the All England), lost 5 semi-finals, and had a crucial role in China’s victory in the Sudirman Cup. Her style is patient and clever; often she ‘just’ keeps the shuttle in play and sets traps for her unwary opponents to walk into. Perhaps because of this approach she seems less susceptible to injury. Her first round opponent is the giant-killing YEO Jia Min who could spring a surprise: if CYF is to progress she must be ready as soon as she steps on court. Prediction: Semi
Carolina Marin: She’s Back!
What a thrill to see the irrepressible Marin back on court and winning the China Open! She was playing freely with no loss of speed so it seems that her recovery from her horrible injury has been good. It’s difficult to predict how she will progress here but there is no doubt that she is entering tournaments because she can win them. Don’t underestimate how unnerving it will be for her opponents to play her so soon after damaging her ACL: should they try and put pressure on the wounded side? Prediction: Hmmm, not sure…
HE Bing Jiao: Seeded 7
Winner of the Korea Open – including saving 4 match points against Ratchanok – HE Bing Jiao is often an overlooked player on the tour. This low profile has been caused by a Gold famine (3 years up to Korea) and her compatriot’s success. It’s feasible that her Korea Open win will be the beginning of a medal rush. Seeded 7. Prediction QF.
Ratchanok Intanon: Seeded 6
“Sometimes to be a champion, it’s not just about the competition, it’s also about how you live your daily life”
The losing finalist at the Korea Open has enjoyed a good year so far. For all her balletic grace on court she is a gritty fighter who never gives up even when the situation seems irretrievable. Her racket shoulder does seem to be quite heavily strapped these days but that isn’t particularly unusual for many players. Recently I think she has been beaten by CYF & HBJ because they sat back and let her try to force the game. She doesn’t need to play like that, it would be good if she sometimes had a bit more patience. Prediction: QF
Nozomi Okuhara: Seeded 3
Things haven’t been easy for Nozomi since her loss in the World Championship final against Sindhu. A couple of bad results haven’t suddenly made her a bad player though. In my opinion she can sometimes rely too heavily on her retrieving abilities. I’d like her to be a bit more ‘Momota’, that is to say, more unpredictable and more explosive. All top players are refining their skills constantly so it will be exciting to see how her game evolves in the run-up to Tokyo2020. Prediction: Final
Can Saina & Akane Escape From The Treatment Room?
Saina’s had a miserable few months with injuries; just as it seems she is back to full fitness she suffers a setback. This must make it impossible to follow a progressive training regime and the risk exists (albeit small) that she will not qualify for Tokyo. Prediction 50/50 whether she is fully fit to play but if she does then QF
Akane – seeded 1 – on the other hand has had a pretty good year culminating in a wonderful July. She became world number 1, won the Indonesian Open and then the Japan Open over a few crazily successful weeks. The euphoria around this has diluted somewhat owing to her premature exits in the World Championships, the China Open and the Korea Open. She has had a back complaint; this disrupted her training and hindered her movement in a match. However, the good news -according to Morten Frost on Badminton Central – is that she has told him the back injury is healed. “No back problems any more”. However, she is having a problem on her right calf muscle. Prediction QF
These two players- if they are fit- could win the tournament, but there’s no evidence either of them have regained full fitness. I’m more hopeful for Akane and a decent run of games is just what she needs now.
Any Fairytales For The Home Contingent?
The WS category has Line Kjaersfeldt and Mia Blichfeldt who are both fine players but the seeding is against them and I can’t see either making much headway against Ratchanok and similar top 10 competitors. Just as an aside I think it’s a different story in MS. Who would bet against Viktor getting to the final? He’s ‘only’ seeded 7 but I think that’s the product of his allergy blighted summer. Anders Antonsen is another live prospect; his improvement over the last months has been terrific and it would be no big shock to see him on the podium too.
Any surprises? The most competitive sector of badminton always throws up something. It wouldn’t be impossible for someone like SUNG Ji Hyun, Tunjung or AN Se Young to overachieve and get to a semi-final. If the seeding plays out then it will be Akane Vs Feifei on October 20th. I love to watch tournaments unfold; it’s not only about the spectacular wins, for true fans its also the pleasure in seeing a favourite improve, a new player burst onto the scene, courage under pressure or simply a beautiful shot. Often the player who gets a feel for the arena early on can build her momentum towards Gold. P V Sindhu has a very harsh draw, but if she can hit the ground running it could be a great final to contest. Aside from podium finishers, I hope Saina can compete well. She’s a legendary player and this year must be terribly frustrating for her. This is going to be a fascinating competition and may the best woman win!
Carolina Marin’s astonishing victory over TAI Tzu Ying – only 8 months after her ACL rupture – confirms her place in badminton legend.
The final started slowly for Marin, she lost the first game 14-21. TAI was ruthless in her approach to the Spaniard; her strategy was to keep the rallies short, force Marin to change direction in split seconds, make her use her right knee and attack whenever possible. It worked. But then we came to the second game…
The paradox of rehab is that weakness becomes strength; fear becomes courage. It’s an alchemy that anyone who has been through recovery from a serious sports injury has experienced. At the end of that first game Carolina’s inner voice was whispering:
“You worked that hard to come second? You crawled to the gym everyday for 9 months to accept defeat like this? Did you come to China for a holiday?”
and of course Carolina answered “No, No, NO!” I think we all heard that shout.
The balance of the game started to change. Marin was putting together great sequences that TTY failed to counter. TAI drifted and unforced errors started to appear. Marin has not lost any speed; she kept pressuring her opponent and this was the significant factor in her victory. She won the second game and we all contemplated the decider.
The third game, and Marin did not attempt to protect her injury at all, her bravery was immense. She dominated the court with her noise and physical presence. She continued to pile on the pressure by her use of pace and willingness to go toe-to-toe with TTY at the net. There was a moment at 19-13 when I thought she had run out of energy. TAI clawed her way back into the match by winning four points in a row but Carolina seized back the serve and then it was over.
No-one gets to be Olympic Champion by luck, it’s by hard work, dedication and self belief. Marin has used all of these to haul herself back up to compete amongst the elite again. It’s been a seismic shock to see her back at this level and it’s proof that she is hungry for more. Tokyo 2020 is not far away now: she couldn’t defend her title there, could she?
The road to Tokyo2020 has been a bumpy one for a lot of the WS competitors so far – I wonder if the China Open is going to be any smoother for them?
I think this tournament will pose some awkward questions for several players. 2019 has produced upsets crafted by rising stars of the new generation and there hasn’t been a dominant athlete. So here is the last Super 1000 of 2019 and my opinions about the top seeds.
P V Sindhu: World Champion
Since witnessing her obliteration of Nozomi in the World Championship final every player should be frightened of what Sindhu can do. It was an imperious campaign powered by Coach Kim and her refocus on skills. In that sort of form Sindhu can beat anyone, but she knows that to keep winning she cannot stand still; improvement must be continuous. It’s possible she might come up against Tai Tzu Ying in the SF and I think this will pose a new sort of problem. Prediction: Semi Final.
TAI Tzu Ying: The Queen
TAI Tzu Ying’s skills are always spinetingling to watch but her form has been a bit lacklustre recently – by her own extraordinary standards she is underachieving. Her focus sometimes wavers in the middle of matches: she needs to control this and be more cunning. In order to get to the final she may have to overcome Saina and vanquish the resurgent Sindhu. Can she do it? Of course! Will she do it? Hmmmm. Prediction: Final
Note to fans: Suffering is optional.
Akane Yamaguchi: World #1
After a fabulous July, Akane was brutally dumped out of the World Championships in R1. It was a gloomy sight for all her supporters who will want her to rediscover the touch that got her to World #1. Prediction QF.
Will She? Wont She? Part 1 – We Need To Talk About Saina.
Saina has been on the comeback trail after a wretched six months of injuries and illness which started back in March. We expected to see her at the Chinese Taipei Open at the beginning of September but she withdrew at the last minute. A month earlier at the World Championships in Basel she had an unlucky – albeit controversial – loss to Mia Blichfeldt early on but seemed to be playing reasonably smoothly. Her fans ache for the ‘old’ Saina to turn up, literally and metaphorically. Saina plays to WIN not for the exercise but on this occasion I don’t think she’s going to progress beyond QF.
Ratchanok Intanon: Seeded #6
May was obviously overjoyed with her Bronze at the World Championships in August – she deserved it – she had to fight for it, save match points, and be patient. May knows how to win. That spirit and drive for success is such an asset in competitions crowded with talent which is why my prediction is: Final
Chen Yufei: Seeded #3
Feifei has home advantage in this tournament…except I’m not sure how much of a help this will be to a player who can blow a bit hot and cold. She is a patient, fit athlete with good stamina whose strategy often seems to keep the shuttle in play. She has the ability to adapt her game as a match progresses so this is a major strength. However, the knowledgable crowd are capable of undermining her occasionally shaky confidence and she could meet AN Se Young in R2 which is an awkward match to call. Prediction: either early shock exit or QF.
Nozomi Okuhara: Seeded #4
Nozomi was brutally destroyed by Sindhu at the World Championships; at times it was hard to watch – can she bounce back so soon after that carnage? According to the draw she will meet Marin in R1, and potentially Tunjung after that. She must bounce back from the disappointment of Silver in Basel quickly, her game was dismantled too easily and she had no way of fighting back. Too tough to call – time will tell!
Will She? Wont She? Part Two – The Return of Carolina Marin
Carolina’s first outing since rupturing her ACL back in January ended with a R1 exit at the Yonex-Sunrise Vietnam Open however, there are reasons to be cheerful. Her mental grit and defiance have to be applauded; treading the hard yards in rehab is no picnic but she has dedicated herself to returning to competition. I think that she will have to see how her body responds to her this outing and then structure her competitive calendar accordingly. Prediction:R1 exit to Nozomi
Gregoria Mariska Tunjung
Gregoria has a great opportunity to progress in this tournament, even though she’s unseeded with a fairly tough draw. Her matches are often tantalisingly poised, and there have been some agonising losses. If she can get off to a good start and find her tournament rhythm quickly her moment will come. Prediction: QF
SUNG collected the Chinese Taipei Open trophy in early September and along with HE is always a respected player in these competitions, despite their seeding though it would be a major upset if they were to win. As for ASY, she is still a raw talent who is very capable of giant-killing but I don’t feel she is able to construct a long campaign on that basis yet.
From a personal viewpoint I would love to see the final contested by Ratchanok May and Tai Tzu Ying in front of the Chinese crowd. It’s always fascinating to watch these tournaments unfold: there are dramas along the way as the intensity builds and we get swept along by the momentum of the games. May can dig out wins when all seems lost, and TTY can dazzle us all. Who desires this title the most?
“I don’t want to just participate at the Olympics. I want to achieve something.”
Gregoria’s thrilling ability makes her games a delight to watch. She has a great touch at the net – soft hands – so the shots from her forecourt are one of her best assets. If there is a scale of styles with artistry & grace at one end (May/TTY) and raw power (Marin/Sindhu) at the other, she is located in the neighbourhood of TTY. That’s a huge simplification of course, because she is also athletic and very precise with her placement of the shuttle. She often replies to a high serve with a vicious smash, hit with pin-point accuracy just out of her rival’s reach. Her clever deception and skill allow her to easily execute cross-court drops to good effect.
A defining theme of her strategy is often her cross-court play. This can be a great way to control a rival because it will disrupt their momentum; the constant direction changes are eventually mentally and physically tiring. When she mixes these shots up with some deeper ones it means the pace is unpredictable too so it is hard for her opponent to settle into any sort of rhythm. In her recent loss against May at the 2019 World Championships in Basel the Thai player was on the ropes, and commented afterwards that she was grateful at times to just keep the shuttle in play and stay alive.
Back in 2017 Gregoria won the Women’s Singles category of the Junior World Championships. Other distinguished players who’ve held this title include: Saina, Ratchanok, and Nozomi.
This was an epic match that ebbed and flowed through three games. In the last one GMT was losing 17-19, then losing 19-20 but she eventually triumphed 24-22. She drew on immense mental strength to claw herself back from match point down in the biggest game of her career. It’s interesting to consider this because often recently her ‘inconsistency’ has been attributed to psychological factors – does she have a ‘mental block’ about beating the top players?
I don’t think so. If we consider any of the senior women players in the top 20 this year there isn’t a single one who we can say consistently wins. Akane was dumped out of the World Championships in the R1, CHEN Yufei blows hot and cold and TTY is in the middle of a dip in form. Firstly badminton is a demanding sport so it is hard to sustain excellence (Momota is exceptional in MS). Secondly – it’s a cliché but it’s true – we are in the middle of a golden generation as far as Women’s Singles is concerned, so the level of play is high. As Gregoria hasn’t been able to break into the world top ten yet, the way the seeding system works means she comes up against big-name players early on in a tournament. This is a difficult bind to escape.
I want to see her acquire the ability to win, once she can close out games she’ll lose her reputation for inconsistency. This is an area that all top sportspeople have to work on once they graduate from junior ranks. Being able to grab victory even if she is not playing well is a skill she needs to have if she is to progress further. We see it in flashes, I’m sure it’s there, her coaches have to discover the key to this part of her badminton brain. Her recent quote about the Olympics continued:
“I feel a bit nervous because of the in-house competition. There are three of us, so at each tournament I feel I have to perform better than the others” [Ruselli Hartawan & Fitriani Fitriani]
She needs to forget about the compatriot competition and get on with her own game. Being the best out of those three will not be good enough to get on the podium in Tokyo 2020. Given the quality of the opposition it is going to take a monumental effort to get to where she aspires to be but ‘if you want it you’ve got to sweat it’. It’s not impossible, tournament play in the emotional heat of the Olympics does weird things to some athletes and she needs to be ready to grasp every opportunity now to seal her right to compete at the top of her sport.
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.
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.
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.
The Badminton World Championships start on August 19th so I’m taking a look at some of the main contenders for Women’s Singles gold.
This discipline is full of talent – and unlike the men’s singles it’s not dominated by one person – so it will be an intriguing contest right from the beginning. All tournaments offer a rising intensity as players progress through the rounds: physical endurance can be sapped as well as the emotional drain of competition. The parity of ability amongst the top seeds means that being able to deal with tournament pressure will have a huge part to play. Who will relish the fight?
“…every player has a chance of being crowned champion.” Ratchanok
Nozomi Okuhara: Contender
Nozomi’s been in the waiting room this year – she hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success as Akane and yet she is a fabulous player. Her tactics often mean she gets stuck in a war of attrition so I’d like to see a bit less patience and more drive to finish off a rally. I think her edge is blunted by predictability so it would be great to see her surprise her opponent (& us!) a bit more often. Prediction: Final.
Tai Tzu Ying: The Queen
Tai Tzu Ying has never won the World Championships and goes into this competition as #2 seed. Because of her hints about retirement and her lack of big tournament form recently, fans have focused on this title with the sense that time is running out. I cannot pretend to be neutral about Tai Tzu Ying – the way she plays is brilliant and gives me so much pleasure – so I wish I felt more confident about this tournament. Her possible path to the final is tough and includes Sindhu who would relish a big battle. Prediction Semi Final.
Akane: World #1
Akane’s triumph at the Indonesian Open quickly followed by success in the Japan Open – her home tournament – means that she enters the World Championships as #1. Since disappointment in the Sudirman Cup her game has become more aggressive with a willingness to push her rivals around. She can’t just win everything from now on though, can she? Prediction Semi Final.
Feifei is a very clever player with the might of the Chinese coaches behind her. I think she is good at rebalancing her game to beat whoever she faces. Often she traps ‘flair’ players into thinking they will conquer her by playing their natural game. She waits it out and then finishes them off; her natural strength means she can get through three draining games. It’s been said that her weakness is her inability to cope with her nerves but this seems to be eratic. Prediction: Final
P V Sindhu: fighter
Sindhu is renowned as a big match player and this skill is a huge advantage in the top tournaments. By her own standards 2019 has been quite quiet but July saw her spring into life. It was great to see a refreshed player getting her game back. I love her style when she unleashes her inner badminton beast and dominates the court with her aggressive smashes and drives. I think that’s going to be the secret of success for her; when she’s confident and plays like that she can become unstoppable. She is seeded 5 and her path to success looks very tough: Zhang Beiwen in R16 and possibly TTY in the quarters. Prediction: QF owing to hard draw.
2019 has seen Saina endure various injuries and this has obviously disrupted her training programme. Her half of the draw is no picnic & includes players like Chen Yufei and P V Sindhu. She always has the desire to win and heaps of experience but realistically I can’t see her progressing beyond QF. That’s not necessarily a bad performance in the context of her year so far. I see this competition as her opportunity to continue to work on her match fitness and focus on her aim to get to Tokyo 2020. Prediction QF
“… women’s singles is so competitive that on any given day whoever can control herself and play her style of game will be the champion.” Ratchanok
May lost out in the Thailand Open Final to Chen Yufei but she played very well in that match. CYF won because she played with patience and endurance – often in rallies she was content to simply keep sending the shuttle back. Towards the end May did slightly alter her approach but by that point it was too late. It’s been noticeable that since then she has been posting plenty of evidence on IG of her hard work in the gym so perhaps this means she’s preparing her body for longer games with less reliance upon a dazzling winner and more focus on turning the screw. Prediction Semi Final
Funny things can happen in knock-out tournaments; sometimes athletes really fly through their games and suddenly find themselves in a quarter final. The Indonesian players -Fitriani & Tunjung – are both talented but frustratingly inconsistent. Their homeland can have high hopes of medals from others but it would be a welcome shock if honours came from WS.
Michelle Li from Canada can push anyone on her day and often gets good results but realistically I don’t think she would trouble Chen Yufei (assuming she gets past Saina).
Chochuwong had a great run in the Thailand Open but again her draw is tricky. Lastly He Be Jiao is seeded 6 so has to be taken seriously as a possible semi-finalist.
So, in conclusion…
That gold medal, that title, the culmination of years of work, is realistically within the reach of about eight of the players. It’s going to take an immense effort – physically and emotionally – to clinch the prize. I also think it requires someone to play with inspiration and joy; there is more to winning this than mere sweat and toil.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.