This was a big year for badminton. Apart from the annual fixtures like World Championship and Asian Championship, 2018 also saw the Asian Games and the introduction of the World Tour format (replacing the Super Series).
The amount of badminton played this year led to criticism from some big names, especially Asian, about the schedule and the list of injured players at the end of the year does lend some weight to those objections. But from the spectator’s point of view, there was a lot of entertainment on offer.
This year also saw performances containing exceptional individual brilliance, close contests and great fightbacks. Let’s look back at the biggest badminton stories to have emerged from the year as well the most successful names.
Tai Emerges as a Future Great
Tai Tzu Ying’s exceptional talent and ability is well known in the badminton world. But till last year, it hadn’t been on full display. This year, though, she rose to prominence with a series of performances which established her superiority over others.
She won six World Tour titles, five of which came in tournaments of Super 500 or higher grade, she clinched the Asian Championship for the second year in a row and also claimed gold in the Asian Games individual event. Her majestic play and unmatched skill made her the most watchable player in the whole badminton circuit. The scintillating shots that she pulls off put her a level above the rest.
But the fatigue of playing many events seem to catch up with her towards the end of the year as she first lost the final of the French Open and then had to retire during matches from the next two World Tour events including the finals.
The only downside in her 2018 record was missing out on the World Title despite being the favourite. If there was one flaw in her game, it was the looseness which she displayed on occasions and which led to a lot of unforced errors. These periods of erratic shot-making is the only thing she has to improve, otherwise she is certain to be a future great.
Momota is Back With a Vengeance
A promising player some years ago, tragedy struck for Momota when he visited an illegal betting house and had to serve a long ban. Making a comeback in 2017, he started from the bottom but emerged as unquestionably the best player in the male circuit.
He won four high-profile BWF World Tour tournaments, finished runners-up in three more, became the World Champion and also the Asian Champion. He too couldn’t achieve a perfect ending to the year due to losing in the final of the World Tour Finals against local favourite Shi Yuqi but otherwise was near-flawless.
Momota also showed signs of fatigue and in a couple of tournaments was clearly playing with constraints. His forehand smash down the line and net play were the biggest weapons but there were some vulnerabilities that were exposed by Yuqi in the last match of the year. Yet, Momota is back and with Lee Chong Wei and Lin Dan in the twilight of their careers, could be the leader of the men’s circuit.
Other Big Achievers in Women’s Division
2018 also saw the return to form of reigning Olympic champion Carolina Marin. Her fortunes waned after the Olympic triumph and she was upstaged by the likes of Nozomi Okuhara and Tai. This year saw her return to her best form once again and becoming the only women to have three world titles to her name.
Marin plays a very fast and energetic game that demands the level of fitness to be paramount. Fitness is exactly what she seemed to possess in abundance this year. The Spaniard looked strong, fit and as motivated as she always did. Her victory in the World Championship was followed by two other major triumphs. Both the China Open and the Japan Open was won by her through victories in the final over local favourites. Alas, she couldn’t maintain the high tempo over the course of a punishing schedule and had to withdraw from the World Tour Finals.
Chinese challenge was led this year by He Bingjiao who looked promising on various occasion but was not able to get the big title her great badminton nation would want. She is going to be the biggest hope for China going forward but would have to raise her game an extra level to match the likes of Tai and Marin.
Ratchanok Intanon had another disappointing year. Ironically, she looked like the only player who could match Tai Tzu Ying but the inconsistency in her play kept her from making big strides. She remains a great talent not fully utilized.
Indian badminton queens Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu had comparatively lean years which ended, though, on a high. While Saina showed that she is still a serious contender by defeating Sindhu in the final of the Commonwealth Games and securing the Gold and also doing well in certain World Tour tournaments towards the end of the year, she couldn’t qualify for the Finals.
Sindhu, on the other hand, got into a rut of losing big finals which only ended when she defeated Okuhara in the World Tour Finals title match. But earlier in the year, she lost the final of her home tournament Indian Open to Zhang Beiwen, lost the World Championship final to Marin, Asian Games final to Tai and Commonwealth Games final to Saina.
However, the year ended sweetly with Sindhu securing the World Tour Finals title and Saina, a couple of days before that, securing herself a husband – 2014 Commonwealth Games champion Parupalli Kashyap.
Rise of Japan in Women’s Badminton
While the likes of Tai and Marin may have walked away with the big titles, the nation which emerged as the strongest in Women’s division was Japan. This was signified by their win in the Uber Cup. Both Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi didn’t win too many big titles but were constantly among the leading contenders in the major tournaments.
With China’s retreat in women’s badminton and the inability of Indian and Thai players to remain consistent, it is the Japanese girls who are succeeding as a collective.
Events in Men’s Singles Division
The only player who was able to make a big splash in Men’s badminton this year apart from Momota is Shi Yuqi of China. He won the All England title, reached the final of the World Championship, ended the year with the BWF World Tour Finals victory, secured a Bronze at the Asain won the French Open and also secured the Indian Open titles.
In fact, Men’s badminton is one area where the Chinese are still strong in an overall assessment. They won the Thomas Cup because of the greater depth of their talent. Shi Yuqi is their best performer but they also have in their ranks the current Olympic Champion Chen Long and the veteran Lin Dan.
However, Lin Dan shone only briefly in 2018 showing the irreversible nature of his decline. Chen Long continues to fail in achieving the success expected of an Olympic Champion. Apart from the French Open victory where he defeated Shi Yuqi in the final after overcoming a visibly constrained Momota in the semis, there wasn’t much else. At the moment, his career seems to be stagnating and chances of him retaining the Olympic title in Rio are not bright.
The Indonesians had a surprisingly good year with Jonathan Christie winning the Asian Games gold. But it wasn’t him that was the best performer from his nation. It was Anthony Sinisuka Ginting.
It was he who defeated hot favourite Momota in the Round of 16 before losing the semis to Chou Tien Chen. But there were two big titles for him in the year with the Super 1000 China Open and the Indonesia Masters. His victory in the final of the former also came against Momota. Ginting could well be the player to watch out for.
A few other players like Chou Tien-chen, Son Wan Ho and Jonathan Christie also had temporary success but not much else. The 2017 World Champion Viktor Axelsen, though, was a shadow of himself from the last year and apart from the Malaysia Masters title and finishing second in the Indonesia Open, didn’t have much else to celebrate.
Lee Chong Wei
One sad news that hit the badminton world this year was the legendary Lee Chong Wei getting diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully, he is doing well and is even contemplating a return to the badminton court. The whole badminton world wishes him well and looks forward to seeing him back.Published 24 Dec 2018, 09:20 IST