2019 ended with Chen Yufei ascending to the top of the rankings in women’s singles badminton and also being universally recognised as the best player in the division. She recorded a convincing win over Tai Tzu Ying in the 2019 BWF World Tour Finals to wrench away the apex position.
Now as the new season gets underway, the challenge in front of Chen is to continue this run of form and cement her reputation as the best player. The first tournament of 2020 World Tour – Malaysia Masters – gets underway on January 7 at Kuala Lumpur. Despite being seeded second, the Chinese player will enter as the favourite and will have another opportunity to prove her mettle.
But this tournament isn’t important just for her. Several other players also need to up their game since 2020 is the year of the Olympics. With all the big names in the running at Kuala Lumpur, we can look forward to an exciting week of badminton.
Tai seeks redemption
After dominating 2018, Tai Tzu Ying suffered some setbacks in 2019. Though she managed to hold onto her position atop the rankings till the end of the season, she wasn’t finding going as easy as before.
Initially, her problem seemed to be the tendency to become loose in her shot-making and commit unnecessary errors. But now, she is facing a tough challenge from players who can retrieve her shots more than others.
On top of that, Tai also seems to have developed a hoodoo around big tournaments. Last year, she failed to win both the World Championship and the World Tour Finals. It would be interesting to see whether she has brought any changes to her game. If she wants to regain the top position, she has to do it.
Sindhu’s need for consistency
To be fair, few Indian fans would complain about the inconsistency of PV Sindhu. She has been incredibly consistent in making it to the finals of major events and has also won a couple of them in the last 12 months.
However, at some stage, the World Champion needs to start notching up more victories in World Tour events also. Her disappointing performance in last year’s World Tour Finals – the first occasion in a long time she failed to make it to the final of a global event like that – may be an early warning sign.
While Sindhu can never be written off, even if she fails to win any World Tour tournament, she would like to start the year on a good note.
Later this year, when the Tokyo Olympics 2020 take place, Nozomi Okuhara and Akane Yamaguchi will have the home advantage. These two ladies have been consistent performers in women’s singles badminton over the last three years.
Okuhara, the 2017 World Champion and 2019 runner-up reached many finals last year but wasn’t able to win too many tournaments. Her compatriot Yamaguchi endured a miserable run of form in the second half of the year where she got knocked out in the first round of various tournaments.
For both of them, starting the new year on a good note would be important. Their fans would want to see them clash in the gold-medal match in Tokyo. But for that, they first need to gain some form. While Okuhara’s form remained intact by the end of 2019, Yamaguchi was just starting to make a recovery. This event will tell us how far she has come.
Carolina Marin in action
Yamaguchi has a tough draw as she faces the 3-time World Champion Carolina Marin in the very first round. The Spaniard has made an incredible recovery since her return from an ACL injury. But she is still languishing at the No.10 position in the rankings.
This tournament allows her to continue her journey towards getting back to her usual position among the top-5 players in the world. Since she couldn’t qualify for the World Tour Finals last year, the Olympic champion comes into this event rather fresh. That could well turn out to be an advantage compared to other players.
An important event for Saina
Last year, when Marin tore her ACL, it was in a final against Saina Nehwal. Interestingly, that’s the last tournament that Nehwal has won. Since then, her form declined and she is no longer considered among the top players in the world. Is this decline terminal or will there be a second wind?
Possibly, the Tokyo Olympics would be Saina’s last. Therefore, she needs to build up some momentum heading towards the 2020 Summer Games. The former Olympic bronze medalist is fighting for relevancy at the moment. Her goal would be to again assert her class and prove that she is far from finished.
Watch out for An Se Young
If Saina wins her first-round match, she is likely to face South Korean teenager An Se Young in the next round. Young stunned the entire world by winning the French Open and defeating big guns like PV Sindhu and Carolina Marin. She was undoubtedly the find of the year.
Now, she enters this tournament seeded 8th. Having proven to be a great talent, she now has to rise to the occasion. No longer an unknown commodity, her game would be tested even more. If she continues in the same trajectory of success that saw her win the French Open, she could end up as a top contender in the Olympics.Published 05 Jan 2020, 15:23 IST