Friday, August 18, 2017
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
Women’s Singles has in recent times been the most competitive of the five categories, and the field at the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2017 illustrates this clearly.
Top seed Akane Yamaguchi’s path is a case in point. The Japanese faces Denmark’s Line Kjaersfeldt – one of Europe’s best – or Ukraine’s Maria Ulitina in the second round, followed by a potential third round against World Junior champion Chen Yufei (China). The survivor of that battle likely takes on former World champion Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand), China’s Chen Xiaoxin or Canada’s Michelle Li – for a quarter-final place.
With a number of equally-matched contenders in the draw, it will require exemplary temperament, besides fitness and skill, to emerge on top of the podium.
Yamaguchi has these qualities, but she has yet to go all the way to a major title. This year has seen her in the thick of things – she was a semi-finalist in England and India, quarter-finalist in Malaysia and Singapore, before making her first final of the year in Australia. Having shown great fortitude in a semi-final win over the in-form Tai Tzu Ying (Chinese Taipei), Okuhara was ultimately worn down by her compatriot Nozomi Okuhara in the final.
Intanon will arrive in Glasgow with the weight of expectations off her shoulders. The 2013 World champion started well, making the final of the All England, but injury problems derailed her Superseries season, before she perked up once again winning two Grand Prix Golds – the SCG Thailand Open and the Skycity New Zealand Open.
But with names like Chen Yufei, Chen Xiaoxin and Michelle Li in the top quarter, it will be anything but easy for either Yamaguchi or Intanon to emerge victorious. Both the young Chinese have shown maturity at the senior level, having beaten top stars like Pusarla V Sindhu (India) and Carolina Marin (Spain) respectively, while Michelle Li, finalist at the US Open, is getting back to top-flight badminton after undergoing hip and knee surgeries in the post-Olympic period.
Pusarla is the top contender from the second quarter, but the Indian will be wary of her second round against Korea’s up-and-coming Kim Hyo Min. Hong Kong’s Cheung Ngan Yi might await her in the third round, before the possible clash with China’s Sun Yu that will decide the semi-finalist from the second quarter.
Pusarla has built on her game since her silver medal win in Rio a year ago, adding two Superseries titles – the Thaihot China Open last year and the Yonex-Sunrise India Open this year – to her cabinet. The India Open win was achieved against Carolina Marin in the final – a significant result and a reversal of their fortunes in Rio.
Sun Yu made four Superseries quarter-finals this year before breaking the sequence with a semi-final in Australia. The quarter-final win, over India’s Saina Nehwal, was so significant for her that she broke down and kept sobbing long after the match was over. Sun has a relatively easy path in the early rounds.
The third quarter is possibly the stiffest of the four, for it has three of the four Japanese – Nozomi Okuhara, Aya Ohori and Sayaka Sato – besides Marin.
Okuhara has diligently fought her way back from a shoulder problem and achieved her first Superseries win in many months at the Crown Group Australian Open. Given her form, she ranks as a frontline contender, but she will have to survive a possible third round against US Open champion Aya Ohori, before the subsequent test against Marin or Sato.
Sato, who unexpectedly won the Indonesia Open, will be full of confidence and could pose a threat to Marin in the third round, assuming she overcomes a likely second round showdown against Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt.
Defending champion Marin (featured image) faces either Yip Pui Yin (Hong Kong) or Natalia Perminova (Russia) in the second round, and barring a major upset, should find herself in the third round. The Spaniard has won two World titles and the Olympic gold on the trot, and is assured of sporting immortality if she adds a third straight World title.
No.2 seed Sung Ji Hyun is favoured to top the fourth quarter. The Korean has been consistent at the Superseries – with four straight semi-finals and a runner-up finish in Indonesia – but what is of more significance was the way she led her team to the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup title. Sung showed none of the big-match nerves that affected other big names as she calmly navigated past Thailand’s Intanon in the semi-finals and China’s He Bingjiao in the final to help Korea to one of their most memorable team triumphs.
Sung’s primary challengers will be India’s Saina Nehwal in the third round and either He Bingjiao or Scotland’s Kirsty Gilmour in the quarter-finals.
Nehwal is the dark horse of the tournament, as she goes in to the Major Event in the shadow of her compatriot Pusarla. With the attention off her, Nehwal is certain to be a threat to the bigger names. Nehwal beat Sung in Australia, and will be confident of going far in Glasgow.
He Bingjiao had an up-and-down season, but the left-hander can never be written off, while Gilmour will obviously be inspired by playing on home turf. The Scot was a runner-up at the Canada Open and a semi-finalist at the US Open, and will have the momentum to disrupt the more fancied names.