Monday, June 3, 2019
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
Vladimir Ivanov and Ivan Sozonov played just two matches at the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2019. But those two matches – both wins against tough opponents – have reignited their self-belief in the run-up to the TOTAL BWF World Championships 2019 in Basel and Tokyo 2020.
Ivanov and Sozonov, along with Vladimir Malkov in men’s singles, were responsible for Russia’s startling wake-up call for Japan at the Sudirman Cup. The top seeds found themselves 1-2 down after Kenta Nishimoto was elbowed out by Malkov, and in-form duo Hiroyuki Endo/Yuta Watanabe cut down by Ivanov/Sozonov.
Japan did pull through eventually, but Nishimoto didn’t play another match, while Endo/Watanabe were unable to shake off the effects of the crash landing through the rest of the week, and they went down tamely to China in the final.
For the No.23 Russians, the victories over Endo/Watanabe and Thailand’s Kittinupong Kedren/Nipitphon Phuangphuapet were a welcome turnaround after a mostly disappointing sequence of results over the last year. They hadn’t cleared the second round in 11 of their last 13 tournaments. The exceptions were the French Open (quarterfinals) and the Syed Modi International (semifinals), both last season.
“We haven’t played at this level for more than a year,” said Sozonov, after beating Endo/Watanabe. “They’re a top 5 pair, they’re playing well. Today we found our own game, our own style. They haven’t played us before this, and we took advantage. We prepared the same as always, but maybe we found our game today.”
“We felt no pressure,” added Ivanov. “The atmosphere was amazing.”
The Russians, ranked as high as No.7 just two years ago, have done themselves no favours either with their inconsistency. They were the first Russians to win a Superseries – the All England in 2016 – and enjoy victories over a number of top-class pairs. Among their high-profile victims are Lee Yong Dae/Yoo Yeon Seong, whom they beat at the All England and at the Rio Olympics.
The All England title was followed by a few Superseries quarterfinals, but by 2018, match wins at major events were drying up. Their troubles have continued this year – they’d won just two of eight matches in individual tournaments.
Sozonov readily acknowledges that they have struggled to find form: “Of course we haven’t played well. It’s difficult to keep playing at a high level. At our best we were ranked No.7. But we still play well against all opponents. Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win. I would say we are close to our best again.”
The Russians do know that, if they hold their form, they will be a handful for any pair across the net. With the World Championships coming up in August and the Olympics on the horizon, the Sudirman Cup upswing couldn’t have come at a better time.
“This win was very important for us, to give confidence, to give power for our next matches, and especially for next year,” says Sozonov. “This is an important year for qualifying for the Olympics. We need to play with the top players, but we also need to keep practising.”