Like the lull before a storm, a deceptive calm prevailed at the Nissan Sports Center, Dongguan, on the eve of this year’s biggest team event, the Vivo BWF Sudirman Cup.
At stake is not just the handsome silver trophy which will eventually be won by one of the 12 teams in Group 1, but the placings among the other 23 teams. While Group 1 battles will be feverishly followed, the fortunes of other teams too will be tracked by fans across the world. Athletes from nations of varying badminton pedigree thus shared the spotlight on Saturday.
For players like Nigeria’s Grace Gabriel (below), Australia’s Gronya Somerville (bottom; right) and France’s Brice Leverdez (bottom; left), their respective groups signified as colossal a challenge as Group 1 for stars like Lee Yong Dae (Korea), Kento Momota (Japan), Chen Long (China) or Liliyana Natsir (Indonesia).
“It a pretty good chance to test our skills,” said Gabriel, whose team is in Group 4.
“We don’t often get a chance to play team events of this stature. We have to give it our all. I expect Philippines to be our toughest opponents.”
Leverdez said that although France weren’t competing for the trophy as they were in Group 2, they had their task cut out in trying to top the group.
“Our men’s team did well last year in the Thomas Cup,” said Leverdez.
“We have our best-ever team and we will try to win our group.”
Meanwhile, Japan’s young star minced no words in declaring that his team was among the favourites to win the trophy.
Kento Momota (BWF home page) has been thrust into the role of spearhead; the 20-year-old, who was instrumental in Japan winning the Thomas Cup last year, was not overtly cautious, unlike other stars such as Korea’s Lee Yong Dae, China’s Zhao Yunlei or Indonesia’s Liliyana Natsir.
Wearing a T-shirt with ‘World Champion’ emblazoned across the front, Momota stated confidently: “Although I’m one of the youngest players in the team, I’m ready to take on the responsibility. Japan won the Thomas Cup last year while the women were runners-up in the Uber Cup. We have a strong squad and we are aiming to win the Sudirman Cup.”
Korea’s Lee (above; left) might be the lynchpin of his side as they try to wrest the title from defending champions China, but the charismatic Korean has a massive fan base in China and he acknowledged as much.
“I’m grateful for that. When I play here in China, when I hear the fans, I feel inspired to play my best. I’m the senior in the team. The result is very important to me. If Korea do badly in the group, it will be disastrous for us, so we will fight to win every match.”
Indonesia were close to upsetting China at the last edition of the Sudirman Cup. The ever-reliable Liliyana Natsir stated that this time too the Indonesians had a strong squad.
“Two years ago, I helped Indonesia win the first point against China,” said Natsir.
“This year we have a solid team; our first aim is to make the quarter-finals and take it from there.”
For Chen Long (left) and Zhao Yunlei, the event presents the opportunity of a historic tenth Sudirman Cup title and that too on home soil.
Chen claimed that he had forgotten all about China’s disappointing Thomas Cup campaign, while Zhao sounded a note of caution on the other teams.
“There is no such thing as ‘strong’ or ‘weak’ team,” Zhao said.
“All our rivals are a threat to us and we have to treat them with respect. Teams that were not traditional powers are now quite dangerous so we will be cautious.”