Tuesday, April 30, 2019
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
Japan and China head into the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2019 as the two strongest teams in contention for the title. There will be a mountain of expectations on them, for very different reasons.
China, in Group 1D with India and Malaysia, face the daunting prospect of regaining the trophy in front of an expectant home crowd, with a squad that has a few questions to answer. The last time they hosted a team event – the TOTAL BWF Thomas & Uber Cup Finals in 2016, the men crashed out in the quarterfinals despite boasting of a number of world and Olympic champions in the team. The crowd wasn’t kind to then-head coach Li Yongbo.
China have been rebuilding the team after the Rio Olympics in 2016. Once nearly unbeatable in women’s singles and women’s doubles, their fortunes in these two categories took a downturn after Rio. However, there have been signs in the recent past that these two areas have been fortified. Chen Yufei and Chen Qingchen/Jia Yifan’s victory at the Yonex All England proved that China are still a force to be reckoned with in the two categories.
Chinese head coach Zhang Jun conceded there would be home pressure, but said that the team has come of age.
“It hurt a bit when we lost the last Sudirman Cup final,” said Zhang Jun. “But it was also an opportunity, since our young players got invaluable experience during the event last time. After our loss we repaired our mixed doubles, that’s why our current mixed doubles pair is doing so well.”
Top seeds Japan, who are in Group 1A with Thailand and Russia, face a different set of pressures. With Tokyo 2020 on the horizon, every major event carries enormous significance to fans of the team.
Having never won the World Mixed Team Championships, the Japanese are aware that they have their best shot at the title this year, for they have top-notch players in all five categories.
But in what seems a curious twist of fortune, their women’s doubles pairs have seemed vulnerable this season, just as the Sudirman Cup draws near. They will also hope that the ankle injury that Arisa Higashino suffered at the Badminton Asia Championships last week isn’t serious.
“Our next target is the Sudirman Cup, we’ve never won it,” said Japan head coach Park Joo Bong. “Over the last year we’ve had good results. Nippon Badminton Association also believes it’s a new challenge. We have a good chance to win. We want to try to be the champions, but it’s not going to be easy, because China will be on home ground.”
The two frontrunners apart, there are a few teams capable of making a strong pitch for the title. Indonesia, Chinese Taipei and India have the depth to trouble Japan and China.
Indonesia in particular, given their strength in men’s singles, men’s doubles and women’s doubles, will be aware of the historical significance of the Sudirman Cup this year – for it was 30 years ago that they won their one, and only, title.
Group 1C, with Chinese Taipei, Korea and Hong Kong, promises to be the most closely-fought sub-group in Group 1. Chinese Taipei have a strong all-round squad, with Chou Tien Chen and Tai Tzu Ying leading the challenge.
Defending champions Korea will count themselves unlucky after men’s singles spearhead Son Wan Ho was injured recently. They will hope that their young players in the other categories can step up to the plate.
Denmark have traditionally carried Europe’s hopes, but the recent retirement of doubles star Christinna Pedersen – who excelled in both her categories – is expected to hurt their prospects. England, who are in Group IB with Indonesia and Denmark, might thus fancy their chances of going through to the knock-out stage.