Reading Time: 7 minutesAARON WONG brings you all the action from The Star Australian Badminton Open
Without a ticket to next year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, or having been on the scene 15 years ago to witness our own Olympiad, the 2015 edition of the Australian Badminton Open showcased an equivalent intensity of top competition. For only the second time in Australia, every world #1 across all five badminton disciplines was in attendance – including India’s Saina Nehwal for women’s singles. This marked yet another remarkable step up from its Superseries status debut a year ago which offered up the second highest prize money on the tournament circuit.
Such is the flux and close competition, amongst the top tier in the world of badminton, that since the previous Australian Open, five new world number ones have emerged – with no country represented twice; India and China for singles, and Denmark, Japan and Korea for doubles.
2015 WINNERS (AND LOSERS)
Taking line honours on Sunday 31 May were the powerhouse countries of the sport, Korea and China. Spain waved the flag for Europe as Denmark came runner-up, while Hong Kong surprised everyone – players, spectators and critics alike – as the the underdogs who beat out the second, third and fourth seeds to deservedly take their place amongst the other winners. There was the potential for an all-China whitewash like at the London 2012 Olympics, but China’s Liu Cheng was outclassed in both doubles finals he featured in.
At the beginning of the tournament, all of the top 20 men’s singles players were spread out in the draw making it extremely difficult for the defending champion and most recognisable face, the ‘bad boy’, of badminton, Lin Dan of China, to repeat the feat of last year.
Dan’s chance of setting up a mouth-watering final against top seeded compatriot Chen Long also wasn’t guaranteed as neither had an easy path through. The world #9, Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen, proved to be the first round tripping block for Lin due to a momentary lapse in concentration in the closing stages of their match where he led up to the last interval and change of ends.
The endearing young Dane who’s been enjoying a career best phase lately consolidated on the initial success of dismissing the most famous decorated badminton player of all time as well as a final’s appearance at the India Open two months prior to reach his second Superseries final before even half a calendar year is up.
World #1 Chen Long survived his own first round fright when India’s R.M.V. Gurusaidutt, ranked 62 places lower, led all the way through their first game. Chen was forced to fight the full distance and in the process unleash all his weapons.
The era of India threatening China’s chances at Olympic gold in the two singles categories is well under way. India may not have the same four or five top 10 players that China does at any given time, but according to the new qualification rules in badminton for Rio 2016, a country can submit up to two players from within the top 16. This means India does have enough players to send the maximum number of contestants and therefore have as many chances for medals as China.
In fact, India held two seeded Chinese players surnamed Wang to ransom in Round 1 proceedings. P.V. Sindhu, still just 19 years old, has been inside the top 10 for the women’s singles and now hovers at the borderline. Like Gurusaidutt, she very nearly cut the other Chinese former world #1 Wang Yihan out of the picture in Round 1 as well. Their battle was even closer as it reached the rubber game deuce stage and Sindhu held the first match point. Wang was against the wall to produce three more of her own to be able to escape Lin Dan’s fate.
Saina Nehwal reigns supreme in the world rankings despite coming up short in the quarter-final against former #1 Wang Shixian whom she beat at last year’s Australian Open semis – despite suffering blisters on her foot. Nehwal can hardly be considered off-form as she again convincingly beat China’s Sun Yu who won the Singapore Superseries which was the last big individual competition prior to the Australian Open. Winning the 2014 Australian Open brought back the tide after a two-year title drought for the 25 year old and since then Nehwal has taken home two more trophies at the China and India Opens, making it three Superseries championships in the course of 11 months.
Since 2014, Srikanth Kidambi has risen from being around the fifth or sixth player in India’s men’s singles stables and ranked beyond the top 30, to a career high at his present ranking of world #4 care of wins at the same two Superseries as Nehwal. Kidambi defeated Lin Dan in the China final and Viktor Axelsen in the India final. These soaring, and surprising, achievements have made him indisputably the most exciting fresh face in the world’s top 10, let alone top 5, as well as the only multiple Superseries winner in the past 12 months apart from Chen Long. The Australian Open, however, wasn’t meant to be for Kidambi who went down to China’s fourth soldier, the world #10, Tian Houwei in the most intense Round of 16 encounter for spectators.
Kashyap Parupalli, who has beaten both Chen Long and Viktor Axelsen before as well as Kidambi this year, was the dangerous underdog who pushed sixth seeded Wang Zhengming to the brink of match point but stopped short of converting. Parupalli, a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, has been as high as 6th in the world and now sits at #12. He should make it to the next Olympics as long as he can maintain this standard.
At a Superseries championship, finals day is regularly a letdown from the semis because it is difficult for all ten players to maintain peak condition for five matches in a row, but this wasn’t the case in Sydney in 2015.
Hong Kong’s pair Chau Hoi Wah / Lee Chun Hei and China’s Bao Yixin / Liu Cheng got finals day off to the perfect start by staying neck to neck in the scores, with both sides suffering nerves and rattled emotions all the way to the third game interval. The match had uncharacteristic unforced errors at serving the shuttle interspersed with brilliantly constructed strategically constructed rallies.
The constantly amazing part about mixed doubles is watching how unflinching and effective the women are at defending smashes from their male opponents. The tension on court transferred to the crowd when Hong Kong’s pair failed to close out the match in two games and appeared crestfallen as the third commenced, but their heart rates settled in the nick of time. The strong comeback at this closing stage, and a plan to keep the shuttle away from the more dangerous of the Chinese, the woman helming the forecourt, Bao, was the ultimate blow to their opponent’s confidence.
The All-China women’s doubles final was perfect for learning badminton strategy. Having one player of slight figure, veteran Ma Jin, ensured the styles of play would exhibit clear differentiation. The two players named Tang provided the heavier smashes for each side with Tang Jianhua more consistent at both defence and penetrating at offence than Tang Yuanting who accompanies Ma. Jianhua, with defending champion Tian Qing, earned the first match point before being quickly extinguished by Ma who raised the tempo and went for broke at deuce in the rubber game, which was a gamble that paid off for her and Yuanting.
Koreans Yoo Yeon Seong and Lee Yong Dae were the only defending champions to keep their title for another year and demonstrated why they are the world’s best at men’s doubles. Their two dimensional attack, as well as defending prowess, fooled and frustrated China’s pair of Liu Cheng / Lu Kai in straight games. General spectators still witnessed thunder and lightning bolt smashes in the fastest badminton discipline between two trigger happy pairs, but those who play the sport at all would also have appreciated how the Koreans had the measure of the match through their possession of the extra range of shots.
In what would have been Saina Nehwal’s match, two fighters took to the court in women’s singles. Former world #1 Wang Shixian kept pace but couldn’t outrun last year’s runner-up Carolina Marin of Spain. Since the Spaniard’s last visit to our shores she has gone on to acquire two of badminton’s most coveted prizes, the 2014 World Championship followed by the All England title three months ago. She is now the one to beat. Wang tailgated and was ever ready to take advantage of any dip in performance or pace, but that never transpired. This match between China and Spain was one pitting excellent against loftier quality.
The men’s singles final unfolded completely differently. Here was a dangerous Dane, greener in experience and range of skills, working to solve the problem of the Chinese top seed. It entailed taking risks, finding the right strategy and then varying these quantities subtly to not supply the stronger opponent anything predictable to beat. On this occasion, the better player – who was also the more consistent – prevailed because he managed to stay ahead the majority of the time which caused heavy psychological pressure resulting in a couple of crucial unforced errors at the end. This wasn’t helped by an overturned line call for the underdog Dane.
Typically, two geographically close Superseries are played back to back. The Indonesia Open preceded ours last year and follows the Australian Open this time around. Saina Nehwal is a three-time winner (2009, 2010, 2012) and can make amends with another bout against Wang Shixian in the quarter-final, but first she will need to remove her teammate P.V. Sindhu in Round 2.
Srikanth Kidambi has the same Round 1 opponent in the space of a week, Hans-Kristian Vittinghus of Denmark. Kidambi survived a near death experience to win their Australian battle where he was down four match points and unbelievably won six straight to take that match.
The Indians are indeed capable of challenging the dominance of the Chinese which should make for great viewing in Jakarta.
XD: Lee Chun Hei / Chau Hoi Wah (HKG) beat Liu Cheng / Bao Yixin (CHN)  21-19, 19-21, 21-15
WD: Ma Jin / Tang Yuanting (CHN)  beat Tang Jinhua / Tian Qing (CHN)  21-19, 16-21, 22-20
MS: Chen Long (CHN)  beat Viktor Axelsen (DEN) 21-12, 14-21, 21-18
WS: Carolina Marin (ESP)  beat Wang Shixian (CHN)  22-20, 21-18
MD: Lee Yong Dae / Yoo Yeon Seong (KOR)  beat Liu Cheng / Lu Kai (CHN) 21-16, 21-17