Saturday, August 6, 2016
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
Fascinating clashes of styles and personalities look set to unfold in Rio as the world’s finest singles players battle for the sport’s biggest prize.
In both Men’s Singles and Women’s Singles, the draw that was conducted on 26 July ensured a fine, titillating balance. It will be a tightrope walk for the big names, and only those with the nerve, stamina and skill will be left standing on the podium.
The big question in Men’s Singles was on the position of defending champion Lin Dan (China) vis-à-vis Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia), and as it turned out, they are slated to clash in the semi-finals – a departure from the last two Olympics, when they starred in the gold medal bout.
Lin’s style has noticeably changed since the last Olympics – he has become more conservative in attack, and relies more on placement and control; Lee however has shown little sign of shifting tack, and if anything, has become ever more dominant with his pace and attack.
Their path to the semi-finals is anything but a foregone conclusion. Lin will probably have to deal with either Jan O Jorgensen (Denmark) or Kidambi Srikanth in his quarter-final. He will remember a near-humiliating 21-17 21-4 whipping that the Dane handed to him in their last clash in April.
Before he gets to Lin, however, Jorgensen will have to be cautious in his Group G matches against France’s Brice Leverdez and Estonia’s Raul Must. Leverdez does have a win to his credit from five matches against Jorgensen.
Lee, meanwhile, has a potential quarter-final against the attacking Chinese Taipei player Chou Tien Chen or Hong Kong’s crafty Hu Yun. Few will expect Lee to falter, but stranger things have happened at the Olympics.
Group surprises might occur frequently over the first four days – with the big stage and consequent attention working well for the underdog. In particular, Germany’s Marc Zwiebler in Group K (group-mates: Brazil’s Ygor Coelho de Oliveira and Ireland’s Scott Evans) and Great Britain’s Rajiv Ouseph in Group I (Japan’s Sho Sasaki and Czech Republic’s Petr Koukal) will have to brace for stiff resistance early on.
This time last year, Chen Long was the favourite to clinch his second World title – which he duly did, riding on irresistible form. At the moment, though, Chen might be bedevilled by a few worries – for a start, he has as group-mate Guatemala’s Kevin Cordon, who ambushed him at the 2011 World Championships.
In the knock-out stage will probably be Korea’s Son Wan Ho and Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen (featured image) – both have beaten him in their previous encounters. The two-time World champion has been lined up for a few ordeals, and if he emerges unscathed, it will mean he has fought off the disappointment of his Thomas Cup loss which led to China’s eviction in the quarter-finals of the World Men’s Team Championships.
Axelsen’s form over the past few months, and his stellar role in leading Denmark to its first-ever Thomas Cup title, make him a leading contender for the gold medal. Having faltered at the final step of six World Superseries tournaments, this could well be the occasion for him to savour the big moment.
The clash of styles among accomplished players is even more vivid in Women’s Singles, making Rio a likely candidate for the hardest-fought Olympic title in that category.
No less than eight genuine contenders line up for a shot at glory: two-time World champion Carolina Marin (Spain), Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun, defending champion Li Xuerui and bronze medallist Saina Nehwal (India) in the top half; the bottom half has Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara, Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon, Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying and China’s Wang Yihan. Then there are the names who can beat any player on their day: Canada’s Michelle Li, her group-mate PV Sindhu (India), Thailand’s Porntip Buranaprasertsuk and Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi.
In this rich mix of characters, individual styles stand out: The speed and power of Marin and Li Xuerui, the relentlessness of Nehwal and Okuhara, the grace of Sung Ji Hyun, the strokeful inventions of Tai Tzu Ying, and the craft of Intanon and Wang Yihan.
Okuhara and Sindhu possibly have the hardest groups, as they will have to contend with Indonesia’s Lindaweni Fanetri and Michelle Li respectively. Marin will have to deal with Denmark’s Line Kjaersfeldt and Sung with France’s Delphine Lansac and Singapore’s Liang Xiaoyu.
If this season’s form is any indicator, Intanon has the most momentum going into the Olympics – she was in sublime form over three successive weeks in India, Malaysia and Singapore – when she achieved an unprecedented three successive World Superseries title wins. Tai Tzu Ying then followed in her footsteps, weaving a magical spell in Indonesia, before Nehwal rediscovered her winning form in Australia. Wang Yihan bounced back into form with a title win at the Badminton Asia Championships – the only Chinese to win a major Women’s Singles title this season.
Assuming no upsets, the quarter-final line-up could feature Marin against Sung, Li Xuerui against Nehwal; Okuhara against Intanon and Tai Tzu Ying against Wang Yihan.
The order of play for the Badminton Competition at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games can be viewed here