All England Open 2021: Returning Japanese, Axelsen's dominance in focus as action returns to Birmingham

The projected return of the Japanese armada, combined with the withdrawal of the South Korean and Chinese Taipei squads, and the continued absence of the Chinese contingent due to the grim COVID-19 situation at home, form the major points of discussion as the All England Badminton Championships kick-off at the Arena Birmingham from Wednesday, 17 March.

Shirish Nadkarni March 16, 2021 13:36:16 IST
All England Open 2021: Returning Japanese, Axelsen's dominance in focus as action returns to Birmingham

The projected return of the Japanese armada, combined with the withdrawal of the South Korean and Chinese Taipei squads, and the continued absence of the Chinese contingent due to the grim COVID-19 situation at home, form the major points of discussion as the All England Badminton Championships kick-off at the Arena Birmingham from Wednesday, 17 March.

Added to the list of absentees from this prestigious World Tour Super 1000 event is Spanish three-time world champion and 2016 Olympic gold medallist, Carolina Marin, who announced her withdrawal from the competition. Marin, a 2015 All England winner, sustained a Soleus muscle injury she picked up in the course of the recently concluded Swiss Open in Basel.

With the world’s top three women – Taiwanese Tai Tzu Ying, China’s Chen Yufei, and Marin – missing from the fray, the returning Japanese duo of Nozomi Okuhara (the 2017 world champion) and Akane Yamaguchi automatically don the mantle of pre-tournament favourites for the women’s singles title, won in 2020 by Tai. Of course, it is left to be seen how the two Japanese women fare, given their lengthy absence from competition.

All England Open 2021 Returning Japanese Axelsens dominance in focus as action returns to Birmingham

Japan's Nozomi Okuhara will be making a comeback at All England Open. File image.

Yamaguchi's last World Tour competition was the 2020 All England, where she went down to Marin in the quarter-finals. Okuhara, meanwhile, proved that her game has not suffered much since the start of the worldwide pandemic, beating Marin to the Denmark Open title last October. It will be interesting to see if the Japanese player's lack of competitive court time will have an impact on her game and fitness levels.

The men’s singles section has no such issues, as defending champion and 2017 World Championship winner, Viktor Axelsen of Denmark, will do his best to retain his hold over the title in the face of a challenge from two-time reigning world champion Kento Momota of Japan, who is returning to competition after 14 months in the wilderness, thanks to a variety of reasons. The two men have been placed at opposite ends of the draw, and can only encounter each other in the final.

Momota met with a potentially fatal road accident in Kuala Lumpur on 14 January, 2020, when he was on his way to the airport to catch his flight home after winning the Malaysian Open. He suffered serious facial injuries, including a smashed nose, and it took several months of rehabilitation before he was ready for international competitions. And then, on the eve of the three tournaments in Thailand earlier this year, he was struck down by COVID-19 , resulting in the withdrawal of the entire Japanese squad.

The 26-year-old Kagawa-born left-hander will have his work cut out against the attacking style of Axelsen, who has the distinction of winning 19 out of the last 20 matches he has played since his triumphant run at the 2020 All England. Following the resumption of the World Tour in November last year, Axelsen has only lost to fellow-countryman Anders Antonsen in the delayed 2020 World Tour final in Bangkok, in January this year.

Even though the imminent All England is not part of the qualification schedule for the Tokyo Olympics, the sheer importance of the event in the annual Badminton World Federation’s (BWF) World Tour calendar has induced the Indian squad to be out at full strength in Birmingham. Kidambi Srikanth and Co will do their utmost to emulate the heroics of 1980 winner Prakash Padukone and 2001 champion Pullela Gopichand, who remain the only two Indians to win the coveted title. Prakash Nath was runner-up in 1947, and Saina Nehwal finished second to Marin in 2015.

Clearly, the best chance of a title triumph among the Indians is that of current world champion PV Sindhu, who has been seeded fifth and placed in the same quarter of the draw as the third-seeded Yamaguchi. Sindhu opens her campaign against Malaysia’s Soniia Cheah, and will then face the winner of the opening-round clash between Indonesia’s Gregoria Mariska Tunjung and Denmark’s Line Christophersen. Yamaguchi has a brace of Frenchwomen and a Turk in her path, on the way to a quarter-final face-off with Sindhu.

Saina, the only other Indian woman in the singles draw, has a great chance of causing an upset, as she encounters Denmark’s seventh-seeded Mia Blichfeldt in her lung-opener on her 31st birthday on 17 March. The 23-year-old Dane was recently tamed in straight games in the Swiss Open semi-finals by Sindhu but has produced several strong performances in tournaments staged since the lifting of the tour suspension last October.

The last time Saina and Mia clashed was in the second round of the Basel World Championships in August 2019, when Blichfeldt won in three tough games at 15-21, 27-25, 21-12. The veteran Indian, who is clearly in the final stages of her wonderful career, has the potential to reverse that result and move further into the tournament, in a quarter of the draw dominated by Thailand’s fourth-seeded Ratchanok Intanon.

Among the men, eighth-seeded Kidambi Srikanth is the only Indian to be given pride of placing, but he faces several tough obstacles in his path to a projected quarter-final meeting with Indonesia’s diminutive Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, seeded fourth. Srikanth opens against scrappy Indonesian Tommy Sugiarto, a former World Championship bronze medallist; and could then face the winner of the clash between Thailand’s Khosit Phetpradab and Dutchman Mark Caljouw.

Teenager Lakshya Sen, who has recently recovered from a serious back injury, has a challenging first outing against Thailand’s Kantaphon Wangcharoen. If he wins, he runs into Ginting, with the winner of that match set to encounter Srikanth. Sameer Verma should get through his first outing against Brazilian Ygor Coelho, but will then run into Basel World Championship runner-up from Denmark, Anders Antonsen, who had the distinction of winning the World Tour finals in Bangkok in January 2021.

All England Open 2021 Returning Japanese Axelsens dominance in focus as action returns to Birmingham

Denmark's Viktor Axelsen starts favourite among men, having won 19 of his last 20 matches. AFP

Bhamidipati Sai Praneeth, who is only ranked in India behind his Gopichand Academy batch-mate Srikanth, should stroll past his first-round opponent, Toma Junior Popov of France, but will then have his hands full trying to contain the rampant second seed, Axelsen.

In the top section of the draw, old-timer Parupalli Kashyap will play top-seeded Momota in the very first round, with their winner set to take on the victor in the tie between HS Prannoy and Malaysia’s Daren Liew. This particular quarter of the draw also boasts sixth-seeded Malaysian, Lee Zii Jia, who had a forgettable outing in the Swiss Open, and will try to reverse some poor recent results.

The two Indonesian men’s doubles combinations that have been dominating world badminton for the past couple of years, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon-Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Mohammed Ahsan-Hendra Setiawan (known widely as the ‘Minions’ and ‘Daddies’, respectively, for the vast difference in their ages) return to action in Birmingham and have been rightly placed at opposite ends of the draw.

India’s only doubles pair to be ranked among the elite, Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty, have been given the sixth seeding and placed for a possible quarter-final meeting with the top-seeded Indonesian Minions. But before they get there, they will have a great chance to reverse their recent depressing Swiss Open result against Danes Kim Astrup and Anders Skaarup Rasmussen, who won the title in Basel. The two crack duos are projected to clash against each other in the second round.

One fervently hopes that the talented and hardworking Indian twosome takes full advantage of the absence of the two top Chinese doubles combinations, and the lack of tournament practice on the part of the Indonesian duos (all of them were absent from the three tournaments in Bangkok, earlier this year), and makes serious inroads into the men’s doubles draw in Birmingham.

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