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2014 Preview - Men's Singles: Lull Before the Storm?

If January offered us a trailer of what is to come then 2014 promises to be a blockbuster season in Men’s Singles.

The year has more badminton action than usual for, apart from the regular circuit featuring elite players, a few team and multi-sport events are lined up. The European Championships are scheduled for April, the Thomas Cup for May, the Commonwealth Games for July-August, and the Asian Games for September-October.

Another special event is likely to generate much curiosity. The Australian Open makes its debut as a Superseries in June. Badminton lovers will be keen to see the impact a Superseries event will make on the sporting population of Australia.

The Big Two in Men’s Singles – China’s Chen Long and Malaysia’s Lee Chong Wei (left) – have each won a Superseries title already this year; setting the scene for more dramatic action to unfold. The cast of characters of course extends beyond the two lead players and by year-end we will know whether these two continue to hold their place or ifsome other actor will steal the spotlight.

What makes this year’s script all the more engrossing is that the world No. 1, Lee Chong Wei, has announced this will probably be his last. After capturing the Malaysia Open rather easily, he stated matter-of-factly that he would continue until the Asian Games and then assess his state of body and mind. The announcement of his possible retirement was greeted by stunned silence as the impact of what he said sunk into his audience.

The announcement is particularly significant because, if this is indeed Lee’s last hurrah, it will be his final opportunity at the title which has long eluded him: the BWF World Championship. He has come close to it on two occasions and faltered. Given the toll he says badminton has taken on his body, it is likely this will also be his last realistic shot at the Asian Games gold medal also.

His most formidable rival for these crowns will be Chen Long (BWF home page) who has dominated him in recent times. Worryingly for Lee, Chen has beaten him in straight games in their last four matches – finals of Superseries tournaments.

But while Chen and Lee are the two biggest contenders at any event, it would be foolish to ignore the prospects of others. Denmark’s Jan O Jorgensen’s (right) graph has been steadily rising and the year began well for him with a semi-final in Malaysia. His younger compatriot Viktor Axelsen, despite a succession of early-round defeats at the Superseries in 2013, will look to make this his breakthrough year.

The European challenge will therefore come mainly from the Danes, Rajiv Ouseph (England) and Marc Zwiebler (Germany), who have held their own against younger opposition.

Chen’s compatriots Du Pengyu and Wang Zhengming, and younger contenders such as Chen Yuekun and Tian Houwei aren’t yet in his league, but they have lent depth to China’s Men’s Singles. Meanwhile, World champion Lin Dan has dropped to 103 in the rankings. His return to the circuit is unclear.

Japan’s progress in Men’s Singles has followed a dream script. While senior pro Kenichi Tago (below) faltered at the final step in claiming a Superseries win last year, he is one of the few to have beaten both Chen Long and Lee Chong Wei in recent times. Tago’s fans will hope he can break his Superseries jinx in 2014.

A few of Tago’s younger compatriots too have excited spectators worldwide. Foremost among them is Kento Momota, the 2012 World Junior champion, who has fast risen up the ranks, and is now No.14, earning praise from no less a person that Lee Chong Wei. Japan has other strong Men’s Singles players in Takuma Ueda and Kazumasa Sakai.

Of all the traditional badminton powers, the one most worried about its immediate future would be Malaysia. Lee Chong Wei’s announcement of a possible retirement has led to much soul-searching in his country, especially as his younger compatriots like Liew Daren and Chong Wei Feng haven’t measured up to expectations. The attention is now on players like Zulfadli Zulkiffli and Soo Teck Zhi. Like Malaysia, Indonesia too has had problems in producing top-quality Men’s Singles talent. Their best player Tommy Sugiarto (No. 3; below) however has performed exceptionally, and reached two finals in Malaysia in December and January, only to fall to Lee Chong Wei. The soft-spoken Indonesian, ranked No.3, will hope to prevail at the majors over his more fancied rivals.

Korea has some young players in Son Wan Ho and Lee Dong Keun, while India boasts a talented bunch, spearheaded by Kashyap Parupalli and Srikanth Kidambi. At their best, all of these are capable of causing a stir among more illustrious company.

The quiet interlude between the Malaysia Open earlier this year and the German Open GP Gold in late February might well be the lull before the storm!

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