In some ways, contemporary Women’s Singles has elements that even Men’s Singles does not. The rivalry between the top ten women is keener than among the men. The diversity of styles among the women is certainly greater. Women’s Singles is therefore no more the sideshow but the main act. Over the past year, the battles among the top ten have elevated the sport and all signs are that 2014 could be a landmark year in terms of the standards set.
The factor that has caused this happy situation is the emergence of strong talent from Japan and Thailand. Players from those countries – along with their peers from China, Chinese Taipei, India and Korea – treated fans to some of badminton’s most enthralling matches last year.
The most encouraging aspect of Women’s Singles is that established stars are all in their early 20s and should have many years ahead of them. Any challenge to their reign will likely come from teenaged prodigies springing up periodically. It is also entertaining to watch distinct styles on show – the guile of Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon (BWF home page), for example, against the athleticism of China’s Wang Yihan; or the defensive skills of Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi (below) against the clever strokeplay of Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying.
Badminton fans have rarely had it so good!
For the moment, the Chinese trio of Li Xuerui, Wang Yihan (above) and Wang Shixian have an edge over the rest of the field, but only just. While they have dominated this category, the domination hasn’t been total or one-sided. China’s Big Three came up against inspired performances that required them to be on top of their game to prevail. At times, notably at the BWF World Championships, China’s iron grip on Women’s Singles title has been broken. Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon became the first non-Chinese player since Denmark’s Camilla Martin in 1999 to become World champion. Her victory was also only the third by a non-Chinese player since China debuted at the World Championships in 1983. The Thai’s wristy, deceptive style has introduced a different dimension to Women’s Singles and spices up her rivalry with other leading players.
Most encouragingly for Thailand, Intanon is not a one-off success story. Her rise has coincided with the emergence of others; the most well-known being Porntip Buranaprasertsuk, Nichaon Jindapon, Busanan Ongbumrungpan and Sapsiree Taerattanachai. Buranaprasertsuk was nearly spectacular through 2013, reaching two Superseries finals and becoming something of a thorn in the side of Olympic champion Li Xuerui. The Thai beat her in all their three matches in 2013 and, although she couldn’t add a Superseries title, did enough to suggest that she could be one to watch this year.
The rise of Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi has been incredible. The schoolgirl lived a fairytale at her home Superseries tournament – the Yonex Open Japan; emerging from qualification to win it. She then bagged the World Junior title. Primarily a retriever, Yamaguchi has shown maturity beyond her teenage years and that bodes well for the future of Women’s Singles badminton. Strong performances in the first two Superseries of 2014 – including a victory over Intanon – have convinced the badminton community that she is here to stay. She will perhaps be the most keenly followed of the younger generation.
The emergence of players like Sayaka Takahashi and Asian Junior champion, Aya Ohori, has given Japan additional reason to be pleased.
The top-ten player who would probably feel the most disappointed about her lacklustre form in the past year is India’s Saina Nehwal. Success in front her countrymen at the India Grand Prix Gold in late January salvaged the situation somewhat and might give her the confidence to regain her form of 2010, when she stood toe-to-toe with the very best.
Her younger team-mate, PV Sindhu (above), has had a steady run and a bronze at the BWF World Championships last year should serve as an appetiser for bigger conquests.
Another budding prospect who has already achieved much beyond her teenage years is Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying (below; right). The prodigy delighted crowds in Malaysia during the year-ending BWF World Superseries Finals last year after an incredible comeback over the in-form Wang Shixian in the semi-finals.
Two others who deserve mention are Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun (below; left) and Bae Yeon Ju, who have cemented their places among the elite.
Considering the rich fare on offer, the women have certainly have stolen some – if not all – of the spotlight away from the men!