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All England 2014: Day 1 - Epic All England in the Making?

The opening salvos in the latest edition of the world’s oldest badminton tournament will be fired tomorrow at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham.

Notwithstanding today’s qualifiers, the sport’s top guns take to the courts from tomorrow morning in the first round of this special event, giving fans the opportunity to assess who looks most ready for a title assault.

The Yonex All England Open occupies a special place in the hearts of badminton lovers. Started in 1899 as the ‘Badminton Association Tournament’, it has witnessed over a century of changing norms in every aspect of the sport. It stands unparalleled as the event with the richest history and it’s not surprising that two-time champion Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia, despite an injury scare last week, has decided to participate.

The 31-year-old has an impressive record at the All England: he has made every final in the last five years, winning two. In the last two editions he fell short of his two biggest rivals, both from China: in 2012 to Lin Dan and last year to Chen Long. In the absence of Lin Dan this year, Lee and Chen are again expected to clash in the final. Lee’s talk of possible retirement later this year adds another dimension to the All England saga as this could be the last occasion he graces the NIA courts.

However, before the final materialises, both Lee and Chen will have to ensure they are not ambushed en route to Sunday’s showpiece. Lee has the tougher path, clashing with Thai left-hander Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk first up. The quarter-final could pose a problem, with potential opponents like Du Pengyu (China), K Srikanth (India) and Kento Momota (Japan). Jan O Jorgensen (Denmark) or Kenichi Tago (Japan) is seeded to meet him in the semi-final.

Chen has a tricky first round against lanky Dane Viktor Axelsen, with a sterner test looming in the semi-finals in Indonesia’s Tommy Sugiarto, who won their last encounter at the Indonesia Open. Chen, given his recent record, is tipped to retain his title.

It is harder to predict the course of Women’s Singles, although the top two Chinese (Li Xuerui and Wang Yihan) start as favourites. However, a number of strong challengers lurk in the draw, chief among them is World champion Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand, 3), who hasn’t won a title since the BWF World Championships in August 2013 and would be hungry to prove herself once again. Intanon – last year’s All England runner-up to Denmark’s Tine Baun (now retired) – may face eighth seed Tai Tzu Ying of Chinese Taipei in a potential quarter-final between two brilliant stroke-players.

It is Wang Yihan’s quarter that is the most intriguing. She starts against talented Spaniard Carolina Marin; further progress might be impeded by PV Sindhu of India, Bae Yeon Ju of Korea, Sayaka Takahashi of Japan, Chan Tsz Ka (Hong Kong) or Thailand’s Porntip Buranaprasertsuk. Takahashi is coming off a title triumph in Germany and might well breeze through on confidence. All in all, it’s an open draw with intriguing prospects.

World champions Mohammad Ahsan/Hendra Setiawan of Indonesia head the Men’s Doubles draw, especially in the absence of their tormentors Lee Yong Dae/Yoo Yeon Seong (Korea). While Lee Yong Dae and compatriot Kim Ki Jung serve bans for anti-doping violations, Korea’s hopes hinge on Ko Sung Hyun/Shin Baek Choel. Defending champions China’s Liu Xiaolong/Qiu Zihan will look to end a long title drought, while Danish duo, Mathias Boe/Carsten Mogensen, and Japan’s Hiroyuki Endo/Kenichi Hayakawa are the other strong contenders. Recent winners of the Malaysia Open on home court, Goh V Shem/Lim Khim Wah, and Yonex German Open winners Takeshi Kamura/Keigo Sonoda (Japan) might cause some ripples in the draw.

China’s pairs are expected to hold centrestage in Women’s Doubles. What makes the draw particularly interesting is the presence of Olympic champions Tian Qing/Zhao Yunlei, World champions Yu Yang/Wang Xiaoli and the pair with the hottest victory streak at the moment, Bao Yixin/Tang Jinhua. All of them are in the same half, alongside other strong pairs such as Jang Ye Na/Kim So Young (Korea) and Miyuki Maeda/Reika Kakiiwa (Japan). Second seeds Christinna Pedersen/Kamilla Rytter Juhl of Denmark thus have a fairly smooth path to the semi-finals, where they might run into recent German Open champions, Misaki Matsutomo/Ayaka Takahashi of Japan.

The Mixed Doubles in recent times has been dominated by four pairs: Olympic champions Zhang Nan/Zhao Yunlei (China); World champions Tontowi Ahmad/Liliyana Natsir (Indonesia), Joachim Fishcer Nielsen/Christinna Pedersen (Denmark) and Xu Chen/Ma Jin (China). Apart from these four, fifth seeds Chris Adcock/Gabrielle White (England) could be the ones to watch, as they seek to be the first home pair to win the All England since Nathan Robertson/Gail Emms in 2005.

QUALIFIERS:

* Derek Wong (Singapore), Misbun Ramdan Mohmed Misbun (Malaysia), Gao Huan (China) and Lee Dong Keun (Korea) came through the Men’s Singles qualifying rounds. Misbun outlasted Ville Lang (Finland), who retired after getting caught in his second marathon match of the day. Earlier Lang survived a thriller against Emil Holst of Denmark, saving three match points: 19-21 23-21 25-23. Lang retired against Misbun with the score at 18-21 21-11 16-3.

* Hsu Ya Ching of Chinese Taipei, Beiwen Zhang (USA), Chloe Magee of Ireland and Kristina Gavnholt (Czech Republic) all negotiated their way into the Women’s Singles main draw. Zhang rebounded to defeat Germany’s Karin Schnaase 17-21 21-6 21-16 for her place in today’s first round.

* Two English pairs qualified in Men’s Doubles: Peter Briggs/Harley Towler and Marcus Ellis/Tom Wolfenden. They were joined by Fu Haifeng/Zhang Nan (China) and Chan Yun Lung/Lee Chun Hee (Hong Kong). Fu Haifeng/Zhang Nan overcame spirited resistance from Malaysia’s Gan Teik Chai/Ong Soon Hock in the first qualifying round before progressing, 21-9 19-21 22-20.

* China’s Ma Jin and her latest Women’s Doubles partner, Tang Yuanting, advanced to the main draw, along with Isabel Herttrich/Carla Nelte (Germany); Poon Lok Yan/Chau Hoi Wah of Hong Kong; and Indonesians, Suci Rizky Andini/Tiara Rosalia Nuraidah.

* The pair qualifying in Mixed Doubles are: Lu Kai/Huang Yaqiong of China; Chai Biao/Tang Jinhua (China); Denmark’s Mads Pieler Kolding/Kamilla Rytter Juhl;  and English hopefuls, Matthew Nottingham/Lauren Smith.

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