Japan created history at New Delhi last month, winning the Thomas Cup in their very first final. After a thrilling 3-2 triumph over Malaysia to clinch the title, Japan’s head coach Park Joo Bong expressed confidence that the title would lead to greater popularity for the sport in the country.
One early indicator of Japan’s improved badminton fortunes would be spectator interest at their home MetLife BWF World Superseries which has attracted a top-class line-up. Of all the assembled stars, one in particular is sure to make heads turn: World and Olympic champion Lin Dan (left) of China, who returns to World Superseries action after March 2012.
In the interim, although Lin has picked up a clutch of medals, including gold medals at the London Olympics, World Championships and Asian Championships, he has skipped all the World Superseries. Waiting for him in the first round of Men’s Singles qualifying will be local hope Kazumasa Sakai. If Lin passes that test, he will run into Malaysia’s Daren Liew or Frenchman Thomas Rouxel.
Lin Dan announced during the Thomas Cup competition that his target for the year would be to finish in the top-8 of the BWF Destination Dubai Rankings, which would qualify him for the year-ending BWF Destination Dubai World Superseries Finals. The Yonex Open Japan is sixth in the 12-tournament strong MetLife BWF World Superseries circuit and Lin will need a strong performance at Japan to start his climb back into the top-8 of the BWF Destination Dubai Rankings.
World No.1 Lee Chong Wei of Malaysia will seek a hat-trick of titles as he begins his campaign against a qualifier on Wednesday. Lee has the likes of K Srikanth (India), Tommy Sugiarto (Indonesia, 5), Viktor Axelsen (Denmark) and Kenichi Tago (Japan) in his half. If Lin Dan qualifies and plays to expectations, fans could be in with a treat for the final, assuming of course that Lin Dan gets past his compatriot Chen Long (2), another strong contender to make the final.
Perhaps the biggest question will be around Japan’s Thomas Cup heroes. Kento Momota and Takuma Ueda (BWF home page) are in the lower half of the draw, with Momota drawn to meet third seed Jan O Jorgensen (Denmark) in his opening encounter. With so many top-level contenders in this half, an air of unpredictability hovers about the possible outcomes. Both Momota and Tago are within the top-8 of the BWF Destination Dubai Rankings and will hope to go far in their home event to pick up as many ranking points as possible to ensure their places for Dubai’s year-ending extravaganza.
Several young Japanese, such as Riichi Takeshita, Akira Koga, Kenta Nishimoto, Rei Sato and Kazuteru Kozai, will hope to qualify from a field that includes Xue Song, Gao Huan (both China) and Wong Wing Ki of Hong Kong.
The two big names missing from Women’s Singles are the in-form Wang Shixian (China) and India’s Saina Nehwal. Wang’s compatriots Li Xuerui (1) and Wang Yihan (2) head the opposite halves of the draw, sandwiching contenders like Thailand’s Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand, 3), Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun (4), India’s Sindhu PV, Chinese Taipei’s Tai Tzu Ying (6) and Spain’s Carolina Marin (right). Sayaka Sato, once one of Japan’s top players but currently No.75, faces Chinese Taipei’s Pai Hsiao Ma in the opening round.
The local attention will be focussed on home prodigy Akane Yamaguchi, who won this tournament as a qualifier last year, becoming the youngest-ever Women’s Singles World Superseries champion. Yamaguchi, who defended her BWF World Junior Championships title earlier this year, once again starts in qualifying. Apart from Austria’s Simone Prutsch and Chinese Taipei’s Pai Yu Po, all the others in the qualifying draw are Japanese. If Yamaguchi qualifies, as she is expected to, fans will be treated to a first round clash between her and Olympic champion Li Xuerui.
* Finnish Open 2014 winners in Men’s Doubles, Denmark's Kim Astrup Sorensen/Anders Skaarup Rasmussen (above), have a tough first round lined up against Korea’s Lee Yong Dae/Yoo Yeon Seong. Other Danes in the draw include second seeds Mathias Boe/Carsten Mogensen and Mads Pieler Kolding/Mads Conrad-Petersen in a field that includes World champions Mohammad Ahsan/Hendra Setiawan of Indonesia and third seeds Hiroyuki Endo/Kenichi Hayakawa of Japan, who head the BWF Destination Dubai Rankings at the moment.
* The Mixed Doubles field appears clear for China’s Zhang Nan/Zhao Yunlei, who last won a tournament in January. Barring major surprises, their stiffest test could come from Korean third seeds Ko Sung Hyun/Kim Ha Na (above) or second seeds Chris Adcock/Gabrielle Adcock (England) in the final.
* Despite the wealth of Women’s Doubles talent at their disposal, China have fielded only one established pair: Bao Yixin/Tang Jinhua. The experienced Ma Jin teams up with youngster Tang Yuanting, while the European challenge consists mainly of second seeds Christinna Pedersen/Kamilla Rytter Juhl (Denmark); Gabrielle Adcock/Lauren Smith and Heather Olver/Kate Robertshaw (both England).