KOREA OPEN 2011 Preview – For richer, for stronger

Badminton’s first million-dollar event is set to kick off.  With the strongest field ever assembled on the Korean peninsula, the questions surrounding the Korea Open Premier Super Series are how […]

Badminton’s first million-dollar event is set to kick off.  With the strongest field ever assembled on the Korean peninsula, the questions surrounding the Premier Super Series are how well Korea’s stars will fare and how many Korean spectators will care.

By Don Hearn, Badzine Correspondent.  Photos: Badmintonphoto

The 2011 badminton calendar will begin three times this month.  The first tournament was already the Super Series Finals, but that was really just finishing off 2010.  Then last week, we had the start of the new Super Series.  Now, we have the 2011 Victor Korea Open Super Series, the inaugural tournament of the brand new Premier Super Series.

Forget the strongest field ever in Korea, with the new BWF compulsory this is quite possibly the strongest field ever, period.  There are no limits per country or mandatory continental representation.  Barring injuries, every single one of the best players who are yet to retire will be playing in Seoul this week.  In fact, even the very recently injured are under pressure to at least show up.  After all, sources within the BWF say that Saina Nehwal still got stuck with a fine for missing Taipei, doctor’s note or no.  Not even the fields at the prestigious All England have ever had that kind of a guarantee.

Even Taufik Hidayat (pictured right) and Lin Dan – victims of the two biggest line call controversies of the last ten years (both in Korea) – are coming.  Both have won in Korea before, of course – Taufik the Asian Games gold in Busan 2002 and Lin the Korea Open in 2002 and 2007 – but while Taufik has been back twice since his walk-off, then glory, Lin has been absent for the two editions since his famous racquet-hurling in the 2008 final.  Both players have been struggling with injuries and have each granted a walkover to Chen Long, coincidentally, since the beginning of the year, Taufik at the Super Series Finals and Lin Dan at the Malaysia Open.

Best of Denmark return

Denmark’s top competitors will be in Korea after taking the week off for the Malaysia Open.  However, their layoff was less a preference for playing in the familiarly chilly Korean capital over tropical Kuala Lumpur and more a results of injuries and, of course, the compulsory nature of the new Premier Super Series events.  Reigning All England champion Tine Baun, Super Series Finals champions Mathias Boe / Carsten Mogensen (pictured left), and Peter Gade, finalist in Taipei, they will all be descending on snowy Seoul in search of titles they have won before, when the was only a quarter of what it is now.  Ditto for past finalists Laybourn/Rytter Juhl.

From outside of Korea, a few more top players will be making their 2011 debuts, including Singapore Open champion Sony Dwi Kuncoro, last year’s Malaysia Open semi-finalist Eriko Hirose, and, of course, India’s top two singles players, Hong Kong Open champion Saina Nehwal, and Parupalli Kashyap.  As all of these have been struggling with injuries – and all but Saina having registered for the Malaysia Open and later dropping out – their participation can still be considered in doubt.

Marquee players ready to duke it out

For all the top international stars on the docket for Seoul this week, the only act likely to bring Koreans out of their homes and through the coldest winter in recent memory is still Lee Yong Dae and Jung Jae Sung (pictured top).  Runners-up at the Super Series Finals in Taipei earlier this month, Jung and Lee chose to stay home rather than re-live their nightmarish trip to Kuala Lumpur last year and concentrate on preparing for their title defense in Olympic Park.

But two more past champions have designs on the first Premier Super Series title and have also been resting this week, and keeping themselves from the perils of climate swings.  In addition to Boe and Mogensen, who beat the home favourites in the 2009 final, 2008 champions Fu Haifeng and Cai Yun (pictured right), who lost cliffhangers to Jung/Lee in last year’s final then another to Boe/Mogensen in the Taipei semi-finals, are going to be a real force to be reckoned with.

Of the three, Jung/Lee likely have the trickiest start, going up against 2005 World Champions Tony Gunawan / Howard Bach of the United States, interestingly, for their first ever meeting in this configuration.  Beyond that match, the Koreans have two teams that have troubled them in the past six months – Malaysia’s Koo/Tan and Asian Games gold medallists Kido/Setiawan of Indonesia – as well as a dangerous new Chinese pairing in the form of mixed specialists Xu Chen and Zhang Nan, all in their half of the draw.

Cai/Fu, for their part, will have a tough time making it to the weekend, playing the winner of the Malaysia Open final rematch, which will be a first round contest in Seoul.  Next up in the quarter-finals, it will likely be the World Champions against the Super Series Finals winners Boe and Mogensen.

First round men’s doubles matches of note:
Guo Zhendong / Chai Biao (CHN) vs. Jonas Rasmussen / Mads Conrad-Petersen (DEN)
Jung Jae Sung / Lee Yong Dae (KOR) [6] vs. Tony Gunawan / Howard Bach (USA)
Koo Kien Keat / Tan Boon Heong (MAS) [2] vs. Kwon Yi Goo / Cho Gun Woo (KOR)
Hendra Aprida Gunawan / Alvent Yulianto (INA) [8] vs. Chen Hung Ling / Lin Yu Lang (TPE)

All the best women, minus 2

The only draw that is missing two top ten competitors is the women’s singles, where Pi Hongyan and Wang Lin are both at home due to knee surgery.  What will keep this interesting though, is the 2011 debut of some very dangerous first- and second-tier players.  Saina Nehwal (pictured), Tine, and Eriko were mentioned earlier.  Also, though, we have two veterans from Korea, Hwang Hye Youn and Bae Seung Hee, who will be trying to do some damage to this star-studded field.

Bae Seung Hee will have a crucial first-round test against German veteran Juliane Schenk, who really had her way against Korean shuttlers last year, and picked up where she left off with a victory over Sung Ji Hyun last week. Sung, incidentally, will have to face off against compatriot Bae Youn Joo (pictured below) to earn passage to the quarter-final date with Wang Xin, if the top seed can emerge from her own problematic corner of the draw.

Tine Baun has to start off with a rematch against China’s Li Xuerui, who won their last encounter, at the French Open.  Saina Nehwal also starts off with a repeat of her Singapore Open final against Taiwan teenager Tai Tzu Ying.

First round women’s singles matches of note:
Tine Baun (DEN) [5] vs. Li Xuerui (CHN)
Saina Nehwal (IND) [4] vs. Tai Tzu Ying (TPE)
Juliane Schenk (GER) [7] vs. Bae Seung Hee (KOR)
Wong Mew Choo (MAS) vs. Liu Xin (CHN)
Wang Yihan (CHN) [3] vs. Ratchanok Intanon (THA)

Korea slips, China slides in

Two disciplines that Korea has a strong history in but which now seem woefully beyond them are women’s and mixed doubles.  Former world #2’s Kim Min Jung and Ha Jung Eun, after a brief and unsuccessful reunion last week, are back with new partners.  Last year’s semi-finalists, Yoo Hyun Young and Jung Kyung Eun have been split up too, but their fellow Korean Grand Prix finalists, Eom Hye Won and Kim Ha Na (pictured bottom), are hot off a narrow loss to the world #1 pair last week and will be ready to do well at home.  Eom and Kim should come through qualifying to face Polii/Jauhari in the first round, hoping to earn another shot at top seeds Cheng/Chien.

Still, even with Korea’s youngsters in the mix and Japan back at full force, Chinese domination is a near certainty and only a fool would bet against a repeat of the Malaysia Open semi-finals as all four Chinese pairs are again in four different quarters.

First round women’s doubles matches of note:
Cheng Wen Hsing / Chien Yu Chin (TPE) [1] vs. Christinna Pedersen / Kamilla Rytter Juhl (DEN)
Greysia Polii / Meiliana Jauhari (INA) vs. Eom Hye Won / Kim Ha Na (KOR) (possible)

The mixed title has stayed in Korea on 12 of 20 occasions in the history of the Korea Open.  However, with the retirement of Lee Hyo Jung, the decision for Lee Yong Dae to concentrate on men’s doubles, and with Asian Games gold medallist Shin Baek Cheol orphaned of a partner and then withdrawn, there is a serious weight on the shoulders of Kim/Yoo and Ha Jung Eun / Ko Sung Hyun.  The former will even be facing #2 seeds Sudket Prapakamol / Saralee Thoungthongkam of Thailand in the first round.

All this, as well as Saturday’s injury to Hong Kong Open champion Joachim Fischer Nielsen points to China again.  Although newly crowned Malaysia Open champion Ma Jin will be playing with a new partner against the third seeds from Poland Robert Mateusiak / Nadiezda Zieba (pictured), defending champions He Hanbin and Yu Yang have been reunited for this tournament and should play the winner of that match in the quarter-finals, unless Asian Champions Chan/Goh have anything to say in the matter.

First round mixed doubles matches of note:
Hendra Wijaya / Yao Lei (SIN) vs. Hong Wei / Bao Yixin (CHN) (qualifying)
Zhang Nan / Zhao Yunlei (CHN) [5] vs. Anastasia Russkikh (RUS) / Hendra Setiawan (INA)
Robert Mateusiak / Nadiezda Zieba (POL) [3] vs. Xu Chen / Ma Jin (CHN)
Sudket Prapakamol / Saralee Thoungthongkam (THA) [2] vs. Yoo Yeon Seong / Kim Min Jung (KOR)
Diju Valiyaveetil / Jwala Gutta (IND) vs. Nathan Robertson / Jenny Wallwork (ENG)
Chen Hung Ling / Cheng Wen Hsing (TPE) vs. Songphon Anugritayawon / Kunchala Voravichitchaikul (THA)

The power and the question marks

Men’s singles is an unusually strong field for a tournament in Korea, for the reasons mentioned above.   Defending champion Lee Chong Wei is the man in form.  Taufik Hidayat, Simon Santoso, and Peter Gade (pictured left) have all shown that they are strong competitors for the number three position.  China Open champion Chen Long is obviously a serious contender and World Champion Chen Jin insists that his loss to Simon in Malaysia can still be a fluke.

One question that remains is whether the prize money, the extra ranking points, or the BWF’s new hardline stance on withdrawals will have any effect on the will or ability of Lin Dan or the other injury-plagued stars to fight through to the final.  If Lin Dan (pictured below) is match-ready, he will find himself in a quarter full of qualifiers and Taufik Hidayat, to whom he has not lost even a game since 2006.

Korea’s chances in this event seem slim again.  Top shuttler Park Sung Hwan can only venture past the second round with a first-ever win over the amazing Lee Chong Wei.  2008 wonderboy Lee Hyun Il will have to win a rematch against China’s Wang Zhengming just to get into the main draw.  Shon Wan Ho starts against the dangerous Tago Kenichi and then his path would be blocked by the winner between Chen Long and Nguyen Tien Minh.

Still, if both Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei stay healthy and are playing at their best, then the crowds – more on that later – will be treated to yet another classic to follow on from the Beijing Olympics and the Guangzhou Asian Games and this time, they will be playing for money as well as the usual motivators.

First round men’s singles matches of note:
Lee Chong Wei (MAS) [1] vs. Jan Jorgensen (DEN)
Chen Long (CHN) [4] vs. Nguyen Tien Minh (VIE)
Bao Chunlai (CHN) [8] vs. Sony Dwi Kuncoro (INA)
Boonsak Ponsana (THA) [7] vs. Simon Santoso (INA)
Wang Zhengming (CHN) vs. Lee Hyun Il (KOR) (qualifying – possible)

North and South

The last time scores of international badminton stars strutted their stuff in Korea, their departure was marked by the nation’s first snowfall.  Now, as they prepare to board the planes from Kuala Lumpur, this peninsula has again been carpeted by fresh powder.  Several of the Danes have forgone the balmy interlude to go from snow to snow.  A factor?  It is true that in the last decade, there have been only four Korea Open winners from among the legions of Southeast Asian shuttlers, two of those victories having come on the one occasion when the Open took place in the summer.

The biggest, the best, but the most?

The Korea Open has been the most lucrative tournament since the turn of the millennium, except for the two special cases when the Super Series Finals surpassed it temporarily.  Of course, paradoxically, the way badminton is set up, it is less likely the big prize money and more likely the new BWF rules about compulsory Premier Super Series attendance that have produced a field of this quality.  However, another paradox is that there is little reason to expect that the best ever field in Korea will produce the biggest ever crowds.

Contrary to the fictional words of W.P. Kinsella, ‘If you build it, they will come’ has no bearing on real life if ‘they’ don’t know it’s been built.  There is no evidence on the ground that the quadrupling in prize money has been accompanied by any increase in the marketing budget.  Rank-and-file recreational players in the vicinity are still, in the main, unaware that the tournament is even happening.

Rumours of Lin Dan’s attendance are largely irrelevant in places where, apart from Lee Yong Dae’s schoolgirl following, there are naught but fans of ‘Korea winning’.  Even advance ticket sales began less than two weeks before the tournament kick-off, despite there being fifty percent more seats to fill than last year, with the venue change.

Fortunately, the BWF has taken steps to ensure that their efforts will not be wasted and that the record prize money will go to the best of the best.  Broadcasting partners have indicated that they will be making televised or streamed coverage available once again so that the top-flight badminton that will assuredly take place in Olympic Park this week will be appreciated all over the world.  And still, the local athletes will continue to excel despite the obscurity as they have for the last thirty years, in what local insiders call a ‘no-popularity sport’.

Of course, those who do brave the sub-zero climes in Seoul, to do the mere 400m walk from the subway to the No. 1 Olympic Gymnasium, will get the same reward but in living colour: the sights and sounds of badminton world’s very best vying for badminton history’s richest prize.

To view the complete draws CLICK HERE

You can follow all the action from Olympic Park in Seoul here on Badzine.  We will be on site all week bringing you daily reports and live photos from Badmintonphoto.

If you are coming for the Korea Open, or whenever you visit Seoul, try Badzine’s partner hotel, the Artnouveau City. Offering fully-serviced residences, it is a stylish home for long or short-term business people, and a great place to stay during the Korea Open.

CLICK HERE to make a reservation at the Artnouveau City

Don Hearn

About Don Hearn

Don Hearn is an Editor and Correspondent who hails from a badminton-loving town in rural Canada. He joined the Badzine team in 2006 to provide coverage of the Korean badminton scene and is committed to helping Badzine to promote badminton to the place it deserves as a global sport. Contact him at: don @ badzine.net