MALAYSIA MASTERS Preview – 2020 to begin with a show of strength

49 of the world’s 50 top ten are gathering in Kuala Lumpur next week to ring in the new badminton year, with all five world #1s looking to pick up […]

49 of the world’s 50 top ten are gathering in Kuala Lumpur next week to ring in the new badminton year, with all five world #1s looking to pick up where they left off dominating in 2019.

By Don Hearn.  Photos: Badmintonphoto

Long gone are the days when badminton’s top players had to start off the year with a tournament in the dreary winter of places like England, Korea, or Japan.  Ever since 2007, Malaysia has been one of the first destinations on the new year’s badminton calendar but for 8 years, it alternated with the Korea Open for the January debut.

In 2015 began a 3-year stint during which the Superseries vacated the first two months of each year and since then there has been no frigid trips to wintry host countries. Malaysia continued to host the first Grand Prix Gold of the year, which still brought together a sizeable number of top-ranked players and the fields got even stronger with the advent of the in 2018, when the was elevated to status.  However, in the first two years of the new Tour, there was still a Super 300 event preceding the stop in Malaysia and giving a sneak of the form of some of the top-ranked players.

The 2020 Malaysia Masters is thus the first time since way back in 2008 when there has been a full-strength field gathered in Kuala Lumpur, ready to take to the courts for the first time in the year.  This time, there is no Korea Open like in 2010-2014, no Thailand Masters as in the last two years, and no wholesale absenteeism by a top team like in 2009.  In fact, unlike even the 2008 Malaysia Open, this year’s Masters will feature an appearance by two-time Olympic gold medallist Lin Dan.

49 of 50

Lin Dan (pictured left) may have topped the podium on his last visit to the Axiata Arena, at the 2019 Malaysia Open Super 750, but he will be among the players hungry to win the points he needs in the next 4 months to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.  However, it is not only the needy players who will be competing in Kuala Lumpur for the first major titles of the season.  In fact, men’s singles, the field is so strong that the highest-ranked player not in attendance will be world #35 Mark Caljouw.

In all, the entire top 10 of every discipline will be in Malaysia with the solitary exception of Canada’s Michelle Li.  The world #8 is electing to kick off her 2020 in Indonesia the following week.  Even among current top 20 players, the only ones absent will be a few Europeans and some disbanded pairs.

Top 20 players not expected at the Malaysia Masters:
WS: Michelle Li (WR#8), Mia Blichfeldt (#13); WD: Stoeva/Stoeva (WR#14), Sakuramoto/Takahata (WR#17), Haris/Pradipta (WR#19); XD: Ellis/Smith (WR#11), Ahmad/Kandow (WR#16), Lu/Chen (WR#18), Phuangphuapet/Amitrapai (WR#19)

Young guns to feature early

Nor is it only the proven stars who might make an impact, particularly in the early days of the tournament.  Several top teenagers from the last few years’ under-19 events have now graduated from junior eligibility and will get their first test as exclusively senior shuttlers.

Foremost among them might be 2018 World Junior Champions Di Zijian / Wang Chang (pictured above).  The SaarLorLux Open winners will take on Koga/Saito in the qualifying rounds.  Another is India’s Lakshya Sen (pictured right).  The 2018 Asian Junior Champion won two Super 100s and 3 International Challenges to finish off 2019.  His 2020 will begin with a qualifying match against former world #8 Hans-Kristian Vittinghus.

Of course, last year’s Malaysia Masters was an auspicious opener for then graduate from juniors Goh Jin Wei.  She pulled off some fantastic upsets to reach the semis but her 2019 became a disappointment overall because of illness.  She is at the top of the reserve list and could make an appearance after missing the entire second half last year.

Still all about Momota?

Naturally, all eyes in men’s singles will be on two-time World Champion Kento Momota (pictured above).  He lost narrowly in the first round to compatriot Nishimoto in his appearance here last January.  But he was stellar in Guangzhou last month and he may have some momentum in this year’s edition that he didn’t have quite to the same degree after 2018.

Two players to watch will be Shi Yuqi (pictured right) and Son Wan Ho.  Both made rather slow comebacks from injury layoffs late last year but they’ve both been away from competition for over a month and it will be interesting to see whether they have managed to get back closer to their previous form.

Son, in particular, will have a baptism by fire, as he must play a repeat of last year’s final in the first round, against Chen Long, whose own form surged at the end of 2019.

First-round men’s singles matches of note:
Chou Tien Chen (TPE) [2] vs. Kidambi Srikanth (IND)
Anders Antonsen (DEN) [3] vs. Lee Zii Jia (MAS)
Chen Long (CHN) [4] vs. Son Wan Ho (KOR)
Shi Yuqi (CHN) [7] vs. Wang Tzu Wei (TPE)

Momentum or resurgence?

In women’s singles, several players finished strong in 2019.  Obviously new world #1 Chen Yufei is one of them but Carolina Marin and An Se Young both capped their year off with Super 300 win to add to a much bigger title.  Even Tai Tzu Ying (pictured above) – top seed at the Malaysia Masters – was in 6 straight semi-finals after the Worlds and went to the finals on 3 of those occasions, winning one Super 750 title.

Then you have the two World Championship finalists.  For Pusarla Venkata Sindhu, the title in Basel was her only one in 2019, while Nozomi Okuhara reached world #1 for the first time in her career near the end of a title-less calendar year but appeared in no fewer than 6 finals.

The toughest opener for any of the seeded players is clearly Carolina Marin drawn against Akane Yamaguchi.  It has been nearly two years since the two former world #1s faced each other on court.  It may not get any easier for the winner, either, as she will be on a collision course with youngster An Se Young in the quarter-finals.  An got the better of both women in their last meetings.

With Goh Jin Wei not certain of making it off the reserve list – let alone being match-ready after her long hiatus – the best bet for a home shuttler will be if Soniia Cheah (pictured right) can make it past Qi Xuefei of France in qualifying.  If she does, she will meet U.S. Open champion Wang Zhiyi in the round of 32.

First-round women’s singles matches of note:
Akane Yamaguchi (JPN) [4] vs. Carolina Marin (ESP)
(Possible) Wang Zhiyi (CHN) vs. Soniia Cheah (MAS)

Which Olympic gold medallist?

12 of the top 17 men’s doubles titles last year were dominated by Indonesia, in particular by the top two seeds at the Malaysia Masters.  For Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ahsan to capitalize on their momentum from winning the World Tour Finals last month, they will have to get by a tricky first-round encounter.  The three-time World Champions have been drawn against Ou Xuanyi / Zhang Nan, who pushed them to a 30-29 third-game scoreline the last time they met (pictured above).

If their compatriot Son Wan Ho has to pick up where he left off on his last visit to Malaysia, world #9 Choi Sol Gyu / Seo Seung Jae will be starting 2020 with a repeat of their very last match of 2019.  They are drawn in a repeat of the Syed Modi Super 300 against China’s He Jiting / Tan Qiang.

2018 champions Fajar Alfian / Muhammad Rian Ardianto (pictured right) will have to get some payback in their opener if they are to advance.  Their first round opponents, Mathias Boe / Mads Conrad-Petersen of Denmark, upset the Asian Games silver medallists twice this past autumn.

First-round men’s doubles matches of note:
Mohammad Ahsan / Hendra Setiawan (INA) [2] vs. Ou Xuanyi / Zhang Nan (CHN)
Fajar Alfian / Muhammad Rian Ardianto (INA) [5] vs. Mathias Boe / Mads Conrad-Petersen (DEN)
Aaron Chia / Soh Wooi Yik (MAS) vs. Goh V Shem / Tan Wee Kiong (MAS)
Choi Sol Gyu / Seo Seung Jae (KOR) vs. He Jiting / Tan Qiang (CHN)
Satwiksairaj Rankireddy / Chirag Shetty (IND) vs. Ong Yew Sin / Teo Ee Yi (MAS)

China and Korea all-in

The women’s doubles competition will have a very different complexion this year compared to last year.  In 2019, China arrived with neither of its top two pairs and Korea had only two pairs in total, with Kim/Kong still on the verge of their own breakthrough.

Japan, meanwhile, has all four of its top 15 pairs and they are each in a different quarter of the draw.  Last year, Japan dominated 3 of the 4 semi-final spots but their chances of doing the same this year are markedly slimmer, considering the stronger field and the gains made particularly by the Korean pairs.  Japan’s only unseeded pair, Korea Masters winners Nami Matsuyama / Chiharu Shida (pictured right), should advance to the second round to face world #1 Chen/Jia, a pair they haven’t played since junior events in 2015.

The two home pairs will have their hands full with two strong Chinese pairs in the first round.

First-round women’s doubles matches of note:
Du Yue / Li Yinhui (CHN) [7] vs. Chow Mei Kuan / Lee Meng Yean (MAS)
Greysia Polii / Apriyani Rahayu (INA) [8] vs. Baek Ha Na / Jung Kyung Eun (KOR)

Who can challenge China?

Second only to Indonesia’s dominance in men’s doubles is the stranglehold that China’s top two pairs have on the top mixed doubles competitions.  Last year, China did not send any of its top 3 pairs to the Malaysia Masters and the impact of their return in 2020 is quite easy to predict.

Once again, can look forward either to a major upset or to another Zheng/Huang-Wang/Huang final, of which there were five in 2019.  Lowering the likelihood of an upset is the fact that the ever-dangerous trio of top Indonesian mixed pairs have all been drawn in the same quarter of the draw, along with defending champions Watanabe/Higashino, another of the pairs who’ve proven themselves capable of toppling the top two seeds.

Malaysia itself has three very capable pairs in this discipline but unfortunately, Tan/Lai will likely have to fend off Wang/Huang in the second round, a match-up in which the Chinese pair is undefeated in 6 editions.  Goh Soon Huat / Shevon Jemie Lai (pictured top) would need to get past the two-time World Champions in the quarter-finals and they are 0-4 against Zheng/Huang.  What’s more, they have to open against He/Du, against whom they lost in the Hong Kong Open semi-finals.

7th-seeded Seo Seung Jae and Chae Yoo Jung are drawn in their corner of the draw along with 3 European pairs.  They open against Mathias Christiansen and Alexandra Bøje.  Christiansen has never lost in mixed doubles to Seo but this will be his first attempt without former partner Christinna Pedersen.

First-round mixed doubles matches of note:
Goh Soon Huat / Shevon Jemie Lai (MAS) [8] vs. He Jiting / Du Yue (CHN)
Seo Seung Jae / Chae Yoo Jung (KOR) [7] vs. Mathias Christiansen / Alexandra Bøje (DEN)

Click here for the complete Malaysia Masters draws

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 @