ALL ENGLAND 2021 Preview – Anomaly in the evolution narrative

The All England tournament shall stoically carry on inside a stadium sans spectators while Britain cautiously embarks on easing its second COVID-19 lockdown. Our preview specialist, Aaron Wong, continues charting […]

The tournament shall stoically carry on inside a stadium sans spectators while Britain cautiously embarks on easing its second COVID-19 lockdown. Our specialist, Aaron Wong, continues charting the evolution of the sport against the backdrop of troubled times.

By Aaron Wong.  Photos: Badmintonphoto

Birmingham COVID-19 numbers for February 5th, 2021

As of the entry deadline for the 2021 All England, February 9, an athlete’s decision on whether to participate was informed by knowledge that 3328 confirmed new COVID-19 cases were detected in the preceding week for the city of Birmingham, where the venue is.  Granted that was remarkably down from a scary weekly total of 1100 cases higher seven days prior.

Yes or no?

Do you mind undergoing three COVID tests, one prior to boarding and at least two more after landing in England?

Does a 10-day quarantine for overseas visitors to England cause psychological harm? Note: there may be the equivalent or longer quarantine upon returning to one’s home country.

Are the monetary costs associated with known COVID precautions as well as the risk of getting stranded prohibitive?

Considering the statistics at hand and answering yes to any of the above questions would have factored into Chinese, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Korean and part of the Malaysian national teams deciding against making the trip especially during an Olympic year when they all have medal chances.

It’s interesting how the other badminton powerhouses of Denmark, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and India managed to rationalise that the stress, trouble and risk is worth it.

Tradition carries on

Being the most prestigious badminton event means the All England will historically, at a glance, be the regular marker of progress; progress that partly translates as resilience during the global pandemic. It’s a tradition and there’s value in continuing – whereas other tournaments like the Thailand Opens provide benefits in different ways by being flexible.

Coincidentally, the latest editions bookend the last moment right before things slipped into the unimaginable new normal of prevalent social distancing as well as the mood of the world right now 118.5 million confirmed cases later with vaccines introduced around New Year’s helping to reduce an overall infection rate only recently coming off its highest peak.

It shouldn’t be taken for granted that neither 2020 and 2021 events were cancelled nor the fact that players actually signed up. There were good arguments and pressure to halt. Precisely because these decisions aren’t taken lightly makes them indicators of resilience. The show going on helps buoy the vibe for all involved, including fans following on the Internet and the athletes choosing or forced to stay home.

Remember badminton is not just sport or entertainment, there’s also the struggle to earn a living for both the players and organisers. The greater good is benefiting ahead of the production’s financial return on investment.

The competition

Happily, if there must accept a substitution that it turned out to be swapping out some recent winners with world #1s who’ve recovered from the dastardly virus.

Does the first appearance this year of top men’s pair Sukamuljo/Gideon and their Japanese arch-rivals Watanabe/Endo make up for the absence of January’s triple Thailand champions Wang Chi Lin / Lee Yang? Indeed, there’s the possibility of a rematch of the 2020 final and surely fans of fine badminton have all manner of interesting thoughts on whether a seventh consecutive defeat might be inflicted or prevented, and want to their proposition tested. Such a prospect contains the level of excitement last generated by prospects of Lin Dan-Lee Chong Wei Sunday clashes.

So the box can be checked as far as entertainment and anticipation goes. But competition has suffered. The Chinese Taipei pair achieved a phenomenal breakthrough in performance and confidence. They added themselves to the list of credible world beaters, making it more of a guess who will eventually come through.

Some but not most leaders

Sadly, the world ranking leaders don’t get to meet more than half of the recent World Tour leaders. From one perspective, the 2021 All England cast could be any other tournament because in any other year without strife it has the strongest pulling power, yet I’ve taken care to mention that this isn’t more important than making this edition happen.

Of badminton’s five disciplines, men’s singles suffers relatively imperceptibly as Chinese Taipei, China, and Hong Kong were valid contenders but likely on be on commentators’ long-lists to emerge winner.

The world number 1 Kento Momota is the tournament’s biggest draw card because absence makes the heart grow fonder. Badminton loves a left-hander and the return of the prodigal son followed by his double rehabilitation is a compelling narrative. After eclipsing Lee Chong Wei’s record of tournament wins in a calendar year – which is frankly unbelievable – the Japanese star suddenly faced new setbacks from contracting COVID-19 which sidelined him from the three Thai tournaments, missing out on the 2020 All England due to a motor accident that resulted in a traumatic eye injury and overall not competing in a BWF event for 14 months.

The lack of Chinese resistance is not beneficial in mixed doubles with the forceful world #1 Huang/Zheng and world #3 Huang/Wang missing from the mix. Women’s doubles and women’s singles must also do without the Chinese world #2s, who were 2019 All England champions.

Gradually increasing odds

The odds are increasing and spreading across the winners. Badminton is trending towards wonderful unpredictability when the best are in the house. If COVID hadn’t hit, it would be evident that more than before a handful are equal to the task.

Quite simply, 2 points separating success from defeat is what players have to accept and solve, and it isn’t as straightforward as being born with superior hand skills and athleticism.

Ubiquitous BWF commentator Gillian Clark regularly remarks that women’s singles is the most exciting of the disciplines because of the variety of styles on display as well as winners. I’d say women’s doubles has joined the fold and the changing names of the world number 1s attests to the fact.

Mixed doubles, men’s doubles and men’s singles appear defiant on the surface. The remaining doubles #1s have each succumbed to four others within the top 10 in the tournaments accounting for their ranking. Sukamuljo/Gideon have more than once succumbed to not one but two pairs.

Of Momota’s past 10 World Tour wins, a mere three points separated him from coming runner-up in three of those finals, not to mention five finals required a deciding game. It’s scintillating stuff!

Levelling factors

The introduction of the 21-point rally era, racquet technology, line challenging cameras, stopping test strokes upon changing racquets, and the 1.15m service height rule have no doubt helped at levelling the playing field. Those factors applied to all. However, there have been dramatic improvements in certain players which have been hard to miss and are attributable to new, astute and caring coaches, often imported from a different culture.

India produced intermittent successes in four disciplines but men’s doubles was elusive. Indonesian great Flandy Limpele’s appearance in the coaches chair coincided with a sudden leap to HSBC World Tour stardom for Chirag Shetty / Satwiksairaj Rankireddy at the 2019 Thailand Open where they they defeated the then Chinese World Champions Li/Liu. Shetty, now ranked in the top 10, has also attributed newfound tactical awareness to Danish former world number 1 Mathias Boe joining India’s coaching bench.

Other examples of serendipitous coach-inspired results are Korea’s Kim Ji Hyun seeing P V Sindhu scoop a World Championship and Mulyo Handyoyo’s (former coach of Athens Olympic gold medallist Taufik Hidayat) influence in the lead up to Srikanth Kidambi’s surge towards world number 1.

The butterfly transformations don’t stop at India. Malaysian coaches have showcased stunning results in mixed. Former world number 1 Choong Tan Fook encouraged Hong Kong’s Tse Ying Suet / Tang Chun Man to a peak of world number 2 and their biggest win, the Denmark Open, while Jeremy Gan’s charges Arisa Higashino / Yuta Watanabe, then ranked world number 48, outshone commentator Morten Frost’s expectations to emerge All England champions.

Another sizable advance within a short space of time was observed at the New Zealand Open where Korea’s Kong Hee Yong / Kim So Yeong leapfrogged three top 10 Japanese pairs in succession to win. What was startling was that Kong and Kim played with incredible focus that was very reminiscent of their coach, Beijing silver medallist, Lee Kyung Won.

What surprises will China hold when they ultimately return after spending time with Korean coaches Kang Kyung Jin and Yoo Yong Sung?

Men’s Singles: What stands in the way of Momota?

What’s stopping Kento Momota from winning? If the seedings go to plan, there’s possibly Lee Zii Jia at the quarter-finals, Anthony Ginting at the semis and Viktor Axelsen in the final.

Saturday’s tussle is the one to circle as Ginting has been described by various broadcasters as the best player on tour when he’s in full flight and it’s not yet the finals so both men ought to be playing at their optimum. In making the top seeds final happen, the other semi-final would be the equally interesting World Tour Finals rematch between the Danes Anders Antonsen and Axelsen.

Antonsen’s route to the semis seems assured whereas Axelsen could face 5th seed Jonatan Christie at the quarters.

Men’s singles is usually marketed as the marquee event and this time it clearly is the least COVID affected.

Early men’s singles matches of note:
1st Rd: Kantaphon Wangcharoen (THA) vs. Lakshya Sen (IND)
1st Rd: Rasmus Gemke (DEN) [7] vs. Kenta Nishimoto (JPN)
1st Rd: Jonatan Christie (INA) [5] vs. Kunvalut Vitidsarn (THA)

Women’s Singles: The other players

There are no winners from Thailand in sight in this category, namely the world #1 Tai Tzu Ying and Swiss Open winner from a week ago, Carolina Marin, who had to pull out due to injury sustained in Basel. Unfortunately, the draw is also missing Korea’s An Se Young, who is the other the other player who managed to beat Marin in Bangkok, during the group stage of the Finals. Thus, the top half of the draw is there for taking for Akane Yamaguchi or P V Sindhu as the shuttlers with the deepest experience who’ve yet to earn an All England title.

The most interesting players to watch from an evolution point of view are the 6th and 7th seeds. Pornpawee Chochuwong was the other one who beat Tai in Bangkok and is the Swiss Open runner-up who gave Marin scoreboard pressure by tailgating her in that final.

Denmark’s Mia Blichfeldt is a study in perspiration and determination. The former quality may well see her past the first seeded player in her path, Ratchanok Intanon, and the latter quality will be sapped should she survive to meet another former World Champion Nozomi Okuhara at the semis.

Early women’s singles matches of note:
1st Rd: Gregoria Mariska Tunjung (INA) vs. Line Christophersen (DEN)
1st Rd: Yvonne Li (GER) vs. Kirsty Gilmour (SCO)
1st Rd: Mia Blichfeldt (DEN) [7] vs. Saina Nehwal (IND)
1st Rd: Sayaka Takahashi (JPN) vs. Iris Wang (USA)

Men’s Doubles: Path of new foes or old foes

Just to be able to watch the world number 1s Sukamuljo/Gideon for the first time this year ranks along with Momota’s appearance is some semblance of positive normalcy. Sukamuljo and Momota tested positive for COVD-19 just two months ago so this outing is as much an assessment of their recovery.

Despite injury, Sukamuljo managed to reach the final and drag proceedings into the decider at the 2020 All England. Players should still be wary. Given the choice, the Indonesians might prefer to meet the left and right unseeded Astrup/Rasmussen rather than taller, heavier hitting, and younger 6th seeds Shetty/Rankireddy.

Defending champions Endo/Watanabe possess the prowess to defend their way past any Malaysian styles into semis where they’d expect to meet one of two Indonesians, Alfian/Ardianto or Ahsan/Setiawan seeded 5th and 2nd respectively.

Early men’s doubles matches of note:
1st Rd: Goh V Shem / Tan Wee Kiong (MAS) [7] vs. Mark Lamsfuss / Marvin Seidel (GER)
1st Rd: Hiroyuki Endo / Yuta Watanabe (JPN) [4] vs. Christopher Grimley / Matthew Grimley (SCO)
1st Rd: Mohammad Ahsan / Hendra Setiawan (INA) [2] vs. Ben Lane / Sean Vendy (ENG)

Women’s Doubles: Can Europeans make a dent?

It’s difficult to see which opponents could put the Japanese pairs on the defensive in the absence of the top Koreans and Chinese.  Yonex Thailand Open winners Greysia Polii / Apriyani Rahayu are best against another top 10 pair while they are still fresh but they don’t have a chance to meet any Japanese until the semi-final.  That prospective opponent happens to be the top seeds Yuki Fukushima / Sayaka Hirota. Before that, overcoming Bulgaria’s Stoeva sisters at the quarters requires pure physicality and patience for long rallies.

Polii/Rahayu’s defenses aren’t at the same level of creativity as the men’s defending champions Endo/Watanabe where it can turn a rally around.  Rather it is a willingness that begins half the time with Polii’s recent very obvious forehand high serve. The more focused question is, can the Stoevas re-establish their top 10 credentials?

Early women’s doubles matches of note:
1st Rd: Ashwini Ponappa / Reddy N. Sikki (IND) vs. Benyapa Aimsaard / Nuntakarn Aimsaard (THA)
1st Rd: Nami Matsuyama / Chiharu Shida (JPN) [5] vs. Ayako Sakuramoto / Yukiko Takahata (JPN)
1st Rd: Jongkolphan Kititharakul / Rawinda Prajongjai (THA) [4] vs. Pearly Tan / Thinaah Muralitharan (MAS)

Mixed Doubles: Tripling his fortunes

Indonesia’s Praveen Jordan is the defending champion, top seed and in a position to triple his fortunes at the All England especially with world #1, #2, #3, and #5 pairs out of the picture. It could be a second victory for Oktavianti.

The French 7th seeds, Delphine Delrue / Thom Giquel must fancy their chances against Jordan, who also relies on a traditional style of mixed unlike the second-seeded Japanese Higashino/Watanabe, who are also less prone to inconsistency.

Oktavianti/Jordan could encounter two other wildcards who’ve gained confidence at the Thailand Opens, namely new kids on the block Cheah/Hoo of Malaysia and then Ponnappa/Rankireddy. On the other hand, Higashino/Watanabe have the upper hand when it comes to adaptability and shot variety among all the pairs in the bottom half of proceedings.

Early mixed doubles matches of note:
1st Rd: Misaki Matsutomo / Yuki Kaneko (JPN) vs. Ashwini Ponnappa / Satwiksairaj Rankireddy (IND)
1st Rd: Alexandra Boje / Mathias Christiansen (DEN) vs. Selena Piek / Robin Tabeling (NED)
Possible 2nd Rd: Melati Daeva Oktavianti / Praveen Jordan (INA) [1] vs. Cheah Yee See / Hoo Pang Ron (MAS)


The 2021 All England isn’t without standard bearers of the highest order.  Rather it is missing the breadth of talent across the spectrum. It’s this slowly evolving breadth of talent across more countries that’s worth mentioning, otherwise it isn’t apparent due to Covid.

The lack of breadth on display also significantly reduces the opportunities that the chasing pack have to learn, acclimatise, and catch up to and ultimately join the best, as they really have been learning faster. Badminton has lost a year in time, just as we all have, except we can’t exactly quantify how much has been lost.

Click here to view the complete draws

Aaron Wong

About Aaron Wong

Aaron Wong only ever coveted badminton's coolest shot - a reverse backhand clear. He is renowned for two other things: 1) Writing tournament previews that adjust the focus between the panorama of the sport's progress, down to the microscopic level of explaining the striking characteristics of players; 2) Dozing off during men's doubles at the London Olympic Games. Contact him at: aaron @