In women’s singles, winning All England title will be tougher than the Olympics

Blasphemous as it sounds, but it might be easier to win the Olympics than it is to win the All England this year if you are a women’s singles player.

Let’s take you on a breathless matrix of head-to-head scores of various contenders, that is the gold-churning cauldron called women’s singles ahead of the Super 1000 tournament at Arena Birmingham, which begins on March 14.

After a couple of years of some top names missing out either due to Covid or more owing to busted knees, the WS draw this year is a full-house with patched back joints and tendons and gleaming ambitions. Carolina Marin is back in full fitness.

If familiarity is your thing, it is important to note that PV Sindhu and Nozomi Okuhara – those World Champions from the last decade, start unseeded this year, so crammed is the draw with contenders. And bursting beyond even.

But first the rivalries, enmeshed as they are and not straightforward riffing off the world rankings where, let’s say, a No 1 is sure to beat a No 6. As things stand, Akane Yamaguchi, the top seed, could well get tripped up by 6th seed and Asian champion Wang Zhiyi. Their past goes 3 wins apiece.

The Chinese has lost more than won against Chen Yufei, Tzu Ying, Sindhu, An Se Young and Ratchanok Intanon, but Wang Zhiyi perched in Yamaguchi’s half, goes in with level wins at this year’s All E in the top quarter.

But here is badminton’s most breathless sentence that makes it impossible to predict a favourite on the circuit: Carolina Marin has a 10-5 superior win-loss record to Sindhu, who is an impressive 14-9 ahead of world champion Akane Yamaguchi, who is a surprising 16-9 tops on Olympic champion Chen Yufei, who has dominated 8-2 the season’s form player An Se-Young, who boasts a rare 3-1 advantage over Tai Tzu Ying, who is a staggering 17-5 up on PV Sindhu and 10-8 up on Marin, to complete the loop.

There’s a reason they get called the golden generation.

Throw He Bingjiao into the mix, and it gets even more curious. The Chinese is bested by Yamaguchi (3-13) and Tai (4-11) and Marin (2-7) predictably. But surprisingly leads young favourite, An Se-Young 4-1 in career head-to-heads, the first loss coming at the India Open earlier this year.

There are some other startling stats before we get to the specifics of the draw, for a sharper view of likely match-ups based solely on the past face-offs. Chen Yufei went 11 matches without beating Tai Tzu Ying, before she nicked one – the All England title match of 2019 – and then six more, including the Olympics final. Tai Tzu would reverse the score next time at Birmingham. But of the 7 matches she has won beating Tai Tzu, Chen stakes claim on the biggies – World Championships semis, Olympics, World Tour and All England finals. Yet, the record reads 17-7 in favour of the Taiwanese overall. Sheer numbers never tell a story.

Each of the top players on the circuit has a nemesis: for Chen Yufei, it’s Yamaguchi (9-16 win-loss), for An Se-Young it’s Chen Yufei (2-8). Yamaguchi haunts He Bingjiao (3-13) and Sindhu dominates Yamaguchi (9-14) but the Indian is yet to beat An Se Young, and goes 0-5 currently in their face-offs.

Carolina Marin, though, has been on an even footing against most (3-3 Chen Yufei; 4-4 An Se-Young, 8-7 Yamaguchi and 8-10 Tai Tzu) which means that she’s both read and negotiated the challenges each of their game styles throw at her. Tai Tzu is the only other player besides Marin (pre-injury) who hasn’t allowed a sustained nemesis to grow.

Into this swirl of bespoke challenges which might pan out at the business end, comes the All England with its minefield of a draw, right from Round 1. The seedings are primed for top-billed Yamaguchi vs Chen Yufei (9-16 H2H) and An Se-Young vs Tai Tzu Ying (3-1) in semis, but there’s no dearth of disruptors in Bingjiao, Sindhu, Marin and the rest of the Chinese.

Five Chinese are sprinkled across the two halves of the draw, and it is this second string in Han Yue, Zhang Yiman and 6th seed Wang Zhi Yi that this 32-player field acquires difficulty that’s greater than the Olympics where a maximum of only the top two from any nation can contend for the podiums. At Birmingham, there’s also a good crop of Thais besides Ratchanok Intanon, seeded 8th, in Pornpawee Chochuwong, Supanida Katethong and Busanan Ongbamrungphan who can cause upsets, taking out the bigger names. They promise to make life difficult for opponents from Day One, not just in the later stages.

Sindhu starts against Zhang Yiman, 26, with whom she has a 1-1 past. She could meet He Bing Jiao in Round 2. And Tai Tzu Ying in the quarterfinals. The Taiwanese denied her the Olympics final at Tokyo and is 17-5 ahead in what is a lopsided margin. However, Sindhu’s two biggest medals – the Olympics silver of 2016 and the World Championship gold of 2019 – came after defeating Tai Tzu, and the All E could begin a fresh round of reversals.

Contemporary women’s singles has been a popular draw for badminton lovers precisely because of how this bunch of ladies have played out these rivalries – chipping away, trying determinedly, fighting for every shuttle, turning up week after week to play punishing rallies and evolving ways to beat their nemeses, all with varied unique styles of play.

Renowned commentator Gill Clark tweeted out some outstanding numbers last month when describing the women’s field at the All E. “15 of the 16 finalists since 2015 – 9 different players, including the 5 players who between them have won the last 8 WS titles. 5 world championship Gold medallists. 7 players who have been WR1,” she wrote of the pedigreed brackets.

But even Round 1s are fraught. Yamaguchi starts against Mia Blichfeldt, Saina Nehwal has Han Yue, Chen Yufei gets Michelle Li, Okuhara faces off Chochuwong, Tai Tzu starts with Kim Ga Eun, and Marin runs into Kirsty Gilmour. Marin vs An Se-Young in quarters is an enticing prospect, as is Tai Tzu vs Sindhu.

Of the Great Eight of this golden generation, Sindhu, An Se-Young and Ratchanok are yet to win the All England (the Thai made finals in 2013 and 2014), and that’s additional motivation if any was needed.

While it is expected that this same top pack will rumble and roll into Paris and the World Championships 2023 prior to that, it is unlikely that everyone from this golden generation playing at the All E can make the Olympics cut. So this is a rare opportunity to witness them all assembled in one hall.

These rivalries were enriched by match-ups; Yamaguchi’s unsteadiness against Sindhu’s tall rangey game, Chen Yufei’s efficiency blunted by Yamaguchi’s busy game, An Se-Young’s precision topped by Chen Yufei’s accurate read on her game. Varied shuttle and drift conditions on fast and slow courts, different playing styles and recovery rates. It’s ensured that there’s no firm favourite and each face-off turns intriguing, and it enriches badminton in the end. Unlike the men’s game where Viktor Axelsen sits at the top and a bunch of challengers look to scalp him, women’s singles is a delight in individual match-ups from Round 1 through to the final end.

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