Sunday, May 27, 2012

On the 2012 Thomas Cup and Uber Cup finals

China won the Badminton Team World Championships (Thomas Cup and Uber Cup) by beating South Korea 3:0 in both the Men's and Women's competitions in May 2012.

For the men, Lin Dan and Cai Yun/Fu Haifeng become the first individuals who ever won either Cup five times, consecutively, as the first single or first double.  Lin Dan has been perfect in the finals of Thomas Cup and Sudirman Cup (Mixed Team), amazing considering he always faces the best of the opposing teams, usually in the first match.  Lin Dan did lose a couple of times in earlier rounds in the Thomas and Sudirman Cups.  Only Yang Yang and Chen Jin might have a perfect record in team competitions ever (?).  Yang Yang played in fewer events though, and Chen Jin has never been the first single.  Chen Jin did contribute by winning the deciding, third single in Thomas Cup in 2008, when Lin Dan lost to Lee Chong Wei in the semi.

For the women, there would have been little to say, just like the men, because on paper Koran players are ranked all lower, except for the fact that China lost to South Korea in 2010.  The key in both 2010 and 2012 was the first single by China's Wang Yihan, underscoring how important the first match is.  Wang lost in 2010 and won in 2012.  But she only escaped barely in 2012, having lost the first set and been down 16:20 to Sung Ji-hyun in the second.  It is interesting to analyze how Wang Yihan plays and came back.  Much has been said about how she persevered.  This is true only in a small part.  From 16:20 to 20:20, all four points were quick affairs, and only one Wang won by being active.  The other three points Sung made simple errors, including serving long once.  One of the three points Sung could have made easily and sealed the victory she netted, a clear unforced error.  So it was mostly Sung's mental block that cost her the match.  In such situations the leader should have played it safe and extended the point, because the pressure is on the other side.  Losing the points quickly only emboldens your opponent and doubly unsettles you.  After 20:20 Sung lost two more points and the third set in no time. 

How much credit did Wang deserve?  Wang Yihan's strength and weakness is obvious.  Her weakness has always been her movement or footwork.  She is like a tennis player who doesn't know how to slide plays in the French Open.  She compensates for this glaring problem by being physically strong and having good hands.  She plays aggressively and excels at the net.  A couple of years back, if she lost the first set and down in the second to capable players, she rarely came back  But a big difference in 2011 and 2012, as she has rallied multiple times.  A prime example is in the All-England against Tine Baun on March 9, 2012.  She lost the first set and was trialing in the second most of time but came back.  That match was very similar to what happened in the Uber Cup final.  So this is not first time for Wang Yihan, and Sung should have been prepared for that.  In many aspects Wang Yihan is like Serana Williams, both strong and aggressive players. Serena also often faces match points.  At such important times Serena rarely makes mistakes and plays patiently and conservatively.  Then her opponent makes the errors and Serana comes back, over and over.

On the other hand, Wang Yihan can improve by not digging herself a hole.  Against Sung, Wang was ahead by a few points by the intermission in both the first and second sets.  Somehow Wang lost her concentration and lead quickly afterwards.  Had Wang been more consistent, there would have been no drama.  Here is another issue of how Wang Yihan plays: despite her superb physical and technical ability, she is not a very smart player.  Often times the trailing opponent might try new things after the intermission.  One has to be focused and adjust.  If you only play with autopilot, you will be lost.

Now comes a general observation of badminton.  For close to 10 years we are fortunate to watch the performance of Lin Dan, the best men's single player ever, and the dynamite Cai Yun/Fu Haifeng, China's best ever and one of the world's best ever men's double.  But perhaps more significantly, we are now witnessing a decisive change in the playing styles of women's badminton.  Many players are more aggressive, like the young Thai players and Wang Xin and Li Xuerui, and the rallying style is no longer the only option.  The old way is to move her around the court, create an opening, then attack.  The new thinking is to attack to win or create a better opportunity, and attack again.  Two reasons for the change.  One is that players are taller and stronger than before.  The other is the old 11-point system is no more.  The new attacking style is not the same as the older, aggressive style of Zhang Ning and Wang Yihan.  The new style attacks earlier, from everywhere in the courts, more often, and with more force even on the first strike.  Rallying ability is still the basic, but chances that are missing in the old books are imperative in the new.  Li Xuerui is the most typical.  She seems smarter than Wang Yihan and is younger than Wang Xin.  She will likely become stronger physically and improve her techniques in the next two years.  The real challenge will come when others study her more.  If she has the street smarts of Lin Dan, she will overcome.

Another big development is that Indonesia failed to advance to the semifinal stage in both the men and women events.  It has been a slow but persistent decline.  Chinese dominance can't be the reason because South Korea has held steady, and Japan and Thailand are rising.  There is a feeling that Indonesian players have not made the necessary adjustments to the rule changes and the strategies everyone else is playing and advancing, especially in the women's side.  This is mostly the coaches' faults.     

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