The 2016 champions may have only been crowned in December, but the new BWF Superseries season is nearly upon us. Gruffudd Owen picks out this year’s key talking points
Just two months have passed since the conclusion of the 2016 BWF Superseries in Dubai, yet here we are on the eve of another new season as the world’s leading badminton players head to Birmingham for the YONEX All England Open.
Twenty-three-year-old Dane Viktor Axelsen is undeniably the top dog in the men’s singles having clinched his first Finals title in Dubai, while the women’s singles sees world No. 1 Tai Tzu-Ying of Chinese Taipei as the standout shuttler in what is an extremely competitive field.
A lot can change over the course of a year, however, and with a number of established stars returning to action after missing out on competing in Dubai, expect an intriguing start to the season. With this in mind, here are three things you should look out for in 2017…
Men’s singles: the return of Chen Long
Despite winning Olympic gold in the men’s singles in Rio last summer – guaranteeing qualification for the Dubai Finals – world No. 5 Chen Long of China opted to withdraw from the season-ending tournament, with many believing fatigue to be the reason.
Whether or not this was a good judgement call remains to be seen. The likes of Viktor Axelsen and Tian Houwei upped their game considerably at the Hamdan Sports Complex and will no doubt carry this momentum into the new campaign, meaning Chen Long has his work cut out if he is to reassert himself in the men’s game.
A first round tie at the All England Open against Germany’s Marc Zwiebler – who did make it to Dubai – is by no means straightforward for the 28-year-old.
However, the return of Chen Long can only be a good thing for the Superseries and for badminton in general.
Women’s singles: Saina Nehwal aiming to bounce back
If Chen Long’s absence from the men’s game was voluntary, then Saina Nehwal’s in the women’s singles was enforced after a wretched second half of 2016 during which the Indian suffered a serious knee injury, ruling her out of the running to qualify for Dubai.
Like Chen Long, however, the Hyderabadi is back, determined to regain her place among the very best.
Once the queen bee of Indian badminton, Nehwal has recently been usurped by Olympic silver medallist PV Sindhu as the country’s top shuttler.
Theirs has always been a friendly rivalry but Nehwal – a former world No. 1 and the first-ever Indian badminton player to win an Olympic medal – will not be content with settling for second best again this year.
The 26-year-old world No. 10 is seeded eighth for the season-opening All England Open but faces a baptism of fire in the form of Nozomi Okuhara – the defending champion and world No. 11.
Doubles: Chen Qingchen bidding to end Japanese rule
Top-level badminton is in such rude health that there are compelling subplots to be found in all forms of the game – including the doubles categories.
Olympic champions Zhang Nan and Liu Cheng have returned to the fold in the men’s doubles, while Chris and Gabby Adcock will feel they have a point to prove after losing their mixed doubles title in Dubai.
However, it is worth watching out in particular for the power struggle in the women’s doubles. Prior to the Dubai Finals, Japan’s Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi were the dominant force in this category, with an Olympic gold in Rio and four regular season Superseries titles thoroughly justifying their world No. 1 ranking.
Then along came the Chinese teenage sensation Chen Qingchen. Together with her playing partner Jia Yifan, the 19-year-old blew away Matsutomo and Takahashi in the women’s doubles final in Dubai – a hugely impressive statement of intent, and one that suggests the Japanese’s grip on top spot in the world rankings is not as firm as once thought.
The YONEX All England Open takes place between 07-12 March in Birmingham, UK