Saturday, April 4, 2009

ASIAN CHAMPS PREVIEW - Chinese Assault on Suwon Fortress

The Happy Suwon Badminton Asia Championships are set to kick off Tuesday with top flight badminton from some of the best the continent has to offer. Most hotly contested will be the women’s singles, where all but one of the 14 Asians in the world’s top 20 - led by All England champion Wang Yihan ave signalled their intention to play for the title in Korea's historic walled city.

By Don Hearn. Photos:

Spring has taken its time arriving in Korea but it is expected to finally warm up this week, just in time to greet Asia’s top shuttlers with an eruption of cherry blossoms and other flora as they arrive in Suwon for the Badminton Asia Championships.

The men’s events should have been a happy occasion in Happy Suwon for three Koreans trying to defend their Asian titles. However, with Jung Jae Sung and Park Sung Hwan still missing in action following the start of their military duties, their younger teammates will be soldiering on to try to keep a title at home.

Lee Yong Dae and Shin Baek Cheol will attempt to find the magic that helped them win the German Open title but they will face an uphill task with world #1 pair Kido/Setiawan in the race and in their half of the draw. Before a potential semi-final with the top seeds, Lee/Shin will likely face either their German Open final opponents Hayakawa/Kazuno or China’s Chai Biao / Liu Xiaolong.

The bottom half of the draw is very difficult to predict, stacked as it is with dangerous, second-tier pairs such as Kumar/Thomas, Fang/Lee, Ikeda/Sakamoto, and China’s Guo/Xu. Korea has a more than fair chance of producing a finalist there, too, as veterans Han Sang Hoon / Hwang Ji Man are in a separate quarter from Ko Sung Hyun and Yoo Yeon Seong. Ko won the last tournament held in Suwon while Yoo recently signed on with the Suwon City Hall pro team.

The men’s singles draw is seriously under-strength, especially with the recent announcement that Bao Chunlai will miss the event due to knee surgery. Still, China will be well-represented with Chens Jin and Long as well as Lu Yi, Du Pengyu and Qiu Yanbo.

Boonsak Ponsana who has made early exits in all but two tournaments since last year’s championships, is seeded second and will attempt to challenge the Chinese might. Hafiz Hashim of Malaysia will hope to keep his edge over Chen Long in their likely, second-round showdown and Malaysia will have a legion of youthful challengers to complement their crafty veteran.

The best Korean chance, on paper, is 15th seed Hong Ji Hoon. He could take advantage of Bao Chunlai’s withdrawal but first he will have to get past Vietnam’s Nguyen Tien Minh in the round of 16. Osaka finalist Shon Wan Ho will have to show very early that he can play with the big boys as he is set to meet Chen Jin in the second round.

The women’s singles has by far the strongest field. Even the qualifying rounds look more like a Super Series with stalwarts like Zhu Jingjing, Kim Moon Hi, and Kang Hae Won waiting in the wings. Minus the Indonesians, all of Asia’s best are in the draw, including China’s formidable top 7. Two of China’s best, Wang Yihan and Zhu Lin, are crouched to take out Korea’s top two shuttlers – Hwang Hye Youn and Bae Youn Joo respectively - in the first round while Yip Pui Yin and Saina Nehwal are two others with the unenviable tasks of facing the likes of Wang Lin and Jiang Yanjiao in the first round.

If they all make it through their tricky first rounds, Malaysia’s two Wongs will face off against China’s two Wangs and the other major factor is Hong Kong. Wang Chen and Zhou Mi both of whom were semi-finalists in Seoul in January, will be gunning for Wang vs. Wang and Zhou vs. Zhu quarter-final matchups.

Korea’s Lee/Lee have won two Asian women’s doubles titles together and another one each apart. However, they will have to be in top form this week when they face Zhao Tingting / Zhang Yawen in the second round with the winner likely having to go on to face Zhang’s former parter Zhang Dan, now playing with another Zhang under the Macau flag. Zhang/Zhang made their debut together in Suwon two years ago and were embarrassed by a couple of teenagers but they have since been to a Super Series final and are not to be taken lightly. The pair that emerges from that chamber of horrors must face Korea Open champions and top seeds Cheng/Chien of Chinese Taipei.

The bottom half of the draw promises some interesting second round China-Korea matchups, too as India Open champions Ma/Wang take on second-seeded Koreans Ha/Kim and Eom/Jung get a chance at a rematch against former Olympic champions Yang/Zhang, who were given a surprisingly competitive match by the Korean teens in Seoul this winter.

On the face of it, the mixed doubles might seem to be all about the quarter-final between Lee Yong Dae / Lee Hyo Jung and Indonesia’s Flandy Limpele / Vita Marissa in a repeat of the Olympic semi-final.

However, the bottom two quarters may be even more hotly contested, if less likely to produce a title pair. Chinese Taipei's Fang/Cheng, Thailand's Prapakamol/Thoungthongkam, and Korea's (and Suwon's) Yoo Yeon Seong / Kim Min Jung all go at it for one quarter-final spot.

Also, surprise All England finalists Ko Sung Hyun / Ha Jung Eun will get a good chance to show their result in Birmingham was no fluke They are in perhaps the weakest quarter but must take on Hong Kong's fourth-seeded Chau/Wiratama in their quarter-final.

The dark horses in the mixed draw are from China as veteran Zhang Yawen teams up with 19-year-old Chai Biao. Swiss Open champion Ma Jin also has a temporary partner and she may get a chance to see if her winning streak over Olympic Champions Lee/Lee was due to more than just Zheng Bo.

Badzine will be on site in Suwon all week to bring you the action complete with live photos.