Itching for a smashing time

Restless shuttlers can't wait to go on court for restart of badminton season in Bangkok

A worker in personal protective equipment sanitising the net ahead of the Yonex Thailand Open badminton tournament starting today in Bangkok.
A worker in personal protective equipment sanitising the net ahead of the Yonex Thailand Open badminton tournament starting today in Bangkok.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BANGKOK • A wretched spell for badminton ends at the Yonex Thailand Open, where players will emerge from hotel quarantine to restart the season in bubble conditions in Bangkok from today until Sunday.

The rescheduled event, with a prize purse of US$1 million (S$1.3 million), is one of three closed-door tournaments taking place in the city this month, culminating in the World Tour Finals from Jan 27.

This will be the first Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Tour event to be held in Asia since the Covid-19 shutdown in March and the world's top players - minus China and Japan, who were forced to pull out - have been bursting for a return to action.

The build-up has included long, lonely hours in their hotel rooms due to a mandatory 14-day quarantine imposed on all arrivals to Thailand.

To pass the time, Olympic champion Carolina Marin of Spain posted a video of herself working out with a hotel towel, while Chinese Taipei's world No. 1 Tai Tzu-ying resorted to using water bottles as weights and Denmark's Anders Antonsen practised serving shuttlecocks into his sneakers.

But like Singapore's contingent of five here, comprising men's singles player Loh Kean Yew, women's singles player Yeo Jia Min, women's doubles pair Crystal Wong and Jin Yujia, and national singles coach Kelvin Ho, all are excited to play competitively again.

Save for October's Denmark Open, badminton has been all but sidelined since the All England tournament in March, but players and organisers alike will be hoping for a less disrupted year as they gear up for the Tokyo Olympics starting in July.

However, a resurgence in Covid-19 cases prompted a partial lockdown in Bangkok earlier this month. The three tournaments have also been weakened by the withdrawal of China, who were grounded by travel restrictions, and Japan, who pulled out when men's world No. 1 Kento Momota tested positive before departure.

The singles draws now resemble Swiss cheese, missing six men and eight women ranked in the top 20.

Chinese Taipei's Chou Tien-chen (world No. 2) and Dane Viktor Axelsen and Antonsen, who won the Denmark Open and is returning to action after being infected early last month, shape up as the top contenders in a men's competition missing Momota and Chinese Olympic gold medallist Chen Long.

Tai, the top seed, won her last event, the All England in March, and another victory this week would give her back-to-back titles nine months apart.

Former world champion Ratchanok Intanon, who plays Yeo tomorrow, leads Thai hopes and is aiming for at least a semi-final spot this week.

Marin, the first non-Asian player to win the Olympic women's singles gold, said European players were hoping to make their mark.

"We know the Asian players are at the top every time. The Europeans are constantly working hard to break the Asian wall," she added. "It's difficult but we'll do our best every time."

Thailand's badminton chief last month told Agence France-Presse that the tournaments would be the "safest in the world", and BWF secretary general Thomas Lund is satisfied with the Covid-19 protocols in place.

"If a positive case is found, the player will be isolated and contract tracing will take place. Any player who has been in contact will also need to isolate," he said. "We are confident we will be able to take care of the player and keep the rest of the players safe during these special times."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YONEX THAILAND OPEN

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2021, with the headline 'Itching for a smashing time'. Print Edition | Subscribe