Badminton: Traditional powerhouses grappling with new badminton reality

Former top shuttlers (from left) Foo Kok Keong, 55, Yap Kim Hock, 48, and Ong Ewe Hock, 46, who brought much success to Malaysia, at the 6th Foo Kok Keong International Cup.
Former top shuttlers (from left) Foo Kok Keong, 55, Yap Kim Hock, 48, and Ong Ewe Hock, 46, who brought much success to Malaysia, at the 6th Foo Kok Keong International Cup.PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

For the better part of six decades since the first Thomas Cup in 1949, men's badminton was dominated by China, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Such was their stranglehold that it took until the 2014 edition for another country, Japan, to claim the world team championships. And last year, Denmark became the latest first-time winners.

Now, the landscape has become even more competitive and the signs suggest an egalitarian future for the sport, Indonesia's double All-England singles champion (1993, 1994) Hariyanto Arbi told The Straits Times yesterday.

"It feels like every country is picking up, improving their standards. India, Thailand, Japan. No one is dominating now, not even China."

Son Wan Ho is the current world No. 1 and the first South Korean to achieve the feat since Badminton World Federation (BWF) computer rankings were introduced in 2009.

Five men from four countries have won the six BWF Super Series titles so far this year: Lee Chong Wei (Malaysia), Viktor Axelsen (Denmark), Lin Dan (China) and B. Sai Praneeth and Srikanth Kidambi (India).

The 45-year-old Arbi, who also won the world championship in 1995, said the scoring system change implemented by the BWF in 2006 was a big reason in levelling the playing field.

The rules were changed so that games were played to 21 points instead of 15, and rally point scoring was adopted, meaning that the winner of a rally scores the point regardless of who served.

"Before, your stamina and endurance was more important, and (because players could only score points on their serve) it was more difficult for weaker opponents to catch up," said Arbi, who was in town for the Foo Kok Keong International Cup.

The three-day competition held at the Singapore Swimming Club, which ended yesterday, drew former stars like Malaysia's former world No. 1 Foo and Thailand's Boonsak Ponsana, who reached the semi-finals at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Foo, 54, emphasised the importance of mental strength in today's game.

"The new generation has everything - sports science, preparation, technology. Everything is there," he said.

"Now, the problem (for not winning) lies with the players. Some take it too easy, or they think they are already there in terms of success."

Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia are also struggling to find new talent to replace their ageing stars.

World No. 2 Lee is 34 and approaching the end of his career while Indonesia have yet to find a successor to former world No. 1 and world champion Taufik Hidayat, who retired in 2014.

Foo said: "But it's not easy to find another Lee Chong Wei, another person who combines all the same qualities of talent and hard work.

"We can look at 100,000 people and not find another one like him."

His compatriot and 1996 Olympic doubles silver medallist Yap Kim Hock added: "You look at India's top three (Kidambi, Praneeth, H.S. Prannoy), they are have the ability to beat Lin Dan or Chong Wei.

"Malaysia doesn't lack talented young players but we are still some distance away from grooming such top-level talent."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'Traditional powerhouses grappling with new badminton reality'. Print Edition | Subscribe