Saturday, 7 May 2011

The Evolution of Mens Singles Badminton

You may want to grab a cup of coffee for this post because it is going to be very long. I have been playing badminton since i was 14, and i began watching professional badminton, by going along to the All England Chamionships a few years later. This was when the All England was at Wembley Arena. Living in the UK, there was hardly any badminton on television, unfortunately badminton is a minority sport here in the UK, so coverage of it back in the late 80's was restricted to one hour shows at midnight, and this was for the All England Open only. If you were lucky, you would perhaps get some coverage of the English Nationals and if you were even more lucky, you may get coverage of the Grand Prix Finals on Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon. So for me, and all us English badminton fans, television coverage was virtually non existent back then.

My first taste of live badminton was when i went to watch the Carlsberg Classic in Preston in 1988, just 10 miles from my home. The main man at this time was Morten Frost, so i was keen to see him play live. I went to all the sessions on all of the days, and i can tell you that watching badminton live is so much better than watching on television. Frost just glided through his opening rounds, dropping hardly any points in the games. I remember watching one match and his opponent had played a nice tight spinning net shot, and Frost was moving to the net with his racket back, ready to lift the shuttle to the back of the court. His opponent was already anticipating the lift and was inching back into court and at the very last second, after this huge back swing, Frost stopped the swing and played a return net shot, with his opponent totally baffled by what had just happened. Everyone watching was also amazed, i had never seen anyone do this shot, the racket head control to pull off a shot like that was unbelievable. To this day i have still not seen a professional player do this.

Frost went on to win the final against a young Indonesian by the name of Ardy Wiranata. I actually sat next to him and his mother when we all got evacuated from the hall after a fire alarm went off.

So what made Frost so good? He was as steady as a rock, had fast feet and smooth footwork, superb fitness, excellent net play and one of the best defences of any badminton player. His weakness was probably his lack of a winning smash, but he could move his opponents around the court to wherever he wanted. I also watched Frost lose the 1988 All England Final to Ib Fredrikson, and no-one predicted that outcome. I then wanted to see what Frost had done previous to this, as he had already won the All England in 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1987. I managed to find a video if him playing Liem Swie King in the 84 final. What a great match that was, Swie King smashing and Frost defending. At one point Frost had his arms in the air, getting frustrated at not being able to get Swie Kings smashes back. Another great moment in that final is when Swie King took a towel down break and he had a flask to drink out of. This was when play was continuous, so there was hardly any towel downs, which is spoiling the sport these days. Too many interruptions and gamesmanship goes on in modern badminton.

I also found a video of the 1987 final against Icuk Sugiarto, and i remeber one of my friends telling me to watch this final as there was a 100 shot rally in it. The first game was 15-10 to Frost, and some of the rallies were brutal, with Sugiarto just clearing with his backhand on many points, trying to wear Frost down. It didn't work like he used to do when they played in Asia, with the climate being much cooler in England, and after winning the first game Frost battered Sugiarto 15-0 in the second. The 100 shot rally was great to watch, and right after that rally was another epic one, and Frost won it with a simple block to the net off a Sugiarto smash. What most people don't realise is that Sugiarto had broken a string in his racket, so he had to try and win the point with a smash, which had less power than normal, hence the easy winner for Frost.

I then wanted to see the video of the 1985 final which Frost lost to a young Chinese player called Zhao Jianhua. I had seen some pictures from this match in one of the badminton magazines from that year and i could not believe the action shots of this Zhao guy. I never got to watch that game until many years later, this was after i had seen Zhao play live at the All England in 1990, 1991, 1992 and at the world championships in Birmingham in 1993 playing mixed doubles only. I have also seen coverage of him playing and winning the 1991 world championships, and i have seen footage of him playing in the Thomas Cup losing to Rahid Sidek in the semi finals, and losing to Ardy in the badminton World Cup i think it was called. There is also footage of Zhao beating Yang Yang in the Asian Games in 1990 on youtube.

In my opinion Zhao is the best badminton singles player to pick up a racket. He was a badminton prodigy, with the best technique of any player then and since. If you want to see the perfect badminton match then watch the All England 1990 final against Joko Suprianto.

So what was so good about Zhao Jianhua? On his day he could beat any player, make them look like amateurs. The only person who could beat Zhao was Zhao. It has been reported he didn't like training, and his mind often wandered during games. He did not win as much as he should have with the talent he had because his mental approach was not good enough. This does happen with prodigious people, everything seems to easy so they don't seem to put in as much effort or have to will to win, like lesser players do. Having said that, when he was in the mood, like in that 1990 final, and in the 1991 world championship final against Kusuma, then the shots he plays are out of this world. His overhead technique was the most deceptive i have ever seen, and you can tell how good it was by watching his opponents movement. I remember sitting in the front row at the 1993 world championships when Zhao was playing mixed doubles against an Indonesian pair and the shuttle was up in the air about 3/4 court length. Zhao got behind the shuttle and i was at right in line with him at the other end of the court. His whole body and arm was in a perfect line with shuttle before he hit it. I guess i had the perfect view of what his opponents were seeing. He played a drop shot and nobody knew what shot he was going to play until the very last second. His opponent just stood rooted to the spot and i remember smiling and shaking my head in disbelief at how good this guy's technique was. They always had to wait until the last second to move as they didn't know where the shuttle was going.

His speed around court was smooth and came in bursts, much like how Lin Dan plays. Frost used to describe him as "a ticking bomb" and when he went off there was not much you could do. His smashes were pin point accurate, from both forehand and from round the head. His jump enabled him to find angles that no-one else could. He is the most talented player of all time, but his inconsistency let him down. Still, when he did decide to play he could beat anyone. When Zhao played, all the other badminton players would come out to watch, and i think that is the biggest compliment you can get. Some people say Zhao would be no match for the likes of Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei. I doubt that, i think on his day he could hold his own against them, but i guess we will never know, however it would be a fascinating prospect.

Zhao was the successor to Yang Yang in a way. He carried on playing for a few years more than Yang Yang, although their careers were around the same time. Yang Yang enjoyed more success because he was much more consistent, and he won the world championships in 1987 and 1989. I remember watching the video of the 1987 final against Frost, and the drift in the hall was crazy. Yang Yang won in 3 games, and his attack eventually got the better of Frost. The 1989 final was against Ardy on his home court, and again Yang Yang won in 3 hard fought games. It looked like Yang took the edge of Ardy, who won the first game and came out of the blocks on fire, but slowly got more tired as Yang upped the pace. It seems the best Chinese players have been lefties, with both Zhao and Yang Yang, along with Lin Dan all being left handed. Yang also beat Frost in the All England final of 1989 in 2 straight games, with Frost making all sorts of unforced errors, probably due to the pressure he felt when playing Yang Yang. What was so good about Yang Yang? He had a very powerful jump smash, especially from round the head, excellent stamina to keep playing a fast pace, he also had a great wrist on him. After the 1989 final, Frosts career came to a virtual end, and a new Dane, Poul Erik Hoyer Larsen was now improving rapidly to take over the mantle for the Danes.

The Indonesians were also beginning to come to prominence, with Ardy leading the way. This was the start of a golden era for Indonesian mens singles, and other players were also coming up the rankings including Alan Budi Kusuma, Joko Suprianto, Bambamg Suprianto, Hermawan Susanto, Fung Permadi, and a young Heryanto Arbi. The Malaysians had Foo Kok Keong, and Rashid Sidek. The Chinese had Zhao at his peak, Yang Yang, and Xiong Guobao. And what about the English players? Well we had Darren Hall and Steve Baddeley. Hall had already had the best win of his Career, beating Frost in the final of the European Champs in 1988, when Frost was in his prime. He used to train with Frost every day, so that may have helped him, and it certainly brought his game on leaps and bounds. He regularly reached the latter stages of important tournaments, and he always used to play at 100 miles an hour, with a very good net game. Sadly, Hall has been the last truly world class singles player that we have had. The results for English mens singles players since he retired have been dismal to say the least. I don't think we have had any male player reaching beyond the first few rounds of the All England since about the mid 1990's.

So onto 1990, and that All England final with Zhao and Joko. In his semi final. Zhao beat Rashid Sidek, who was now challenging in all the major tournaments. I sat there and watched Rashid dismantle Frost in the quarter finals, and he gave Zhao a great game in the semi final, going to setting in the second game. The 1991 final saw Ardy beating Foo Kok Keong in the final, with Foo beating Zhao in his semi final. Ardy had a little bit more attacking flair than Foo, but the final was a war of attrition which Ardy won and took the title. The 1991 world champs saw Zhao at his best again, beating Alan Budi Kusuma in the final, with the second game being very much like the 1990 All England final, with Zhao hitting top form and playing some brilliant shots to beat Kusuma. You can see the second half of the second game here, enjoy..

1992 saw some great matches between all these great players. The one that sticks out in my mind was the Thomas Cup Final between Malaysia and Indonesia. I manages to get hold of a video of that final from the IBF many many years ago, and what a match it was. The crowd was going totally nuts all the way through, with the prime minister leading the way.

Rashid beat Ardy in 3 games, and after looking like he had run out of steam in the second game, he came back even stronger in the 3rd game to set Malaysia on their way. The match ended with Malaysia winning 3-2, and the crowd going wild.

The All England final was between Zhao and another Chinese player called Lui Jun. I was sat there in the crowd watching this final, and as everyone knows, it was fixed. With 1992 being Olympic Year, and the first time badminton had been included as a full Olympic sport, ranking points counted, and China wanted Lui Jun to be competing in it. Basically he had to win the All England to qualify, and that is what happened. The reality is that Zhao was denied another All England Championship because he was by far the better player. He looked like he was messing about in that final, and he was. He did play all out for a few rallies, then made simple errors to give Lui the match. The Olympic final was between Ardy and Alan Kusuma, with Kusuma winning in 2 straight games. Hermawan Susanto beat Zhao in the quarter finals, and effectively ended his career. Zhao was top seed and expected to win the whole thing, but things don't always work out to plan do they? Rashid Sidek also went out in the quarter finals losing to an up and coming Danish player by the name of Thomas Steur Lauridsen. Indonesia were the big winners, taking gold silver and a bronze. This was when there was no bronze medal match, with the losing semi finalists both getting a bronze medal. Also, there was no mixed doubles in the 1992 Olympic event, a bit sexist i think.

Onto 1993 and this was the start of more Indonesian domination in world badminton. China began a lean period for the next few years as they had up and coming stars who were not yet internaional class, most notably Dong Jiong and Sun Jun. The All England final in 1993 was between Heryanto Arbi and Joko Suprianto, who was back in the final after that 1990 hammering. I had seen Arbi play at the previous All England and you could see his potential. He played very much like Liem Swie King, with an attacking game and a big jump smash. He had a good semi final win over the improving Steur Lauridsen, whose tricky style always caused the Inodnesians problems. He was very good at flat clearing to the forehand corner, and this caught out many opponents, but in the end Arbi won the tight points and went on to win the final. This win set him on his way to many more big victories, usually against his fellow countrymen, as the Indonesains were so strong with good strength in depth.

The 1993 Workd Championships were in Brimingham at the national indoor arena, so off i went on the first 3 days. The All England would move there in 1994, and has been there ever since. On the opening days the entire arena was used, and at the All England you never see the whole arena as half of it is closed off with a big black curtain, although last year they did make the viewing area a bit bigger. Joko won the 1993 title beating Susanto in the final. The quarter finals featured 5 Indonesians, and the semis had 3 out of 4 being Indonesisan, highlighting this strength in depth.

Arbi won the 1994 All England as well, beating Ardi in the final. His attack finally got through against Ardi's defensive play. Ardi used to just grind opponents down, wear them out and then play winners. He had great court coverage and steady shots as well as the ability to inject pace and power when he saw the chance. Arbi then went on to win the World Championships in 1995 but he lost the 1995 All England to Hoyer Larsen, who was beginning his remarkable run of form somewhat late in his career. I used to enjoy watching him play because he was so good at the net and also being a leftie he was very deceptive overhead. He used to dominate his opponents and force them to play his game. His tight spinning net shots were the best of any player, and from the weak returns he would play his winners. He wasn't the fastest mover around but he had great stroke production and was very accurate, so he usually had his opponents running around and not them moving him. Singles is very hard when you are chasing the shuttle all the time, and sooner or later you run out of steam and start taking the shuttle a little bit later.

1996 saw Hoyer Larsen take a second All England title, this time beating Rashid Sidek in the final. Rashid had sufered with injuries in the past few years, but he came into some great from in the 1996 chamionships. I think without the injuries he suffered from he would have won many more tournaments than he did. You could see he had problems moving in the final, and Hoyer Larsen always made players twist and turn all over the place. 1996 was also Olympic year, and Hoyer Larsen took this title as well, beating Dong Jiong in the final. Joko Suprianto was the top seed, with Hoyer Larsen seeded 2. The semi final line up had Rashid Sidek playing Dong Jiong, won by Dong Jiong. Rashid had earlier beaten Joko in the quarters, but Dong took him out in straight games. In the other semi Larsen beat Arbi in straight games. The bronze medals now had to be fought for in all play off match, which Rashid took after beating Arbi in 3 games. In the final Larsen used good tactics to stop Dong Jiong attacking, and frustrated him throughout the match. Dong had a very powerful jump smash, so Larsen hardly ever lifted to him, and Dong tried to take him on at the net, which Larsen won and subsequently the gold medal.

1997 saw Dong Jiong win the All England, giving Sun Jun a lesson in attacking badminton. And then we come to the 1997 World Championships in Glasgow, which i went to for 3 days, watching the round of last 16, quarters and semis. I watched the finals on tv. That week in Scotland was roasting hot and it was even hotter inside the venue. Hoyer Larsen was the top seed, with Arbi and Ardi and Sun Jun the other highly seeded players. The first semi final had Hoyer Larsen playing Sun Jun, and i was right at the court edge for this match. Sun Jun eventually beat Larsen in 3 games, and when i say tough i mean really tough. Sun Jun covered more court in that semi than i have ever seen a human being do. His retrieval during that match was unbelievable, and Larsen seemed to run out of ideas. The seond semi had Arbi up against Peter Rasmussen from Denmark. I was court side for this match as well, sat in the middle of a load of Malaysian fans, who were banging the seats and making loads of noise. The atmosphere was superb, and they were all waiting for Cheah and Yap to play Ricky and Rexy in the mens doubles semi final. Arbi won the first game after being about 10-1 up, with Rasmussen looking very nervous indeed. Rasmussen did get some points back near the end of the first game, and then took control of the match. He had a very deceptive overhead forehand slice and straight smash, and Arbi just could not read these shots.

So the final was Sun Jun playing Peter Rasmussen, and it will be remembered for Sun Jun cramping up in the third game after leading about 10-3. It was a brutal match all through, with very long rallies played at a very fast pace. I know why Sun Jun cramped up, it was that brutal semi final, and those first 2 games in the final which both went to setting, along with the heat in the hall. The rallies went on and on, and Rasmussen just kept on going till Sun Jun cramped up in the third. It was live on tv and you could see his thigh muscle all cramped to hell. A great final, and a great win for Rasmussen, who came out of nowhere to win. I felt a bit bad for Sun Jun, but professional sport is brutal and cramping up is just tough luck i suppose. He did learn a valuable lesson from this match though, which was to improve his attacking game so he could finish off rallies quicker.

The new improved and rested Sun Jun came back to win the 1998 All England, by demolishing Ong Ewe Hock in 2 straight games. He hit top form all through this tournament, hammering everyone through the rounds, culminating in a great performance in the final. Ong tried his best but was outclassed on the day.

1999 saw Peter Gade claim the All England, beating a precocious young teenager called Taufik Hidayat in 3 games in the final. I watched Taufik beat Hoyer Larsen in the semi final, and everyone could see we had a new star being born. Gade was also coming into his own and was now a top singles player. Going into the 1999 World Champs he was one of the favourites along with Sun Jun and Hoyer Larsen. Sun Jun took the crown against the suprise finalist Fung Permadi. Sun Jun was probably at his peak at this time, and he hammered both Steur Lauridsen and Hoyer Larsen in the quarters and semis. He hung on to win the final in 3 games, as Permadi tried to wear him down. His better attacking game saw him win through, and Sun Jun was great to watch, with a great overhead action and a very accurate smash.

I think this post has gone on long enough, so i will pick up the story of mens singles from 2000 to present in the next post.


dave said...

cannot wait to read this... !!

The Tame Lion said...

I'm now learning jumping smash, drop shot, and tricky skills. I'm confident that in London Olympic I can beat Lin Dan, Lee Chong Wei, or whoever.

antony said...

Good luck with that Tame Lion:)

Badminton Skills said...

Wow, 11-3 in that Zhao Jianhua vs Joko match you posted! Joko isn't even in Zhao Jianhua's league. Great job on the article, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Great article, love the blog.