Having dispensed with the team tournament, the quest for individual glory in world junior badminton begins today in Chiba, Japan.
Some of the top contenders in the Men’s and Women’s Singles of the BWF World Junior Championships 2012 for EYE – Level Cups are already seasoned campaigners on the senior international circuit, boasting some prized, big-name scalps in their short careers.
In fact, Men’s Singles top seed – Viktor Axelsen – is fresh from finishing runner-up to Malaysia’s Daren Liew in last Sunday’s finale of the Yonex French Open 2012; beating 2008 World Junior champion Wang Zhangming of China and Japan’s Kenichi Tago in the process. The talented Dane, viewed by many as the heir apparent to now-retired veteran Peter Gade, spearheads his country’s hunt for success and knowing what it takes to get there at this level.
Two years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico, he announced himself as one to watch for the future by capturing the World Junior title emphatically from South Korea’s Kang Jik Wook Kang with a 21-19, 21-10 victory; the first European to achieve this feat. En route, the then 16-year-old knocked off some highly-touted opposition, including the usually strong Chinese.
However, Axelsen has the more recent memory of tasting bitter defeat in the defence of his title in last year’s BWF World Juniors in Taiwan, losing the final to an inspired Zulfadli Zulkifli of Malaysia (18-21 21-9 19-21). The latter is not in the tournament this year but Axelsen will certainly be out to avenge last year’s outcome.
Kento Momota, a member of Japan’s Suhandinata Cup team, is seeded second while Thailand’s Khosit Phatpradab and Joo Ven Soong of Malaysia and jointly seeded third and fourth. Other names to keep in mind are Thammasin Sitthikom of Thailand, Ng Ka Long of Hong Kong and China’s Song Xue
Meanwhile, competitors in Women’s Singles must have breathed a collective sigh of relief at the realisation that three-time defending champion, Ratchanok Intanon of Thailand, would not be gunning for a fourth straight junior trophy. Though still just 17 years old, she has graduated successfully to the senior ranks and clearly harbours more lofty ambitions now.
In her absence, Tai Tzu Ying looms large as the one to beat – and it should take some doing to oust the top seed. Still riding high from her maiden BWF World Superseries triumph in the Yonex Japan Open in September, this 18-year-old must be supremely confident after outclassing senior rivals on various occasions such as China’s superstars, Wang Yihan and Wang Xin; Saina Nehwal of India; South Korea’s Sung Ji Hyun; Danish veteran Tine Baun and Eriko Hirose of Japan.
Representing Chinese Taipei, she has displayed a maturity and composure well beyond her age, digging in under pressure to bring out the best in her game. The manner in which Tai rebounded against Sung Ji Hyun in the Japan Open semi-final – down 9-15 in the decisive third game – was a lesson many could learn. She pulled off a second comeback in the final versus Hirose to lift the title.
Now enjoying a career-high world ranking of No. 11 in Women’s Singles, she will be pressed hard by the likes of No. 2 seed Busanan Ongbumrungpan of Thailand; joint third and fourth seeds, Naslihan Yigit of Turkey and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara. Others to watch for are Stefani Stoeva (Bulgaria); Yu Sun (China); Line Kjaersfeldt (Denmark) and Yu Sun of the USA.
In the three Doubles disciplines – Men’s, Women’s and Mixed – a number of nations will fancy their chances, including some of the perennial favourites such as China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea.
Text by Gayle Alleyne