His eyes on an unprecedented 11th title, Lee Chong Wei will be the cynosure at the Celcom Axiata Malaysia Open when he starts his campaign tomorrow.
The Malaysian icon (featured image) has dominated his home event like no player before him with ten Men’s Singles titles, but as he takes on Japan’s Takuma Ueda in his opening round, he will be aware that there is a danger of an early slip-up. After a dream end to the last season, in which he picked up three straight World Superseries titles, Lee has had a nightmarish start to 2016. The World No.3 fell in the first round at the Yonex All England, followed by a second round exit in India last week. It was as inauspicious a start as he could have hoped for in the Olympic season, but assured of strong home support, the Malaysian has a good opportunity to roar back in style.
With the Olympic qualifying season ending in early May, and with all the top players present at the Premier Superseries event, Lee will have to navigate a minefield if he is to emerge on top once again. In his quarter are Korea’s Son Wan Ho and the in-form Viktor Axelsen (Denmark); a semi-final with Yonex All England champion Lin Dan is a distinct possibility. For Lin, who was runner-up to compatriot Chen Long last year, the Malaysia Open title is conspicuously absent from his otherwise complete resume, and the Chinese great will require no further motivation to claim his first.
Top seed Chen Long hasn’t tasted Superseries success since the Yonex Denmark Open last October; the defending champion has a relatively easy draw and, barring surprises, should be able to make the semi-finals where he might run into Yonex-Sunrise India Open champion Kento Momota. Momota though has a tricky first round lined up against India’s HS Prannoy.
Apart from the big names, the ones to watch would be No.6 seed Viktor Axelsen, his Danish compatriot Jan O Jorgensen, Chinese Taipei’s Chou Tien Chen and China’s Tian Houwei, who is seeded to run into Chen in the quarter-finals. Three young Indonesians – Anthony Ginting, Ihsan Maulana Mustofa and Jonatan Christie – are likely to trouble the more established names.
Defending champion Carolina Marin (Spain) and No.8 seed Nozomi Okuhara (Japan) head in as favourites in Women’s Singles; Okuhara, Superseries winner in Dubai and England, is in the same quarter as India’s Saina Nehwal, while top seed Marin is likely to run into No.6 seed Wang Yihan (China) in her quarter-final.
India Open champion Ratchanok Intanon (Thailand) will start against the combative Iris Wang (USA). The intensity of the draw in Women’s Singles is such that few players are assured of quick progress; second seed Li Xuerui, for instance, faces Akane Yamaguchi (Japan), while India’s PV Sindhu runs into Youth Olympic Games champion He Bingjiao (China), who already has some impressive senior performances to her credit. Viktor Korea Open champion Sung Ji Hyun (Korea) also has a difficult first round opponent in Japan’s Sayaka Sato.
There will be plenty of fan interest in two Men’s Doubles pairs in particular: All England champions Vladimir Ivanov/Ivan Sozonov (Russia) and India Open winners Markus Fernaldi Gideon/Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo (Indonesia). Both are in the same quarter as World champions Mohammad Ahsan/Hendra Setiawan. Sukamuljo and Gideon were sensational in India, displaying coolness and maturity beyond their years and offering tantalising glimpses of their potential.
The favourites though will be top seeds Lee Yong Dae/Yoo Yeon Seong (Korea), who will be keen to get back to their title-winning ways. No.3 seeds Zhang Nan/Fu Haifeng; Chai Biao/Hong Wei (both China), No.6 seeds Hiroyuki Endo/Kenichi Hayakawa (Japan) and No.7 seeds Ko Sung Hyun/Shin Baek Choel (Korea) are among other pairs likely to go far in the draw.
The in-form Women’s Doubles pair at the moment is Japan’s Misaki Matsutomo/Ayaka Takahashi, winners in England and India. The Japanese should be able to make the quarter-finals with relative ease, where they might run into China’s Yu Yang/Tang Yuanting.
Among the interesting first round match-ups are: Denmark’s Christinna Pedersen/Kamilla Rytter Juhl versus China’s Chen Qingchen/Jia Yi Fan; Japan’s Naoko Fukuman/Kurumi Yonao against Indonesia’s Greysia Polii/Nitya Krishinda Maheswari and Korea’s Jung Kyung Eun/Shin Seung Chan against Bulgaria’s Stefani Stoeva/Gabriela Stoeva. Defending champions Luo Ying/Luo Yu (China) are in the same quarter as compatriots and World champions Tian Qing/Zhao Yunlei; both pairs are in the race to the Rio Olympics and the match-up, if it comes about, will be keenly watched.
Mixed Doubles defending champions Zhang Nan/Zhao Yunlei (China) start their campaign against Dutch duo Jacco Arends/Selena Piek. The draw is studded with strong Chinese pairs: apart from Zhang/Zhao, there are Liu Cheng/Bao Yixin; Xu Chen/Ma Jin; India Open champions Lu Kai/Huang Yaqiong, Liu Yuchen/Tang Jinhua and emerging pair Wang Yilyu/Chen Qingchen.
All England champions Praveen Jordan/Debby Susanto (Indonesia) have a tough opener against Japan’s Kenta Kazuno/Ayane Kurihara, while India Open winners Lu Kai/Huang Yaqiong start against Korea’s Yoo Yeon Seong/Chang Ye Na.
Men’s Singles: Goh Soon Huat, Iskandar Zulkarnain Zainuddin, Chong Yee Han (all Malaysia); Jonatan Christie (Indonesia)
Women’s Singles: Rong Schafer (USA), Petya Nedelcheva, Linda Zetchiri (both Bulgaria), Jauza Fadhila Sugiarto (Indonesia)
Men’s Doubles: Darren Isaac Devadass/Tan Jinn Hwa; Hoon Thien How/Teo Kok Siang; Mohd Razif Abdul Latif/Muhammad Hafiz Hashim (all Malaysia); Ronel Estanislao/Paul Jefferson Vivas
Women’s Doubles: Lim Payee/Lim Peiy Zhean; Goh Yea Ching/Peck Yen Wei (Malaysia); Natasha Herloardjo/Rofahadah Supriadi Putri (Indonesia)
Mixed Doubles: Liu Yuchen/Tang Jinhua (China); Aji Firmansyah/Natasha Herloardjo (Indonesia); Terry Hee/Tan Wei Han (Singapore); Yoo Yeon Seong/Chang Ye Na (Korea)