The 20th edition of the LI-NING BWF World Junior Championships will begin tomorrow in Markham, Canada.
The World Junior Championships, from its start in 1992, has provided a window into the next generation of elite shuttlers. Several junior champions have gone on to win the senior title as well – Ratchanok Intanon, Viktor Axelsen, Nozomi Okuhara and Kento Momota among them.
China have always performed strongly at the World Juniors. Only thrice in 20 years have they failed to win a gold – in 2011, 2012 and 2017.
Here are some of the players to watch at the 2018 edition:
Wang Zhiyi (Women’s Singles, China)
Wang (featured image) was the standout performer in China’s defence of its World Junior Mixed Team Championships title. A player somewhat in the mould of senior compatriot Chen Yufei, Wang has had an excellent year, winning five of eight tournaments she played in, including the Badminton Asia Junior Championships. She fell in the final of the Youth Olympic Games in a close match to Goh Jin Wei, but had her revenge last week in the quarterfinals of the Mixed Team event.
China was staring at elimination against Japan in the semifinals, with Wang two match points down to Hirari Mizui in an energy-sapping encounter that saw both contestants driven to the limits of their endurance. Wang, noticeably struggling between points, refused to give in and extracted errors from Mizui to take China into the final.
In the final, Wang was again in trouble as the strain from the previous match showed. Still, she revved herself up from a game down and 11-15 in the second to outlast her opponent Park Ga Eun. China’s junior head coach Wang Wei hailed her contribution as “outstanding” in China’s fifth straight title victory.
Goh Jin Wei (Women’s Singles, Malaysia)
Goh was an early achiever at the junior level, winning the world title in 2015 when she was just 15. Since then Goh has had sporadic successes, but she hasn’t been able to dominate the junior events, nor has she consistently troubled elite players.
Consequently, her victory at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires was welcome relief in a year without any titles. After beating Wang Zhiyi in a close finish she fell to the floor in a flood of tears – an unusual reaction from the usually restrained Malaysian. She is aware of the constraints of her short physical stature, but in her idol Akane Yamaguchi, she sees someone of her physical type who has overcome those constraints with unflagging energy.
Lakshya Sen (Men’s Singles, India)
Even as a wisp of a lad, Sen was marked in India as a prospect to watch. Sen reached the pre-quarterfinals of the World Junior Championships 2016 as a 15-year-old; last year he went a step ahead, making the quarterfinals. This year he will go in as one of the favourites, having won silver at the Youth Olympic Games and gold at the Asian Junior Championships, where he beat most of his biggest rivals.
In his quarter of the draw are ninth seed Chen Shiau Cheng (Chinese Taipei), seventh seed Bai Yupeng (China) and 14th seed Brian Yang (Canada).
Li Shifeng (Men’s Singles, China)
The wiry Chinese ensured a point for his team in the World Junior Mixed Team final against Korea despite a gruelling 90-minute battle against Japan’s Kodai Naraoka the previous day. Li’s big win this year was the Youth Olympic Games; other significant results include runner-up finishes at the Dutch Junior and German Junior championships.
Seeded third for the individual event at the World Junior Championships, Li might have to contend with the likes of Korea’s Choi Ji Hoon, sixth seed Nhat Nguyen (Ireland) – who nearly beat him at the YOG – and 11th seed Julien Carraggi (Belgium) in his quarter.
Kodai Naraoka (Men’s Singles, Japan)
Naraoka is quite the marathon man of the junior circuit, someone with never-say-die spirit. A prime example of this was at the YOG – Naraoka trailed Lakshya Sen 11-0 in the Men’s Singles semifinals, only to clamber back doggedly to get match point. Sen did manage to thwart him in the end, but Naraoka’s performance showed he couldn’t be counted out at any stage.
In the World Mixed Team semifinal, Naraoka set up what might have become a sensational upset for Japan, as he prevailed in a 90-minute slugfest with Li Shifeng. Semifinalist at the World Junior Championships last year, Naraoka is unseeded this time, and is in the bottom quarter, with second seed Ilhsan Leonardo Imanuel Rumbay (Indonesia), Kiran George (India), Jason The (Singapore) and Zhang Weiyi (China).
Wang Chan (Doubles, Korea)
The powerfully-built doubles player made heads turn in the Mixed Team event with his electric defence, marking him as a prospect at higher levels. Wang did double duty and won all his eight matches (Men’s Doubles and Mixed Doubles). He was instrumental in Korea making the final, where he and Men’s Doubles partner Shin Tae Yang got them off to a sound start with a victory in the opening match.
Wang had a strong run this year, beginning with the German Junior title in Men’s Doubles (with Ki Dong Ju) and a runner-up finish in Mixed Doubles (with Jeong Na Eun) at the Badminton Asia Junior Championships.
Xia Yuting/Liu Xuanxuan (Women’s Doubles, China)
If China eventually coasted to the World Junior Mixed Team title, they had the Women’s Doubles pair of Xia Yuting and Liu Xuanxuan to thank. The pair won the deciding match against Japan in the semifinals with plenty to spare; a day later in the final, they prevented the tie from going to the fifth match by shutting out Jang Eun Seo/Lee Jung Hyun in straight games. Xia’s powerful smashes from the back had much to do with the ease of those victories.
The pair, who have won two titles this season, are top-seeded for the World Junior Championships.