It’s been a while since the BWF World Tour has resumed back to normalcy post Covid-19 which has also finally seen the complete unfreezing of the world rankings. Usual suspects like Viktor Axelsen, Anthony Ginting, Akane Yamaguchi, An Se Young, Chen Yufei, Mohammad Ahsan/Hendra Setiawan, Fajar Alfian/Muhammad Rian Ardianto, Chen Qingchen/Jia Yifan, Chiharu Shida/Nami Matsuyama, Zheng Si Wei/Huang Ya Qiong, Yuta Watanabe/Arisa Higashino have consistently done well on the World Tour. But we have also had few players who have emerged in the past six months and have put up their name as genuine stars in the making.

Here is my list of players in each category who have caught my eye and disrupted the World Tour.

Kodai Naraoka (Japan)

Event: Men’s Singles

Age: 21

World Ranking: 7

Naraoka’s meteoric rise on the World Tour has been nothing less than phenomenal. To put it in context, on 12th July, 2022 Naraoka was ranked 43rd in the world rankings and cut to January 2023, he sat on a career-high of sixth in the world with one title and four runner-up finishes on the BWF World Tour, along with a semi-final showing at the World Tour finals. His 2001-born batchmates Kunlavut Vitidsarn and Lakshya Sen may have had a head start on him in the senior circuit but he is the player to watch out for on the tour.

Badminton: Thailand’s Kunlavut Vitidsarn emerges as class of 2018’s flag-bearer

What works for him: Not the silkiest player to watch but the intensity and tenacity that he brings onto the court are special. One of the best counter-attacking players on the tour, with a style which is based on a solid defensive foundation and consistency.

What works against him: Most of the matches he wins are long marathon matches that go beyond the hour mark, which takes a toll on his body at the business end of the tournament. The Malaysian Open finals loss against Axelsen is an example of it. Enroute to the finals he spent a whopping 6 hours on the court. Naraoka doesn’t have the attacking game yet to win quick points and hence relies on longer rallies which takes a toll in the long run. If you look at his results in the Asian Circuit his performance levels have dipped with back-to-back first-round losses in Indonesia and India which shows the physical toll the body is taking and thus not able sustain his high-intensity counter-attacking style of play.

Li Shifeng (China)

Event – Men’s Singles

Age - 22

World Ranking – 20

The second MS spot was a tough one to pick. Sen and Vitidsarn have established themselves for a while now, so I narrowed it down to Chico Aura Dwi Wardoyo (Indonesia) or Li Shifeng (China). I am picking Shifeng even when Chico has a Super 500 title to his name. Shifeng is a couple of years younger and hasn’t had the best of draws in recent times as well. Quarterfinals in India and semifinals in Thailand have been good results to start the year but my prediction is that he is going to win at least two World Tour events by the end of 2023.

What works for him: Opposite to Naroaka, Shifeng is like an old-school attacking player who takes charge early in the rally and has the speed and power to hit through opponents. Extremely good in slower conditions as displayed at the India Open where he outhit Lee Zi Jia in his own game, which is no mean feat. His big smashes from the overhead side combined with his follow-up are right up there with the best.

What works against him: Struggles in conditions that have a lot of drift which could be an area of concern when he plays in Malaysia, Korea, and Taiwan. Shifeng doesn’t possess the defensive foundation and consistency yet as well which makes him a bit single-dimensional at this point.

Wang Zhi Yi (China)

Event – Women’s Singles

Age – 22

World Ranking – 6

In my opinion, women Singles is the toughest event to breakthrough as the usual suspects, namely Akane Yamaguchi and An Se-Young dominate most events these days. Then you add the likes of Chen Yufei, Tai Tzu Ying, Ratchnok Intanon, PV Sindhu, He Bingjiao, and a resurgent Carolina Marin... that’s a strong top 8. The player I feel who can come close to disrupting this category is current Asian Champion Wang Zhi Yi who now is consistently taking this group of players to the full distance in recent showdowns. It’s just a matter of time before the results will start going her way as well. With only two players allowed per country to make the Olympics, it’s going to be a tight race between Chen Yufei, He Bingjao, and Wang Zhi Yi.

What works for her: Wang’s playing style is super similar to Chen Yufei. She loves playing the long rallies, and doesn’t have the power from the backcourt but has an extraordinary range from the front court. Her range was visible when she played the Singapore Open final against PV Sindhu and ran the Indian close in a three-game defeat. The variation Wang has from the backhand side of the front court is astounding and she can play any shot in the book with identical preparation.

What works against her: Wang can get passive at times as she does not yet have the power from the backcourt to hit through opponents. She also has difficulty absorbing high pace attacking badminton as she prefers playing the craftier long rally game. Also, she tends to start slow and grow into the match as it progresses which doesn’t work very often against the best in the business. Wang is also injury prone and retired midway through her round of 16 match at the India Open after a string of good results in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Liang Wei Keng/Wang Chan (China)

Event – Men’s Doubles

Age – 22 & 21

World Ranking – 9

The current pair to beat in Men’s Doubles on the World Tour without a shadow of a doubt. Interestingly Wang and Lian squared off against each other the Asian Juniors finals with their respective partners, with Wang getting the better of Liang. Wang was doing fairly well with his ex-partner Di Zijian with a Super 100 title to their names and eyebrows were raised when Liang/Wang started a new partnership before the Indonesian Masters in June 2022. But they repaid the selector’s faith by making the finals, losing to Fajar/Ardianto. Cut to January 2023 they are in the top 10 of the rankings, they have two Super 750 titles and were sensational in the Asian circuit. So far they have a 10-2 win/loss record for the year, winning in India.

What works for them: The fun they get on the court is infectious, Chinese MD pairs very rarely have fun on the court. but Liang/Wang have an absolute blast and are always smiling even when things don’t go their way. Wang is easily one of the best front-court players with great anticipation skills and dominated Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo in their last meeting which is rare to see. Liang on the other hand is a powerhouse with his big smashes and powerful drives. Both serve and receive with the power, speed, and intensity of a traditional Chinese pair yet have the fun, arrogance, and guile of an Indonesian Doubles pair, if that makes sense.

What works against them: Not a lot as of now. Defensive solidity is one but I think lack of experience playing the big events will be up there. Liang/Chan haven’t played any major events as a pair so far, it will be interesting to see how they turn up at the Sudirman Cup and the Worlds this year, where they won’t be underdogs anymore but will enter as one of the titles contenders. Also interesting to see will be how they cope with the second season syndrome where they are not an unknown quantity anymore and coaches across the world will look for loopholes in their game.

Men's Doubles Champions Liang Wei Keng at India Open after winning the final | BAI photo

Daniel Marthin/Leo Rolly Carnando (Indonesia)

Event – Men’s Doubles

Age – 21

World Ranking – 10

The Asian circuit is dominated by two young pairs. Liang/Wang the first. Then Marthin/Carnando came of age during Indonesia and Thailand with back-to-back titles. The 2019 World Junior champions are now a top 10 pair.

What works for them: Marthin and Leo perfectly complement each other with their game styles. Their setup is similar to Gideon/Sukomuljo where Marthin plays the destroyer similar to Gideon from the backcourt whereas Carnando plays the Sukomuljo role of being the creator from the net as well as bringing flair to the pair. Marthin, in my opinion, is probably one of the best backcourt players in world badminton now.

What works against them: Marthin’s ability at the net has been tested time and again and in dead slow conditions, opponents have been successful in pushing Leo to the backcourt and thus reversing the preferred combination on the court. The sheer depth of Men’s Doubles could mean that they could miss out on big-ticket tournaments. Indonesia currently have six pairs in the Top 25 with two in the top three which is the most any country has at this point.

Treesa Jolly/Gayatri Gopichand Pullela (India)

Event – Women’s Doubles

Age – 19

World Ranking – 19

The youngest pair in the top 20 of the world rankings in the second toughest event to disrupt. Treesa/Gayatri, only 19, have had a breakout first season on the tour with two world tour podium finishes apart from success at the coveted All England and Commonwealth Games in 2022. They have had impressive matchs along the way (against Poli/Rahayu, Aimsaard sisters, Lee/Shin, Linda/Isabel, and Jille/Seinen) while consistently getting past the initial rounds at high-level events. Their 2022 season has got them on the map. They have been squaring off a lot against two top pairs in Jongkolphan/Rawinda and Tan/Muralitharaan and have been going toe to toe with most combinations in the world. Nowhere near the finished article yet, and that is what makes them exciting.

What works for them: Treesa and Gayatri complement each other perfectly. It’s a song of ice and fire. Treesa is the fire and takes the game to the opponents whereas Gayatri is the ice and is the player who turns up when the chips are down. Treesa has the power to hit through the pairs whereas Gayatri has remarkable soft hands and court awareness which help her find gaps. But what makes them truly stand out is that they do not fear playing the big names on tour and it’s just a matter of time before they will have better results in the big tournaments.

What works against them: Treesa’s mobility on the court and soft net game, and Gayatri’s lack of power look like the biggest concerns as of now. Apart from that they have the defensive solidity and consistency needed for women’s doubles.

Treesa Jolly and Gayatri Gopichand (R) at the CWG 2022 podium / PTI photo

Kim Won Ho/Eun Na Jeong (South Korea)

Event – Mixed Doubles

Age – 23 & 22

World Ranking – 18

Always thought Kim Won Ho hasn’t stamped his authority on the World Tour even after being around for a long time, now switching multiple partners. But people tend to forget that he is still only 23. Eun Na Jeong on the other hand, after getting a silver in Mixed Doubles at the World Juniors in 2018, has focused more on Women’s Doubles and has firmly established herself as one of the best Women’s Doubles players on tour. Now that Korea has stopped experimenting with their double’s pairs Kim/Eun have started to grow into their partnership and after a moderate start have stepped it up in the past few weeks. They have had big wins over Dechapol/Sapsiree, Wang/Dongping, Christiansen/Boje and ended with two semifinals and one quarterfinal in the Asian circuit. But it will be interesting to see how Korea manages the workload of its doubles players.

What works for them: Kim, in my opinion is much better suited for Mixed Doubles. He is tall and has a strong all-around game. Eun, like all WD top players, has a phenomenal defence which allows her to absorb a lot of the pressure and she can hold her own from the backcourt. They do not play the traditional Mixed Doubles format and you will often see Kim moving to the net when he plays the counter-attacking block.

What works against them: Playing at the net does not come very naturally to Eun and that is something that top coaches around the world will start to exploit. Kim/Eun will also need to learn to play the traditional mixed doubles format as the pair now will not get surprised by the unorthodox format used by them now.

What about Indians in other categories?

The way I see it is that we have a lot of upcoming players across events but to be fair very few players have passed the eye test. Men’s Singles again is the event that has the most depth in terms of quality with players like Kiran George, Mithun Manjunath, Sankar Muthuswamy, Ritwik Sanjeevi, Satish Kumar but Shuttle Zone’s pick for the player to take over is Priyanshu Rajawat.

Every time I see Priyanshu get on the court I say “Wow, what a talent this kid is”. Priyanshu has had a breakthrough year making the historic Thomas Cup winning squad by winning the selection trials. He followed that up by winning the Raipur International Challenge and finishing second at Odisha Open and Bangladesh Open. He got into the top 50 for the first time in his career in January. After beating Christo Popov and making the main draw of the Indonesia Masters, he went down to Chico Aura 21-18 18-21 18-21. He also had a super tight first-round loss against Korean seasoned campaigner Kwang Hee Heo in Thailand. We will be seeing more of Priyanshu at the bigger World Tour events and if he plays close to his potential he will end up being in the top 25 by the end of the year. I see Lakshya Sen, Priyanshu Rajwat, and Kiran George spearheading India’s future Thomas Cup campaigns.

Priyanshu has the rare combination of being tall and extremely fast and often plays a high-intensity game. A bit like Ginting, which makes him stand out. He looks lanky but can surprise players with the power he generates with his big smashes, but his biggest weapon is his half-smash which comes down to his picture-perfect contact point. Extremely comfortable with playing slow and high-paced games, he is solid in defence which allows him to also play counter-attacking badminton, and has enough X-Factor about him to cause a threat to the best players in the world.

Priyanshu’s biggest concern is how injury prone he is as I do not see any red flags technically or tactically on the court. For someone that young, he has a pretty big injury list and he should have been in the top 30 by now. Having an injury-free year on tour will give him a lot of experience and I have no doubt he is going to be one of the top three men’s singles players in the country soon.

Shlok Ramchandran is a former Indian doubles player, who reached a career-high world ranking of No 32 in men’s doubles. Having recently retired from the highest level of the sport, Shlok is currently head coach at Triangle Badminton & Table Tennis in North Carolina, USA. You can read the other pieces in his column, Shuttle Zone here.