A few years ago when Kento Momota was still serving his year-long ban, Lee Chong Wei had spoken about the Japanese kicking off a rivalry with Denmark’s Viktor Axelsen. Though the Dane spent most of 2019 nursing injuries, Momota had one of the best ever years on the tour, breaking Chong Wei’s record for the most number of title triumphs in a calendar year.
There were similar dominant performances in the men’s and mixed doubles events while the Chinese women’s singles players finally came to the party after a gap of four years with Chen Yufei ending the year at the top of world ranking while India finally had a world champion after three near misses since 2015.
Here are some of the talking points from the year gone by:
Momota’s scary consistency and other big winners
Kento Momota has been building an aura of invincibility around him since his return from a gambling ban at the end of 2017. He reached seven BWF World Tour finals in 2018, winning four titles and adding the World Championship crown and one wondered how much better can he get. In 2019, he showed he definitely has a higher gear. In the 17 tournaments he played in 2019, Momota lost just once in the first round at the Malaysia Masters and went on to win 11 of the 12 finals he played in. His win-loss record stood at a staggering 67-6 and his title triumph in the BWF World Tour Finals also saw him surpass Lee Chong Wei’s run of 10 titles in 2010.
Momota’s consistency even overshadowed the performances of the top Indonesian men’s doubles combination of Marcus Gideon and Kevin Sukamuljo who followed their run of 10 titles in 2018 with eight titles this year. The mixed doubles events were completely dominated by the Chinese combinations of Huang Yaqiong/Zheng Siwei and Wang Yilu/Huang Dongping who won seven and six titles respectively this year. Zheng and Huang not only defended their world title, but they also became the first pair to win all three Super 1000 titles along with the BWF World Tour Finals.
Daddies year in men’s doubles
The unerring consistency of Gideon and Sukamuljo on the World Tour have made the world No 1 Indonesian combination the toast of the nation. But for all their class and trick shot variations, the youngsters failed to make a mark in the major events like the world championships, All England Open and the BWF World Tour finals.
And every time the Minions faltered, the veterans Hendra Setiawan and Mohammad Ehsan – also called the Daddies – invariably stepped in.
Setiawan is 35 while Ahsan in 32 and have slowed down considerably over the years while their opponents have only got faster and stronger. But in 2019, the world No 2 pair showed that there was no substitute for experience as they clinched the All England title after a gap of five years, their third world championship title as a pair and the year-ending BWF World Tour Finals.
The All England crown had looked improbable after the end of the first game as the Malaysian combination of Aaron Chia and Soh Wuui Yik winning it rather easily and Setiawan struggling due to a calf injury suffered in the semi-final.
But the Indonesians then changed tactics and Setiawan positioned himself in the front court and played on the patience of their opponents to turn the course of the match.
In August, Setiawan then became the oldest player in this decade to be crowned World Champion. The title triumph on his 35th birthday was his fourth overall.
Chen makes it count for Chinese women’s singles stars
The Chinese women’s singles players had been playing catch up for the last few years with none of the players looking good to fill in the big boots of Li Xuerui and Yihan Wang. The former even tried to make a comeback to international badminton after two-years of injury-induced lay-off but hung her racquet for good this year.
But while Li struggled to rekindle the majic of the past, Chen finally justified the tag of the future Chinese star by clinching the world No 1 ranking with a title triumph in the BWF World Tour Finals. She will be the first Chinese women’s singles shuttler in four years to occupy the top spot.
Chen completed a hat-trick of titles starting from the China Open in November, closing the year with a win over the versatile Tai Tzu Ying. She had surprised everyone by beating the Chinese Taipei shuttler in the All England final, her first win over the former world No 1 in 12 meetings. She lost another three matches against Tai in the year but wasn’t to be denied in the BWF World Tour Finals.
She also reached eight semi-finals this year and the only time she lost in the tournament before the weekend rounds was in the Korea Open where she went down in the quarter-finals against compatriot He Bingjiao.
An indifferent season for Indians
It is difficult to categorise the 2019 season for Indian badminton stars as successful or unsuccessful. This was the year when PV Sindhu became the first-ever Indian to win a world title and B Sai Praneeth bagged the country’s first men’s singles world championship medal after a gap of 36 years.
The gold medal-winning run also made Sindhu one of the most successful players in the competition with two silver and two bronze medals to show for her six appearances, a record now she shares with Chinese legend Zhang Ning.
The men’s doubles combination of Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty became the first Indian men’s doubles pair to win a Super 500 level tournament when they bagged the Thailand Open crown. They defeated almost all the top-10 pairs at least once – with the exception of Gideon and Sukamuljo – and broke into the world top-10 despite losing almost four months to injuries.
But apart from that, there was very little to write home about the performance of the country’s top stars on the BWF circuit. Saina Nehwal was the only other Indian singles player to win a Super 500 title or above when she won the Indonesia Masters at the start of the year. Sourabh Verma and Lakshya Sen won two titles each in the Super 100s to round off India’s tally of six titles on the BWF World Tour.
Tenacious Marin and spunky Young
When Carolina Marin injured her knee at the Indonesia Masters in January and was diagnosed with an ACL tear, not many gave the Spaniard a chance to leave a mark on the 2019 season. And when she pulled out of the World Championship citing the need for more time to recover, it looked like the return to competitive badminton would be anything but easy.
But a few months later, she stunned all and sundry by winning the China Open Super 1000 event in what was just her second competitive tournament. The triumph in China was a result of meticulous planning by her support staff which opted for high altitude training after her recovery to get her back in peak form. But more than that, it was an ode to the tenacity and mental strength that Marin possesses. Not many badminton players have managed to make a successful comeback to win major events after an ACL surgery in the past but the Spaniard simply hit the ground running.
She went on to win two more titles and also reached the finals of the French Open where she was stopped by an upcoming star who made a grand entry into top-flight badminton this year.
Korea’s An Se Young announced her arrival on the big stage by upsetting the experienced Li Xuerui to clinch the New Zealand Open Super 300 title in May. The 17-year-old then added the Canada Open and Hyderabad Open Super 100 crowns before announcing her crendentials as the potential medal contender in Tokyo Olympics with the French Open triumph in October. The Korean Masters Super 300 triumph also helped her break into the world top-10 rankings and it would be interesting to see how she copes with the pressure of expectations in 2020.