Thomas, Uber Cup: Young guns with high aspirations

by BERNAMA

AARHUS (Denmark) – As the national men and women’s badminton squads get ready to slug it out with some of the world’s top nations in the prestigious Thomas and Uber Cup Finals 2020, which begin here tomorrow (Oct 9), it’s best not to set our expectations too high.

More so since both the Malaysian Thomas Cup and Uber Cup squads are laden with youngsters whose aim is not to scale the heights here but to pave the way for a stronger challenge in the future.

Yes, morale is high among the national shuttlers after their splendid bronze-medal achievement at the recently-concluded mixed team Sudirman Cup competition in Vantaa, Finland.

As is the euphoria among Malaysian badminton fans over that achievement.

But the Thomas Cup and Uber Cup Finals are two different ball games, so to speak.

Let’s also not forget that it’s been almost three decades since Malaysia last lifted the Thomas Cup trophy – back in 1992 on home ground. For the record, Malaysia also won the Thomas Cup in the tournament’s first three editions 1949, 1952 and 1955, followed by another success in 1967.

So, to place unnecessary pressure on the shoulders of our young bunch of shuttlers is unfair, to say the least.

This will also be the first time that our Thomas Cup squad will be without the services of the stellar Datuk Lee Chong Wei since the 2004 edition in Jakarta.

Armed with a very young squad, the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) have only set a modest quarter-final target this time, one which is expected to be easily achieved following the 11th-hour withdrawal of England.

Drawn in Group D, Malaysia only need to beat Canada to confirm their quarter-final ticket. Of course, a win over group favourites and 2018 runners-up Japan, who are led by world number one Kento Momota, will prove to be a huge advantage in the quarter-finals as well.

But that will be asking quite a lot of the national men’s squad, with only Lee Zii Jia (picture), Leong Jun Hao and doubles pair Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik having had any experience of playing in the men’s world team championship before.

While world number eight and All England champion Zii Jia will guide the young guns of Ng Tze Yong, Cheam June Wei and Aidil Sholeh Ali Sadikin in the singles, Olympics bronze medalist Aaron-Wooi Yik will lead the doubles challenge with Goh Sze Fei-Nur Izzudin Rumsani and Man Wei Chong-Tee Kai Wun.

Though Zii Jia managed to edge Momota in the recent Sudirman Cup semi-finals, which was only his second win in nine meetings and looks capable of edging the Japanese superstar again here, Japan’s world number 13 Kanta Tsuneyama and world number 16 Kenta Nishimoto look too formidable for Malaysia’s other shuttlers at second and third singles.

And the Japanese are looking just as solid in doubles too, despite the retirement of their three main doubles aces – Takeshi Kamura, Keigo Sonoda and Hiroyuki Endo – although one should discount the possibility of Aaron-Wooi Yik nicking a point at first doubles.

Japan, however, are not the only big guns Malaysia will have to be wary of.

There are the likes of 13-time winners Indonesia, 10-time winners China, 2014 winners Japan and 2016 winners and hosts Denmark, who are the only European country to have lifted the trophy.

One should not write off China despite the fact that they have come with a young squad as well. One that is minus Tokyo Olympics silver medallists – Chen Long and Li Junhui-Liu Yuchen.

Fresh from having won the recent Sudirman Cup, the reigning champions still appear to be strong, with world number 10 Shi Yuqi, Lu Guangzu and 2018 Youth Olympics Games champion Li Shifeng featuring in the singles.

In the doubles, the mighty Chinese team have 2017 world champion Liu Cheng, Tokyo Olympics mixed doubles gold medallist Wang Yilyu and Zhou Haodong in the fray.

China are in Group C with India, the Netherlands and debutants Tahiti.

Let’s not forget about Indonesia, who will be eager to end their over 18-year title drought and have come with an impressive line-up, comprising the likes of Anthony Ginting and Jonatan Christie in the singles and Marcus Gideon-Kevin Sukamuljo and Hendra Setiawan-Mohammad Ahsan in the doubles.

Indonesia are in Group A with Chinese Taipei, Algeria and Thailand.

Hosts Denmark should not be discounted either, not when they can count on Olympic men’s singles gold medallist Viktor Axelsen, Anders Antonsen and Anders Rasmussen.

The Danes are in Group B with South Korea, France and Germany.

In the Uber Cup, Malaysia will be led by SEA Games champion S. Kisona at first singles in the absence of the retired two-time World Junior champion Goh Jin Wei, with Eoon Qi Xuan, K. Letshanaa and Siti Nurshuhaini Azman set to vie for the second and third singles spots.

The Malaysian doubles challenge will be shouldered by Lee Meng Yean-Go Pei Kee, Pearly Tan-M. Thinaah and Yap Ling-Teoh Mei Xing.

With their best achievement in the Uber Cup being the quarter-final appearances in the 2008 and 2010 editions, the Malaysian shuttlers will need a miracle to get past Group D this time as they will be up against China, Denmark and Canada.

On paper, the two Malaysian squads might appear like minnows but, with determination, drive and discipline, plus a little bit of luck (of course), nothing is impossible.

But BAM coaching director Wong Choong Hann knows what his men and women will be up against and, despite having to take on higher-ranked opponents, he wants them to seize the day and see where it gets them because “it’s only going to make them stronger and better”.

“We welcome the challenges. How else are the players going to be better if they don’t face stiff opposition? So, we believe that they must always be fighters and be bold to face any hurdles.

“The most important thing is that they give their 100 per cent and never give up. For the Uber Cup, yes, we are lagging behind the giants but that does not mean we are here to surrender,” he said.

The stage is set and, after being postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Thomas and Uber Cup Finals are set to capture the imagination of the badminton world, in general, and Malaysian fans, in particular.

More so since this is the first time Thomas Cup and Uber Cup Finals will be held on Danish soil.

The last time the Thomas Cup was held in Europe was in 1982 in London, England and the last time the Uber Cup was organised in Europe was also in England, when it hosted the inaugural tournament in 1957 in Lancashire.