Young challengers and defeated champions: All England 2023
The All England Open victory for 23-year-old Shifeng Li shocked the badminton world and gave him his second major tournament title.
The All England Open 2023 surprised its audience since the first day of the tournament. Previous championship title holder and world No. 1 Viktor Axelsen was defeated in the preliminaries by young Malaysian player Tze Yong Ng. World No. 5 Tien Chen Chou and world No. 2 Jonatan Christie were eliminated in the first round. Young shuttler Shifeng Li, who had never won a title above Super 100 level, capturing the decisive victory against his fellow compatriot Yuqi Shi — world No. 13 — was by far the most jaw-dropping event that occurred at the All England Open.
Approaching spring, the 2023 Badminton World Federation season had begun its European tournaments of the Super Series, beginning with the Super 300 German Open which occurred March 7-12. Over the past week, the All England Open took place at Utilita Arena in Birmingham. This Super 1000 tournament saw top shuttlers flocking to England to compete in the oldest badminton tournament. From high-seeded players to new challengers, the competition was fierce. In the Men’s Single Division, the top four seeded players — Axelsen, Christie, Anthony Sinisuka Ginting, and Zii Jia Lee — were expected to defend their positions.
One of the reasons for the poor performances of top players was fatigue. In the European leg, high-scoring tournaments are scheduled back-to-back. Under the point system, players will be penalized if they withdraw from the tournament they were seeded in — the number of points that are deducted are in accordance with the level of the tournament. In order to earn more points and prevent any deduction from the World Tour Ranking, top shuttlers have to participate in as many tournaments as possible. Prior to All England, Kento Momota made it to the semifinals after defeating Shi and Canadian player Brian Yang in the German Open. However, exhaustion from the previous tournament, accompanied with the traveling fatigue, cost him a game in the preliminaries and a chance to reclaim the title of All England champion.
The defeat of Axelsen by Tze Yong Ng, a 22-year-old shuttler from Malaysia without any Super Series titles, was bewildering news in the men’s single division. The first game was neck-in-neck until the score reached 15-15. Losing his steadiness, Axelson’s defense dropped in the backcourt, giving Ng the advantage of higher-angled smashes from the sides and finishing the game 21-15. However, in the following game, Axelsen took advantage of the delayed pace of Ng, resorting to a more pressuring style of play with diverse offensive tactics. The young Malaysian seemed to have given up the game when Axelsen scored his 19th game point with a cross-court drop shot. Dominating the match with 10 consecutive points, Axelsen took the game 21-9. In the third game, Ng regained his attention and fought back hard. While he remained ahead of Axelsen for most of the game, Ng played cautiously while receiving shots. For net shots, Axelsen had the upper hand, allowing him to shrink the score differences — drawing at 19-19. The last rallies were played with extreme intensity on both sides, each trying to win two rallies in a row. After an out-of-bounds shot by Axelsen, Ng took the match, winning the final game 23-21. Coming off an unbelievable victory against the toughest competitor in the sport, Ng could not recreate the same miracle against Shifeng Li in the quarterfinals, losing the match in two straight sets. Nevertheless, the battle against Axelsen had granted Ng a nickname that he will cherish and enjoy for at least the remainder of the season — “Dragon Slayer.”
The championship match saw the confrontation between two Chinese players, Yuqi Shi and Shifeng Li. In the semifinals, Shi had defeated Zii Jia Lee in two straight sets. While the whole game lasted only 43 minutes, Shi could not once afford to lose focus countering the Malaysian player who is physically taller and more athletic than him. Li, on the other hand, faced Danish shuttler Anders Antonsen in the semifinals. The last encounter between the two occurred at the Sudirman Cup with Li taking the victory. In Birmingham, Li was unable to maintain an upper hand against Antonsen during the first game. The last set was captured by Li due to the consecutive misjudgment made by Antonsen. The final score was settled 21-11, 19-21, and 21-18.
The All England championship was Li’s first time playing against Shi in a Badminton World Federation tournament. At his peak, Shi ranked No. 2 in the BWF World Ranking. Looking at his competitor, Li only made his international debut in 2018, entering the All England 2023 with limited experience playing against the top badminton players. Physique wise, Shi does not seem to have much advantage over Li, but the accumulated experiences over the years in international tournaments had made Shi an intimidating opponent for young challengers.
In the first set, Shi cleverly set up plays which forced Li to counter with back-hand shots and ended rallies with aggressive cross-court net shots. Nonetheless, Li remained stable in defense — tying up the score 17-17. Shi continued to strand Li in the front court, actively trying to create dead corners in Li’s defense. Conversely, Li held on with superior athleticism, tactically returning shots that prevented Shi from finding an ideal chance to smash. At 26-24, Li took the match. The second set, in comparison, was controlled predominantly by Li. Most likely overcome by fatigue, Li played the backcourt, attempting to end rallies with fast and aggressive plays. Li continued to set the pace slow and dragged on with the rallies, tiring out Shi. With long rallies and tough serves, Li annihilated Shi’s every chance at returning, finishing the game handley 21-5.
Li’s victory will bring him a boost in ranked points in the Race to Copenhagen, the site of 2023 BWF World Championships. “For me,” Li said in his post match interview, “to win this title, is a huge achievement for my commitment and hard work in the past.” The All England 2023 saw the unexpected success of young players. There is no doubt that as the season proceeds, we should anticipate more prominent performances by the young, athletic shuttlers with promising potential. Coming up next in the European leg of the BWF series is the Super 300 Swiss Open, welcoming players and audiences from all over the world to the St. Jakobshalle Area in Basel, Switzerland.