June 23 (Reuters) - Five badminton players to watch at the Tokyo Olympics:
KENTO MOMOTA (JAPAN)
All eyes will be on the men’s singles world number one, who has overcome personal and professional problems on the way to the Tokyo Olympics, including contracting COVID-19.
Months before Rio in 2016, Momota was embroiled in an illegal gambling scandal and banned by the Nippon Badminton Association. The then-world No. 2 was removed from the league tables and by the time Momota got back on the court in 2017, he was ranked 282th and had to claw his way back with a 39-match unbeaten streak.
Momota’s Olympic dreams were again threatened in early 2020 when he was involved in a fatal car accident which left him with damaged eyesight and other injuries. The pandemic gave him time to recover and he made his comeback at the All-England Open in March, raising Japanese hopes that he can challenge for Olympic gold.
TAI TZU YING (TAIWAN)
Women’s singles world No. 1 Tai Tzu Ying has never won an Olympic medal - and this could be her last chance because although she is only 26 years old, Tai has hinted that she will retire after the Tokyo Games.
The three-times All England Open champion has been neck-and-neck for years with world No. 2 Chen Yufei of China and Rio gold medalist Carolina Marin of Spain. Marin has been ruled out of the Games by injury, increasing Tai’s chances of winning a medal with her unpredictable style of play.
CHEN YUFEI (CHINA)
Making her Olympic debut, the world No. 2 in women’s singles player has beaten top-ranked Tai Tzu Ying twice, but has lost to her on several occasions.
Chen has not played internationally since the 2020 All England Open, however, and there are concerns that nerves may get the better of her once again.
“I have this question mark when it comes to Chen Yufei,” said Denmark’s Morten Frost, a former coach and seven-times world champion in the 1980s. “She’s going to be extremely interesting, but I say months of no tournament practice for her can be a tricky one.”
DECHAPOL PUAVARANUKROH and SAPSIREE TAERATTANACHAI (THAILAND)
The mixed doubles gold medal has been hard to hold onto in recent years, with a different country winning each time since South Korea dethroned China at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Dechapol and Sapsiree are ranked second in the world and have won their last three tournaments, all this year.
ANDERS ANTONSEN (DENMARK)
Antonsen, the world number three in men’s singles, will be competing in the Olympics for the first time but has beaten world numbers one and two Kento Momota and Viktor Axelsen.
“I think he’s a solid player - he’s come in very well in the last couple tournaments,” Steve Kearney, director of USA Para-Badminton, said. “I wouldn’t say a favorite but he’s a solid player that’s going to definitely get to the quarters and compete in the finals.” (Reporting by Richa Naidu, editing by Ed Osmond)