Twins’ Success at the Emirates Arena

29th November 2021

The Scottish Open Badminton Championship has a proud history. The tournament dates from 1907 and is the third-oldest in the world, the All-England Badminton Championship having been established in 1899. Yesterday, I attended this year’s Finals Day at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow.

The early years of the tournament were dominated by the Englishman, George Alan Thomas (the 7th Baronet Thomas), who won a total of 28 titles – including the Men’s Singles on 11 occasions – in the period to 1926. (He was also a British chess champion and a lawn tennis quarter-finalist at Wimbledon). The men’s title did not leave England or Ireland until 1951, when Eddy B Choong of Malaysia was the first overseas winner.

The only Scottish winner of the Men’s Singles has been Robert McCoig, who took the title 4 times in the 10 years to 1968. However, local success has been seen more recently in other events. The reigning Men’s Doubles champions – from 2019, as last year’s tournament was cancelled due to Covid-19 – were Alexander Dunn and Adam Hall, whilst Kirsty Gilmour won the Women’s Singles in 2017 and 2018.

Although it is part of the European Tour, the Scottish Open does not have the scale of prize-money – and therefore drawing power – available to higher ranking tournaments around the world. However, this does not diminish the competitiveness – and unpredictability – of the tournament. In the Men’s Singles event, in which two of the seeds dropped out before the tournament began, the other six had World Tour Rankings (WTR) between 28 and 63, but only two of these reached their allotted places in the quarter-finals and neither of these progressed any further. Across the 5 events as a whole, the 20 semi-final places were taken by 9 seeded and 11 unseeded competitors with 11 countries being represented.

The tournament took place over four days, the first two of which had crowded – and efficiently organised – itineraries. 176 matches were played on five adjacent courts on Thursday and Friday – from 9.00am until late in the evening – in order to reduce the 216 singles or doubles entrants in the 5 competitions down to the 40 who would contest Saturday’s quarter-finals. (The Badminton World Federation website – www.bwfbadminton.com – was an excellent source of information on the tournament’s progress and there was also full coverage on YouTube).

In the Women’s Singles, the number 1 seed was Kirsty Gilmour – 19th in the WTR – but she dropped out of the event after only two points in her first-round tie. The beneficiary of her misfortune was Wen Chi Hsu of Chinese Taipei, who then did not drop a game on her way to taking the title, her win yesterday being over Line Højmark Kjærsfeld of Denmark, who was the number 2 seed (and 18th in the WTR).

The Men’s Singles final was between two Malaysians – Ng Tze Yong and Soong Joo Ven – neither of whom had conceded a game in their four earlier matches. It was the former who, 70 years on, followed in the footsteps of his compatriot Eddy B Choong. I was struck by the powerful leaping smashes of both men, though the match lost some of its rhythm in the second game as a result of the frequent stoppages to sweep parts of the court following a stumble by one or other of the players. For some reason, this seemed to occur far more frequently in this match than any of the others.

There was domestic interest in two of the Doubles finals: the English pair Callum Hemming and Jessica Pugh were in the Mixed Doubles and the Glaswegian twins Christopher and Matthew Grimley in the Men’s Doubles. Both pairings were successful. For the Scots, the decisive moment came when they saved a game point in their first game against the Malaysians Junaidi Arif and Haikal Muhammed; the next two points gave them the game 22-20 and a lead that they did not relinquish. (Unfortunately, The Herald – a national newspaper based in Glasgow – could not find room in today’s 16-page sports section to report on the locals’ success nor those of any of the other title winners).

Needless to say, the home victory was enthusiastically received by the spectators in the Arena (apart, perhaps, from the small group to our right displaying the Malaysian flag for the distant camera). Even in this match, however, the crowd was quietly respectful of the play on both sides of the net with the lengthy rallies prompting deserved rounds of polite applause interspersed with the occasional lone “Come on boys” directed at the home favourites.

None of the first 4 finals went to a third (and deciding) game and my reading of the form book – albeit as a badminton spectating novice – suggested that Women’s Doubles final might also only require two games. Not only were the Canadian pair of Rachel Honderich and Kristen Tsai the number 1 seeds, but they had been relatively untroubled in their four wins earlier in the event, registering their 168 points against only 89 conceded. This indeed turned out to be the case. Their opponents Anna Ching Yik Cheong and Teoh Mei Xing (also of Malaysia) put up a brave fight, but the Canadians were very impressive, both players showing both power – particularly the tall Honderich from the back of the court – and subtlety.

On the Saturday, the average duration of the quarter-final and semi-final matches (excluding one in which a competitor retired injured) was 41 minutes, the range extending from 22 minutes to one hour 8 minutes. There is little time for rest and recuperation – mainly a short break once 11 points had been scored in a game and a two-minute interval at the end of a game. The players must therefore combine the speed and agility required for the flurries of rapid action with the tactical nous to manoeuvre their opponents around the court and the stamina of middle-distance runners. (In the case of another Dane, Amalie Schulz, this might be long-distance runner: she played – and won – four matches on the Friday).

The high tempo with which the matches were conducted was firmly encouraged by the umpires. On one occasion, a player was stopped from going to the courtside to wipe his face with a towel and there were other instances when either the server or receiver was told to get ready more quickly. It was noticeable, however, that, on the few occasions when the players were unhappy with line calls, there was absolutely no dissent or disrespect shown towards the officials. The decisive calling and signalling of the line judges no doubt played a part in this.

As with all such occasions, the apprentice spectator quickly becomes familiar with the rituals and routines: the umpire’s formal introduction of the players to the spectators; the short yells of some (though not all) of the doubles players – a call and response, it sometimes seemed to me – immediately before and/or after a point; the short lifespan (a few points usually) of the shuttlecocks prior to a player politely asking the umpire’s permission to take a new one from the courtside stock…

To these could be added the ceremony of this particular Finals Day: the players’ entrance into an arena temporarily cast in semi-darkness; the parade of the winners and runners-up (accompanied by Scotland the Brave) to collect their trophies and medals; and, poignantly in these Covid-related times, the finalists’ presentations of those medals to themselves or each other.

About midway through the afternoon, on my return from a coffee break, I asked the friendly steward registering the number of spectators on her hand-counter what her current total was. The answer was just over 300. The day’s events drew to a halt just before a quarter to five. As I left the Emirates Arena, I therefore joined the early leavers from the Celtic-Aberdeen soccer match that had kicked off at 3.00pm and was drawing to a close no more than 200 yards away at Celtic Park. I realised that the attendance at that game would have been over 50,000.

I knew that I had had an interesting and enjoyable afternoon; I hoped they had too.

Of course, we always need to be careful when interpreting headline numbers. The attendance inside the Emirates Arena might have been below the 500 or so that the organisers had perhaps been hoping for. But, as noted, the 2021 Scottish Open Badminton Finals Day is available in its entirety on YouTube. And by mid-day today – 24 hours after the start of the first match – it had registered 181,000 views.

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