Sixteen of the strongest badminton teams in the world will battle for a trophy that has been so selective in its embrace, it has bestowed its blessings only on four nations in 67 years.
The Thomas Cup is one of the most handsome prizes in sport. Standing 71 centimetres, the silver-gilt trophy is claimed by the nation that exhibits not just individual skill, but great reserves of tenacity, composure and team spirit. Since being instituted in 1948-49, the Thomas Cup has been won by only four nations: Malaya/Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Japan.
The last edition perfectly captured the essence of the Thomas Cup. Japan were underdogs to begin with, but they upset title favourites China in the semi-finals and got the better of Malaysia in a final that was gripping all the way. Never before had Japan even made the final. Team Spirit had been the vital ingredient that swung fortunes Japan’s way.
Despite their shock loss last time, China (Group A) go into this edition (15-22 May 2016) as the favourites, primarily because of their depth. In Chen Long, Lin Dan and Tian Houwei, the hosts have three of the best Men’s Singles players on the circuit; doubles options in Zhang Nan, Fu Haifeng, Hong Wei, Zheng Siwei, Li Junhui and Liu Yuchen give their side a formidable, well-rounded look. If China win the title, it will be their tenth overall but only their second on home soil after Wuhan in 2012.
Defending champions Japan will be hamstrung without two of the players who won them the 2014 title – Kento Momota and Kenichi Tago – and might struggle in Group A, especially since France could prove to be a handful. It will be up to the experienced Sho Sasaki and Takuma Ueda to inspire a youthful singles team comprising the likes of Kazumasa Sakai and Riichi Takeshita; the doubles, however, has a solid look in the hands of Hiroyuki Endo/Kenichi Hayakawa and Takeshi Kamura/Keigo Sonoda.
Perhaps the team that comes closest to China in terms of balance is Denmark (Group D). The European Champions have reached the finals eight times; the absence of a title must rankle. With Viktor Axelsen, Jan O Jorgensen (featured image) and Hans-Kristian Vittinghus in form, and with strong doubles players like Mads Pieler Kolding/Mads Conrad-Petersen and Kim Astrup/Anders Skaarup Rasmussen in the line-up, Denmark will sniff a chance at doing what their predecessors failed to. It remains to be seen who Mathias Boe is paired with, as that his regular partner Carsten Mogensen isn’t on the team due to medical reasons.
Indonesia (Group B) might well be the dark horses of the event. Three of their singles players – Jonatan Christie, Anthony Ginting and Ihsan Maulana Mustofa – are young and combative, while their doubles pairs – Mohammad Ahsan/Hendra Setiawan and Angga Pratama/Ricky Karanda Suwardi – are experienced and can be relied on, making the team a difficult proposition for any opponent. The team will be spearheaded by the experienced Tommy Sugiarto, who will attempt to follow in the footsteps of his Thomas Cup-winning father, Icuk Sugiarto. History will weigh heavily on the shoulders of the young team, with fans expecting them to emulate the deeds of their illustrious predecessors, who captured 13 titles overall – including five in a row from 1994 to 2002.
Korea (Group C) have been in the title round twice, in 2008 and 2012. The Koreans have dependable doubles pairs led by Lee Yong Dae/Yoo Yeon Seong but their singles are a trifle unreliable. But if Son Wan Ho and Lee Dong Keun can spring to form in time, the team can be hard to beat.
Of the others, Malaysia, Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong have enough resources to cause problems to the more fancied teams. Malaysia, led by the brilliant in-form Lee Chong Wei, will seek to rediscover the glory days of their predecessors who won five titles; the last of these being in 1992. Then there are teams like India, England, Thailand and France which have the talent to spring surprises.
Will it be the traditional powerhouses or emergent nations who will create history? The coming week will have the answers.
Group A: China, Japan, France, Mexico
Group B: Indonesia, India, Thailand, Hong Kong China
Group C: Korea, Malaysia, England, Germany
Group D: Denmark, Chinese Taipei, New Zealand, South Africa