England’s badminton players got back to what they do best at the weekend as the headlines were firmly driven towards title winning causes after several months where off-court stories – pulling out of Hyderabad’s World Championships and the venue for London 2012 – had ruled the roost for all the wrong reasons.
With all of England’s top internationals in one place, the National Championships, which took place at the Manchester Velodrome, provided the clearest indication yet as to where future success lies for Badminton England, the national governing body.
The women’s doubles have emerging talent in Gabby White and Jenny Wallwork. The mixed doubles, England’s biggest success in recent years with world and Olympic medals, have seen Nathan Robertson and Anthony Clark, who have racked up nearly 300 international caps between them, take on new, youthful partners in Wallwork and Heather Olver respectively.
Take away Robertson and Clark, both 32, and England are also left with every team member under the age of 23. Success may be thin on the ground in the coming months, but experience will be the key when the All-England Super Series, European Championships and the World Championships all take place in the UK over the course of the next year. Getting this pool of undeniable talent accustomed to the world stage is Badminton England’s aim.
Talent, though, doesn’t lie with the doubles alone. Let’s not forget the men’s singles where Rajiv Ouseph, 22, caught the eye last year as he entered the world top 25 for the first time. At the weekend, the national title was set up nicely for the England No 1 to meet rival Andrew Smith in the final.
Youth may have been the order of the weekend but Smith, who has been as high as world No 15, certainly provided the colour. He was expected to reach the final after several years in the wilderness – as far as the National Championships were concerned – and his first tilt was nearly cut short, quite literally, in the first round.
After clashing with Badminton England in previous years over the amount of matches he was being asked to play, Smith has since found solace training in the Far East.
And he returned to the chillier climes of Manchester for the first time since the Nationals came to the city seven years ago, dressed in a garish, striped pair of golden shorts.
The tournament referee, Keith Hawthorne, was less than impressed with Smith’s choice to open such an event as the prestigious National Championships. The experienced Hawthorne was reported to have said: “You can’t wear something which looks as though you’re going to play on a beach."
Smith, quick to side with the rule book, replied: “Well I played in them in Korea” before Hawthorne retorted “well I wasn’t refereeing in Korea”.
Badminton England had waited so long for Smith’s return that Hawthorne was urged to let the world No 26 play his first round against Cheshire’s Tim Cope. Manchester saw a more conservatively-dressed player in his next three matches but there were still a trio of different outfits for all to see. He sported the Kuala Lumpur Racket Club name, where he is based, on the front of his top: a sign, perhaps, that he is most at ease playing and training outside of England.
Smith, who won the singles title at the European Team Championships last year, couldn’t keep up his run to meet Ouseph, however, as Carl Baxter won through to reach his second National final in a row.
For now Ouseph is the player in the ascendancy. Just like England’s pool of players showed in Manchester. Age definitely rules the roost.