The yen’s on their singles


PETALING JAYA: Japan’s superior strength in the singles makes them slight favourites against Malaysia if the two teams clash in the Thomas Cup Finals from April 27-May 5 in Chengdu, China.

Malaysia and Japan could meet in the knockout rounds of the prestigious team meet after being placed in Group D and B respectively.

Malaysia were dealt a big blow when the country’s No. 2 in the singles and world No. 18 Ng Tze Yong was ruled out of the tournament due to injury.

Tze Yong’s absence means the team will be heavily reliant on Lee Zii Jia (No. 10) and Leong Jun Hao (No. 37) to deliver the points in the singles.

The other singles players in the team are Cheam June Wei (63) and 20-year-old debutant Justin Hoh (No. 233).

Meanwhile, Japan can call on 2023 World Championships silver medallist Kodai Naraoka, Kenta Nishimoto (No. 11), Koki Watanabe (No. 22) and former two time world champion Kento Momota.

Former international Ong Ewe Hock (pic) believes Japan have the advantage as their singles stars are higher ranked than the Malaysians.

The former two time Malaysian Open champion added that Malaysia need Zii Jia and national No. 1 and world No. 5 doubles pair Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik to deliver.

The other doubles pairs in the team are Goh Sze Fei-Nur Izzuddin Rumsani (No. 15) and rising youngsters Choong Hon Jian-Mohd Haikal Nazri (No. 29).

“Japan have quite good singles players while we are lacking a bit in the second and third singles,” said Ewe Hock.

“Tze Yong’s absence has weakened the team.

“We need our key players Zii Jia and Aaron-Wooi Yik to win if we hope to beat Japan. We must also try to steal a point in the second singles or doubles.”

Ewe Hock is expecting a close affair between the two teams but warned that Malaysia must try to avoid allowing the tie to go to the last deciding singles match.“If the match goes to the last singles, we are in trouble as Momota will pose a very tough challenge for either June Wei or Justin,” said Ewe Hock.

“He is one of the strongest third singles players in the competition and has the experience of winning big matches.

“We must try to win the earlier three or four matches to prevent the tie from going down the wire.”

MALAYSIA vs JAPAN

FIRST SINGLES

Lee Zii Jia (10) vs Kodai Naraoka (5)

Naraoka holds a slight advantage over Zii Jia, having beaten him three times in their past five meetings.

Zii Jia, though, did come out on top in their last encounter in the first round of the All-England last month.

It will be a clash of styles between the two, with the 25-year-old Zii Jia’s powerful attacking play against the 2023 World Championships silver medallist’s more measured approach.

The match could go either way based on the form of both players who have been struggling for consistency this year.

Naraoka did reach two semi-finals in the Indian Open in January and the Asian Championships earlier this month while Zii Jia has not progressed beyond the last eight in any of his individual tournaments.

The independent player, though, has had a steadier start than last year and has the ability to hit top gear in the team meet.

The pressure will be high on both players to deliver the first point for their teams and it could come down to who handles the expectations better.

FIRST DOUBLES

Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik (5) vs Takuro Hoki-Yugo Kobayashi (6)

A clash between former world champions with 2022 winners Aaron-Wooi Yik taking on 2021 gold medallists Hoki-Kobayashi.

The head-to-head records are not in favour of Aaron-Wooi Yik as they lost seven of their last nine meetings with the Japanese pair including the 2020 Thomas Cup Group D match.

Their last win over Hoki-Kobayashi came in the 2021 Sudirman Cup group match.

Aaron-Wooi Yik, though, can take heart after losing narrowly in three games in their past two matches and will be out to end their disappointing recent record against their Japanese nemeses.

Aaron-Wooi Yik are also coming into the team meet on good form after finishing runners-up in the All-England last month and winning bronze in the Asian Championships.

Hoki-Kobayashi have not reached any finals this year and went down in the last eight in the Asian meet.

Overall, the duo have been consistent, though, with four semi-final finishes in the Malaysian, Indian and French Opens, and All-England.

SECOND SINGLES

Leong Jun Hao (37) vs Kenta Nishimoto (11) or Koki Watanabe (22)

Japan have the luxury of fielding either Nishimoto or Watanabe while Malaysia will be depending on Jun Hao to get the point.

Despite being lower ranked, Jun Hao does have a 2-1 advantage on the head-to-head records over both the Japanese players.

The 24-year-old stunned Nishimoto in their last meeting in the first round of the Indonesian Masters in January in what was his biggest win so far this year.

Jun Hao also gave Watanabe a huge scare before agonisingly losing 21-19, 12-21, 19-21 in the semi-finals of the Asia Team Championships in Shah Alam in February.

Regardless of who he plays, expect the 2017 Asian junior champion to give another battling performance.

SECOND DOUBLES

Goh Sze Fei-Nur Izzuddin Rumsani (15) or Choong Hon Jian-Mohd Haikal Nazri (29) vs Akira Koga-Taichi Saito (16)

Sze Fei-Izzuddin gave themselves a timely boost after stunning several top pairs en route to a runners-up finish in the Asian meet.

The world No. 15 will not be lacking in confidence in the tournament but have never beaten Koga-Saito in any of their past three meetings.

Sze Fei-Izzuddin, though, did lost very narrowly in three games in their last encounter in the China Masters last November, which will give them hope of breaking their duck this time.

Malaysia could also be bold and throw in rising young duo Hon Jian-Haikal in the pressure cooker match.

The pair succeeded where their seniors could not by sensationally beating Koga-Saito to capture their first title together in the Syed Modi International last December and could be given an opportunity to repeat their heroics.

THIRD SINGLES

Cheam June Wei (63) vs Kento Momota (52)

Japan have the advantage if the tie comes down to the deciding match.

June Wei and Momota have never played each other before but the former two time world champion can call on his greater experience in high pressure matches.

The 29-year-old will also be highly motivated to go out on a high after announcing that he will retire after the tournament.

Momota might be struggling to reproduce his best form in individual tournaments but he can still be a dangerous player.

June Wei will need to raise his performance if he hopes to cause an upset and give Malaysia the win.

PAST ENCOUNTERS

(Malaysia Won 4, Lost 3)

1948-1949: WON 8-1 (FINAL)

1967: Won 6-3

(Inter-zone final round)

1984: Won 5-0 (Group A)

2008: Won 3-0

(Quarter-finals)

2010: Lost 2-3 (Group B)

2014: Lost 2-3 (Final)

2020: Lost 1-4 (Group D)

2022: Won 3-2 (Group

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Badminton , Thomas Cup Finals , Chengdu

   

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