KUALA LUMPUR: All-England champion Mohd Hafiz Hashim (pic) will face a reality check when he returns to competitive action in the Japan Open Badminton Championships at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo next week.
But judging from the draw for the five-star tournament, which was released on Tuesday, the unseeded Hafiz faces a stiff challenge to prove that his win in the All-England in Birmingham last month was no fluke.
Hafiz, who became the first Malaysian to win the All-England mens singles in 37 years since Tan Aik Huang in 1966, faces a tricky opening match against local favourite Shoji Sato.
A win will probably set up a rematch of the All-England semi-final clash against Chinas Chen Yu. If Hafiz advances, he is expected to play against Indonesian ace Taufik Hidayat for a place in the quarter-finals. Also in Hafizs path are 1997 world champion Peter Rasmussen of Denmark and the second seeded Xia Xuanze of China.
National singles coach Misbun Sidek said that it would be tough for Hafiz, who would need to be at his best to avoid an early exit.
All eyes will be on him because he is in the competition as the All-England champion. It is going to be different from the last time. The pressure will be on him all the time, said Misbun.
He has, in his path, fast attacking players in the first three rounds. There is little to separate Hafiz from these players and it will boil down to strategy and match fitness.
Hafiz is now back at the same level of fitness as he was before he left for the All-England. The Japan Open will provide good tests for him.
Hafiz, who is ranked 20th in the world, said: Of course, I hope to win the tournament. At this point, I need to do well to boost my rankings for the World Championships (in Birmingham in May).
In last years Japan Open, Hafiz was beaten by eventual champion Lee Hyun-Il of South Korea in the quarter-finals.
It will be very tough too for Lee Tsuen Seng, who will play against Indonesian veteran Marleve Mainaky in the first round. In his quarter of the draw are Rony Agustinus of Indonesia and Xuanze.
Roslin Hashim, who won the title in 2001, is set for a third round clash with his nemesis the top seeded Chen Hong of China.
In previous matches, Roslin was beaten by the world number one twice both times at the All-England.
The other Malaysians, Ong Ewe Hock, Ismail Saman and Sairul Amar Ayob, who are under the Naza-Kia sponsorship, have a fighting chance to reach the quarter-finals.
If veteran Ewe Hock gets to the third round, he is expected to play against either South Korean Shon Seung-mo or Hong Kongs Agus Hariyanto.
Sairul has Chinas world junior champion Bao Chunlai in his path to the quarter-finals while Ismail could have a match against Dane Anders Boesen.
Self-sponsored Yong Hock Kin will play against Chinas Lin Dan in the first round and, if he advances, he has another young rival to get past Thailands Boonsak Polsana.