Can Zii Jia conquer Europe?

KUALA LUMPUR: There is something about Lee Zii Jia when it comes to competing in World Tour events in Europe.

Since 2020, the world No. 10 had played 17 times across seven different tournaments on the continent, and finishing no worse than the semi-finals on 11 occasions.

Zii Jia converted two of the five finals into victories, winning the All England in 2021 and last year's Arctic Open in Finland last year.

Hence, it will be interesting to see if Zii Jia can replicate his superb form when he returns to the World Tour, starting with the French Open tomorrow.

Zii Jia, who is also slated to compete in the All England next week and Swiss Open (March 19-24), will have plenty to prove after a modest start to the new season.

He did beat the likes of Indonesia's Jonatan Christie and K. Srikanth of India to reach the quarter-finals of the India Open and Indonesia Masters in January, but these results were certainly not good enough for a player of his calibre.

Zii Jia also played his part to help Malaysia emerge second at the Asia Team Championships last month by winning all his three matches, but he was barely tested, as his most notable win was against world No. 11 Kenta Nishimoto.

With his Olympic qualification all but secured, Zii Jia will shift his attention to improving his world ranking and try to break into the top eight for a good seeding for the Paris Games in August.

Although the number of seeded players at the Olympics could go up to 16, it is still crucial for Zii Jia to try to be among the top eight seeds.

That could help him avoid potential clashes with top contenders such as Denmark's Viktor Axelsen or China's Shi Yu Qi as early as the last 16, should he advance from the group stage.

With the points deficit separating Zii Jia from the eighth spot, currently occupied by Thai world champion Kunlavut Vitidsarn, not significant, there's plenty of opportunity for Zii Jia to crack the top eight from this week itself.

With sizable points up for grabs in the Super 750 event this week, Zii Jia can climb into the top eight by reaching the final.

But the odds are stacked against Zii Jia, with world No. 2 Yu Qi standing in his way in the second round.

The other notable opponents in the same half are world No. 3 Anders Antonsen of Denmark and No. 6 Kodai Naraoka of Japan, both of whom Zii Jia finds it hard to overcome.

Along with the All England, the next two tournaments will present Zii Jia with a chance to make a statement, and if he succeeds, it would put him right back into the mix.

The French Open also serves as a platform for other Malaysian shuttlers to re-establish their presence on the international stage.

To date, Malaysia has failed to secure a title in the five World Tour events held so far. Only the mixed pair of Chen Tang Jie-Toh Ee Wei had reached a final, finishing second at the Thailand Masters.

This lack of success is particularly embarrassing for Malaysia, especially when compared to France's recent triumph at the German Open, where Christo Popov emerged victorious.

Vietnam also celebrated a breakthrough with Nguyen Thuy Linh reaching the women's singles final at the same tournament.

As part of the Road to Gold programme, Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik, Pearly Tan-M. Thinaah and Tang Jie-Ee Wei have come under increased scrutiny. This is compounded by revelations that a significant portion of taxpayer's money has been allocated to badminton.

Thus far, Aaron-Wooi Yik have only reached the semi-finals at the India Open while Pearly-Thinaah's quarter-final run at the Indonesia Masters stands as their best performance in three outings.

Zii Jia's record in Europe (since 2020)

German Open - semi-finals (2022), second round (2023),

All England - winner (2021), semi-finals (2020, 2022, 2023),

Swiss Open - Semi-finals (2021, 2023),

Denmark Open - Runner-up (2022, 2023), quarter-finals (2021),

French Open - second round (2023), first round (2021, 2022),

Arctic Open: winner (2023),

Hylo Open: Runner-up (2021).

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