Absence of top players at Malaysia Masters offers chance for a home champ

KUALA LUMPUR: Will Malaysian fans finally get to witness local champions being crowned in a World Tour tournament on home soil for the first time since 2018?

This could become a reality at the Malaysia Masters from May 21-26 at Axiata Arena, if the nation's top shuttlers can capitalise on the absence of some of the world's biggest names.

The Malaysia Masters, a Super 500-rated event, stands as the third highest on the World Tour after Super 1000 and Super 500.

However, it has struggled to attract the participation of the world's top-ranked shuttlers, particularly across all three doubles events.

Thailand's mixed pair Dechapol Puavaranukroh-Sapsiree Taerattanachai are the only returning champions, while other title-holders such as India's H.S. Prannoy (men's singles), Japan's Akane Yamaguchi (women's singles), South Korea's Kang Min Hyuk-Seo Seung Jae (men's doubles), and Baek Ha Na-Lee So Hee (women's doubles) opted not to defend their titles.

This lack of participation is not surprising, given the line-up of five consecutive tournaments rated Super 500 and above between May and June, including the Thailand Open Super 500 (May 14-19), Singapore Open Super 750 (May 28-June 2), Indonesia Open 1000 (June 4-9) and Australian Open Super 500 (June 11-16).

With the Paris Olympics approaching in three months, it's understandable that players are selective about their tournaments.

Many top-ranked players will prioritise the Singapore Open and Indonesia Open as part of their obligations under the Badminton World Federation's Top Committed Players Programme.

The women's doubles event was the most affected, with Japan's world No. 12 Kie Nakanishi-Rin Iwanaga being the highest-ranked entrants. Malaysia's Pearly Tan-M. Thinaah, ranked world No. 14, are set to be seeded second.

In the men's doubles and mixed doubles, only two pairs from the world's top 10 will compete, including Aaron Chia-Soh Wooi Yik (No. 5) and Chen Tang Jie-Toh Ee Wei (No. 9).

Unless there are changes before the withdrawal deadline on May 13, world No. 4 Kim Astrup-Anders Skaarup Rasmussen, along with world No. 6 Dechapol-Sapsiree, would be seeded first in the men's doubles and mixed doubles respectively.

Fortunately, the singles events, especially the men's, promise an exciting competition with world No. 1 Viktor Axelsen leading a strong field featuring seven of the current world's top 10 players, including Lee Zii Jia.

Newly minted Asian champion Jonatan Christie of Indonesia and European champion Anders Antonsen of Denmark are also in contention, with Antonsen aiming for a successful return after claiming the Malaysia Open title in January.

In the women's singles, the resurgence of world No. 3 Spaniard Carolina Marin makes her the one to watch, especially in the absences of South Korea's An Se Young and China's An Se Young, the world's two highest-ranked players.

Marin can expect tough competition from the Chinese trio of He Bing Jiao, Han Yue and Wang Zhi Yi, ranked world No. 6, No. 7, and No. 8 respectively.

The last Malaysian to taste glory in front of home fans was Lee Chong Wei, when he won the 2018 Malaysia Open.

Last year, Man Wei Chong-Tee Kai Wun, as well as Pearly-Thinaah, reached the final but failed to seize their opportunities.

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