Marin, Tai battle for All-England Open supremacy

Richard EATON
Carolina Marin of Spain will battle Tai Tzu Ying of Taiwan to regain the All-England Open title she lost five months before Rio

Olympic champion Carolina Marin will battle top seed Tai Tzu Ying of Taiwan as the Spaniard bids to reclaim her All-England Open badminton crown in Birmingham this week.

The 23-year-old became an improbable star by emerging from such a badminton backwater as Spain, and the gold medal she won in Rio last August was a priority to the exclusion of all else throughout 2016.

But Marin's aims this year are entirely different. Her bid to regain the All-England Open title she lost five months before Rio will begin against Line Kjaersfeldt, the world number 23 from Denmark, on Wednesday.

"I didn't win a Super Series last year, but it doesn't matter - I won the most important event of all," said Marin of her Rio success.

Though she still has the highest profile, Marin is not the number one seed. That is Tai, a gifted stroke-maker from Taiwan who won the World Super Series finals in December and became the year's highest prize money winner with $271,025.

Much depends on how Marin feels physically.

The bustling left-hander endured recurring thigh strains and variable fitness during the later stages of 2016, and on Sunday she withdrew without contesting the German Open final in Mulheim.

This may merely have been a precaution, but it raises questions as to whether she really is fresher and better than at any time since her Games triumph, now nearly seven months ago.

Tai and Marin are being helped by a gap in the production line of Chinese women's singles champions.

No Chinese woman stood on the Olympic podium in Rio, and none won the women's singles at last year's All-England – despite 14 having done so in the previous 19 years.

The criticism which has followed such setbacks prompted head coach Li Yongbo to call for calm.

"Sometimes you are strong and sometimes you fall back," he said, warning "the next generation comes up slowly".

A crucial encounter could be a quarter-final between Marin and Thailand's Ratchanok Intanon, who became the All-England's youngest ever singles finalist at the age of 18 four years ago.

The quarter-finals could see a similarly stern test of Tai's top-seeded status if she meets Pusarla Sindhu, the sixth-seeded Olympic silver medallist who has reportedly become India's highest paid athlete after cricketer Virat Kohli.

Meanwhile the women's singles has produced perhaps the most improbable first round in its 117-year history – a clash between Saina Nehwal, the former world number one from India, and Nozomi Okuhara, the All-England titleholder from Japan. Injury sidelined Okuhara for seven months, leaving her unseeded.

Women's singles seeds

1, Tai Tzu Ying (TPE); 2, Carolina Marin (ESP); 3, Sung Ji-Hyun (KOR); 4, Sun Yu (CHN); 5, Ratchanok Intanon (THA); 6,Pusarla Sindhu (IND); 7, Akane Yamaguchi (JPN); 8, Saina Nehwal (IND).