Thailand's badminton team eyes shock triumph at Axiata Cup in Kuala Lumpur
Thai shuttlers challenge defending champions Indonesia while All-Star Asia face hosts Malaysia in today's semi-finals of the US$1-million Axiata Cup, the world's richest team badminton tournament, in Kuala Lumpur.
The eight-team preliminaries early this month saw Thailand emerge third overall with 21 points, behind table-topping Indonesia (22 points) and second-place Malaysia with 21 points but a better win-loss ratio than the Thais. All-Star Asia finished a distant fourth with 16 points.
The other four teams participating - All-Star Europe, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines - failed to make the cut for the semi-finals.
Thursday's draw in Kuala Lumpur saw hosts Malaysia pitted against the All-Star Asia team in the semi-final, which kicks off at 1pm Bangkok time today. Thailand will test their mettle against Indonesia at 6.30pm Bangkok time, with the two winning teams into a showdown for the top prize money of US$400,000.
The three runners-up along with the other four teams who failed to make it to the semi-finals will share the remaining $400,000 in prize money, with $200,000 and $150,000 going to the second- and third-placed teams.
Thailand will have to avenge the 3-1 defeat they suffered in the last round to title-holders Indonesia 3-1 if they want to secure a final berth.
The Thai team spans two generations. Veteran world No 12 and last year's Singapore Open champion Boonsak Ponsana, 31, will lead the men's charge, while three-time world junior champion Ratchanok Intanon, 18, the silver medallist in this year's All-England and Swiss Open, will spearhead the women's side in an attempt to lead the country to a shock victory in the Axiata Cup.
But with the world No 6 mixed duo of Sudket Prapakamol and Saralee Thoungthongkam in the team, there is more than enough reason to believe that Thailand have what it takes to spring a big surprise.
Teen prodigy Ratchanok is seen as a future world champion after successfully translating her success as a junior world champion into Grand Prix titles in Vietnam, Indonesia, India and Denmark. She also helped Thailand win the SEA Games gold in 2011. The Cup offers her the chance to prove herself as a force to be reckoned with in world badminton. The other Thai players are Tanongsak Saensomboonsuk, Songphon Anugritayawon, Kunchala Voravichitchaiku and Busanan Ongbamrungphan.
Indonesia will be led by Sony Dwi Kuncoro, currently ranked world No 4, and Simon Santoso.
Though their individual women are not as strong as they used to be, the men's doubles and mixed doubles will ensure Indonesia have a strong team. In the mixed doubles, the newly-crowned All-England champions Tontowi Ahmad and Liliyana Natsir are a cut above their rivals, and Indonesia are banking on them to remain undefeated. Indonesia's world No 2 pair is among the favourites for the world championship title in August and will use the Axiata Cup to assess the strength of their rivals.