Steen Pedersen is a familiar figure for badminton fans who often listens to the English commentary of BWF tournaments. The former head coach Danish national badminton team often accompany Gill Clark at the commentary desk. With his analysis and humour, his presence is always well-received by fans. Badmintalk had the chance to sit with him at Yonex All England 2020 to talk about various things ranging from commentating to the recent updates of badminton world.
Q: "What is the difference watching badminton yourself and actually watching as a commentator from the stands?"
Steen: "There is a big difference, there is also a difference between watching as a coach than as an individual. You can enjoy more of the game, you don't have to really notice too much what's going on. As a commentator, we have to think about what could be interesting for the viewers, how can we add value to the viewing experience. It's not just about telling what a coach would do, sometimes I hit that pitfall and become too much of a coach. A little of it could be interesting for the viewers but if it becomes too much 'you should do this, you should do that', that's not necessarily interesting. Some clues of what the tactics might be, so that the people hopefully get a deeper understanding of what's going on and why it's going on like this."
Q: "What do you think it takes to be a good commentator. We have had many commentators from around the world, some people are comfortable with this one, while the other think that one is really good."
Steen: "It's always totally individual. I've been doing commentaries on Danish Television as well and we can see that they use social media a lot. They use Facebook, people can write to them during the broadcast.
People got different opinions, some like commentators that are really showing a lot of engagement and almost cheering for the players from the studio. Whilst others prefer a little bit more drawn back, laid back commentaries, telling what's happening and so on.
But I think the main thing is, you've got to be knowledgeable about badminton. You've got to know the sport. Otherwise it's really difficult because there are so many subtleties in my opinion. I don't know if it's the same in other sports but we had an example yesterday where the women's doubles between the Olympic Champions (Matsutomo/Takahashi) and Fukushima/Hirota, in my opinion a little change in shuttle speed could've changed the outcome of the match. That's not so easy for people to understand unless you've been there and tried it. How can that be? I mean the shuttles are the same aren't they? And of course the stadiums are not the same. So trying to convey these subtleties is in my opinion important to give people a broader understanding about why we can have the same two players play one week with one result, and the next week the result is completely different. And I think that's difficult if you are not familiar with badminton.
Then, you've got to try and find a good mix between giving information and on the other hand not talking all the time. And I'm saying this, knowing that I can't do it sometimes, like I talk too much and then I get this thought in my head, "Hey, now it is okay if I'm silent for a while". Then at other times, there's something I just need to react to. So a love of the sport and the knowledge of the sport is in my opinion, really, really important."
Q: "We have watched many matches, many players, many tournaments. Is there any player or pairs that you always love to wait to comment on or anything in particular?"
Steen: "There are players that I love to watch that fits my badminton philosophy. It changes overtime, and there's also players/pairs that are easier to comment on than others. The more information you can get about the players, the more information is available, there is a whole lot of information available.
For instance, Gill Clark, she does an enormous amount of research. Probably she has the biggest library on badminton results, bigger than any online media or whatever. So, the more information, the more knowledge, that we as commentators can get regarding the players can make it more interesting. Because I think, contrary to what many people think, that it's not about being a strong player in terms of being famous. It's about being a personality and we've seen it in other sports where players that perhaps haven't played exactly to be top 1-2 in the world, they've still become very, very famous. So it's about being available, giving something of yourself. It's about the story of the players and that's really important. You can have someone going about the business with badminton and being serious, concentrated, and so on, and that's their choice and they are equally good badminton players. It is just more difficult to create an exciting story around them.
In terms of players and playing styles, I'd like to see players who do well either physically, technically, or tactically. Even to someone who invents something new or does something others doesn't do, then I think that's really nice. There are some Indonesian examples, for instance Ahsan and Setiawan. Before that, there's been many good Indonesian men's doubles players, but Tony Gunawan is the player I love to watch. Playing with partners, winning with partners that pretty much won't be capable of winning without him. Halim Haryanto became the World Champion alongside Tony Gunawan, and it seems Halim couldn't win with any other players. Howard Bach became the World Champion with Tony Gunawan, Candra Wijaya who also played well with Sigit, won the Olympic gold with Tony Gunawan. So Tony is definitely one of the true great players.
I love to see (Lee) Chong Wei, because of his playing styles. I also love to see Lin Dan but Lin Dan is a little bit more the efficient guy. And their rivalry, it's easy to feel for the player who is at the losing end of the rivalry, which Chong Wei often was. He was a fantastic player, had he been present in any other era than the one with Lin Dan, he would've been Olympic Champion, World Champion, etc, etc, because he is so strong. So that's also nice if there are great rivalries. Love to see Marin, because she's brought something to women's singles. She brought the power to women's singles that wasn't there before.
Of course Kevin Sukamuljo, because he's a magician. There are things that no else have done at incredibly high speed and I think while he has got to this position, there must've been so many times where his coaches just have shaken their head thinking, "why not just play the easy shot there instead of risking making mistakes," and he must have a lot of mistakes earlier on. Seeing him playing at his best, it takes it from sport to more like art. Because he makes it seem so easy and it is entertaining as well. And I like to see players who do that, when you know how hard it is to play well and you see players where it just seems easy. Momota also makes it seem easy when he plays.
I'd love to see the emergence of Chen Yufei, because she is a player where technically or physically you wouldn't really recognize her if people were just hitting, that's the one of the best players and so on. But her tactical skills in sort of tailoring things to her opponent strategy reminds me a little bit about Morten Frost actually. There was also these strong players exploiting the opponents' weaknesses or exploiting their strengths.
Q: "You mentioned Gill Clark as one of greatest library in badminton. She is known for having a lot of data, stats and facts about badminton. It has brought a new life to badminton, because we rarely see it in the media. How important is stats and data in badminton?"
Steen: "I think stats has to be part of the stories, it has to be part of something that is important for the match. Unfortunately no one has really kept track of the stats except for Gill, for all these years where she has been commentating.
So very often the stats tell an underline story, but you have to be able to interpret the stats. That is important in my opinion. And it's also a helpful task in discussion about badminton. Which is also something that is sort of creating stars. If we don't want to discuss, then what's the worth? If we don't want to talk about badminton, then it's because it's indifferent. And that's the worst thing you can feel as a player that your game is indifferent, if you are playing in a hall and nobody's want to watch. It's really hard to get inspired then.
I am a big fan of American Football as well, where everything is stats. And you can get the record of Brett Favre, the quarterback of Green Bay Packers when the temperature is minus four degrees. So they are like stats maniac. I really enjoy the BadmintonStats on Twitter, I don't know him personally but he did some stats about the service, how many points won in the service. Because a lot of times players when they win the coin toss, they elect to serve. Which is totally contradictory because there is no statistics backing up that it is an advantage to serve. Maybe a little bit in women's singles and men's singles, it was just over 50 percent. To know it exactly we would have to have stats on first rally in the match. We don't have those stats, but it indicates that it's a wrong choice. And we've discussed, Gill and I, when we are on TV, why when playing conditions are different in each side why does the player selects a particular side. Sometimes they select to serve or select to receive, which basically makes no sense. From our point of view, I don't know about if Gill is sort of player who is good and strong tactically, but I know my playing days as a second level national player that what kept me in the game is my tactical understanding."
Q: "Talking about badminton in general now, there's a bit of a shift of the powerhouse. Japan was a bit on top last year but now it's slightly changed to China again. What do you think about this shift?"
Steen: "I think it's true that China has bounced back which Li Yongbo actually said in the period where Japan was catching up on China. He said it's very normal when you have big stars, and when they quit, it takes some time for the youngsters to break through. There has been some significant changes in Chinese coaching setup because results have not come early. Zhang Ning was removed from the women's singles because they did not win the Uber Cup. They had a period of weakness that started way before that, that started after the 2012 Olympics. I think you got to give Zhang Ning a lot of credit for the development of Chen Yufei.
The Chinese stars, they've been dominant for long, long period so we've forgotten that before they became stars, there is also little gap in the Chinese dominance. And this time it was Japan who to some people's surprise were the challengers and all credit to Park Joo Bong and the coaches in the Japanese system for the job that they've done there. I don't think that's a coincidence, I think if you have strong leadership, they hire good coaches, they set up good systems and you will eventually get good players. It's just a very vulnerable system and it doesn't take a lot to tear it all down if you treat the system wrongly in a year or two, everything's gone and it's back to zero again. That's the difficult part of it in badminton, it takes so long to build but it takes so little time to tear it all down.
So I think, people have looked up to Japan and said, "this is what we're up against, so okay what we're going to do?" And I also think perhaps Japan in some cases maybe showed their hand a little bit early. They might win the women's doubles title in Tokyo but it also could be Korea or China or any other, because they sort of set the standard and now the others have the chance to watch the video and to catch up."
Q: "How about Indonesia? We've seen the rise of mixed doubles Jordan/Oktavianti, also with the men's singles, do you think Indonesia is starting to catch up?"
Steen: "Definitely. Men's doubles has always been a powerhouse and still a powerhouse. Probably if there's a competition in men's doubles with three matches, Indonesian second team would still be a strong contestant. Because there are so many good players.
For mixed doubles it must be very comforting that there are at least three good mixed doubles players in Indonesia. Praveen Jordan and Melati Oktavianti, now it is easy to say things about Praveen Jordan because he is a very spectacular player. For instance yesterday (semifinal), Oktavianti played really well, very solid, knowing exactly what to do and doing her job perfectly. Whereas Praveen Jordan he can be up and down. Last year, (other than All England 2019 - red), they never lost the semifinals, it's always either been finals or out before the semifinals. Still a very strong competitor.
They also got Faizal and Widjaja, there's also been a great development there because I feel that Gloria Widjaja isn't really a typical female mixed doubles player. But they also developed their own style and that's what I think Indonesians are really good at, they are good at finding the right style for the players whether it is men's doubles, men's singles or mixed doubles.
I think they are struggling more on the female side of it, there has been a drop, so to speak. I'm not sure that the current players are going to be able to challenge at the highest level. I'd love to see them challenge, but I think it got to start in the youngsters group. You got to sort of build it from there, like what we've seen Japan with Park, when he came to Japan he started working with a lot of players and creating better results. That's the players that are now working as coaches for the players that are more talented than they were themselves when they were youngsters. And they are the ones who are capable of winning tournaments and titles for Japan. I think Indonesia will have to go deeper in the women's singles and women's doubles team. I haven't got really strong knowledge about it but it seems like the current players, their style at the moment, there's too many gap for them at the moment."