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Bubble badminton: tour returns behind closed doors in Bangkok

A wretched spell for badminton ends at this week's Thailand Open, where players will emerge from hotel quarantine to restart the world tour in bubble conditions in Bangkok. The world's top players -- minus China and Japan, who were forced to pull out -- have been bursting for a return to action after a build-up that has included long, lonely hours in their hotel rooms. Olympic champion Carolina Marin posted a video of herself working out with a hotel towel, world number one Tai Tzu-ying used water bottles as weights and Denmark's Anders Antonsen practised serving shuttlecocks into his sneakers. The Thailand Open is the first of three consecutive tournaments played in strict bio-secure conditions and behind closed doors in Bangkok, culminating in the World Tour Finals from January 27. Badminton has been all but sidelined since the All England Championships in March, but players and organisers alike will be hoping for a less disrupted year as they gear up for the Tokyo Olympics starting in July. However, a resurgence in Covid-19 cases prompted a partial lockdown in Bangkok earlier this month. The Bangkok tournaments have also been severely weakened by the withdrawal of China, who were grounded by travel restrictions, and Japan, who pulled out when men's world number one Kento Momota tested positive. The singles draws now resemble Swiss cheese, missing six men and eight women ranked in the top 20. - 'Asian wall' - Taiwan's Chou Tien-chen and Denmark's Viktor Axelsen and Antonsen shape as top contenders in a men's competition which is without Momota and Chinese Olympic gold-medallist Chen Long. Antonsen, who won the Denmark Open in October, is returning to action after contracting the virus early last month. Tai, the women's top seed, let her T-shirt do the talking when it was emblazoned with the message: "Ready to win" during a training session last week. The Taiwanese won her last event, the All England in March, and another victory this week would give her back-to-back titles nine months apart. Former world champion Ratchanok Intanon leads Thai hopes and is aiming for at least a semi-final spot this week. Marin, the first non-Asian player to win Olympic women's singles gold, said European players were hoping to make their mark. "We know the Asian players are at the top every time. The Europeans are constantly working hard to break the Asian wall," she said. "It's difficult but we'll do our best every time." Thailand's badminton chief last month told AFP the tournaments would be the "safest in the world", and Badminton World Federation secretary general Thomas Lund said he was satisfied with the hygiene protocols. "If a positive case is found, the player will be isolated and contract tracing will take place. Any player who has been in contact will also need to isolate," Lund said. "We are confident we will be able to take care of the player and keep the rest of the players safe during these special times."

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