NATIONAL singles coach Misbun Sidek regards the All-England Championships as the most crucial tournament for the Malaysians as a good performance in Birmingham will give them a psychological boost for the gold medal in the Athens Olympics in August.
Hafiz Hashim won the All-England title last year but Misbun said the tournament, to be held at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena on March 9-14, is a sneak preview to the Olympics and has more significance than any other grand prix event. The All-England has attracted the world's top 20 players and if the Malaysians can hold their own, Misbun believes they can shine in Athens.

"It will all begin at the All-England. It is the only major tournament before the Olympics and it is very important to do well in Birmingham," said Misbun.

"I'm not saying that the All-England champion will definitely win gold in the Olympics but he will certainly have the psychological edge heading to Athens.

"As for our players, the tournament is very crucial, not only to strengthen their chances of qualifying but also to test their physical and mental strength against the top shuttlers.

"The Thomas Cup qualifiers (in Kuala Lumpur) last week did not give a true reflection of China's and South Korea's players as they were holding back.

"However, the All-England is a different cup of tea and the players who do well will normally strike in the Olympics." Wong Choong Hann will lead Malaysia's charge in Birmingham with Lee Chong Wei, Roslin Hashim, Lee Tsuen Seng, Hafiz and Kuan Beng Hong battling for world ranking points to confirm their respective Olympic berths.

Although Hafiz's run to the title last year was aided by an element of luck (as the only top player he met en route to the final was China's World No 1 Chen Hong), it will be an entirely different tournament this time.

Misbun said that China's Chen Hong, Lin Dan and Bao Chunlai are looking dangerous while Indonesia's Sony Dwi Kuncoro, who has not competed in any tournament since winning the Sea Games gold, is another big threat.

Besides them, Misbun, while in Birmingham, will also monitor the progress of Xia Xuanze, who withdrew from the Thomas Cup two days before competition, Thailand Open champion Boonsak Ponsana and newly promoted World No 1 Lee Hyun Il of South Korea Malaysia's best bet is Choong Hann, who has recovered from a back spasm which kept him out of the Thomas Cup Asian Zone final on Sunday, as he looks keen to end his poor run in the All-England. Choong Hann has never advanced past the preliminary round and lost to now-retired compatriot Yong Hock Kin in the second round last year.

"The thought of peaking too early should not be on any player's mind. They have not yet qualified for the Olympics which is only in August.

"All the players are well prepared and this is their moment to raise their performance to a higher level. A fine performance in Birmingham will be the right motivation to achieve an Olympic dream." The Malaysians will compete in the Swiss Open which begins in Basel on Tuesday before heading to Birmingham for the All- England on March 8.