Saturday, August 12, 2017
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
Mixed Doubles is the category with the strongest Chinese presence among the top five seeds. Pre-tournament form indicates the possibility of an all-China final – which cannot be said of any other category.
Top seeds Zheng Siwei/Chen Qingchen and second seeds Lu Kai/Huang Yaqiong have both been in tremendous touch this season. Lu/Huang were on fire, making six straight finals, of which they won the Yonex All England, the Yonex-Sunrise India Open, the OUE Singapore Open and the Badminton Asia Championships.
Their irresistible run in six finals was broken only twice – both by their compatriots – Zhang Nan/Li Yinhui at the Yonex German Open and Zheng Siwei/Chen Qingchen at the Celcom Axiata Malaysia Open.
Zheng/Chen shared in the spoils, falling to Lu/Huang in the India Open final before reversing the result in Kuching the next week. Two more finals followed – in Indonesia, where they were beaten by local favourites Tontowi Ahmad/Liliyana Natsir, and in Australia, where they prevailed with some difficulty over another Indonesian pair, Praveen Jordan/Debby Susanto.
If form is anything to go by, therefore, Lu Kai /Huang Yaiqong and Zheng Siwei/Chen Qingchen are the frontline contenders for the World Championships title.
However, the pressures of a Major Event prevent this possibility from becoming a certainty. A clear illustration of the effects of pressure were seen in the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup final, where China faced Korea. Lu and Huang were overwhelming favourites to win the fifth and final match against Choi Solgyu and Chae Yoo Jung, but the Chinese visibly cracked under the spotlight, even as Choi and Chae grew wings with each point won.
Incidentally, the Koreans are slated for a third round meeting with Lu/Huang, a contest that will be keenly watched.
The second seeds have a challenging draw; possible quarter-finals against Joachim Fischer Nielsen/Christinna Pedersen (Denmark) or Lee Chun Hei/Chau Hoi Wah (Hong Kong) loom ahead if they survive the third round. Fischer Nielsen and Pedersen have had an average season by their standards, with three quarter-final exits the best they could do at the Superseries, while they fell in the European Championships final to England’s Chris Adcock/Gabrielle Adcock. The crafty duo are however big-match players capable of defying pre-tournament fluctuations of form.
In the top quarter, top seeds Zheng/Chen’s first test could come from Denmark’s Mathias Christiansen/Sara Thygesen in the third round, followed by Praveen Jordan/Debby Susanto in the quarter-finals. Jordan/Susanto nearly pulled the plug in the Australian Open final against Zheng/Chen before the Chinese found their wits. Another pair to watch in this quarter would be India’s Pranaav Jerry Chopra/Sikki Reddy, winners of their home Grand Prix Gold event, the Syed Modi International Championships.
The second quarter is likely to be a contest between China’s Zhang Nan/Li Yinhui, England’s Adcock couple, Japan’s Kenta Kazuno/Ayane Kurihara, and Hong Kong’s Tang Chun Man/Tse Ying Suet.
The Adcocks have been pretty sharp this season, and are indeed quite capable of going all the way to the title. Having made the semi-finals of the All England – where they lost a bitterly close contest to Lu/Huang – and the India Open, the England duo will be quite confident of performing strongly in familiar conditions.
Zhang/Li might be in the shadow of their more accomplished compatriots, but the Chinese duo had a strong season, winning two GPGs and making three semi-finals.
The third quarter is possibly the toughest of the four.
Indonesia’s Ahmad and Natsir are the favourites to go through; they were the only non-Chinese Superseries winners this season, having claimed a dream title on home turf, but Natsir’s old injury problems resurfaced the next week in Australia. The Indonesians will be among the top contenders if they are injury-free.
A stiff test for the Indonesians would be the Japanese pair of Yuta Watanabe/Arisa Higashino in the third round; the Japanese – who pulled off a sensational victory against Zheng/Chen in the Sudirman Cup semi-finals – are a fresh young pair unencumbered by the pressure of reputation or expectation. Also in the reckoning in this quarter are China’s Wang Yilyu/Huang Dongping and Malaysia’s Tan Kian Meng/Lai Pei Jing, semi-finalists at the Singapore Open.
Lu/Huang and their compatriots will have the responsibility of continuing China’s record in the World Championships – the Chinese have dominated the event in recent years, with four wins in the last five editions. They will be aware, though, that past dominance can become quite a hard cross to bear – as they discovered in the climactic finale of the Sudirman Cup not so long ago.