China’s Zhang Nan/Zhao Yunlei and Xu Chen/Ma Jin, Denmark’s Joachim Fischer Nielsen/Christinna Pedersen and Indonesia’s Tontowi Ahmad/Liliyana Natsir have been a constant presence in the semi-finals of most top events. In the 15 Superseries since January 2013, all – except one – have been wrested by the clique of top-four partnerships. The exception was the Hong Kong Superseries last December; claimed by England’s Chris and Gabrielle Adcock as a belated wedding present for themselves.
The husband-and-wife duo (left) capped a memorable run, toppling fifth seeds Chan Peng Soon/Goh Liu Ying in the quarter-finals, Olympic champions Zhang Nan/Zhao Yunlei in the semi-finals and, another Chinese pair, Liu Cheng/Bao Yixin, in the final – all in straight games.
The victory pushed them to a career-high No. 5 in the world rankings; marking them as a pair to watch.
For the most part though, much of the attention in recent times has been on the top four. The world No. 1 pair, Zhang and Zhao (BWF home page), were briefly split at the beginning of last year, with Zhang partnering Tang Jinhua, but the Olympic champions have enjoyed a successful reunion, claiming six Superseries titles. They were the most consistent pair in 2013.
The Danes (above), for their part, made Malaysia their happy hunting ground, capturing the Malaysia Open and BWF World Superseries Finals in 2013. They hit a purple patch at the Superseries Finals, ousting Xu Chen/Ma Jin in the semi-finals before a sensational come-from-behind triumph over Zhang/Zhao in the final. The Olympic champions were then handed a straight-games defeat at the Malaysia Open earlier this year. Rather uncharacteristically, the top-seeded Chinese appeared to wilt under pressure, unable to counter the resurgent Danes. If Fischer Nielsen and Pedersen can maintain that level at the World Championships, the Danes will be among the favourites to win their first World title. That it would be on home soil in Copenhagen will be a great advantage – and motivation. Having turned 35 last November, Fischer Nielsen must be keenly aware time is of the essence.
The pair who derived the greatest satisfaction from last season must surely have been Tontowi Ahmad/Liliyana Natsir (left). They pocketed two major titles: the World Championships and the All England. They also took home the India Open for the third straight time, the Singapore Open and the China Open. At the World Championships, they were down two match points against Xu Chen/Ma Jin, but managed a stirring escape act which will linger long in the memories of those in attendance. It gave Ahmad his first, and Natsir her third, World title. Combining Natsir’s experience and expert reading of situation with Ahmad’s big hitting from the back, the two can conquer more heights this year. What hinders them is Ahmad’s inconsistency at times but, on their day, few would bet against them repeating their accomplishment at the World Championships.
Of the four top pairs, the most uneven head-to-head record is between Xu Chen/Ma Jin and Zhang Nan/Zhao Yunlei. Xu and Ma (above) have lost 13 of 15 matches against their higher-ranked peers. Xu and Ma came up against Zhang/Zhao five times last season, costing them a few Superseries titles. They also blew a chance to claim the World Championship, squandering two match points against Ahmad and Natsir in the final. Still, time is on their side – Ma Jin is 25 and Xu Chen is 30 – and the next couple of seasons could see them hit their prime.
Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying held the Malaysian flag aloft with a number of quarter-final appearances, but they couldn’t progress beyond that. Goh’s repeated injuries to both knees, and the looming prospect of surgery, have put paid to this promising combination. Chan will partner Lai Pei Jing through the first quarter of the year, including at the All England.
Perhaps the most remarkable Mixed Doubles pair competing at the highest level is the Thai duo of Sudket Prapakamol/Saralee Thoungthongkam (right). Although both are 34, they showed no signs of slowing down, reaching the semi-finals of the French Open and a few quarter-finals. Fans will watch with interest whether they can continue to hold their own against younger opposition through the rest of 2014.
Several other pairs are in with a chance of influencing the narrative, such as Korea’s Ko Sung Hyun/Kim Ha Na (the Asian champions), Shin Baek Choel/Jang Ye Na, Yoo Yeon Seong/Eom Hye Won, and Indonesia’s Praveen Jordan/Vita Marissa, to name a few. The Koreans have experimented with their combinations, and their choice of frontline pairs for the big events will be interesting.
Only time will tell if the big four’s dominance can be breached this year or if the status quo remains unchanged.