Numbers tell the tale: in 2016, China won only four of the overall 13 World Superseries events in Women’s Doubles – compared to 10 in 2015 and 11 in 2014.
The shift in dominance might not be to the magnitude seen in Women’s Singles, but Women’s Doubles has begun to project a different world order compared to past years.
At the forefront of this new order is the Japanese pair Misaki Matsutomo and Ayaka Takahashi.
The ending wasn’t perfect, but most of 2016 was a fairytale for Matsutomo and Takahashi.
The Japanese duo were the standout pair of the year – starting with the Yonex All England title, they went on to win the Yonex Sunrise India Open, the BCA Indonesia Open and the Yonex Denmark Open. In between, they also won the Asian championships.
But it was their triumph in Rio – turning around a 16-19 deficit in the third game of the final against Denmark’s Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl – that sealed their place in history. The gold medal was Japan’s first in badminton at the Olympics.
Matsutomo and Takahashi’s exploits in the MetLife BWF World Superseries tour – besides the four titles, they could also boast of two runner-up spots – meant they headed in to the Dubai World Superseries Finals as top seeds. The Japanese made the final without dropping a game; they went on to lose a pulsating title clash against China’s Chen Qingchen and Jia Yifan. Despite the loss, Matsutomo and Takahashi – joint winners of BWF’s Female Player of the Year – could return home pleased with their returns from the year. Their on-court success apart, the two remain popular among fans and media for their gracious conduct even during testing times.
Of the six or so pairs that have consistently defied the Chinese, Denmark’s Christinna Pedersen and Kamilla Rytter Juhl were prominent. The Danes very nearly won the Olympic gold, and went on to take titles in Japan and Hong Kong. Despite being in their 30s, the Danes only seem to be getting better – for in their decade-long career, this was the first year they won two Superseries. They also achieved their career-best ranking of No.2 in December.
The year marked an important transition for China, for it witnessed the retirement of some of the greatest contemporary women doubles players. Zhao Yunlei, Tian Qing, Yu Yang and Ma Jin, who between them have won multiple Olympic, World and Superseries titles, bid goodbye after the Olympics. China’s inability to win an Olympic medal in Women’s Doubles offered a fair picture of the current status of this category.
The title clash at the Dubai World Superseries Finals might well be an indicator of things to come, of a new rivalry being born. Chen is already being hailed as the next Zhao Yunlei, and given her many talents in both her disciplines, the comparison might be justified, although they are different types of players. Chen is comfortable with many roles on court, and that makes her an ideal partner. Already she has tasted success with the likes of Tang Yuanting (Uber Cup final) and Bao Yixin (Xiamenair Australian Open champions). Whether the management persists with the Chen/Jia combination needs to be seen, but it’s a good bet that Chen will spearhead China’s campaigns in doubles.
After the Australian Open success with Bao, Chen combined with Jia to win the Yonex French Open and the Macau Open (GPG) before their memorable triumph in Dubai. Their excitable nature and almost childlike thrill during matches makes them a photographer’s delight, faces of a new generation of badminton players unafraid to exhibit their emotions.
Other youngsters, such as Li Yinhui and Huang Dongping, besides the experienced Luo Ying, Luo Yu, Huang Yaqiong, Tang Jinhua and Bao Yixin, offer the kind of depth no other nation can boast of. Huang and Li made their first Superseries final in China, only to be stopped by Korea’s Chang Ye Na/Lee So Hee.
Chang and Lee snapped a proud Chinese tradition of home dominance – they became the first non-Chinese to win the Women’s Doubles title at the Thaihot China Open in 25 years. Korea’s top two pairs – Chang/Lee and Jung Kyung Eun/Shin Seung Chan – had good returns in the year. Jung/Shin were finalists in Malaysia (to China’s Yu Yang/Tang Yuanting); helped Korea into the Uber Cup final; won bronze at the Rio Olympics; captured their home title at the Victor Korea Open; made the final in Denmark, and the semi-finals in Dubai.
While Matsutomo/Takahashi might have grabbed most of the headlines, their compatriots Naoko Fukuman/Kurumi Yonao too had some impressive performances. The Japanese pair featured in the longest-ever badminton match in history – a 161-minute ultra-marathon in the Asian Championships semi-finals against Indonesia’s Greysia Polii/Nitya Krishinda Maheswari. This was a day after a 117-minute thriller against Luo Ying/Luo Yu. Quite poignantly for the Japanese, they needed to win their final as well to qualify for Rio, but they were shut out in straight games by compatriots Matsutomo/Takahashi – the strain of the previous two matches dousing their chances in the final.
Indonesia’s Polii/Maheswari also had some strong performances through the year, making the semi-finals in three Superseries besides the Asian Championships; injury to Maheswari late in the year derailed their prospects in the last few events.
Among the other teams, Malaysia (Vivan Hoo/Woon Khe Wei); Thailand (Puttita Supajirakul/Sapsiree Taerattanachai and Jongkolphan Kititharakul/Rawinda Prajonjai); Netherlands (Selena Piek/Eefje Muskens), Bulgaria (Gabriela Stoeva/Stefani Stoeva) and Indonesia (Anggia Shitta Awanda/Mahadewi Istirani Ni Ketut) had moderate successes. Japan, however, are perhaps the only team apart from China with depth, since they can count on a couple of young pairs on their way up: Shiho Tanaka/Koharu Yonemoto and Yuki Fukushima/Sayaka Hirota.
As the new year comes up, one question will be closely examined: will the young generation of shuttlers restore China’s traditional dominance of Women’s Doubles – or will the rest of the world hold out?