Zheng Siwei and Huang Yaqiong were the standout mixed doubles pair last season – what makes them so good? And can they keep it going in 2019?
England mixed doubles player Marcus Ellis acknowledges the difficulty of beating the world champions even when much of the contest has been on level terms.
“There’s a reason why they are the best pair in the world. No matter how much you compete with them they find those three or four points’ gap in the game where they get the lead, and as soon as you give them a three-four point advantage, it’s difficult to fight back,” said Ellis at the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals last month. Ellis and partner Lauren Smith were in the same group as top seeds Zheng/Huang in Guangzhou.
Zheng and Huang have barely put a foot wrong since they combined in late 2017. They won all three tournaments that year and continued to blaze a trail through 2018, making the finals of 12 tournaments and winning nine. Indeed, so dominant were they that they scythed through the field at the TOTAL BWF World Championships and the Asian Games, followed by World Tour wins in Japan and China – at the expense of just three games in 19 matches.
After a blip – a first round exit in Korea due to retirement – they won three straight tournaments, entering the World Tour Finals as runaway favourites. They were however pipped in a tight final by compatriots Wang Yilyu and Huang Dongping.
“I think they’re extremely clinical in their attack,” says Lauren Smith. “Huang around the net is extremely strong, extremely effective and puts us under a lot of pressure. And they don’t give you any easy points. In the serve-return situations, they’re very tidy, and then they have a reputation that they’re hard to beat. At that level, you think they are No.1 and you have a little bit of respect.”
For Smith, the challenge about facing her opposite number at the net was the speed of movement and anticipation.
“I think she positions herself for one shot or two shots as she covers – she covers the net shot and then another shot, and lets him cover everything else. She’s extremely good there, so it makes it difficult to get away from her as she’s so quick.”
Malaysian mixed doubles player Goh Soon Huat admires Zheng for his speed around the court, while his partner Shevon Jemie Lai says it’s hard to win points at the net as Huang is very stable: “She is very consistent at the net and doesn’t make any errors, so that’s puts a lot of pressure on you.”
It will be interesting to see if Zheng and Huang can hold their dominance in 2019 as well. Among their stiffest challengers will be compatriots Wang Yilyu/Huang Dongping, and Japan’s Yuta Watanabe/Arisa Higashino. Of the three other pairs to have beaten them in completed matches in 2018 – Chan Peng Soon/Goh Liu Ying (Malaysia); Tontowi Ahmad/Liliyana Natsir (Indonesia) and Tang Chun Man/Tse Ying Suet (Hong Kong) – Natsir is reportedly close to retirement, while Tang has been paired up with different partners in the first two events of this year.
While the world No.1 pair are certainly not unbeatable, it does take an extraordinary level of performance – as Wang/Huang showed in Guangzhou or Watanabe/Higashino at the All England – to get past them.
It is likely, therefore, that badminton fans could be set for a repeat show of Zheng and Huang’s podium-winning performances in 2019!