The French pair, now at their career-best No.5 ranking, have faced the world’s best pair six times and lost all six.
Their second encounter, at the Malaysia Open last July, was a cracker of a match, going the Chinese’s way at 25-23 22-20. The French might have assumed the gap was getting closer, and yet, over the next few months, it actually widened. At the PETRONAS Malaysia Open 2023, Zheng and Huang slammed the door shut at 21-15 21-6. In five matches, the French hadn’t taken a game off the Chinese.
The very next week, they faced off once again, in the quarterfinals of the YONEX SUNRISE India Open 2023, and this time the French had a promising start, finally breaking through by taking the opening game. But once again the Chinese would deny them, and as they came off court, Gicquel and Delrue reflected on what a tough problem the Chinese presented them with:
At the Malaysia Open last year it was really close, 25-23 22-20. This time in Malaysia the gap was much bigger. So what’s really happening when you when you face them?
Gicquel: They have a lot of confidence right now. Last week, we played a good first set, and then nothing. So we know that we can trouble them, but we have to be focused on the game and keep the same intensity.
Is it that they just keep the same intensity all the way through?
Gicquel: They give no points and we give some points. So even when we play a great, great set, we give maybe two or three more points than them. So that’s the difference right now. They’re always at the top.
Is there a physical element to that as well, apart from the mental intensity?
Delrue: It’s mostly in the head.
Gicquel: It’s mostly tactics and in the head. We are fast and have good stamina. Today (second round) we played a match of one hour, 20 minutes. So that’s not the problem. I’m feeling fine at the end of the match.
You broke through by taking the first game (at the India Open), which you haven’t done previously. Was that the way you have to play to beat them?
Gicquel: Yeah, I think we changed the tactics a bit, we pushed a lot more on them and I think they were not ready for that, so that’s a good point, to be better at the speed with the Chinese, but I think I had to change the pace in the second and third games, and I didn’t do as well.
You mean you weren’t able to keep a high pace through the second and third?
Gicquel: I meant that I was pushing too much. And they were already on it. I had to play soft or to block, because they were very deep in the court. There was space at the net.
Delrue: Yeah, they were more ready with the speed and then put pressure on us. We fought well, we played a really good game against them, first time we took a set, so that’s a good point.
After the Malaysia Open where you lost the second game quickly, that’s a big turnaround for you.
Delrue: Yeah, that’s good, we showed that we can compete against them. Because in Malaysia, it was not that good. So we showed it to ourselves that we have the level to play against the best players of the world.
Gicquel: It’s nice that they changed the plan against us, that’s a good sign. If they change the plan that means we are working well. So we have to continue like that.
In the second game, until midway it looks like you were on top and they seemed to be flagging a bit.
Gicquel: They are really good when it’s close. When she (Huang Ya Qiong) is serving and when they get points they are really good to take a lot of points and we have to break that as soon as possible, because to take four or five points in a row, it’s too much against them.
You were saying how much of this is a mental thing, that it’s probably more mental than anything else?
Delrue: They have the confidence to know that they can come back —
Gicquel: Yes, it’s the confidence when you are world No.1. We have to change that and today it was good. We saw in their face they were not as confident as last week.
Can you talk about their change in tactics? Are there any patterns? Is it between points or after breaks in the game?
Gicquel: I think they change every point. Sometimes they move forward, sometimes they wait for the flat one. That’s why they are really good.
Delrue: That’s why they are world No.1. They make the good choices at the right moments. There are a lot positives from today, especially with the mental part. We fought during the whole match, which we didn’t do last week. We can learn from this match.