Monday, April 22, 2019
TEXT BY DEV SUKUMAR | BADMINTONPHOTO
“This is a wake-up call for us,” said Huang Yaqiong, after their first loss this season, in the Singapore Open semifinals.
Huang and partner Zheng Siwei had fallen in two close games to Thailand’s Dechapol Puavaranukroh and Sapsiree Taerattanachai. The loss brought to an end a sequence of 18 wins and three titles on the trot, which was a continuation of their superlative season in 2018.
Ever since they came together in November 2017, Zheng and Huang have stamped their class on the circuit with a succession of major titles. As the TOTAL BWF Sudirman Cup 2019 draws close, Zheng and Huang will be the biggest cards in the pack for the hosts, as they prepare to regain the trophy that they lost in 2017.
Incidentally, Huang was one of the central figures in that loss, which necessitated a change in the mixed doubles combinations for China over the next few months.
Chen Qingchen had played two events with great success, but the effort had taken a toll at the last Sudirman Cup. Chen and Zheng Siwei had lost an hour-long battle to Yuta Watanabe/Arisa Higashino in the semifinals; she returned for the fifth match with Jia Yifan, and although the Chinese did eventually quell the challenge of Misaki Matsutomo/Ayaka Takahashi, the defending champions had been stretched to the limit.
Korea had their share of troubles going into the final, for men’s singles spearhead Son Wan Ho was out with injury. China’s strength in the men’s singles and men’s doubles helped them to a 2-1 lead, and then the efforts of the previous day began to tell on Chen Qingchen, as she and Jia Yifan went down meekly to Chang Ye Na/Lee So Hee.
With Korea having twice bounced back from a deficit, and pressure mounting on the favourites, Lu Kai and Huang Yaqiong crumbled in uncharacteristic fashion to Choi Solgyu and Chae Yujung. China had been stopped after winning six consecutive titles. Korea, with several fresh faces, had scripted an unlikely success story.
The loss is very much on Huang’s mind.
“I learnt a lot from that match,” she says. “A team event is different from an individual event. I learnt how to handle myself in those situations.”
Zheng and Huang have given no signs yet that they are susceptible to big-match pressure. A few months after getting together, they won the World Championships and the Asian Games gold, besides nearly every other major tournament.
That is not to say they are unbeatable – for they have fallen in some high-profile finals, such as All England 2018 (to Watanabe/Higashino) and the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals (to Wang Yilyu/Huang Dongping).
And yet, what makes them special is that they have never lost to the same pair twice in succession.
The Sudirman Cup in Nanning will give Huang the opportunity to make amends for her last defeat in the final. Huang is not too concerned about the enormity of the challenge that awaits the team.
“I know we will be playing at home and there will be expectations but that will only give us additional motivation because our home fans will be backing us,” says Huang.
“We will be well prepared,” adds Zheng Siwei. “We’ve been working very hard, that’s why we have been successful. There will be some intense sessions before the Sudirman Cup. Hopefully, we can ensure China’s victory by winning all our matches.”