Yuta Watanabe doesn’t beat about the bush.
Unlike many of his contemporaries who prefer an understated way of talking about their campaign, Watanabe is more upfront. Asked about the team’s chances in winning their first Sudirman Cup, Watanabe stated matter-of-factly: “Japan are the top seed and the possibility of us winning the title is very high. We are well-prepared. We are eager to win. I have many strong compatriots, so I will be relaxed.”
It was an unusually frank prognosis, as sharp and precise as his whippy left-handed shots from the back.
Yatanabe’s confidence would stem from his performance this season in both his disciplines – in the mixed with Arisa Higashino, and the men’s doubles, with Hiroyuki Endo.
But while Japan has another solid men’s doubles pair in Takeshi Kamura/Keigo Sonoda, the mixed doubles will likely be the preserve of Watanabe and Higashino.
Victorious at the Malaysia Masters, the Japanese duo were runners-up at the All England and semifinalists at the Indonesia Masters.
Mixed doubles at the Sudirman Cup has often been intriguing. Nobody knows this better than Huang Yaqiong and Lu Kai at the last Sudirman Cup; the Chinese pair had enjoyed a blazing run and were favourites to win against Korea’s Choi Solgyu/Chae Yujung, but the occasion proved too hard to handle for Lu and Huang, who crumbled in a nervous series of errors.
Two years hence, that match is vivid in 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.” Their loss necessitated a change in combination not long after, with Huang partnering Zheng Siwei. A first round loss in Korea was an aberration in an otherwise straight line of seven straight title wins; this season saw them adding three titles to their collection before they fell in the semifinals of the Singapore Open to Thailand’s Dechapol Puavaranukroh/Sapsiree Taerattanachai.
“This is a wake-up call for us before the Sudirman Cup – it shows we are not unbeatable,” said Huang.
Neither India nor Malaysia, China’s group-mates in 1D, are expected to run Zheng/Huang close. Even China’s second option, Wang Yilyu/Huang Dongping, winners of the India Open and the Badminton Asia Championships, are unlikely to be threatened.
With Satwiksairaj Rankireddy returning from injury, India could have more bite in their attack. But his partner Ashwini Ponnappa revealed that either she or Sikki Reddy – with Pranaav Chopra in the mixed – would have to do double duty.
In Group 1A, Watanabe/Higashino will be opposite Thailand’s Dechapol Puavaranukroh/Sapsiree Taerattanachai – winners of the Singapore Open – and Russia’s Rodion Alimov/Alina Davletova (No.32) or Evgenij Dremin/Evegenia Dimova (No.35).
Puavaranukroh/Taerattanachai have been among the most consistent pairs over the last year, making a number of finals and semifinals, but their first major triumph came only last month in Singapore. If Thailand are to go far in the tournament, much will depend on this combination.
Indonesia, in Group 1B with Denmark and England, will have to decide which of their pairs to field. Hafiz Faizal/Gloria Emanuella Widjaja (No.6) have been quite consistent this season, with semifinals in India, Singapore and New Zealand, while Praveen Jordan/Melati Daeva Oktavianti (No.7) were runners-up in India and Singapore, and notably, nearly beat Zheng/Huang in the semifinals of the All England.
Denmark’s might be a new combination – head coach Kenneth Jonassen acknowledged the team was in a ‘transitional’ phase – making it uncertain if their top-ranked pair Niclas Nohr/Sara Thygesen would be fielded, especially as Thygesen will have women’s doubles duties. It is likely that Mathias Christiansen will be fielded with a younger player – Jonassen said such a combination was in keeping Tokyo 2020 in mind.
England have established pairs in Chris Adcock/Gabrielle Adcock – who haven’t been in the best of form lately – and Marcus Ellis/Lauren Smith, semifinalists in Barcelona and quarterfinalists in Switzerland and Malaysia.
Group 1C is likely to see some hard-fought mixed doubles matches. Hong Kong have a top pair in Tang Chun Man/Tse Ying Suet; if Tse has recovered from injury, they will pose a problem to any of their opponents.
As for defending champions Korea, the frontline pair would be No.12 Seo Seung Jae/Chae Yujung, winners in Barcelona and Germany. Chae was one of the heroes of Korea’s Sudirman Cup triumph, and it will be interesting to see the role she can play in Korea’s defence of their title.