In her next In Depth, Amanda Bloss (@womensbadminton) looks at the WD pair who could be about to dominate the global game…
Chinese players were the dominant force of the 2019 All England Championships: of the five titles up for grabs they won three. The current holders of the Women’s Doubles trophy, CHEN Qing Chen and JIA Yi Fan will be in an upbeat mood as they analyse the year they had – altogether six tournament victories – and optimistic about meeting the challenges ahead.
Women’s Doubles is contested by lots of talented twosomes from all over the badminton playing world but it’s interesting to note that there is no Momota-like presence who rules supreme. Consider the five HSBC Super 750 tournaments from last year; remarkably, they were each won by different pairs. However, CHEN & JIA have the competitive edge when we look at the most coveted trophies on the tour, the Super 1000s. They are able to inject a bit of extra sparkle under pressure and this enabled them to win two of the three – the All England & the China Open – and bronze in Indonesia. This trio of elite competitions are the ones that all players want to win, so to bag two in a year is a mark of superiority and it illustrates their enjoyment of performing on the big stage in front of a large crowd.
What is it about this partnership that makes them thrive at the highest level? They have been playing together for years and so the crucial foundation of rotation and mutual support has become effortless. The flow of movement is very smooth; this underpins their attacks and lets them pummel opponents into defeat. Crucially they both have reliable serves (the most important shot in the game in my opinion) so unlike some of their rivals they can expect to gain control of the rally right from the start. And, of course, they have the expertise of the Chinese coaches to support them at every match.
CHEN is a pressure player, always busy with energy and focus. Good technique means she can generate a lot of power despite her lack of height (164cm). Her superb cross-court smashes are unleashed with ferocity and accuracy to gain a lot of points for the team. At the start of her senior career she competed in Mixed and Women’s Doubles and has enjoyed success in both. Nowadays she concentrates more on WD but playing against men has informed her style. She’s brave, resolute and will face down aggression easily. She provoked headlines at the All England last year when she cut short her celebrations, trimmed her lap of honour and avoided the spotlights.
She explained later that she wanted a low profile so as not to distract her friend CHEN Yufei, who was about to enter the arena to play her Women’s Singles final. This shows a good mark of respect for her teammates and a lack of ego.
It’s often said – most notably by the great Morten Frost – that JIA Yi Fan is the key to this partnership’s success. If she is playing to her potential then they tend to win. She is left-handed and like CHEN can produce a lot of power. She is a decisive player who will smash, follow-up and then bury the shuttle to clinch a point. Her flat drives build pressure to force mistakes especially when she puts them together in her attacking sequences. She has a delicate touch at the net too, and can take the sting out of a speeding shuttle to wrong foot opponents.
As a pair they play at a high tempo and with venom. I watched their semi-final and final in Birmingham last year and was stunned by their hostile bombardment of their opponents. The experience of seeing them play live was memorable because the speed and accuracy they can produce is overwhelming. They can be unceasingly intense and often opponents get pinned down midcourt as flat vicious drives and smashes zero in on them. I always think that the attacking combination of a lefty with a conventional right-hander is a mix guaranteed to unsettle rivals. They have to unpick their muscle memory to modify the standard defence routines so a proportion of their automatic responses to pressure are obsolete.
Can they retain their title in Birmingham? They began the year in anticlimactic fashion at the Malaysian Masters but I don’t think we should read anything major into that result. As we know, 2020 is Olympic year which is significant to the focus of athletes’ training cycles. The danger from the Japanese WD pairs is huge. There are lots of players who are going to be pushing to the limit because qualification for Tokyo is restricted to two WD pairs per country. Fukushima and Hirota, Matsumoto and Nagahara, not to mention the current Olympic Champions Matsutomo and Takahashi all need success in England.
So, there are threats to CHEN & JIA’s desire to make it two in a row in Birmingham but not many players who have the firepower that they can bring to a match. The pace and power they unleash is breath-taking. Momentum in sport is so important and any athlete with ambitions to win in March will need to bring their best game to the All England. On the big stage, in the important competitions is where this Chinese pair shine and there is no better tournament for them to cement their legend.
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