In her latest In Depth, Amanda Bloss takes a look at badminton’s first couple, Chris & Gabby Adcock and asks: can they break the English drought?
The most prestigious badminton tournament in the world has been missing something since 2005: a home winner. The All England title is the special one that every elite player covets – in Mixed Doubles, can Gabby and Chris Adcock make it to the podium in 2020?
Through the years this sector has seen some iconic winners, not least the hattrick of victories by the Indonesian pair Lilyana Natsir and Tontowi Ahmad between 2012 and 2014. However we have to go back to 2005 to find the last English triumph. Gail Emms and Nathan Robertson’s 3 set win over the Danish duo of Thomas Laybourn and Kamilla Rytter Juhl was a red-letter day for home fans. They were a tough couple who just refused to be beaten on their native soil. They narrowly failed to defend their title the following year, and in 2007 Anthony Clark and Donna Kellogg got to the final but came away with the silver medal. So now we look to the Adcocks to see if they can seize the chance to get Gold in Birmingham.
Gabby and Chris are a partnership that was always meant to be. As children they used to play badminton together, but as they got older, they were paired up with other people. The London 2012 Olympics came and went with not too much to remark upon. However, when they rekindled their partnership on and off court a sequence of competitive success began. They married in 2013 and one of their first major titles was Commonwealth Gold in 2014, successfully retained in 2018. Amongst their other achievements have been Gold at the BWF Superseries season ending event in Dubai 2015 (the only Brits before or since) and World Championship bronze in 2017, not to mention the 2017/2018 European titles.
Gabby Adcock is a great XD partner. It’s noticeable that in the last couple of decades our expectations of a woman’s role in XD have evolved. There is more equality of responsibility and although traditional positions and movement are still fundamental there is a new flexibility in approach; Natsir has been a very progressive influence on this. Gabby has the ability to perform well within this tactical framework and in an evenly balanced game the woman player’s skills will have a big impact. It should go without saying that she is a great player at the net, and with sharp kills she brings a fearless intensity to the position. As she is mostly playing at the front she is always alert to strategic possibilities. It’s crucial that she makes interceptions, her fast feet and good spatial awareness help her to control the tempo of the game and this can be a valuable platform for Chris’s aggression. The ferocity in the team does not just come from him though; she has a great smash and the strength to repel attack if she finds herself in the rear court.
Chris Adcock is one of the best XD players in the world. He likes to maintain the offensive focus and is skilful at supporting Gabby’s position. It’s noticeable that he often likes to compress the space by moving forward a little in midcourt to keep the pressure on the opposition; it means that gaps for rivals to score in are harder to find. He has a powerful smash so any attempt to hit over him has to be very accurate. He has been a successful MD player in the early years of his career and this has given him plenty of confidence to step up to the net if necessary, he’ll execute nice blocks with flat pushes over the net and he’s good at finding openings to exploit. They work well together to engineer winning chances.
2019 in review has to go down as a patchy year; uneven results stemmed from persistent injury niggles including very painful toe joint problems for Gabby. Their best ever world ranking - #4 – came in 2017. Now, two years later they have slipped out of the top 10. The consequences of injuries are broad because they disrupt both partners training programmes as well as tournament performance. The value of ranking positions is that it affects whether athletes are seeded for competitions; if they are unseeded it means that they will probably have to play strong pairs early on.
2020 has some wonderful opportunities on the horizon for this duo. Once again, they have signed up to play in the Indian PBL. It’s an intriguing venture because they are in opposing teams. Gabby is part of the Chennai Superstarz line up along with fellow Brit Kirsty Gilmour, but Chris will be about 1000km away with Pune Aces. It’s not clear to me if they will both be sticking to the XD discipline but I think it will be exciting to see what effect playing with different partners has on their own style and there are undoubted benefits to a fresh approach, new training partners and a lively fan base.
In the past there have been some nerve tingling games in Birmingham involving the Adcocks. After losing in the semi-final in 2016, the following year they found themselves playing for a shot at the title again against Liu Kai and Huang Yaqiong from China. They each won a set, and Chris served for the match in the third with the score at 20-19. This was the moment that he has described as “the worst string break of all time”. In that instant the game turned as they lost the next points, the third set and the match. It was an excruciating slice of bad luck.
So, in March, will we see English representatives in the XD final? There’s no doubt that Chris and Gabby have the skills and drive to do well. I’d love to see them begin 2020 injury-free so that they can start building their competitive momentum for success at the Yonex All England; earning back their status as seeds with some good results is the first step. The whole of the English badminton community – from village hall players to the elite – would enjoy watching them triumph in Birmingham. If they win here, they will reinforce their status as England’s #1 XD pair and become legends in the game for all time.