Given their record this year, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon and Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo will be brimming with confidence – but the presence of a certain Chinese pair might just play at the back of their minds at the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals 2018.
If there was one pair that got the goat of the Minions, it was China’s Han Chengkai/Zhou Haodong. The Indonesians suffered just five defeats in 67 matches this year – two of those were against the young Chinese pair who – as recently as last year – were still playing the qualifying events of the Superseries (now World Tour 500 and above).
The Minions first ran into Han/Zhou at the TOTAL BWF World Championships – which, given their stellar record going into the tournament – they were expected to win. The Chinese gave the Indonesians a startling wake up call, nearly derailing their campaign in the second round. While Gideon and Sukamuljo did overcome the Chinese belatedly, they never quite recovered from the bruising second round clash and crashed out in the quarterfinals.
But the Indonesians didn’t fare better in their next two clashes with the Chinese. They had won five of six World Tour events going into the VICTOR China Open, and there they were ambushed by Han and Zhou in the semi-finals. The very next month, the Minions suffered their first defeat in a final this year as they went down to the plucky duo in the YONEX French Open title clash.
While two defeats in three matches won’t set alarm bells ringing for the Indonesians, it will be cause for concern.
Still, that would a relatively minor worry in an astonishing season for Gideon and Sukamuljo, whose form never dipped right through the season. They won eight World Tour titles in nine finals, besides the Asian Games gold – a record as impressive as any other in a calendar year.
Having won the Dubai World Superseries Finals last year, the Minions looked forward to defending their title and ending the year on a high.
“We are obviously happy to be back competing in the Finals,” said Sukamuljo. “What’s more important is that we want to finish as champions again. Right from the early rounds the opposition will be tough because they are the world’s top eight pairs. So we have to be ready to face any of them from the very beginning.”
Their opponents can expect no leeway from the Indonesians, who weren’t sated despite winning eight titles this year.
“This year has been quite good for us, but I’m still not satisfied and there’s still a lot to achieve,” said Gideon. “It is very important for us to do well at the Finals. We want to go there and win again like we did last year.”
While most of the attention will be on the Minions, world champions Li Junhui/Liu Yuchen and Denmark’s Kim Astrup/Anders Skaarup Rasmussen can be counted among the front-runners.
Li/Liu haven’t enjoyed great form recently, but they will be on home turf. This was the year they emerged as the top Chinese duo, winning the Asian Championships, leading their country to the Thomas Cup title, and clinching the World Championships on home soil.
Li Junhui stated that, with the event at home, there was greater incentive for the pair to be at their best: “Of course I want to grab the title! It will be a nice tournament. The competition system and the prize are very attractive.”
Astrup and Rasmussen had a better season than their accomplished compatriots like Conrad-Petersen/Kolding and Boe/Mogensen, winning the European Championships and then achieving their career-best result – a World Tour Super 1000 victory in China.
There will be plenty of curiosity around the performances of Indonesia’s Mohammad Ahsan/Hendra Setiawan. The 2015 world champions, who won the season finale that year, refused to fade out despite spending over a season with other partners. With the Singapore Open victory and five World Tour semi-finals, the veterans proved they are far from being done at the elite level.
“We were only back together this past year and personally I’m quite satisfied with our performances,” said Ahsan. “Obviously, there’s plenty in our game that we need to improve and get better. We are just thankful to have come this far.”
Japan’s Hiroyuki Endo/Yuta Watanabe, and Chinese Taipei’s Wang Chi-Lin/Chen Hung Ling and Liao Min Chun/Su Ching Heng have had modest success in terms of winning titles – but the season finale has an element of unpredictability given its format. The favourites will have to be at their best to ward off the less-fancied names. Any slip will be fatal.