Unlike the other four categories, the lack of overwhelming favourites in Women’s Doubles is its most striking feature at the HSBC BWF World Tour Finals 2018.
While Kento Momota, Tai Tzu Ying, Marcus Fernaldi Gideon/Kevin Sanjaya Sukamuljo and Zheng Siwei/Huang Yaqiong have dominated their respective categories, the honours in Women’s Doubles have been more evenly shared. Indeed, so close has the competition been that one of the nominees for the Female Player of the Year award – Japan’s Yuki Fukushima/Sayaka Hirota – did not even qualify to the season finale, having narrowly lost out on points to compatriots Misaki Matsutomo/Ayaka Takahashi.
Fukushima/Hirota won six titles overall – including the Badminton Asia Championships – to take the No.1 spot in the BWF World Rankings, but they were second in the HSBC Race To Guangzhou Rankings and missed out on a place, as the two Japanese spots went to Matsutomo/Takahashi and world champions Mayu Matsumoto/Wakana Nagahara.
The two Japanese pairs are at the head of Group A and Group B. Matsutomo/Takahashi will have to deal with Greysia Polii/Apriyani Rahayu (Indonesia), Chen Qingchen/Jia Yifan and Du Yue/Li Yinhui (both China) in Group A, while Matsumoto/Nagahara have Jongkolphan Kititharakul/Rawinda Prajongjai (Thailand), Lee So Hee/Shin Seung Chan (Korea) and Gabriela Stoeva/Stefani Stoeva (Bulgaria) in Group B.
Neither of the two Chinese pairs in Group A have had an outstanding season this year – although Chen/Jia did find form mid-season with the Asian Games gold and runner-up spots in Malaysia and Japan. Chen and Jia will hope to rediscover the form that carried them to the season finale trophy in Dubai two years ago.
Although they’ve had a quiet season, Chen and Jia have a sound record (5-3) over Matsutomo/Takahashi and a 2-2 record against Polii/Rahayu, indicating that the group matches will be closely fought.
Jia Yifan acknowledged that given the competition and that she was less-than-fully-fit, they hadn’t set out extravagant targets: “I am so lucky to have qualified for the Finals since we didn’t have great performances this season. I regard the Finals as a year-end examination. Last year we were knocked out in the group stage, this year I hope to get to the knockout stage. I’m not fully fit, so I want to play with high level players to find the competition feeling in the last international tournament of the year.”
World champions Matsumoto/Nagahara and Lee So Hee/Shin Seung Chan are favoured to make the knockout round from Group B. But group-mates Kititharakul/Prajongjai and the Stoeva sisters (featured image) could make that a tricky prospect. The Stoevas in particular have had a great season, excelling at the VICTOR China Open and the YONEX French Open where they beat top pairs like Chen/Jia, Lee/Shin and Matsutomo/Takahashi.
“We’ve been fighting for this for four years, it’s a big achievement in our career and we hope we can continue and show our game on court,” said Gabriela Stoeva.
Talking of their opponents, the Bulgarians expected to be severely tested, but were confident in being able to outplay their group-mates.
“We beat the Japanese and the Koreans at the French Open, both are tough pairs,” noted her sister Stefani. “They have different styles, the Koreans are aggressive, but the Japanese like to play rallies. The Thais also are strong.
“It’s good to be in the top eight, but every pair has a chance. It depends on which pair plays well on court on that day. We prepared well over the last two weeks. We will see what will happen on the court.”