China has the top two seeds in this sector and must be confident of glory – the question is, who can disrupt their plans to dominate this part of the competition? Japan has home advantage and two fantastic competitors in Watanabe and Higashino, Thailand’s Bass & Popor’s challenge is likely to be robust whilst Jordan and Oktavianti have made no secret of their focus on Gold.
The competition has 16 pairs but only four are seeded. Each seeded pair heads a group (A,B,C, or D) and the tournament starts with a round robin to determine the top two pairs in each group who will then progress to the knockout stages.
Group A: Zheng/Huang (#1), Tabeling/Piek, Seo/Chae, Elgamel/Hany
ZHENG Si Wei & HUANG Ya Qiong are top seeds and expected by their millions of fans at home in China to win the tournament – probably with a victory in the final over compatriots WANG/HUANG. The pressure they exert on rivals, their energy and their technical skills all combine to make them habitual winners. Zheng’s spatial awareness – especially his use of cross-court smashes or drives – means he sets up points for his partner to snaffle at the net. The main threat in their group are Koreans Seo Seung-jae/Chae Yujung who were strong in the Thailand bubble (Silver medallists twice) so I think these two pairs will progress into the knockout rounds. SSJ is also competing in the MD so there may be issues around fatigue for him. If Tabeling/Piek could force a win against the Koreans then the remainder of the games will have more significance but they have a hard task ahead.
Group B:Puavaranukroh/Taerattanachai (#3), Gicquel/Delrue, Ellis/Smith, Hurlburt-Yu/Wu
Bass/Popor were sensational on home turf in January – unbeaten in all three tournaments – and this has raised hopes for a good Olympic run. They are hungry for success and the last couple of years has seen them challenge for titles at all the major tournaments. This is a very tricky group though. Thom Gicquel and Delphine Delrue have been attracting more and more admiring appraisals and it’s obvious they have been working hard through the pandemic. I have a feeling that their sights are set on the title at their home Olympics and this competition is part of the ongoing project. Marcus Ellis and Lauren Smith should have enough experience to negotiate this part of the competition and get into the knockout stages. If they can get to the QF the Brits are possible dark horses for a medal but their head-to-head against all of the seeds is not good. Their opening game is against the French and it is a must win for both pairs.
Group C: Jordan/Oktavianti (#4),Watanabe/Higashino, Christiansen/Boje, Wing Hang Leung/Somerville
Gold is the target for the Indonesian 4th seeds and they have what it takes to deny their rivals so long as Praveen Jordan can consistently find his form. His intimidating presence, blistering smash and all-round game make him a complicated opponent; Melati is a excellent foil for him. If PraMel start sluggishly then the Japanese pair could top the group. The current All England champions are eyeing a podium spot but as Yuta Watanabe is competing in the MD too I’m curious how he’s going to manage the physical and emotional demands upon him. I’m a big fan of Arisa Higashino; her play from the rear court liberates Yuta to maraud at the front and this is one of their major advantages over many rivals. Could the Danes or Australians seize the initiative in this group and grab one of the top two places? It’s quite a big ask, so let’s see who starts smartly and gets some momentum as pressure rises.
Group D: Wang/Huang (#2), Lamfuss/Herttrich, Tang/Tse, Chan/Goh
WANG Yi Lyu and HUANG Dong Ping are likely to boss this group. HDP is always an eye-catching net player with such a reliable touch and good strategic vision whilst her partner can consistently put away chances. Chan Peng Soon and Goh Liu Ying – the Silver medalists in Rio – will expect to progress out of the group alongside the Chinese pair.
Can any of these pairs stop the top seeds winning Gold? On paper the most likely would be their compatriots but we have all witnessed unexpected results in the Olympic theatre. Praveen Jordan is a bit temperamental and this can be turned to his advantage; it’s a useful strategy to be unpredictable especially against opponents like the Chinese who tend to be ‘hard-drilled’. It’s essential that he is competing at a consistent level though; otherwise PraMel will miss opportunities to win. There have been whispers of a possible injury to Jordan but he has dismissed this and said it is inevitable aches and pains after hard training. The Thai duo, Puavaranukroh/Taerattanachai have become serious contenders and the Korean pair in Group A could be fighting for a medal but – as with Yuta – I’m concerned about Seo Seung-jae’s risk of fatigue. As for Watanabe and Higashino; I’m a little nervous about Arisa’s defence if she comes under sustained pressure so as a team they must avoid situations that allow their opponents to turn the screw. Malaysians Chan/Goh know how to win an Olympic medal likewise Marcus Ellis who with Lauren Smith could be challenging for honours at the end.
Realistically it’s hard to see beyond Zheng Si Wei and Huang Ya Qiong. Although we haven’t been able to watch them in international competition for a while there is no doubt that they will have been preparing diligently and will be excited to assert their dominance. The Chinese badminton community always approach the Olympics with the highest expectations and in this instance they are justified in expecting two medals
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