Not many are fans of women’s doubles. A women’s doubles match, even on finals day, is a cue to spectators to catch up on refreshments and spend time breathing fresh air before returning to the arena for other action. Tournaments used to schedule women’s doubles as the last match on finals day, and they soon realised it was a mistake, because the hall would clear out before organisers could wrap up the event!
These days, wisely, it is the first match. The men’s singles is the final match, which entices spectators to stay on through the day.
While most people aren’t attracted to women’s doubles, I find it fascinating sometimes. With the (relative) lack of winning points through smashes – as is the norm in men’s doubles – there is greater reliance on skill and courtcraft in women’s doubles.
Take the first match of the Korea Open on Sunday, the all-China encounter between Yu Yang/Wang Xiaoli and Ma Jin/Tang Jinhua. Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli will forever be remembered as the pair that was disqualified from the Olympics, but they are great champions in their own right. Ma/Tang are a new combination, but they have already won two Superseries last year. The Chinese women are far and away the best women’s doubles players on the planet, and a serious all-China contest can be enthralling.
What stands out about Yu Yang and Wang Xiaoli is their physical stature. They are broad-shouldered and powerful – their smashes almost carrying the sting of the men. Perhaps the only ones who can match them physically are their teammates Tian Qing and Zhao Yunlei, the Olympic champions. Ma Jin and Tang Jinhua are accomplished doubles players, but they were outmatched physically.
It was fascinating to see how they tried to counter the disadvantage. Yu Yang is an imposing presence at the net, while Wang Xiaoli not only hits viciously from the back, she has some deceptive strokes that can catch her opponents out of place. Ma Jin and Tang Jinhua tried to upset the combination – instead of allowing Yu Yang to control the net, they pushed her to the back and started feeding her with the high tosses, taking Wang Xiaoli out of the equation. Yu Yang’s frustration began to mount, and she started making uncharacteristic errors. Both Ma and Tang were superb in defence as they stonewalled the thunderbolts coming from the other side of the court.
The beginning of the match itself was stunning. At 3-1 to Ma/Tang a long rally ensued, and after about a minute I realised something special was on. The rally was going on interminably, and I started to count the strokes – I counted an amazing 115 strokes, despite starting a minute late. The total count would have been 150 or even 180. It is this ability to play any kind of game – full-out defence or attack or flat exchanges – that the Chinese excel at. The match offered a window into the range and craft of doubles – players moving their opponents with delicate and precise strokes; exploring the possibilities of netplay; smashing to different areas. Every top player has ability, but the Chinese perform at an intensity greater than anybody else.
The momentum of the match swung either way, with Ma/Tang having a sniff of a first game win at 17-all, but their opponents suddenly came up with something extra. After all, they are champions, and champions always find a way. They took the next four points to go a game up. The second game was won in quick time, as the momentum had gone out of the challengers.
The women’s doubles match had set up an exciting finals day. Not often can we make that claim.