There was an air of inevitability with which Liu Xiaolong and Qiu Zihan lifted the men’s doubles title at the India Open on Sunday.
Mark those names, they will be around a long time.
The Chinese duo has had a meteoric rise over the last couple of years, and now they’re playing as well as anyone in the world. The India Open offered further evidence: a comfortable win over world No. 1 Mathias Boe/Carsten Mogensen in the quarterfinals before answering all the questions that world No.3 Lee Yong Dae/Ko Sung Hyun threw at them in the final.
The young Chinese duo added the India Open to the All England they won in March, and by the look of things, they are slowly but surely stepping into the shoes of their illustrious seniors, Cai Yun and Fu Haifeng.
It might be premature to compare the two teams, for Cai and Fu are among the legends of men’s doubles badminton – five World Championships crowns, an Olympic gold, and more trophies than they can remember. The one obvious similarity is that Qiu and Liu are, like Cai and Fu, a left-right combination, which gives them a big advantage. Like all top pairs, Qiu and Liu have shown adeptness in the essentials of doubles play: sustained periods of big hitting, solid defence; ability to convert a defensive position into an attacking one, and an uncanny ability to suddenly press ahead from deadlocked situations.
But there is another reason they might be on top soon, and that can be discerned from the way they carry themselves: there’s a certain swagger about them, a certain raw confidence that makes one believe they are the team for the immediate future.
What they will have to battle is inconsistency: they have beaten some top pairs, but they’ve also suffered early-round losses; after winning the Thailand Open last year, they had three straight first-round losses. Still, there is no doubt that the graph has shot up this season: quarterfinals at the Korea Open and Asian Championships, semi-finals at Malaysia, finals at Germany, and two Superseries titles – All England and India Open, in the first four months. Quite impressively, they already have a 3-0 head-to-head record over No.1 pair Mathias Boe and Carsten Mogensen, and a 2-2 record against the in-form duo of Lee Yong Dae/Ko Sung Hyun. Their only problems have been against Malaysians Koo Kien Keat/Tan Boon Heong, against whom they are 0-6 down, losing all but one of those matches in straight games.
Liu and Qiu radiate youthfulness and exuberance, and they like a bit of showmanship as well. If badminton goes the truly professional way, with players as independent icons outside the narrow identities of their national federations, the two can become global stars. Will they fulfil that destiny or fade into oblivion like so many other talented Chinese players?